I was watching the news this morning, as I typically do, when I heard a journalist talking about the U.S. military involvement in Yemen. In an offhand comment, the reporter described the extent of the United States’ involvement as providing refueling support to Saudi aircraft operating in the skies over Yemen. That was it.
Immediately, I wanted to shout at the television, ‘what about special operations forces operating in Yemen?’ As soon as the thought entered my mind, I realized that therein lies a problematic phenomenon. Most Americans, including apparently those elected to oversee worldwide U.S. military operations, do not really grasp, or think much about, U.S. Special Operations Forces (USSOF) missions happening across the globe. When they do, it is usually in the wake of an American having been killed in the course of one of those operations.
Such was the case back in January 2017, when Navy SEAL Ryan Owens was killed in Yemen. It was as if you could hear a collective exclamation from the American press and public: “We have SEALs in Yemen?” The same occurred when four U.S. Special Forces personnel were killed in Niger back in October. “I didn’t know there was 1,000 troops in Niger,” stated U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, when discussing the operation on “Meet the Press.”
Part of the problem is that America has been at war for so long now — since October 2001 — that we have collectively relegated the details of that long war to our subconscious. As a society, we tend not to think about it until an American dies in a war zone, or unless it is Memorial Day or Veterans Day.
This problem is particularly evident when it comes to American SOF, who by design, operate more or less clandestinely across the globe. The presence and activities of SOF units are not publicized, nor do they feature prominently in the day-to-day American consciousness outside of books, movies, and television shows. This can be a problem, as we expect so much of them, while ignoring the toll this operational tempo takes on the force.
The increased and widespread use of American SOF under the Trump administration is the subject of an article by Nick Turse published in The Nation on December 14, 2017. According to the report, USSOF deployed to 149 countries in 2017, which accounts for 75 percent of the nations on Earth.
While The Nation attempts to depict this operational tempo as drastically higher than that employed by previous administrations, the truth is more complicated. Yes, Donald Trump has deployed USSOF to more countries than any other U.S. President, but during the Obama administration’s last year, USSOF were deployed to 138 countries. That is not a big jump, nor did it happen in a vacuum. We have been on this road for 16 years now.
The phenomenon, in other words, is not a new one. However, as every year passes with SOF personnel so widely deployed, the force is more and more stretched. Anecdotally, some SOF personnel are closing in on deployment numbers in the twenties. They are overseas more than they are at home, and for decades at a time in some cases. This is brutal on the average SOF family, and cannot be beneficial for the long-term mental health of America’s special operations personnel.
According to Turse’s article, on a given day, “about 8,000 special operators — from a command numbering roughly 70,000 — are deployed in approximately 80 countries.” General Raymond “Tony” Thomas, Commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, has stated that most USSOF units are “employed to their sustainable limit.” Sadly, the solution to this problem most often put forward is to increase the numbers of SOF personnel. While this might solve one problem, it creates more. Namely, you cannot just mass produce special operations personnel without consequences. Secondly, increasing the size of the force does not erase the problem of expecting it to do too much.
USSOF cannot and should not be a first-choice solution for every global conflict and issue. Rather, such specialized units should be reserved for operations and missions not achievable by diplomacy, conventional military forces, or intelligence agencies, and within their charter. It is tempting to give USSOF more missions, to broaden that charter, because they tend to successfully accomplish — on average — those tasks thrown their way.
The risk is that at some point we place too great a burden on these units and force them to the breaking point. When we stretch them so thin, and they are at their operational limits, what happens when a new war — say, in North Korea — breaks out? We would be starting that conflict with a force that has been pushed to the limit and might not be at peak readiness. That is a dangerous place to be.
It is time for a discussion within the country’s national security circles as to how we can shift some of this burden away from USSOF and back onto conventional units and other government agencies. In this way, we can preserve the readiness and effectiveness of some of America’s most capable forces. We have to think long-term, and stop putting out every fire with the same fire crew. That crew needs some rehab time to be ready for the great inferno that hopefully never comes.
Featured image courtesy of Wikipedia.