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SOCOM Leads the Way?

A special operations transformation.

12:00 AM, May 21, 2008 • By STUART KOEHL
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TWO WEEKS AGO, Admiral Eric T. Olson, former Navy SEAL and commander of U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM), complained in an interview that U.S. special operations forces are overcommitted and stretched too thin. "We are going to fewer countries, staying for shorter periods of time, and with smaller numbers of people than historically we have done." This is of particular concern because, in both counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism operations, special operations forces are the sharp end of the spear, the troops with the precise mix of skills and training needed to fight "asymmetrical" adversaries on their own terms.

Throughout the history of the U.S. military, special operations troops have been viewed with a mixture of suspicion and resentment by "regular" military leaders, who frequently fail to understand the special operations mentality, the proper employment of special operations forces, and their limitations in conventional combat roles. Typically, the United States has raised special operations units in an ad hoc manner for a particular conflict, then rapidly decommissioned them as soon as the war was over. Thus, in World War II, we raised Army Ranger battalions, a Special Services Brigade, Marine Raider battalions, combat swimmers and Underwater Demolition Teams (UDTs), only to abolish most of them after VJ-Day.

We found that we needed their capabilities again in the Korean War, and went through the trouble of re-learning much that we had forgotten after World War II, only to demobilize most these units yet again once the Korean armistice was signed. A handful of small Ranger companies and Special Forces Groups (the Green Berets) carried the flame through the 1950s, until John Kennedy (a military romantic at heart), made the Special Forces his pet project, a way of fighting the elusive Viet Cong at their own game of guerrilla warfare.

Beginning with Kennedy, and continuing under Lyndon Johnson, the Special Forces were enlarged several-fold. Not to be outdone, the Navy then formed its Sea-Air-Land (SEAL) Teams from the old UDTs, but adding infiltration, reconnaissance, and ambush tactics to beach clearing. The Air Force and Marines likewise created their own small commando-style units in response to the needs of the Vietnam War. Some of these units were very good indeed, others not so much. Many pioneered the kinds of counter-insurgency tactics being employed today in Iraq and Afghanistan. But again, once Vietnam was over, the United States cut back on special operations forces in order to concentrate on "real war"--the head-to-head conflict with the USSR on the plains of central Germany.

Lacking any sort of proponent in the military, special operators became orphan children: they had to scrounge for the equipment and training they needed, and its members, officers in particular, faced career dead ends if they stayed in their chosen professions (it used to be said that in the U.S. Army, commando types retired at lieutenant colonel, while in Israel they were made chiefs of staff). Fragmented across the services, they lacked a common doctrine and interoperability. They were, to be blunt, looked on as prima donnas, even circus freaks, by conventional force commanders, who did not want them in their commands, and would not have known how to use them if they did.

A turnaround began in the late 1970s, when the wave of multinational terrorism that began with the Munich Olympic massacre pointed out the need for highly trained hostage rescue forces. This led to the formation of Special Operations Detachment-Delta, better known as "Delta Force" (AKA "The Unit," the "D-Boys," and "The D"). Selected from among the best of all other Army special operations units, they were mostly sergeants or higher, older than most soldiers, trained to operate independently and undercover, and highly skilled in the use of all sorts of weapons and tactics. They were ideally suited for taking down terrorists--except that the U.S. military was highly reluctant to use them, and so threw up all sorts of obstacles to their deployment when hostage situations emerged. They were finally set loose as part of Operation Eagle Claw, the botched Iranian hostage rescue mission of April 24, 1980, in which a U.S. C-130 transport and MH-53 Sea Stallion helicopter collided on the ground, killing eight U.S. soldiers and airmen, and causing the failure of the mission.