The Magazine

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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A look at the current Special Operations Forces numbers, and efforts already underway to expand them, shows there can be no doubling in any meaningful sense of the word. Current authorization for active SOF is about 43,000 (there are about 10,000 more in Reserve and Guard units). The Quadrennial Defense Review, the Pentagon's main planning tool, calls for adding another 13,000 active-duty Special Operations Forces over the next five years. So if the Democrats wish to double the number already budgeted for, it would mean adding 56,000 men; if it doubled the number available today it would still be an additional 43,000. Now keep in mind that a large chunk of those 13,000 to be added came last year from a simple transfer of about 2,500 Marines in Force Recon. Most of the current expansion won't be so easy.

Aside from small (in sheer number terms) increases in Navy and Air Force SOF, almost all of the increase is slated for the Army. The Army's goal is to have 518,000 total soldiers by year's end, though it's authorized to reach 547,000 in 2012. Of current members about 14 percent are women, leaving 445,000 men. Now subtract the men who are already SOF, and you'd need to convert almost 10 percent of what's left into Special Operations Forces.

New SOF will have to be airborne. The current number of men on jump status in our conventional airborne units is about 21,000 with the Ft. Bragg-based 18th Airborne Corps, about 3,000 more with the 173rd Airborne Brigade in Italy, and 3,100 with the recently formed 4th Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry, in Alaska. If somehow you were to get every conventional airborne soldier to become SOF you'd still fall dramatically short of the doubling goal.

The SEAL experience

If you like SOF, you love the SEALs. They are the stuff of legend, and I'm proud to be among the few journalists to have been with them in combat in Iraq, thereby allowing me to say with firsthand experience that the legend is deserved. They truly fight like machines. So we want a lot more SEALs, right? Ideally, yes. But Special Operations Command is already "mandated to create two entirely new SEAL Teams by 2010," notes 14-year SEAL veteran Matthew Heidt (who blogs as "Froggy" at Attrition in the would-be SEALs' first round of training, the BUD/S course, "is 70 percent or more," according to Heidt, and even to man the two new authorized teams by 2010 "will be difficult . . . unless training standards are radically lowered."

Capt. Larry Bailey, a SEAL for 27 years, vouches for the difficulty of expanding the teams. He's best known for tirelessly exposing men who fraudulently claim to have been SEALs (of which there is a virtual epidemic). But he commanded the BUD/S School at Coronado, Calif., for three years in the 1980s. He was given a mandate to graduate more SEALs without lowering the quality and did so temporarily. Nevertheless, "the Naval Special Warfare Center, which runs BUD/S, has been for years doing everything it can, short of lowering standards, to increase the number of graduates from this most difficult course," he told me. "There are just so many souls that can withstand that stress."

Go to and click on "training" and you'll wonder that even 30 percent survive. "Doubling the size is impossible," Bailey told me. "But there's something about special ops that appeals more to Democrats than GOP," he added. "There's almost like there's a craving to be accepted by real men. I don't know any liberal Democrat who doesn't like special ops."

Expanding other units will prove more doable because their attrition rates are lower. But few if any Special Operations Forces units could be doubled, much less the overall force. "Doubling SOF is a joke," says Heidt.

Lowering standards

But the joke may not be funny if SOF is doubled by the one means possible--lowering the bar. In a superficial sense, the Army already did this when it instituted the black beret as standard headgear. Berets are completely impractical, but they look cool. The first widespread use of berets in the U.S. military were black ones the Rangers began wearing in the 1950s. Later Special Forces began wearing green ones in imitation of the super-elite British Special Air Service. But conventional Army commanders disapproved, and it took the personal intercession of President Kennedy in 1961 to make the headwear official.