Boykin: More Special Operations Not the Answer

Posted August 19, 2011 at 10:06am

The operation to kill Osama bin Laden on May 1 was a fine example of the extraordinary capabilities of America’s special operations forces.

Furthermore, it was only one of many clandestine missions that special operation forces have performed since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began. These elite warriors run as many as a dozen operations per night with the same stealth, precision and success as the bin Laden operation.

Special operations forces have killed or captured untold numbers of al-Qaida and Taliban fighters over the course of the past decade, and they have done so with little credit or fanfare.

Additionally, they are training and supporting Afghan and Iraqi police and military units with the same level of intensity and with excellent success.

These forces are not only America’s best, they are also relatively inexpensive to maintain when compared to America’s conventional and strategic capabilities.

It is possible that the very effectiveness and efficiency they have achieved could count against them as lawmakers approach the Pentagon budget, making special forces victims of their own success. If this happens, the entire nation would end up being the big loser.

When the “super committee” convenes after the Congressional recess to consider a host of deficit reduction measures and budget cuts in rapid succession, it seems probable that it will approach the Pentagon budget without a full appreciation of future threats and with little understanding of military capabilities.

A simplistic formula that merely looks at the special operations forces’ high level of effectiveness and lower maintenance costs could easily lead budget analysts to the simplistic conclusion that we need more special operations forces and fewer conventional forces.

Such an approach would degrade both the special operations forces and the conventional forces. Both have their irreplaceable role. And both rely on each other to complete necessary missions.

Nonetheless, it is highly likely that some or even most of the members of this bipartisan Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction will not understand how these military forces interact, and will therefore be tempted to opt for more special operations forces — remember they are inexpensive — necessitating even deeper cuts in other critical capabilities.

That is a recipe for disaster.

For one thing, it takes time to recruit, select and train special operations forces personnel. In fact, two of the “SOF Truths” are that “SOF cannot be mass produced” and that “Quality is better than Quantity.”

For this reason, increasing the number of elite special operators is near impossible beyond what is already occurring without compromising standards.

It is vital for civilian policymakers to understand that while special operations forces have a unique role with special capabilities, they are not “Jacks of all trades.”

Special operations forces are inexpensive in part because they does not have to maintain a large infrastructure. The various services provide critical support to SOF units. Few SOF operations are executed without some level of support from conventional units. For example, a Naval aircraft carrier used as a launch platform for special operations forces aviation and personnel is irreplaceable. The operation to rescue American hostages in Iran in 1980 depended on the USS Nimitz .

More importantly, special operations forces are not suited for dealing with many of the future’s threats. The emerging nuclear threats posed by Iran and North Korea will dictate modernization of strategic defense systems. Cyber attacks must be dealt with using unique capabilities that do not reside in special operations forces.

Myriad other serious threats will be countered only by Defense Department elements that are organized, trained and equipped for that mission.

The nation and our lawmakers need to look ahead at future threats and build our military forces to meet and overcome those threats.

We should not fall into the proverbial trap of preparing for the “last war,” and we should not delude ourselves into thinking that special operations forces can be mass produced, or that even if they could be they would replace the vital and irreplaceable capabilities of our conventional forces.

Retired Lt. Gen. William G. Boykin served in the Delta Force and as commanding general, U.S. Army Special Forces Command (Airborne).