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The Democrats' Special Forces Fetish

A fatuous promise to "double the size" of our elite military units.

Mar 5, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 24 • By MICHAEL FUMENTO
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It was one bullet point in the plan for the Pelosi Congress's "first 100 hours," two sentences in the Democrats' 31-page "New Direction for America" document released last June: In order to "Defeat terrorists and stop the spread of weapons of mass destruction, we will . . . . Double the size of our Special Forces" (emphasis added).

Sounds nifty, doesn't it, like a bumper sticker reading "Outlaw War Now!"? And, indeed, top-notch warriors play an invaluable role in any war but are most useful in the sorts of guerrilla actions and antiterrorist activity that will probably dominate the military's missions for the next generation. There are just two problems. First, doubling can only be accomplished by going a disastrous route--making special ops no longer special. Second, false solutions crowd out real ones. Much can be done to improve the quality of our armed forces, but this Democratic proposal doesn't make the grade.

Just as it's disturbing that in 31 pages the Democrats couldn't devote a single line to how they plan to achieve their lofty goal, it's unsettling that they can't get their definitions right. "Special Forces," properly speaking, refers to U.S. Army Special Forces, the Green Berets. But, as Drew Hammill in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office confirmed to me, what the Democrats want to double is the much broader group of "Special Operations Forces"--SOF in military shorthand, or just "special ops."

Further, just as they don't seem to know what special ops are, it's doubtful the concocters of this soundbite know what goes into creating such troops or what a doubling would entail. But in consulting with special ops leaders, trainers, and members--indeed, by merely looking at the numbers--it quickly becomes clear that this "plan" is pie in the sky.

What are Special Operations Forces?

First, a definition--a proper one. Special Operations Forces are defined by how they are trained, not by how they happen to be employed. In the U.S. military, virtually all SOF are three-time volunteers. They volunteer to enter one of the four branches of the armed forces and undergo basic training, followed by advanced training in their military occupational specialty such as the infantry or combat engineers. They volunteer for airborne school, which is usually the second phase of their training, although Navy SEALs actually undergo their Basic Underwater Demolition/SEALs (BUD/S) course before going to jump school. Then they volunteer for the SOF school itself, such as the Army's Special Forces Q Course or Ranger school.

Nor is that the end. Even once the volunteer is officially SOF, with that jaunty green beret or Ranger tab, he cross-trains in other special schools, such as a Special Forces soldier taking an intensive language course or going through HALO (high altitude-low opening) training, in which he learns to jump at very high altitudes using oxygen tanks and then deploy his parachute at the very last second. SOF members also train with special ops troops from other countries. Being SOF means constantly improving your skills.

All special ops are elite, but not all elite soldiers are special ops. For example, all paratroopers are considered elite as well as some non-airborne units like the 10th Mountain Division. But they are not special operations forces; hence they are not part of the Democrats' formula.

As it happens, there is also a more formal definition of special ops--that would be a unit falling under the U.S. Special Operations Command, or SOCOM, which was created in 1987 and is based at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida. Marine Force Recon, which long guarded its independence, was an exception but is now being folded into SOCOM. The Air Force, Army, and Navy all have commands under the SOCOM umbrella. The Army command includes Special Forces, Rangers, and five other groups you hear less about. It almost certainly includes Delta Force, but like most things regarding Delta this is officially secret. The Air Force has six units, such as the 720th Special Tactics Group, which includes the men who call in close air support and rescue downed pilots. (Technically there's no such thing as an "Air Commando" anymore, but the term is still used.) Finally, Navy Special Warfare Command includes the famous SEALs (for Sea, Air and Land forces), as well as SEAL Delivery Vehicle Teams, and Special Boat Teams.

By the numbers . . .