I went to hear the commander of Special Operations Command, Adm. Eric Olson, the first 4 star Navy SEAL, speak at CSIS in Washington, D.C. this morning. SOF are the tip of the spear in irregular warfare, what he called the “new normal” of global conflict.
Olson provided some interesting data on the more than 58,000 members of SOCOM; 52,000 of whom are in uniform. Last week, some 12,000 special operators were present in 79 countries worldwide; most, nearly 10,000, were engaged in CENTCOM combat zones, Iraq and Afghanistan. Although, operators were “at risk” in at least half a dozen other countries, he said.
Slightly more than half of SOCOM is Army component, with the rest a mix of Navy, Marines and Air Force operators. Only a fifth of today's SOF is in the reserves, versus a third just five years ago. Only a third of total operators are SOF “careerists,” the rest are there for an assignment or two. Half the force came in since 9-11. The average age of special operators is 30; about 70 percent are married.
Olson emphasized the partnering ability of SOF with foreign militaries, a “recognition that humans are more important than hardware, that quality is more important that quantity… substance trumps theatrics, that knowledge trumps doctrine, that finesse trumps mass and that presence without value is perceived as occupation.”
As a true unconventional warrior, he favors the “indirect” approach. “While the highest end most technology enabled man-hunting and thing-hunting operations are conducted by SOF, we acknowledge that it is the indirect actions that will have the most decisive and enduring effects.” Training and partnering with foreign militaries is at the top of that indirect approach.
While he acknowledged that the military, including his operators are “under qualified” in many key dialects and languages, SOCOM has greatly expanded its regional expertise training under “Project Lawrence,” named after T.E. Lawrence.
He highlighted a promising new recruiting initiative that I had not heard of before, called MAVNI, Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest, where visa holders who have been in the U.S. for at least two years are eligible to enlist. Some 14,000 people have so far submitted paper work indicating interest, with 4,000 interested in SOF.
More than 800 have enlisted in the Army, 172 are under orders to SOCOM, 81 have already reported for duty. All speak English as a second or third or fourth language; one-third of the masters degrees that enlisted in the Army last year enlisted through the MAVNI program, he said.