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The Naval Institute

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    Proceedings Article Index

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    Shore Up SOF

    Captain Dick Couch, U.S. Naval Reserve (Retired)
    Proceedings, January 2005


    U.S. NAVY (TIM TURNER)

    If Special Operations Forces—like this U.S. Navy SEAL advancing on a suspected al Qaeda/Taliban location in Afghanistan—are to remain the lead in the war on terror and win, the Department of Defense must address three issues: retention, command and control, and intelligence collection.

    Special Operations Forces. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has tapped this organization to take the lead in the war on terror. It appears certain they will remain in the middle of this fight in the years to come. But who are these guys? What can they do, and are they being used in this war to best advantage? Can they run bin Laden and al Zarqawi to ground and protect us from another 11 September-style strike?

    When most Americans think of Special Operations Forces (SOF), they see men with blackened faces silently gliding in by parachute at night or emerging from a dark body of water, steely eyed and ready to strike. While our SOF warriors have all this derring-do and more and are being pressed forward to the front line in this current conflict, they are one of the least understood components of our armed forces.

    SOF includes Army Special Forces, Army Rangers, Navy SEALs, and Air Force Special Tactics Teams. There also are special aviation components, psychological operations teams, and civil affairs units. And, of course, there are the special mission units—the ones the Secretary refers to as the “hunter-killer” teams and whose missions, and even whose existence, are classified. Even when one adds all these groups together, they are not a large force—just more than 50,000 personnel, including command, control, support, and maintenance. Of that number, perhaps 16,000 are “pure shooters,” men tasked with ground combat special operations. At best, we currently can sustain only about 5,000 of those on deployment in the global war on terror.

    Given the job their nation has handed them, a great deal is riding on the success of these warriors. Yet, in a defense budget of more than $400 billion, special operations receives less than $7 billion, up from $5 billion just a few years ago. Money always helps, but can we buy more of this special capability with greater funding? If we could field twice the number of special operations forces as we do today, would that be enough? Perhaps we should see these warriors as they see themselves. The mantra of Special Operations is what is called the SOF Truths:

  • Humans are more important than hardware.
  • Quality is more important than quantity.
  • SOF cannot be mass produced.
  • Competent SOF cannot be created after the emergency arises.


  • These tenets have political as well as operational significance. SOF is a very mature force. The average age in a SEAL platoon is 28; for a Special Forces A-team, 32. It takes three years or more to train a new man for duty, and many more years before he becomes an impact player in that unit. It is a business in which talent and experience count. New men entering the SOF training pipelines today will not deploy in operational units until 2007 at the earliest, and not reach their potential as special operators until well past the end of the decade.

    (continued)

    © 2005 The Naval Institute. All rights reserved.

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