Special Operations ‘Fraying Around the Edges,’ Commander Says

WASHINGTON, Feb. 8, 2011 — 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 — 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.” 

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs) 

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