Can special operations forces work on a mass scale?
TAMPA - In the early hours of May 2, Navy SEALs in specially outfitted helicopters piloted by Army special operations aviators flew undetected into Pakistani airspace, eventually swooping down on the compound of Osama bin Laden and killing the al-Qaida leader. The operation was at once both spectacular and representative of thousands of other special operations forces kill-or-capture missions carried out during the last decade of war. And it seared into the public conscious the effectiveness of special operations forces and U.S. Special Operations Command, headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base. With a projected fiscal year 2012 budget of about $10.5 billion – less than the cost of a new aircraft carrier – Special Operations Command, tasked with providing "fully capable special operations forces," is considered the ultimate bang for the military buck. At 1.4 percent of the overall Pentagon budget, the command offers a return on investment even more important now that the president has ordered the military to slash $487 billion over the next 10 years. While no budget axe specifics have yet been offered by the Department of Defense, members of Tampa's special operations forces community say they are counting on military planners and Congress to keep in mind the "Five Truths" of special operations forces – humans are more important than hardware, quality not quantity, special operations forces can't be mass produced, competent special operations forces cannot be created after an emergency and most special operations require non-special operations assistance.The key is to keep special operations forces – SOF – from becoming a victim of their own success. "Our special operations forces were such a perfect fit for the type of missions that were required in the environment we found ourselves, of course there was an immediate desire to grow SOF as fast as we can grow it," said Doug Brown, a retired four-star general who ran Special Operations Command from September, 2003 until July, 2007. "One of the challenges is how do you grow a force this specialized without losing the quality," Brown said. * * * * * The counterterrorism mission that led to the killing of bin Laden is what people generally think of when they think of special operations, but such direct actions, while important and frequent, represent only a portion of the role of SEALs, Navy Special Warfare boat crews, Army Special Forces and Air Force and Marine special operations forces. Operating with a much smaller "footprint" in the battle zone than conventional forces, special operations forces troops also engage in unconventional warfare and specialized reconnaissance missions – working with local military forces on, among other things, sabotage, guerilla actions and intelligence gathering. But the larger role of special operators – on average older, better educated and better trained than general purpose troops – is in "non-kinetic" missions like disaster relief, civil affairs, winning the hearts and minds at the village level and foreign internal defense, all designed to work "by, with and through host governments," according to retired Air Force Maj. Gen. David J. Scott. All those tasks are accomplished by a small force, drawn from the individual services, that makes up a little more than 10 percent of the current military of 570,000. But as the total number of troops is reduced, by as much as 15 percent, can special operations forces be expected to pick up the slack? Like Brown, Scott said managing the growth of special operations forces is essential. "To keep the quality high, focus on the missions SOF is known for," said Scott, who retired in 2009 as the deputy director of Special Operation Command's Center For Special Operations and is now director of Computer Science Corp.'s Tampa office. "You don't want to use a Lexus to haul lumber to a construction site." * * * * * Special operations has come a long way since Rich Young was mucking about the jungles of Southeast Asia as an Army captain with the 1st Special Forces Group in the early 1990s. U.S. Special Operations Command had just come on line in 1987, the end result of Congressional action to repair the military's systemic dysfunction that led in large measure to the disaster in the desert during the botched attempt to rescue hostages from Iran. The command, created with its own purchasing power and responsibility for individual tactical level training, was charged with providing special operators and, in 2004, with planning and synchronizing actions against terrorist networks. "When I was a young captain, we had a very broad, nebulous mission statement to 'gain rapport' with the Kingdom of Thailand," Young said. "What does that mean?" Now, he said, special operators have the best language and cultural training in the military and are charged with the "three Ds – defense, diplomacy and development." But add all that on top of 10 years of battles and you have a force that is taxed, said Young, whose last role at Special Operations Command was as a lieutenant colonel, heading up the Irregular Warfare Branch at the Joint Special Operations University, a unique Tampa-based institution that teaches special operations theory and tactics. Last year, just three months after the bin Laden raid, special operations forces took their heaviest loss of the Afghanistan war when a Taliban rocket-propelled grenade took out a Chinook helicopter in Wardak province, killing all 38 on board, including 22 SEALs and three Air Force combat controllers. Overall, 391 special operations force troops have been killed in Afghanistan and Iraq, about 6 percent of the approximately 6,200 U.S. forces killed. At least 1,820 special operations forces troops have been wounded, about 4 percent of the 46,000 wounded, according to Special Operations Command spokesman Ken McGraw and Department of Defense figures. To the local special operations forces community, continued reliance on special operations forces is a good thing. But there are concerns. There is no doubt special operations forces will grow. The latest budget represents a 7 percent increase over FY 2011 and indications are that budgetary growth will continue. The overall force of special operators is slated to increase from about the current 63,500 to 70,000 by FY 2015, according to Socom's McGraw. "As best as we can determine there will not be a drawdown of SOF in Afghanistan as other forces come out," said McGraw. "There may be an increase. Plus there is a pent-up demand for SOF by the other (commands) because we have not been able to meet their requirements because we have had so many people deployed'' to U.S. Central Command. Louis A. Caporicci, a retired Air Force colonel who flew air rescue and special ops missions all over the world and last served at Socom responsible for wargaming, experimentation and concept development, said his biggest concern about the future pertains to the assistance special operations require from conventional forces. Special operations forces don't exist in a vacuum. They often rely on conventional forces to get in and out of places, supply them during missions, provide air cover and a safe place to gear up for the next mission. "If the service budgets are cut back, that might trickle down to SOF," said Caporicci, now the director of special operations forces business and development at Cubic Defense Applications. "The challenge in the budget reality is to figure out who is actually going to pay for and maintain those functions so that SOF can continue to operate safely in far-flung places." * * * * * Regardless of the unknowns, all those interviewed say they are confident Special Operation Command's leadership will ensure special operations forces remain robust. Adm. William McRaven – as head of the Joint Special Operations Command, one of Socom's subordinate commands that does actual mission planning - designed the operation that took out bin Laden. Now he runs Special Operations Command. "The leadership we currently have across the board in Socom, and all the components, are such quality people who have grown up in the force and know exactly what the mission is that I have great faith and confidence in every one of those guys," said Brown, who turned the command over to Olson before retiring to run a Dade City consulting firm.