It is an undeniable fact that since the twin towers went down on 9/11 the role of Special Operations Forces (SOF) has changed. The gradual change saw SOF shift from their traditional role of supporting conventional forces to that of being supported by conventional units. With increased frequency, conventional elements fulfil secondary tasks during operations – it’s crucial to emphasise that secondary doesn’t mean less dangerous or difficult; pulling security for Delta or being left behind to deal with the aftermath of a High-Value Target (HVT) raid can prove a most bloody affair.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have highlighted this strategic shift. The less known low-intensity conflicts, however, is were this phenomenon is more pronounced. American and Western policymakers tend to rely on – some would say over-rely on – SOF units to pull the snake out of the hole. Whether it’s Direct Action (DA) missions in Yemen or Somalia, conducted by the Special Mission Units (SMU) of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), or the less glamorous but equally important Foreign Internal Defence (FID) missions, performed by the Green Berets or Marine Raiders, in dozens of countries around the world, SOF have become the go-to option because of their small footprint and disproportionate for their size effectiveness. The shift, of course, has its limitations. You won’t find a Special Forces Operational Detachment Alpha (SFODA) going against a Russian mechanised battalion anytime soon. This overreliance has a concomitant cost: retention issues, a mental health plague, ethics and professionalism problems, and high casualties, to name a few.
And yet, despite the above, the U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) insists that everything is all right. A couple of weeks ago, Command Chief Master Sergeant Gregory A. Smith, the spec ops command’s senior enlisted leader, said in a statement to the press that “I will tell you that the readiness of the force is at an all-time high right now. We’re actually at a 25 percent reduction on global SOF taskings.”
The majority of those killed in action in Afghanistan in the last two years are commandos or their enablers. The same applies for Operation Inherent Resolve, the campaign against the Islamic State, in Iraq and Syria.
Speaking about the high casualties in the SOF community, Command Chief Master Sgt Smith added that “while it’s true that the majority of casualties have been special operations forces, the majority of the missions and some of the intricate tasks we’ve been asked to accomplish have — unfortunately or fortunately — fallen to special operations forces.”
And there’s the rub. SOF units are repeatedly asked to answer the call, thereby fraying their operational readiness. If a unit is constantly deployed, retention will be awful – as the increased reenlistment bonuses indicate (ranging from $35,000 to $45,000, depending on the unit and career field). And in the case of a contingency scenario with a near-peer adversary, the aforesaid units will be less effective. A well-liked solution to the problem was to increase the number of operators. The 75th Ranger Regiment added an additional company to each of its three battalions; each Special Forces Group added a fourth battalion; Delta Force activated an additional sabre squadron. To achieve this, however, standards had to decrease (in most units), further complicating the situation.
“Special Operations Forces cannot be mass produced.” That’s one of the five SOF Truths. It would be prudent for SOCOM to realign with its core values than overspread itself with the danger of losing is tremendous effectiveness. It’s quite ironic that SOCOM’s success in the past decades is coming back to haunt her.