TCS Daily

Truly Special

By Melana Zyla Vickers - September 10, 2002 12:00 AM

Now that newspapers are reporting frustration among the Special Operations troops who've been hunting Osama bin Laden for almost 12 months straight, it seems like common sense, doesn't it, to conclude the U.S. should equip itself with more such elite soldiers in future, to relieve some of the burden.

Think again: Unlike computer memory or a box of Corn Flakes, our national counter-terrorist forces cannot be added to at will. Instead, what's required is that political leaders make wise decisions on how best to use these scarce soldiers' skills.

Since last fall, the Army's Delta Force and its Navy SEAL counterpart have sought Osama bin Laden without avail. There's been no intelligence on him since December, when the U.S. bombed Al Qaeda leaders' caves at Tora Bora.

Intelligence analysts are divided on whether the tall, sickly terrorist leader escaped the bombing or was killed. What is clear, though, is that the lack of intelligence on bin Laden's fate and whereabouts makes the year-long hunt for him and the other top leaders a frustrating - and straining - experience. Consider that there is only one Delta Force unit and one Navy SEAL unit within the Joint Special Operations Command, which is responsible for this specialized, highly sensitive work. Working in small groups, the troops can find themselves engaging in close-quarter battle, killing the bodyguards surrounding a person and capturing him, and using other such skills that require razor-sharp training.

The Delta Force and SEAL unit each comprise several hundred men - the exact numbers are classified. At all times, one-third to one-half of them is on standby for hostage rescues wherever they may be needed worldwide. Another portion is deployed to missions such as Afghanistan but also the drug war in Colombia and other locales, while the remainder is training or recuperating from working 24/7 for months on end.

And the strain of the Afghanistan mission isn't the only problem: The U.S. relies on these exact same guys, with their specialized skills, mature judgement, and physical prowess, to perform missions such as busting into an enemy arms factory to destroy or seize weapons of mass destruction. In other words, the U.S. will soon need them for Iraq. They need time to plan that mission and train for it.

The natural-enough conclusion is that the U.S. should train up more such men. Yet a few historical examples from the broader Special Forces community show that expanding SOF is much harder than it looks.

  • Dilution of quality: The U.S. increased Special Forces numbers in the 1960s during of the Vietnam war. It found that it had to lower its intelligence scores and other entrance requirements to attract the needed numbers of men.

  • Dilution of strength: When the U.S. in the 1980s again added SOF numbers, it came up short of personnel needed to man all the units it created, and to this day ends up cannibalizing one team to fill out another, leaving some teams under-strength. For example, a 12-man Special Forces detachment might have one instead of two officers, medics, or communications specialists.

Sure, the U.S. should continue to try to attract greater numbers of top-notch Special Forces troops that would meet the standard of the elite's elite. But there's no record of success at this. Hopeful experiments, such as the Army's recent decision to waive the requirement that candidates serve some three years in the regular Army before applying to join SOF, have yet to bear fruit.

Thus, the rare commodity of Special Forces in general, and national counter-terrorist forces in particular, has to be managed intelligently. As the strain reaches a level where it needs to be relieved, the Department of Defense will be wise to consider whether its objectives need to be met by these particular experts. Among the questions the Secretary of Defense has to consider are:

  • Is bin Laden really that valuable alive, or could he be hunted by the more "regular" Special Forces who can simply kill him rather than attempt the more difficult task of capturing him?

  • Given that the top al Qaeda operative caught to date - Abu Zubaida - was seized thanks to good intelligence and traditional soldiering rather than a Delta Force raid, isn't it possible to rely on that sort of method more heavily, and less heavily on the Joint Special Operations Command troops?

Donald Rumsfeld said on Sept. 3 that "Special Operations are in limited supply. And clearly, in the global war on terrorism they have a role that is different and more extensive than they might in a more conventional conflict. So we need to see that we have the right numbers and in the right places, working on the right problems."

He may soon need to follow his own advice.



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