FAS

Special Operations Forces on the Rise

05.02.11 | 3 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

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.”

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