The Democrats' Special Forces Fetish

February 08, 2007  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  The Weekly Standard  ·  Military

It was one bullet point and two sentences in the Democrats’ 31-page "New Direction for America" document released last June: In order to "Defeat terrorists and stop the spread of weapons of mass destruction, we will . . . . Double the size of our Special Forces" (emphasis added).

Sounds nifty, doesn’t it, like a bumper sticker reading "Outlaw War Now!" And, indeed, top-notch warriors play an invaluable role in any war but are most useful in the sorts of guerrilla actions and antiterrorist activity that will probably dominate the military’s missions for the next generation. There are just two problems.

First, doubling can only be accomplished by going a disastrous route – making special ops no longer special. Second, false solutions crowd out real ones. Much can be done to improve the quality of our armed forces, but this Democratic proposal doesn’t make the grade.

”Special Forces” means the U.S. Army Special Forces, widely known as ”The Green Berets.”

Just as it’s disturbing that in 31 pages the Democrats couldn’t devote a single line to how they plan to achieve their lofty goal, it’s unsettling that they can’t get their definitions right. "Special Forces," properly speaking, refers to U.S. Army Special Forces, the Green Berets. But, as Drew Hammill in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office confirmed to me, what the Democrats want to double is the much broader group of "Special Operations Forces" – SOF in military shorthand, or just "special ops."

Further, just as they don’t seem to know what special ops are, it’s doubtful the concocters of this soundbite know what goes into creating such troops or what a doubling would entail. But in consulting with special ops leaders, trainers, and members – indeed, by merely looking at the numbers – it quickly becomes clear that this "plan" is pie in the sky.

What are Special Operations Forces?

First, a definition – a proper one. Special Operations Forces are defined by how they are trained, not by how they happen to be employed. In the U.S. military, virtually all SOF are three-time volunteers. They volunteer to enter one of the four branches of the armed forces and undergo basic training, followed by advanced training in their military occupational specialty such as the infantry or combat engineers. They volunteer for airborne school, which is usually the second phase of their training, although Navy SEALs actually undergo their Basic Underwater Demolition/SEALs (BUD/S) course before going to jump school. Then they volunteer for the SOF school itself, such as the Army’s Special Forces Q Course or Ranger school.

Nor is that the end. Even once the volunteer is officially SOF, with that jaunty green beret or Ranger tab, he cross-trains in other special schools, such as a Special Forces soldier taking an intensive language course or going through HALO (high altitude-low opening) training, in which he learns to jump at very high altitudes using oxygen tanks and then deploy his parachute at the very last second. SOF members also train with special ops troops from other countries. Being SOF means constantly improving your skills.

All airborne troops are elite, but they’re not necessarily SOF.

  All special ops are elite, but not all elite soldiers are special ops. For

example, all paratroopers are considered elite as well as some non-airborne units like the 10th Mountain Division. But they are not special operations forces; hence they are not part of the Democrats’ formula.

As it happens, there is also a more formal definition of special ops—that would be a unit falling under the U.S. Special Operations Command, or USSOCOM, which was created in 1987 and is based at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida. Marine Force Recon, which long guarded its independence, was an exception but is now being folded into USSOCOM. The Air Force, Army, and Navy all have commands under the USSOCOM umbrella. The Army command, USASOC at Ft. Bragg, includes Special Forces, Rangers, and five other groups you hear less about. It almost certainly includes Delta Force, but like most things regarding Delta this is officially secret. The Air Force has six units, such as the 720th Special Tactics Group, which includes the men who call in close air support and rescue downed pilots. (Technically there’s no such thing as an "Air Commando" anymore, but the term is still used.) Finally, Navy Special Warfare Command includes the famous SEALs (for Sea, Air and Land forces), as well as SEAL Delivery Vehicle Teams, and Special Boat Teams.

By the numbers . . .

A look at the current Special Operations Forces numbers, and efforts already underway to expand them, shows there can be no doubling in any meaningful sense of the word. Current authorization for active SOF is about 43,000 (there are about 10,000 more in Reserve and Guard units). The Quadrennial Defense Review, the Pentagon’s main planning tool, calls for adding another 13,000 active-duty Special Operations Forces over the next five years. So if the Democrats wish to double the number already budgeted for, it would mean adding 56,000 men; if it doubled the number available today it would still be an additional 43,000. Now keep in mind that a large chunk of those 13,000 to be added came last year from a simple transfer of about 2,500 Marines in Force Recon. Most of the current expansion won’t be so easy.

