Special Operations Forces on the Rise

U.S. Special Operations Forces continue to experience rapid post-9/11 growth, with swelling ranks, rising budgets and a new set of missions.  Special operations forces were reportedly involved along with CIA personnel in the killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan on May 1.

“Special operations” are defined (pdf) as military operations that are “conducted in hostile, denied, or politically sensitive environments to achieve military, diplomatic, informational, and/or economic objectives employing military capabilities for which there is no broad conventional force requirement. These operations often require covert, clandestine, or low visibility capabilities…. Special operations differ from conventional operations in degree of physical and political risk, operational techniques, mode of employment, independence from friendly support, and dependence on detailed operational intelligence and indigenous assets.”

Special Operations Forces operate “from the tropics to the Arctic regions, from under water to high elevations, and from peaceful areas to violent combat zones,” said Adm. Eric T. Olson, the Commander of U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM).

“Although the precision counterterrorism missions certainly receive the most attention,” he told Congress in the 2011 SOCOM posture statement (pdf) last March, “SOF are conducting a wide range of activities in dozens of countries around the world on any given day.”

“On an average day, in excess of 12,000 Special Operations Forces (SOF) and SOF support personnel are deployed in more than 75 countries across the globe,” he said last year (pdf).

The number of special operations personnel has grown 3-5% each year for the last several years and is now approaching 60,000, about one-third of whom are qualified SOF operators.

Meanwhile, the SOCOM budget has increased sharply since 9/11 from $2.1 billion in 2001 to $9.8 billion in FY2011.  The FY2012 request is $10.5 billion, the Congressional Research Service noted (pdf).

New doctrine (pdf) published last month for Special Operations lists 11 “core activities” versus 9 in the previous edition (2003), reflecting the addition of “security force assistance” — aiding the development of foreign security forces — and counterinsurgency.  See “Special Operations,” Joint Publication 3-05, April 18, 2011.

In addition to its core tasks, US SOCOM is also assigned by law (10 USC 167j) to perform “such other activities as may be specified by the President or the Secretary of Defense.”  This is an open-ended category that is analogous to the statutory language used to authorize CIA covert actions, and it can be used to underwrite an almost unlimited variety of clandestine missions.  But while there is a well-defined mechanism for congressional oversight of covert action, no similar process for congressional notification and review appears to exist for clandestine SOF missions.

A U.S. SOCOM Factbook, dated November 2010, is available here (pdf).

Traditionally all male, Special Operations Forces are recognizing new roles for women, Adm. Olson said.  “Our attached female Cultural Support Teams (CSTs) allow us to reach key elements of the population in some environments which was not previously possible. This concept of attaching females to SOF units is effective and long overdue; we are urging the Services to recognize the capabilities of CSTs as essential military skills.”

Curiously, Adm. Olson cited the Office of Strategic Services, the CIA precursor organization, as an exemplar of innovation for SOCOM to follow, suggesting that more contemporary models were hard to find. “Our efforts to become more innovative include studying the best practices of other organizations. For example, we are inspired by the ability of the World War II’s Office of Strategic Services to rapidly recruit specialized talent, develop and acquire new technologies and conduct effective global operations within the period of its relatively brief existence.”

4 thoughts on “Special Operations Forces on the Rise

  1. Based on the May 1 assassination of Osama bin Laden and this post by Steven, the American people might expect to see in the future: (1) the loss of justice via due process of law if these SOs continue to be kill-only missions; (2) a lack of independent verification of identity beyond the US Government as a source of info e.g. no visual identification by family, and (3), with a burial at sea, there remain questions of COD, autopsy results and a lack of respect for, in OBL’s case, a proper Muslim burial. These questions come into play when one considers that America created the terrorist Osama bin Laden and the conditions for his success. These questions also come into play when one considers the comments of JFK when he essentially reminds us that the challenges facing America are hard and not easy i.e. it is hard to maintain the precedents and practices of human rights and due process of law as set forth by the US Constitution. The US Government shot the “bastard” Osama bin Laden in the head, identified his body without independent verification and then dumped his body into the sea. If this is the American way of life that we so blindly defend then, IMO, America has become the evil doer

  2. Small units are more acceptable because they are more easily controlled. Trained and indoctrinated properly they become a family, will take whatever task ordered, protect each other and maintain secrecy. You can not achieve that with large forces.

  3. I appreciate the effort to establish actually factual data on what is and is not. It is a breath of fresh air to not have data based on conjecture and attitude. I was with the 3/75 Ranger Battalion out of Fort Benning. So few people have a clue as to what SOCOM is about. Not that it truly matters to most, but try getting help with the VA for instance, I can not count how many times I have been medicated, strapped to the floor over Turkish toilets, beaten by VA and drugged, locked up, etc… Over being in the clutches of “medical professionals” in the VA System’s (and others), try to explain SOCOM (when interrogated as to “why” do I feel the way I do), and immediately experience extreme disbelief such feelings can be founded, for in their minds it is impossible to imagine Americans can have a source of individual soldiers that actually go out and do things so bizarre. For Steve to go through so much trouble to establish facts about things supported by tens of Billions of Dollars to do not much more than create a world of DISINFORMATION is something the man should get a big fat medal for! Right on Steve! Thanks for the good work!

  4. well trained? this lackluster boatload of px soldiers? these people think of the 100 hour conflict “desert storm” as a war. The iraqis were giving up by the thousands. in the seventies, we still had WWII vets teaching troops. Vietnam was lost BECAUSE THE VC AND NVA WERE BETTER THAN WE WERE. i was there, and we weren’t bad! we had no support at home. none of this sickly “gods guns and flags” garbage. these people have been trained by people with no training. Special Forces? these couldn’t hold a candle to a graduate of the Special Warfare School of the sixties and seventies. this country fielded the worst trained “military” in it’s history under the Bush Cartel. now these mutts are out starting “security” services or private armies like Erik Prince. this country has nothing militarily to show anyone but a bunch of wannabes.

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