Monday, November 22, 2010

Chasing The Chosen - Shortage of Special Forces

November 17, 2010: The U.S. Army's effort to recruit another 2,300 operators (as
members of the Special Forces are called) has been a hard slog. Qualified candidates
are out there, but it's hard to convince them to endure the additional effort, stress
and danger to become a Special Forces operator. Even with higher pay ($10,000 or more
additional a year) and high reenlistment bonuses (about $10,000 more a year), it's
hard to find the men who can meet the high standards, and are willing to put up with
the large amount of time spent overseas.

Recruiting and training more operators is a time consuming process, as it takes about
three years to get a Special Forces recruit up to a basic level of competence. It
takes another few years in the field before such men are ready for anything serious.
At least half of those recruited, are lost (quit, wash out) before they reach their
full capability. Recruiting to expand the number of operators began right after
September 11, 2001. Soon, SOCOM (Special Operations command) was told to increase its
strength by 43 percent, and do it by 2013.

The main problem isn't operators concerned about getting killed, SOCOM casualties
have been lower than in infantry or marine units. The big issue is overwork. Combat
operations wear troops out. Elite men like SOCOM operators can handle more than your
average infantryman, but they have their limits as well. Moreover, most Special
Forces operators are married and have families. Being away from the wife and kids for
extended periods often causes more stress. Keep the operators out there for too long
at a time and you'll lose them to resignations, retirement or, rarely, combat
fatigue. It's not just the equipment that is being worn out.

Because the Special Forces troops are the product of an exacting screening and
training process, they are in big demand by intelligence agencies as well. Special
Forces operators who retired or quit in the last decade have been sought out and
offered opportunities to get back in the business. If not with one of the five active
duty groups, then with training operations, or to work with the intelligence

Most Americans tend to forget that the U.S. Special Forces are a unique organization
in military, and intelligence, history. No other nation has anything like the Special
Forces, and never has. While other nations have some operators skilled in
understanding foreign cultures, the idea of training thousands of troops to very high
standards, then having them study foreign languages and cultures, is unique to the
Special Forces. The war on terror is the kind of war Special Forces are perfectly
suited to dealing with. But now that this unique kind of war is under way, we find
that those soldiers uniquely suited to fighting it are in short supply. This is
largely because Special Forces set high standards, and has resisted all attempts to
lower those standards. One hard lesson the Special Forces has learned in the past
fifty years is that lowering standards just increases the chances of failure, and
getting your people killed.

Earlier this year, a new Special Forces battalion (300 troops) was created for the
10th Special Forces Group. This is part of an expansion. Each of the five Special
Forces Groups will receive a fourth battalion. Two other groups have already begun
organizing their new battalion. The 3rd and 5th Groups have been doing most of the
work in Iraq and Afghanistan, and they are getting additional battalions first. The
other Groups have also sent many of their A Teams to Iraq and Afghanistan, but the
5th Group is the one that was trained for that region, and has the lead

In addition to more Special Forces battalions, and 400 more troops for the U.S.
Marine Corps special operations forces, another battalion is being added to the army
160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment. Although SOCOM has been trying to expand
since September 11, 2001, it has been very difficult getting the high quality
recruits needed for the elite units (Special Forces, Rangers, Seals, commandos in
general). Existing operators in these units were very opposed to lowering standards,
so some innovative screening methods and recruiting methods had to be developed to
get the qualified people needed.

By 2013, the Special Forces will have 300 ODAs (Operational Detachment A, or "A
Teams), compared to the 180 they had on September 11, 2001. The army would like to
add a battalion to the two reserve Special Forces Groups (the 19th and 20th), which
would increase the number of A Teams to 420, but money has not yet been provided for

In the past two years, SOCOM has been shifting forces from Iraq (where it had 5,500
personnel two years ago) to Afghanistan (where it had 3,000 troops two years ago).
The ratio is being reversed. Most American allies have moved all their commando
forces from Iraq to Afghanistan, where they not only do what they were trained for,
but also train Afghans for special operations tasks. This has already been done in
Iraq, where it worked quite well. The SOCOM troops in Iraq and Afghanistan account
for about 80 percent of American special operations forces overseas. The rest are in
places like Colombia, the Philippines and Djibouti (adjacent to Somalia).

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