Special Operations Faces Soaring Demands, Commander Says


By Karen Parrish

Demand in Afghanistan for special operations forces is “insatiable,” even as U.S. Special Operations Command increases its troop strength by a battalion a year, Socom’s commander said today.

Speaking at the National Defense Industrial Association’s 22nd Annual Special Operations and Low-intensity Conflict Symposium, Navy Adm. Eric T. Olson discussed the effect nearly a decade of war has had on the Defense Department’s most elite warriors.

“As we have essentially doubled our force over the last nine years [and] tripled our budget over the last nine years, we have quadrupled our overseas deployments over the last nine years,” Olson said.

“We are doing more with more, but the more we’re doing it with doesn’t match the more we’ve been asked to do,” he said. “We are, frankly, beginning to show some fraying around the edges.”

As Olson’s 2010 Socom posture statement sets out, the command’s mission covers combat, training and equipping indigenous forces, as well as synchronizing planning of global operations against terrorist networks.

The posture statement reads in part, “Special operations forces respond to the sound of guns with a combination of speed, discipline, and tenacity. They also apply their knowledge and experience well ahead of the sound of the guns to prevent violence from erupting whenever and wherever possible. These are warriors who can act swiftly with precision and lethality, yet remain simultaneously capable of building long-term relationships and trust with international partners.”

Olson, a former Navy SEAL who has commanded Socom since 2007, said he doesn’t pretend the demand for special operations forces will decrease over the next few years.

“We saw 100,000 American troops come out of Iraq; we only saw about 500 special operations [members] as part of that,” he noted.

Special operations recruiting and training have ramped up since 2006, when that year’s Quadrennial Defense Review directed increasing special operations forces by 15 percent and increase the number of Special Forces battalions by one-third.

The QDR also directed Socom to establish a Marine Corps Special Operations Command, while instructing the Air Force to create an unmanned aerial vehicle squadron under Socom. The Navy was instructed to increase SEAL team manning and develop a riverine warfare capability.

Finally, the QDR called for a 33 percent increase in psychological operations — since renamed military information support operations — and civil affairs units, and directed Army and Marine Corps ground forces to increase their capabilities and capacity to conduct irregular warfare missions.

Olson said that while Socom has worked to “grow the force” quickly, demand has grown faster.

“We grew a battalion in the 5th Special Forces Group in 2008, and it’s deployed. We grew a battalion in 3rd Special Forces Group in 2009, and it’s deployed,” he said. “We grew a battalion in the 10th Special Forces Group, and it is preparing to deploy. Over the next two years, we’ll grow battalions in 1st Group and 7th Group.

“We’ve been able to deploy 36 additional [operational detachments A, or “A-teams”],” he continued. “And frankly, if you’re on a 1-to-1 deployment ratio, which is the very most that you can sustain … as you grow 36 ODAs, you should deploy no more than 18. But the demand has gone up close to 50 in that time.”

The special operations deployment ratio is off the charts, Olson said.

“The force has proven far more resilient than we predicted, [and] the families have proven far more resilient than we predicted,” he said. “But like the rest of the force – not on the same scale, but like the rest of the force – we’re seeing the indicators of pressure.”

That pressure affects special operations troops on and off duty, Olson said, as well as their families.

“When I say we’re taking measures to address it, we realize that there is no single solution to this,” the admiral said. “It’s a thousand different approaches that will ultimately relieve some of this pressure on the force: being more predictable in what it is we do, being more committed to the schedules that we present our people, presenting them with far fewer surprises over time, providing them additional training – as I said, particularly the families, so that they understand what resources are available to them.”

Olson said the command has enhanced its Special Operations Care Coalition, which is a U.S. government organization funded and run by Special Operations Command to advocate for wounded, ill and injured special operations troops.

When he says the force is fraying, Olson explained, he means more mid-career special operations troops are choosing to leave service.

“Over half of our force now, about 60 percent, actually came in since 9/11. This is all they know, in their military service,” the admiral said. “They were inspired by the events of 9/11, they’ve served their country, and now, eight or 10 years later, they are satisfied with what they did and feel like they were part of something important. But what seems good for eight or 10 years maybe doesn’t seem as good looking ahead to 18 or 20 years.”

But the force still is strong and capable, Olson said.

“They make me proud every day,” he told the group. “The challenge now is to make sure that we still have, in five or 10 or 20 or 30 years, what we’ve become accustomed to now in terms of quality and sufficiency.”

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