Operators: “Special Ops isn’t that special anymore”

U.S. Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and U.S. Army Gen. Joseph L. Votel, commander, U.S. Special Operations Command, walk down the "commander's corridor" at SOCOM headquarters, March 11, 2016. (DoD Photo by Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Dominique A. Pineiro)

With US Special Operations forces now performing the brunt of most ground campaigns related to global American interests, a popular consensus seems to be that Special Operations forces are getting bigger and busier- and not in a good way.

“For us, the mission has changed a lot”, said one Special Forces officer, who wishes to remain anonymous. “Some of our units have gotten so big, that the culture and mission has become diluted. ‘Special’ isn’t that special anymore.”

With units like 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne) becoming so large (and often regulated) that they adopt unfortunate monikers like “5th Ranger Regiment” (reflecting a growing similarity to the more conventionally-run Ranger units) and SOCOM forces operating with more manpower than ever before, the question remains- why are they growing and how will this impact them?

One reason behind the growth is that Special Operations forces have become the go-to ground solution for the current Administration as the United States eagerly attempts to stay militarily involved in global affairs without actually having to put conventional troops on the ground. While American aircraft can bomb targets across the world, someone has to be on the ground to ensure the aircraft’s munitions end up where they belong, as well as gathering intelligence for future strikes.

A 2015 analysis by watchdog group GAO turned up numbers to reflect the growth of SOCOM, both in size and funding.  During 2001 to 2014, its size increased 50 percent while spending tripled during the same period. Just last year, the Army Times reported that the Army was looking for 5,000 new soldiers for varying Special Operations units. The barely-over a decade-old Marine Special Operations Command (MARSOC) now has over 2,700 members.

Then there is the argument that has been a source of debate among the Special Forces community- whether or not it still operates true to its original mission.

“That has been a major debate within the community for over a decade” said one former Army Special Forces soldier, dubbed Mr. S for anonymity. “The original task of working with and through indigenous forces, not just training them.”

But perhaps the biggest problem thus far seems to be retention. As the size of the force and allocated funds grow larger, so does the bureaucracy- something very unattractive to team members.

“Bureaucracy is the problem,” said Mr S. “It defeats creativity and innovation. Those two things are exactly what we need.”

Extensive oversight by leadership, micromanagement where there once was none, long deployments and substandard pay account for the disenchantment with military life and often high-turnover rate in these elite units.

In short, many are finding the organization they joined long ago is starting to look like the conventional military many of them tried to escape in the first place, only with more time away from home and barely-better pay.

Despite all this, Special Operations Forces continue to stand ready to respond, no matter where, when or how.

“There is a need and ability to be able to put a big ass woopin’ somewhere in the world,” Mr. S concluded. “Even the threat of that is a good bargaining chip.”

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  • Andy Wolf

    Andy Wolf is an Appalachian native who spent much of his youth and young adulthood overseas in search of combat, riches, and adventure- accruing decades of experience in military, corporate, first responder, journalistic and advisory roles. He resides in North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains with his K9 companion, Kiki.

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