Special Ops Forces Are 'Tool of Choice'

By Litt, David | National Defense, February 2003 | Go to article overview

Special Ops Forces Are 'Tool of Choice'


Litt, David, National Defense


When U.S. policy makers need a job done quickly, they often turn to SOCOM

The U.S. special operations forces occupy center stage in today's war against terrorism. Unfortunately, claims for their services far outstrip available supply.

This was not always the case. By the end of the war in Vietnam, the military services nearly eliminated the special operations capability of the United States. Only the foresight of a few people, the rapid escalation of terrorism in the late 1970s, and the concomitant need for a counter-terrorism force snatched special operations from extinction.

The pendulum has now swung to the other extreme. Excessive demand for SOF (special operations forces) troops today risks overextending a scarce and expensive resource. The United States should prioritize special operators, use them where they bring added value and preserve the flagship capabilities that the U.S. Special Operations Command has labored to develop.

SOF have played important roles in World War II, the Korean War and the war in South East Asia. Military commanders benefited from the special tactical skills that SOF brought to the battlefield in special reconnaissance, direct action, civil affairs and training foreign forces in unconventional warfare.

After the first two wars, special operations receded into the background, only to be resurrected for the next one. By the peak of the Vietnam War in the late 1960s, the U.S. military had fielded seven active Special Forces groups, two SEAL teams, two underwater demolitions teams and an Air Force special operations wing.

But special operations forces also were penalized. When Americans turned their backs on the men and women in uniform, they often heaped exceptional scorn and ridicule on special operators, blaming the whole community for the failings of a few. Adding injury to insult, the military's conventional leadership likewise disparaged special operators, viewing them as unprofessional (not conventional), uncontrollable and unpalatable. Besides, the military had lost its taste for "messy little jungle wars"-where SOF could shine, preferring to refocus attention on the Central European plains and the threat from the Soviet bear-where, it was believed, SOF would have much less, if any, relevance. Equally important in all of this was the view that finding SOF would take resources away from conventional forces.

As a result, the special operations community faced eradication. The air commandos, probably the least known to the general public of all SOF forces at the time, were almost completely disbanded. As aviators tried to sign up for non-SOF jobs, gunship crews, combat controllers and para-rescuers could hardly get in the back door of the mainstream counterparts in the conventional Air Force. Air commandos who aspired to general officer rank were bluntly and publicly advised that they "need not apply."

Like their counterparts in Army and Navy special operations, their talents were viewed as irrelevant in the Fulda Gap.

The Navy had some use for special warfare and underwater demolition tactics, but not much, and certainly not in third-world jungles. The Navy wanted to forget the Vietnam experience and redevelop its blue-water capabilities. If the Navy could not decommission Naval Special Warfare, at least it wanted to place these units in the Navy reserve.

Much the same story existed in the Army, which not only wanted increased mechanized and armor units, but was anxious to get out of the military aid business, with a concomitant lowering of the civil affairs and foreign training activities.

The Army slashed Special Forces in the early 1970s, such that by the end of the decade only three of seven groups remained. With 3,600 Green Berets available, the groups were far from fully manned. Quality and standards plummeted in the 1970s, as new recruits were brought in to fill gaps created with the mass retirements of mature, skilled Special Forces non-commissioned officers at the end of the war. …

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