Equipment Shortages Undercut U.S. Special Operations Forces

By Grace V. Jean
The U.S. Special Operations Command has seen its budget and personnel nearly double since 2001. But analysts caution that the command may be stretching itself thin because it has not acquired enough additional equipment to support a larger force.

The Pentagon in 2006 approved a 15 percent increase in the size of special operations forces. It authorized the creation of a new Marine Corps Special Operations Command, an Air Force Special Operations Predator unmanned system squadron and five more Army Special Forces battalions.

Of the 13,000 people expected to bolster the ranks of those forces, 3,700 will help to expand the civil affairs and psychological operations units. The expansion will continue through the new Obama administration and is slated for completion by 2013.

As far as equipment is concerned, of particular note are shortages of airlift — both in the form of rotary-wing and fixed-wing aircraft, said Robert Martinage, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

“That is a key capability issue that needs to be addressed,” he said.

The helicopter fleet has not increased in proportion to the expansion of special operations units, so SOF troops in Iraq rely heavily on conventional Army aviation, which provides nearly two-thirds of their lift requirements, said Roger Carstens, a retired Army Special Forces lieutenant colonel and a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

If not addressed, he added, the deficit will only worsen over time, especially when troops begin to take on more missions around the world.

“We have to right-size this growth so that when we want to fly a Special Forces soldier on a mission, either in training back at home station, or in combat, there should be enough rotary-wing aviation support to make that happen,” he said.

Special operations forces need “dedicated air,” said Carstens. “They prefer SOF air, but they’ll take any air as long as it’s dedicated” to get troops in and out of hot spots at a moment’s notice, he explained.

Special operators also need more unmanned aerial systems, said Michael Vickers, assistant secretary of defense for special operations, low intensity conflict and interdependent capabilities.

A Predator squadron last year transferred to Air Force Special Operations Command to provide streaming video to units on the ground. This appetite for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, especially at higher altitudes, is expected to increase as troops venture into terrain that is not as accessible, said Vickers. “They need even more ISR as they go forward because they will face significant challenges of maintaining the ability to penetrate denied areas.”

There also are other equipment shortfalls, analysts said. In particular, Green Berets lack individual portable radios. Special Forces teams typically are issued two per unit. “If you have 12 Green Berets, you need 14 radios” — one per Green Beret and two for vehicles so they don’t have to dismount radios, said Carstens. Small arms also are known to be in short supply, he said. In some cases, there aren’t enough rifles to go around.

Part of the problem lies in the Special Operations Command’s acquisitions process, which has focused on big-ticket programs, such as submarines and air platforms, but has failed to procure enough numbers of smaller pieces of equipment. “Green Berets and sea-air-land (SEAL) teams used to show up on the battlefield with the newest stuff — stuff bought off-the-shelf or developed in the combat labs at Fort Bragg,” said Carstens. “That’s now changed. We have so slowed down our acquisitions process that Green Berets and SEALs now look at the Army’s Rapid Equipping Force — the REF — and they look at that as the gold standard.”

The Army Rangers are acquiring 54 more Stryker armored personnel vehicles, but there is not enough logistics support in the SOF ranks to maintain them, said Carstens. In most areas, SOF units are suffering from a lack of logistics support, he noted. “The support battalions aren’t robust … They don’t have enough human intelligence analysts, cooks, mechanics, or anything. They lack the architecture to support elements back in the states and downrange.”

Once a drawdown of conventional forces begins in Iraq, it is likely that many special operations forces will be left behind. “They’re worried about being left with a monstrous logistical problem that will keep them from being able to fight,” said Carstens.

Conventional Army units, such as the 101st Airborne, have been providing much of the special operations forces’ logistics support, from running dining facilities and flying medical evacuations to fueling vehicles and guarding forward operating bases. When they return home, that will end.

Despite being shorthanded, the SOF support battalions in Iraq have been providing logistics training and advisory teams to the Iraqi army. Instead of having Green Berets teach units combat skills, SOF support battalions have stepped in to help ensure that Iraqis know how to conduct logistics, said Carstens.

The Naval Special Warfare Command also is experiencing similar challenges, Martinage said. He proposes adding another special boat team to the SEAL (sea-air-land) force to boost their presence in the littorals and riverine areas.

At the Air Force Special Operations Command, Martinage said, there should be immediate action to fix a growing backlog of repairs to C-130 aircraft. The entire fleet needs to be replaced, he said. Martinage also believes that AFSOC should buy more C-27 Spartans, a smaller aircraft that can fly into places where the C-130 cannot.  

The Defense Department’s 2010 quadrennial review should serve as an opportunity to address the imbalance between SOF missions and resources available, particularly in communications, and air and ground mobility, said Carstens.

The Pentagon and SOCOM also should more clearly define the missions of special operations forces, which traditionally have been categorized as either “direct” or “indirect.” Direct missions involve conventional use of force, while indirect missions emphasize the training of foreign troops, interagency work and civilian-oriented duties such as rebuilding war-torn communities.  

“Conventional wisdom holds that we have not struck an effective balance, or an appropriate balance, between the indirect approach and the direct approach, which is kinetic military operations,” said Carstens.

The special operations community is wrestling with finding the right balance, and part of the difficulty is determining how to deal with resources, he noted. “Nobody ever throws money specifically at the indirect approach.”

The future battleground will be in countries with which the United States is not at war, Vickers said. “That will necessitate a more indirect, and sometimes clandestine, approach … Forces will have to work by, with and through partners in those nations.”

The increasing focus on unconventional warfare has set off an internal competition between SOF and conventional forces over the division of labor. The Pentagon has sought to beef up the capabilities of conventional forces to conduct nontraditional operations such as stability and post-war rebuilding, which are duties that traditionally have been assigned to SOF units.

“In irregular warfare, you’re going to need that individual who can fight in that environment one day and the next day be handing out soccer balls in a nation-building engagement. We’ve got to educate those people,” said Navy Vice Adm. Robert S. Harward, deputy commander of Joint Forces Command and a former SEAL.

“The conventional forces are integrating with special operations forces just as SOF is integrating with the conventional. It’s a two-way street,” Harward told reporters in Washington. “I think they’re both mutually supporting ... I’m very optimistic that we’re building the right sort of capability.”

A recent Pentagon directive has fueled the debate. The Department of Defense Directive No. 3000.07 elevates the status of irregular warfare to the same level as conventional combat operations.

“We can do our doctrinal dance while succeeding on the battlefield, and that’s kind of what we’re doing right now,” Carstens said.

If irregular warfare is to be a huge part of the future, how does SOCOM spreads its knowledge, methodology, language training, cultural skills and other resources across all four services, he asked.

“Maybe it’s time to take a four-star special operations general or admiral and give him a permanent seat on the Joint Chiefs of Staff,” he said.  

Topics: Defense Department, DOD Budget, Special Operations-Low Intensity Conflict

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