For years and years, Special Operations Forces (SOF) has been the military equivalent of the easy button. And why not? Why commit a large force such as a Brigade in the 82nd with 5,000 soldiers, when you can commit SOF with a much smaller force? And this has been happening for years.
If history is any indicator, Special Operations Forces will be downsized and, more than likely, more troops will be brought home by the Biden Administration. Biden is less likely to pull the trigger on a bomb than Trump was, and will most probably have a more diplomatic approach when it comes to foreign policy.
Well, what about Iran and China? Yes, we always will have countries to worry about, but I don’t see giant troop movements to invade another country and I don’t believe we will anytime soon. I’m not sold on the right’s belief that we are on the cusp of WWIII.
In March 2008, Obama declared of Iraq, “When I am commander in chief, I will set a new goal on day one: I will end this war.”
In many ways, Obama kept his word. He ended Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom — the combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, respectively, that Bush had passed down to him — and drastically reduced U.S. troop levels from their peaks in both countries. In the midst of the Arab Spring, the president led a limited military campaign against Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi with the support of the United Nations and a multinational coalition.
The Special Operations Budget
In 2000, our defense budget was a mere $300 billion. Today it’s more than doubled to over $700 billion. I foresee the Biden Administration cutting this by at least 10 percent by the end of his first term.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are over. Let’s think about supply and demand. We aren’t graduating as many Green Berets as we used to. Between 2012 and 2014, Special Forces was graduating between six and eight classes per year. That was a healthy number with 600 to 800 Green Berets heading to the Groups. Teams easily had 10 or more operators on them during this time. Nowadays, with only four starts per fiscal year, Special Forces is looking at half of those graduating numbers.
This includes training budgets as well. “Do more with less” has become a popular mantra. Let’s be honest, do special operators have to go to some exotic location to train when they can do it at home? Teams will argue that off-site training is the best (and I agree), but Special Forces soldiers can shoot, move, and communicate at their home base.
Putting a team in the middle of Africa, alone, with little to no support does help build relationships between the team. You get to know each other on a much deeper level. In Africa, my team lived in two tents. I mean, we knew who had sleep apnea for goodness sake. Being that far from anyone also instills a deep connection but you fully rely on each other to do the job, because you are all that you have. But there is a difference between need-to-have and nice-to-have.
Let’s get back to the basics, boys.
Changes to the Special Forces Companies
Special Forces Companies have six teams. That 6th team in the company might go away. If recruiting numbers continue to drop, Groups will be forced to either reduce the size or the number of teams. Some readers may remember when the 6th team was a ghost team, meaning nobody actually worked there.
The Geographic Combatant Command (GCC). There are currently 11 unified combatant commands that ultimately cover the entire globe. Each is established as the highest echelon of military commands to provide effective command and control of all U.S. military forces, regardless of branch of service, during peace or wartime.
The geographic commands have essentially two tasks: war planning and fighting, and military engagement programs. Both tasks are and will always be the Department of Defense and the military’s fundamental responsibilities.
These guys meet every two years and basically hash out the requirements and who can fill them.
The demands of deployments from GCC have not slowed down. However, do we really need SF teams in Africa? What are the current permissions and authorities for Africa? Are teams targeting and fighting against extremist groups?Read Next: Op-Ed: We need to rethink deploying US Special Operations Forces almost everywhere
Special Operations in Africa
If you were to ask the AFRICOM Commander General Stephen J. Townsend, he might say that we are not at war, the Africans are, and that the American population doesn’t have a taste for losing its soldiers in Africa. So the Army created the Security Forces Assistance Brigade (SFAB).
The SFAB concept is intended to relieve the Brigade Combat Teams of the combat advisory mission and enable them to focus on their primary combat mission.
There is definitely a fight in Africa, but we are generally there to advise and assist. Not the answer the Special Forces guy wants to hear. The young, eager captain will basically be trying to figure out how to get on target and get his gun on. Sorry, sir, probably not going to happen.
This would also include Special Forces missions.
SF is a tired force. However, this is currently improving with the mandated dwell times: one day gone away from home, two days at home. I do think that this needs some tweaking; however, generally speaking, after over a year of this being implemented, Group is figuring it out.
For this piece, I won’t go into how the State Department and the geopolitical landscape affects the military, but it’s worth mentioning. Most Ambassadors are State Department careerists. They don’t need some new Captain coming in every six months thinking he’s going to change the world and go kill a bunch of people, making his job tougher.
So Special Forces has fewer people going to selection and fewer people graduating. Our requirements overseas should be slowing down or are being forced to slow down by the mandatory dwell. Teams are either undermanned or borrowing from other teams to fill requirements.
Therefore, for now, a smaller SF force is a good thing. Everything comes in rotations, and I certainly believe within 10 more years, we will be in another conflict, and our numbers will go back up to meet the demand.
But for now, Special Operations cannot be the easy button it once was.