Aside from small (in sheer number terms) increases in Navy and Air Force SOF, almost all of the increase is slated for the Army. The Army’s goal is to have 518,000 total soldiers by year’s end, though it’s authorized to reach 547,000 in 2012. Of current members about 14 percent are women, leaving 445,000 men. Now subtract the men who are already SOF, and you’d need to convert almost 10 percent of what’s left into Special Operations Forces.

New SOF will have to be airborne. The current number of men on jump status in our conventional airborne units is about 21,000 with the Ft. Bragg-based 18th Airborne Corps, about 3,000 more with the 173rd Airborne Brigade in Italy, and 3,100 with the recently formed 4th Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry, in Alaska. If somehow you were to get every conventional airborne soldier to become SOF you’d still fall dramatically short of the doubling goal.

The SEAL Experience

SEALs reloading weapons during combat in Ramadi. It would be terrific to have twice as many of these men — but not by favoring quantity over quality.

If you like SOF, you love the SEALs. They are the stuff of legend, and I’m proud to be among the few journalists to have been with them in combat in Iraq, thereby allowing me to say with firsthand experience that the legend is deserved. They truly fight like machines. So we want a lot more SEALs, right? Ideally, yes. But Special Operations Command is already "mandated to create two entirely new SEAL Teams by 2010," notes 14-year SEAL veteran Matthew Heidt (who blogs as "Froggy" at Attrition in the would-be SEALs’ first round of training, the BUD/S course, "is 70 percent or more," according to Heidt, and even to man the two new authorized teams by 2010 "will be difficult . . . unless training standards are radically lowered."

Capt. Larry Bailey, a SEAL for 27 years, vouches for the difficulty of expanding the teams. He’s best known for tirelessly exposing men who fraudulently claim to have been SEALs (of which there is a virtual epidemic). But he commanded the BUD/S School at Coronado, Calif., for three years in the 1980s. He was given a mandate to graduate more SEALs without lowering the quality and did so temporarily. Nevertheless, "the Naval Special Warfare Center, which runs BUD/S, has been for years doing everything it can, short of lowering standards, to increase the number of graduates from this most difficult course," he told me. "There are just so many souls that can withstand that stress."

Go to and click on "training" and you’ll wonder that even 30 percent survive. "Doubling the size is impossible," Bailey told me. "But there’s something about special ops that appeals more to Democrats than GOP," he added. "There’s almost like there’s a craving to be accepted by real men. I don’t know any liberal Democrat who doesn’t like special ops."

Expanding other units will prove more doable because their attrition rates are lower. But few if any Special Operations Forces units could be doubled, much less the overall force. "Doubling SOF is a joke," says Heidt.

Lowering Standards

But the joke may not be funny if SOF is doubled by the one means possible – lowering the bar. In a superficial sense, the Army already did this when it instituted the black beret as standard headgear. Berets are completely impractical, but they look cool. The first widespread use of berets in the U.S. military were black ones the Rangers began wearing in the 1950s. Later Special Forces began wearing green ones in imitation of the super-elite British Special Air Service. But conventional Army commanders disapproved, and it took the personal intercession of President Kennedy in 1961 to make the headwear official.

In the 1970s, during the so-called "hollow army" years, the Army allowed local commanders to choose distinctive headgear, including a rainbow of beret colors. Paratroopers started wearing the maroon beret in 1973, while Rangers received approval from the Army chief of staff to keep the black beret. But suddenly the Army reversed itself and forbade berets to everybody except Special Forces and Rangers. Even paratroopers had to go back to green baseball caps before officially regaining their berets in 1980.

That remained the status quo until 2001, when the black beret was made standard Army-wide headgear because, as one writer put it (paraphrasing then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki), "the sense of pride that the beret has long represented to the Rangers" could be used "to foster an attitude of excellence among the entire Army." Suddenly all soldiers were issued elite headgear. The Rangers, to remain distinctive, had to change their color to tan. Where once the beret had to be earned, now it was issued to everyone.

When I enlisted in the "hollow army" in 1978, I saw green berets that weren’t exactly given away but certainly were unearned by previous and subsequent standards. I attended what’s now called the Q Course fresh out of airborne school, enduring the hell and survival periods only to wash out during the compass-and-map navigation section. (Don’t laugh; it was truly difficult.) But the word was that the head of the school had been ordered to lower standards to facilitate an expansion of Special Forces. I obviously have no proof of that on a grand scale, but I do know that three other soldiers with whom I had gone through basic and advanced training and jump school passed the course. One deserved the beret; the two others were utter losers. I wouldn’t have trusted them with a weapon unless the firing switch had been welded to "safe." When I was invited to re-enter the course I was so disgusted that I declined and went conventional airborne and got a college degree instead.

