The United States’ Special Operations Forces are seemingly everywhere and that perception is not far off. In 2016, they were deployed to 138 countries around the globe or about 70 percent of the world.
From battlefields in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria, to Somalia and West Africa, to advising counter-narcotics units in the Andean Ridge, working with allied troops in the Far East or braving the bitter cold of the Arctic. Special Operations Forces [SOF], are being used to protect US interests everywhere. This is the age of the Quiet Professional. The demand for their use everywhere has never been higher.
While conventional forces are being under-utilized, the SOF warriors are scarcely a fraction of the total force but are doing the lion’s share of the fighting across the globe. SOF units are taking on the forces of ISIS, al-Qaeda, al-Shabab and other terrorist organizations in the most visible of their operations.
But a resurgent and increasingly belligerent Russia, an expansionist China and a seemingly loose cannon in North Korea are factors in the deployment of troops. SOF are also combatting these threats, in the shadows, like they’ve always done.
Now the question is, are the powers in the US government and the Pentagon burning out the force by giving the operators an operational tempo [OPTEMPO] that is too high and will prove to be their undoing?
General Raymond Thomas, Commander of the US Special Operations Command testified before a House Armed Services Committee that the command is suffering from “unforecasted deployment tempo”. The command forecasted the US end to operations in Afghanistan in 2014. But here in May of 2017, there appears no end in sight to combat deployments and operations.
Theresa Whelan the acting Under Secretary of Defense for Special Operations/Low-Intensity Conflict said that the command has been forced to mortgage the future to fulfill current combat operations. It has hurt the readiness, she said and will only get worse as the demand increases for future operations.
According to Special Operations Command, 55.29 percent of special operators deployed in 2016 were sent to the Middle East. That is a drop of 35 percent since 2006. SOF deployments to Africa have increased dramatically to 17.26 percent last year, up from just one percent ten years ago. European Command deployments at 12.67 percent, Pacific Command with 9.19 percent, Southern Command with 4.89 percent and Northern Command at 0.69 percent round out SOCOM’s deployments in 2016.
From intelligence gathering missions to direct action, SOF operations are the front line of defense in the war against terror organizations like ISIS working with both the CIA and under the auspices of JSOC [Joint Special Operations Command].
The Command has taken to targeting the leaders of ISIS and removing them and the flow of fresh fighters to the battlefield. Defense Secretary Ash Carter told the Armed Services Committee in previous testimony that the operations are successful.
”We are systematically eliminating ISIL’s leadership: the coalition has taken out seven members of the ISIL Senior Shura. We also removed key ISIL leaders in both Libya and Afghanistan… And we’ve removed from the battlefield more than 20 of ISIL’s external operators and plotters.”
“We have entrusted this aspect of our campaign to one of [the Department of Defense’s] most lethal, capable, and experienced commands, our Joint Special Operations Command, which helped deliver justice not only to Osama Bin Laden, but also to the man who founded the organization that became ISIL, Abu-Musab al-Zarqawi.”
But the constant combat deployments are a drain on the units and the personnel who never have time to recharge and retool after more than a decade of combat. And the cracks are beginning to show.
General Thomas said that “I closely monitor the parts of our force that are under the most stress,” he stated. “There are forces that are meeting themselves in some regards. Others are in better balance…it’s a challenge”
The challenge he speaks about can be seen in the increasing suicide rate among the nation’s soldiers. Thomas wouldn’t answer how high the rate is, saying talk like that is morbid. But the allegations of high drug use among the Navy’s top unit the SEALs is another sign that the force is getting burnt out.
The units have had issues with widespread cases of divorce, domestic violence, drunk driving, depression and sleep problems; outbreaks of angry violence; chronic physical ailments and pain.
The demand for the United States’ SOF operators has never been higher. But as we pointed out in our piece of May 1, Special operations troops cannot be mass-produced. The training takes time, and for the units to do the proper identification, assessment and selection and training, the washout rate will remain high. The standards must never be lowered to meet number requirements.
But in the meantime, the operators of SOF carry on the mission and the tempo gets increasingly higher.