The Special Operations Mess
Right up front, a confession: I have never served in a special operations unit, or even an infantry unit, and, during my brief military career, the USAF never sent me to Vietnam. Despite being a fitness fanatic and doing extreme sports, even as a young man I would never have made the cut. But perhaps an outside observer can see things people on the inside might miss — or might not want to see. And, as with all of our military, there are serious problems with our special operations units and with our whole approach to special operations. If you think of a continuum of different kinds of warfare ranging from mechanized and air war on one extreme to spies and saboteurs in civilian clothes on the other end, special operations units come closer to spies than to pilots or tank crews. Typically, they are elite infantrymen who commute to work in exotic ways, by parachute insertion or by using SCUBA or rebreather gear and swimming to (and hopefully from) their targets. They do things like reconnaissance, sniping, sabotage and demolitions, prisoner snatches, assassinations, hostage rescue, and calling in air strikes and applying terminal guidance to “smart bombs.”
Traditionally, military leaders distrusted elite or special units, considering them difficult to control, harmful to the morale of the “non-elite” troops, and prone to recruit high quality personnel who might be needed in more conventional units. Nevertheless, in WWII the U.S. formed a great many special units, including Army Rangers, Marine Raiders, and UDTs (Underwater Demolition Teams, the ancestors of SEALs). All but the UDTs were disbanded during or right at the end of the war, although Ranger units, now airborne, were organized and trained again for Korea — only to be disbanded yet again. Today we have Rangers, SEALs, Special Forces, Delta Force, Marine Force Recon, MARSOC (Marine Special Operations Command), and USAF special operations units, such as the Para Rescue Jumpers (PJs), the Combat Control Teams (CCTs), and the Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTACs, whose mission and training overlap with that of the CCT people). The USN and USMC also have their own JTACs, and then the services have sniper teams and Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) teams. The Army has the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR) who take commandoes to work, and the Navy has its equivalent, the Special Warfare Combat Crewmen (SWCC).
The famous Navy SEALs are a good illustration of the irrationality of our present organization. True, they are boastful publicity hounds (their primary school is next to and overlaps with a public beach in San Diego), but they are, indeed, superhumanly tough, dedicated, and highly capable warriors. SEALs are trained in SCUBA diving and in the use of oxygen rebreather gear, and their dive training is far more extreme than what we civilian sport divers endure. They can do reconnaissance underwater, and hydrographic surveys, attach limpet mines to enemy ships, and place electronic listening devices in enemy ports and naval bases. They are also extensively trained in land warfare, advanced weapons and tactics, helicopter rappelling and fast roping, rock climbing, and parachute insertion. Many are also HALO (High Altitude, Low Opening, or freefall parachuting) qualified. They have their own snipers. They are trained to do almost anything — and this is the problem.
Either it is practical to train all the members of a single unit to do all these different missions, operate on land and sea and under the sea, and use all these methods of insertion and exfiltration, or it is not. If it is, we only need one main special operations unit for all the services; there is no point in having as many as we do now. But if, as I suspect, units are more effective if they are a bit more specialized, then there is no point in trying to train one unit to do everything. This looks to me suspiciously like empire building and a desire to “keep up with the Joneses.” If one spec ops units parachutes, they all want to do it, or if one uses underwater breathing gear, they all want to do that. For example, some, but not all Army Rangers, Special Forces, Marine Force Recon, and MARSOC warriors are trained in SCUBA and the use of rebreather gear, allowing them to duplicate SEAL missions. All USAF CCT men are fully dive qualified, and the PJs are SCUBA trained. While CCTs may accompany SEALs on missions, why are the PJs, whose mission is air rescue and first aid, trained to dive? Are they going to rescue someone whose plane has just happened to crash in water shallow enough for SCUBA? Generally, that is not much over 100 feet, and the average depth of the world’s oceans is almost three miles. Also, submerged plane crash victims tend to be dead — it’s called “drowning.” Is it for recovery of dead bodies? Under a mile or two of water? I think not. As for surface swims, SCUBA tanks and a weight belt make surface swimming much harder; with just a wetsuit, mask, fins, and snorkel you float like a cork. And here I speak from experience.
All that time, money, and energy spent on training SEALs for land missions could be spent making them even better at underwater missions. After all, we have a unit for land warfare — it’s called the Army. And the cost of dive training for units who don’t need to dive is a waste as well.
And there are other problems. Consider the Rangers. The current Ranger School was established during the Korean War, but when Ranger units were disbanded it was decided to keep the school and use it, not as a commando school (although much of the training is commando-type training) but as a leadership school. But it is a hit or miss affair; many infantry and airborne officers and NCOs are not Ranger trained. When we immersed ourselves in Vietnam, a reconnaissance school was developed, and the airborne recon troops were then designated as Rangers, and then Ranger battalions were organized. But the leadership-oriented Ranger School was suitable only for men with some tactical experience and training, not for entry-level Rangers. So a separate course, Ranger Assessment and Selection Program (RASP), was set up for them. It would be more logical to give more and tougher leadership training to all young officers, and to have one single dedicated Ranger school for both enlisted and officers, specializing in the tactics and missions they are likely to perform, such as seizing airfields.
And Ranger School exemplifies another practice that needs to be reexamined — the trial by ordeal. Beginning with the UDTs and SEALs, with their infamous Hell Week, the powers that be decided that spec ops troops, in addition to rigorous physical training, long hours, and demanding and even dangerous mission training, should have an extra pile of misery heaped upon them to weed out the weak and better bond those who stay the course. Maybe this is a good idea, and maybe not. I would point out that the WWII and Korean War Ranger training did not include deliberate harassment or prolonged food and sleep deprivation, yet those troops performed magnificently. At Ranger School today, trainees are sleep and food deprived for over eight weeks, losing muscle mass and often taking weeks to recover. Perhaps, rather than wearing them down, a SEAL-type Hell Week might be better, and, during most of the remainder of the training, give them plenty of food and sleep and avoid overtraining by alternating days of intense exercise with days of rest. Or they could copy Delta Force and have a series of ever-longer speed marches with heavy packs in hilly terrain — but even then it might be advisable to have some rest days.
The Army Special Forces, wearers of the green beret, were organized in 1952 at the urging of Colonel Aaron Banks, who had led a WWII Jedburgh Team in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). These teams parachuted into Nazi occupied Europe and trained and advised local resistance fighters. It was anticipated that we could do the same within the Soviet Union or at least in the Soviet satellite nations, but we never did, not even during the Hungarian revolt. Our Special Forces did a fine job of training and advising Vietnamese irregular forces, mainly mountain tribesmen in Vietnam and Laos, but we still lost the war. Special Forces, USAF CCTs, and airpower acting as “force multipliers” by aiding rebel Northern Alliance forces in Afghanistan succeeded in overthrowing the Taliban. But to what end? Afghanistan is now ruled by a corrupt narcocracy, and the Islamists are slowly taking the country back. While the Special Forces men are superb at what they do, is it worth doing? Is there any need for force multipliers? Or are the fundamental assumptions behind our entire defense posture (regime change abroad while our borders are open and we have no protection against EMP) invalid to begin with? Should the whole idea of force multipliers to interfere in other countries be abandoned and the Special Forces merged with the Rangers as a direct action commando force?
But, as with all our current problems, it will take a complete change of leadership for any of these issues to be addressed.