One politically effective way of lowering standards and raising numbers would be to open SOF training – Ranger School, for instance, to women. There is ample precedent, alas. I remember our jump school instructors saying that women, who had previously been denied airborne slots, had to undergo "exactly the same" rigors as men. But that hardly explained why they trained separately from us, why they had to do far fewer pull-ups, and why we ran in boots while they wore running shoes. The standards were clearly lowered, and the Army clearly lied about it. But, fortunately, precisely because women’s training was kept separate, it didn’t have the effect of lowering men’s training standards.

On the other hand, the Army now frequently has both sexes train together. "Even when they do train together, it’s not exactly the same," says former Cpt. Steve Maguire, president of the U.S. Army Ranger Association from 2004 until mid-2006. "And when they do make it completely co-ed then the standard has to be lowered, because you don’t want a certain group falling out."

Maguire won three Bronze stars in Vietnam before being blinded in both eyes while on patrol in 1969 when a teammate triggered a booby trap. He’s now a purchase compliance manager for the federal government. "’Doubling’ is one of those throwaway statements with no meaning," he says. "I understand the thinking; it’s the practicalities they don’t comprehend. A lot of us in and out of service feel we’re guardians of the bar. We don’t want to see it lowered. You wash out people [from airborne and SOF schools] on purpose because it means you’ve set some sort of a standard. If people don’t wash, it’s because you’ve reduced or eliminated your standards." He also fought the Army-wide adoption of the beret.

”We had people who were cross-eyed to get that Ranger tab and they just couldn’t,” says Maguire.

  "I think in the Rangers they could expand the size of classes," he concedes.

"There are currently a limited number of slots to get into Ranger School and that could be raised." He adds, however, "We had people who were cross-eyed to get that Ranger tab and they just couldn’t." He also supports keeping women out of Ranger School, not because there might not be a few individuals who could fulfill the requirements but because the great majority would not. "You wouldn’t be able to wash them out, because then they’d yell they were just discriminated against," he says.

This is no theoretical assumption on his part. The only green beret ever awarded to a woman came from a judge. According to retired Special Forces officer Lt. Col. William E. Bailey, Cpt. Kathleen Wilder attended all three phases of Special Forces training in the summer of 1980, but during the final week "she and two male students were caught caching their rucksacks. That is, she and her compatriots were not carrying the rucksacks as required by the instructors, but hiding them to pick up at a later time and date in what is referred to as a Mission Support Site. All three were dropped from the course, ostensibly for cheating." The men accepted the outcome, Bailey has written, but Wilder got a lawyer who argued she was a victim of sex discrimination. The court agreed, ordering that she receive a course completion certificate. She never spent a day in an actual Special Forces unit, according to Bailey, but she continues to play off her reputation as "the nation’s only female Green Beret."

What about having commanders of elite but non-SOF units identify men who appeared to be capable of graduating from SOF schools and urging them to attend? I certainly saw some men like that in Iraq with the 1/506th of the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault). Maguire’s objection: "It would be a brain drain so to speak," he said. "You need those exceptional individuals to buffer the units they’re in. Pull them out and put them in SOF and the units they leave behind suffer."

The Army Special Operations Command website lists four "Truths," of which two are: "Quality is better than quantity" and "Special Operations Forces cannot be mass produced." For a Democratic Congress eager to demonstrate to voters that it knows better how to pursue the nation’s defense interests than the GOP, these aren’t just truths—they’re a warning.

What We can do

Yet increasing America’s war-fighting ability is hardly a gargantuan, much less hopeless, task. Throughout most of the history of Special Operations Forces, since before Vietnam, SOF units were downplayed by the military brass in favor of huge conventional forces but championed by civilian leaders such as Kennedy. Probably no secretary of defense believed in their usefulness or employed them more effectively and broadly than did Donald Rumsfeld. But the pendulum has swung too far, culminating in the dramatic post-Cold War drawdown of conventional forces. Now Rumsfeld’s ideas of a smaller, more agile military of the future, ideas that seemed to ratify that drawdown, have met their nemesis in the sands of Iraq.

