America’s in-demand global force against terrorists is showing signs of stress and appears to be gliding toward a decline in readiness, says a Pentagon budget overview on special operations forces.
With the end of U.S. military operations in the Iraq War, the thought was that fewer deployments would give some relief to special operations forces after a dozen years of overseas fighting.
But the 2015 budget overview says demand for special operations forces is up, not down.
It talks of “significant stress on the force” and notes that the demand for Delta Force troops, Green Berets, Navy SEALs and other commandos is “outpacing capacity” and has “initiated a downward trend in SOF readiness” this year.
Retired Rear Adm. George Worthington, once the Navy’s top SEAL, said the wear and tear on mind and body, much less equipment, is becoming apparent.
“With guys doing multiple deployments, they’re getting a tough nine to 10 deployments over a 12-year period, the impact on families is going to be noticeable,” Adm. Worthington said. “Anything that can cut down and make the deployments less vigorous in terms of operation tempo is going to be a better thing.
“The stress is, at home, you’ve got to get ready to deploy for another nine months,” he said, adding that the war on terrorism has been the SEALs’ busiest era since the Vietnam War.
“This is Vietnam on steroids,” he said. “If there is any fraying, it’s on replaceable operational equipment. But more than that, it’s the operational tempo on the guys. They’re over there for eight or nine months, and then they come back and then they’ve got to go back.”
The Pentagon says special operations units plan to “reduce select capacity to preserve readiness,” but the Defense Department does not spell out which missions will be scaled back.
Adm. William McRaven, a SEAL by training who is chief of U.S. Special Operations Command, told Congress recently that “the force has continued to fray” and “our suicide rate, unfortunately, has grown here over the past three or four years.”
On Tuesday, Adm. McRaven told a Senate Armed Services subcommittee that demand is so heavy he cannot always say yes to global combatant commanders.
“My job as the supporting commander is to provide them forces,” he testified. “Now, there does come a time when I kind of run out of forces and so I’ve got to work with the [geographic combatant commands] and the services to do the best we can.”
The total number of special operations forces was once planned to reach 72,000, but budget constraints have capped the number at 69,700. The Special Operations Command budget for the next year is $7.7 billion, a 10 percent increase.
The command is taking steps to head off a severe readiness dip in its far-flung troops, who over the past dozen years have conducted counterterrorism training and operations in North and East Africa, the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan and Asia. They fought a long war against al Qaeda-sponsored insurgents in Iraq, where commandos perfected the fusion of intelligence collection and direct action to kill scores of terrorist leaders.
Special operations forces killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan and tracked down his chief henchman in Iraq, Abu Musab Zarqawi. In October, Delta Force soldiers in Tripoli, Libya, nabbed Abu Anas al Libi, the reputed mastermind of the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in East Africa.
“This state of readiness is critical to ensure SOF remains the United States on-call and ready force for global engagements,” the Pentagon assessment says. “The SOF continues to experience and project an increase in global demand outpacing capacity.”
One example: SoCom is facing an explosion in the number of countries that want American commandos to train their forces in counterinsurgency and counterterrorism. Last year, 63 countries received training from 3,500 personnel. In 2015, the numbers will balloon to 103 countries and 4,500 personnel.
In the secretive world of special operations, the Pentagon offers no details on reduced training or flying hours. But one infamous example of special operations forces being pulled beyond capacity occurred in 2012 in Benghazi, Libya.
As al Qaeda-linked militants attacked the U.S. diplomatic compound and then a CIA base, U.S. Africa Command owned no emergency special operations team. It had to borrow European Command’s unit, which was involved in a training mission and, officials said, could not reach Benghazi in time.
Adm. McRaven told the House Committee on Armed Services that his predecessor, Adm. Eric Olson, conducted a comprehensive survey of SoCom’s 7,000 troops and 1,000 spouses as part of a Force and Family Task Force.
“Eric told me, ‘You need to read this. We’ve got to do something about how the force is fraying,’” Adm. McRaven testified. “That was really kind of a wake-up call for us.”
Adm. McRaven turned the survey into a readiness program called Preservation of the Force and Family.
A Special Forces soldier, who asked not to be named, said SoCom has been on a spending spree since 2001, buying all sorts of off-the-shelf equipment — some that has worked, some that has not.
“When SEAL Team 6 operators are sent on ‘training’ missions to Alaska to go hunting on the government’s dime, you know you have budgets that are both too fat and lack oversight,” the soldier said. “If McRaven is concerned with his budget, he should start with fighting the wartime tradition of fiscal abuse that has gone unchecked since 9/11 in the SOF community. Our love affair with special operations has caused the DOD to turn a blind eye on very questionable fiscal practices.”