In the 5th Century B.C., Athenian General Thucydides wrote, “We must remember that one man is much the same as another, and that he is best who is trained in the severest school.” In the time of Thucydides, however, the severest schools could be opened and operated on the cheap.
Today, operating “severe schools” for America’s commandos — Army Special Forces, Navy SEALs, Marine Force Recon, -Air Force pararescuemen, and others — is extremely expensive, as is equipping and fielding those schools’ newly-minted commandos. Yet those schools and the special operators who pass through them are more necessary in terms of U.S. national defense than they have ever been. That’s not likely to change.
American special operations forces have a long, evolving history stretching back well over 300 years to King Philip’s War and Captain Benjamin Church’s Colonial Rangers. Special operations forces in some form or fashion have participated in every American war and military expedition since, and the operational importance of those forces has been ratcheted-up during specific periods in our history.
During World War II, for example, Marine Raiders, Navy underwater demolition teams, Army Rangers, paratroopers, pathfinders, and other snake-eating sorts all played key roles in larger conventional operations — primarily landings — of U.S. forces in the Pacific and European theaters. Unconventional warriors served in Korea. During the Vietnam War, Army Special Forces (Green Berets) and Navy SEAL (Sea, Air, Land) Teams began kindling a new era in special warfare and, with it, a new mystique surrounding the American special operator. And U.S. special operations capabilities expanded dramatically in the wake of the disastrously aborted hostage rescue mission in the Iranian desert, 1980.
In 1987, the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) — a Unified Combatant Command including special operations assets from the Army, Navy, and Air Force — was activated (For cultural reasons, the Marine Corps did not become an official member of SOCOM until 2005). But it was in the days and weeks following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 that SOCOM took on a newfound sense of importance and independence, and a planned expansion that will only increase as we press forward in the global war on terror.
Numbering just over 50,000 personnel (including special operators and non-SpecOps support troops), SOCOM today is present and operating on practically every level and on every front in the global war on terror. In fact, many of our traditionally trained conventional forces are currently receiving training in special operations as the combination of asymmetrical warfare, counterterrorism, and counterinsurgencies, as well as America’s growing commitments around the world have literally changed the way we deploy and fight.
The problem will always be that training, equipping, and fielding special operations forces is expensive. For example, it costs well over $350,000 to train one Navy SEAL. Some special warfare experts tell me it costs an average of $1-million per year to keep one SEAL or similarly-trained operator overseas and “doing God’s work.” Moreover, the Pentagon is calling for 3,000 new commandos this year — not counting SOCOM support personnel — and a 10,000-man increase over the next five years without lessening the already rigorous training standards (SEAL candidates, for instance, are known to wash out of their Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training at a rate of 75-80 percent).
Of Pres. Bush’s proposed $515-billion Defense budget for Fiscal Year 2009, the total request for special operations forces is $5.7 billion: up from $2.3-billion in 2001 (the year we were attacked), though the 2009 figure is a $300-million decrease from FY 2008. The new budget request will include money for recapitalization and modernization of a variety of special operations aircraft from unmanned aerial vehicles to fixed-wing transports, specially outfitted helicopters, and tilt-rotor Ospreys, as well as special boats, submersibles, communications gear, weapons and equipment, ammunition replenishment, and the hyper-expensive costs associated with recruiting and training.
“It’s not only how much we spend, but where we place our spending emphasis,” Dick Couch, a retired SEAL officer and author of Chosen Soldier: The Making of a Special Forces Warrior, tells Human Events. “We spend a lot of money on technology, weaponry, and Virginia-class submarines — those things that support special operations — but I want to see more of those dollars going into cross-cultural and foreign-language training. Those multi-lingual guys have immense value, way beyond what it costs to train and pay them.”
According to Couch, spending money on training shooters, and deploying them with top-drawer gear is critical, but “why do we need to go with these great .408 sniper rifles — the greatest thing in the world — when we can kill all we need to with Win Mag .300’s and SR25’s, on-the-shelf technology?” he says. “Would it be better to have a couple of guys who can speak Arabic than to have new sniper rifles? I think so.”
As we have discussed in our series on the Defense spending crisis, the American military must be rebuilt, modernized, and — in the case of SOCOM’s forces — expanded. This can only be accomplished by a commitment to spending at least four-percent of our gross domestic product on Defense. (Some experts have said, and we have reported, that percentage must be higher if we are to effectively defend our country and its global interests in the face of soaring Defense costs and growing conventional and unconventional threats worldwide.) But as Couch and others have explained, it’s not just that we make the commitment to spend what is absolutely necessary, but that we spend wisely.