At the time of Operation Desert Storm in early 1991, our active armed forces – all volunteers – comprised about 2 million men and women. That now stands at about 1.4 million. Yet during those same years the national population grew by a full 50 million, or 20 percent, and the percentage of women in the military is at its highest ever.

During the time of Operation Desert Storm in 1991 we had 600,000 more troops than we do today.

  Jim Hetrick, who spent 15 years with Special Forces and three tours in Vietnam

and has been president of the Special Operations Association for 15 years, makes the same observation about doubling SOF as everyone else I talked to. "Talking about doubling the numbers is just talking. It’s cosmetic." But, he adds, "with the reduction in strength of our Armed Forces, the dilemma becomes the inability to field enough soldiers in any area to do the job."

Getting the active military back to nearly two million personnel shouldn’t be a hopeless exercise. Further, the more men we have already under arms the more men who have already taken that first step towards becoming SOF. Grow the military, and part of the fallout will be more elite conventional forces and inevitably more Special Operations Forces.

As to those elite conventional forces, they certainly can also be expanded – though again, nowhere near doubled. The 82nd currently has 17,000 soldiers (although not quite all are actually jump-qualified). "We’re not having trouble filling slots," says the unit’s public affairs officer Maj. Tom Earnhardt. "Given the resources [namely funding], if we wanted to, we could stand up another brigade." There are 3,300 soldiers in an 82nd brigade.

To do this, of course, defense spending would need to be finally increased to a level appropriate for a nation at war. On September 11, 2001, the defense budget was 3.1 percent of the GDP. Now, with two shooting wars and a vast number of other commitments, that figure has gone up merely to 3.8 percent. Half a century ago, in 1956, with no shooting wars, it was 9.9 percent of GDP. (At the height of World War II, it was 38 percent.) Yet, astonishingly, defense spending as a percentage of GDP is slated to drop again until it’s fallen back to 3.1 percent by 2010.

The fallout goes way beyond manpower recruitment and retention. A December Washington Post article observed that "depletion of major equipment such as tanks, Bradley Fighting Vehicles, and especially helicopters and armored Humvees has left many military units in the United States without adequate training gear." Over 500 M1 Abrams tanks and 1,000 Humvees are awaiting repair. Yet repair depots have been operating at about half their capacity because of a lack of funding.

This Humvee from A Co., 1/506th in Ramadi was hit by an RPG. Lack of funds has about 1000 such trucks awaiting repair. (Photo by Spc. Justin Olivier.)

  One result is that there aren’t nearly enough heavy trucks and maybe not

enough armored Humvees to support the current "surge" in manpower into Iraq. "We don’t have the [armor] kits, and we don’t have the trucks," Lt. Gen. Stephen Speakes, the Army’s deputy chief of staff for force, recently told a reporter. He said it would probably be summer before heavy truck requirements are completed. There may or may not be enough armored Humvees for now, but this clearly threatens the sale to Iraq of 400 of them. Most Iraqi forces still drive pickup trucks with a medium machine gun in the bed and at best a sheet of armor riveted to the sides of the bed and the doors.

President Bush has acknowledged some of these problems with a proposed fiscal year 2008 defense budget increase of 11.3 percent or $481.4 billion. Yet an October Congressional Budget Office report indicates that may be far too small, that DoD will require an annual average of about $560 billion through 2024 to pay for ordered weapons and rising operational and personnel costs. So far the Democrats, while promising to do so, have not yet directly challenged defense spending. Let’s hope they don’t try to use their special ops doubling fantasy as leverage. If they really want to demonstrate how they’ve become advocates of national defense, they should earmark that extra $80 billion that the CBO report says is required.

Sheer numbers of troops and sophisticated and well-maintained equipment are no substitute for the skills and courage of Special Operations Forces. But neither can SOF substitute for a large army of well-trained and disciplined troops or for top-quality, operative hardware. We obtained our "peace dividend" by gutting the military. We’re already paying for serious manpower shortages in both Iraq and Afghanistan with the blood of our servicemen and women. It’s time to ante up some money instead.

Michael Fumento is an airborne veteran who has been embedded three times in Iraq and is headed back for a fourth. Funds for all his trips come from his own pocket.

Read Michael Fumento's additional writing on the military, on Iraq, and on the media, and view his Spring 2006 Iraq photos from both the Fallujah area and Ramadi, his Fall 2006 Ramadi photos and personal photos. View his 2005 Iraq photos.