Special forces gather clout of an independent service

June 1, 1997
WASHINGTON - Since their command was activated 10 years ago this month at MacDill AFB, Fla., leaders of the U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) have been finding new ways to get their warriors the tools they need - and in time for them to use them effectively.

by John Rhea

WASHINGTON - Since their command was activated 10 years ago this month at MacDill AFB, Fla., leaders of the U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) have been finding new ways to get their warriors the tools they need - and in time for them to use them effectively.

That`s what all military services are supposed to do, but it doesn`t always work that way. A lot of people remember during the Persian Gulf War when deliveries of needed Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers were tangled up in the intricacies of Pentagon procurement.

The special operations community has some inherent advantages for bypassing this process. For starters, special operations is a relatively small force of 45,000 out of the 1.4 million active-duty personnel (still, that is still about the size of the entire Canadian armed forces) so the lines of communication between electronic system developers, procurement authorities, and end users are consequently shorter.

Special forces are also a focused community with well-defined missions. Although USSOCOM and its companion organization in the Pentagon, the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict (SOLIC), have contingents from all three services, they tend to have more of a sense of cohesion with each other than with their own services.

And, thanks to their supporters in Congress, the special forces have their own budget. This runs at $3.1 billion a year, says Jim Crawford, assistant for operations research and systems analysis in the SOLIC office; this budget is projected to reach $3.6 billion by 2003. After personnel costs of $1.3 billion and another $1.2 million for operations and maintenance, special forces leaders have hundreds of millions of dollars left for research, development, test, and evaluation (RDT&E) and procurement.

The breakout for the current fiscal year shows $142.3 million for RDT&E, most of it oriented toward tactical systems development, and $515.7 million for procurement, for a total of $657 million. That`s projected to grow to $787.7 million next year ($118.5 million for RDT&E and $669.2 million for procurement).

What makes special operations special from an acquisition point of view is their ability to focus their efforts on immediate problems. Air Force Lt. Col. Mike Williams, assistant for special operations acquisition in the SOLIC office, cites the example of an urgent requirement for thermal underwear by special operations units in the Bosnian peacekeeping operation. The underwear was procured and delivered in 28 days.

This is admittedly a low-tech example, but Williams says similar commercial off-the-shelf approaches have worked well in procuring forward-looking infrared sensors and the Mk 5 special operations patrol boats built by commercial firms for the Navy SEALs.

In another example, leaders of USSOCOM and SOLIC are participants in a technical support working group that is coordinating more than 100 government-wide projects to counter terrorism. The Navy`s Office of Special Technology at Fort Washington, Md., is the host organization, but the idea of the working group is to keep everybody informed of what the other agencies are doing.

In a new book just published by the Brookings Institution in Washington*, Susan Marquis, a member of the Pentagon`s Program Analysis and Evaluation staff, traces the evolution of special forces since the dark days of the Vietnam war, when they were written off as an uncontrollable, ineffective force of "snakeaters and cowboys."

As bad as their reputation was in Vietnam, their low point came in the 1980 botched attempt to rescue the hostages in Iran. The lesson that emerged from that fiasco was the necessity of having a coordinated force specifically trained to conduct special operations.

Since then special forces have slowly built a reputation for competence by conducting successful missions in Panama and Grenada, and in their supporting role in the Persian Gulf War. Marquis documents several cases of lack of coordination, intelligence failures, and casualties caused by friendly fire, but these tend to fall within the usual fog-of-battle allotment inherent in all military engagements.

In parallel with its operational successes, the special operations community (Army Special Forces, Air Force Special Operations, and Navy SEALs) has won a series of political battles against fierce opposition from the services to achieve recognition as having some of the attributes of an individual service while remaining dependent on all of them for its manpower and materiel. A key supporter was the present secretary of defense, William Cohen, then a Republican senator from Maine, who sponsored legislation in 1986 that led to the creation of today`s special forces organization.

But being a quasi-service has its dis-advantages, too. It`s a big step from eating snakes in the jungles of Vietnam to operating the bureaucracy necessary to train and supply the kind of people who relish a life of danger. Cultural change of some sort is inevitable.

*Unconventional Warfare: Rebuilding U.S. Special Operations Forces, April 1997, 319 pages, $49.95 cloth, $19.95 paper

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