It was one bullet point, just 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 actions that will probably dominate the military's missions for the next generation. But as I point out in my article in the March 5 Weekly Standard, there are two serious problems.
First, doubling can only be accomplished by a disastrous route – making special ops no longer special. Second, false solutions crowd out real ones. Our main military problem is that we’re fighting two wars with 600,000 fewer service personnel than we had in 1991, and that equipment ranging from Humvees to weapons is piling up in repair depots because military spending as a percentage of GDP is merely 3.8 percent while half a century ago, during peacetime, it was 9.9 percent.
I confirmed through Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office that the Democrats don’t really mean “Special Forces,” which properly refers to U.S. Army Special Forces or “the Green Berets.” Rather they mean Special Operations Forces (SOF), including Special Forces, Rangers and other units from the Army, the SEALs and others from the Navy, Force Recon from the Marines, and some Air Force units.
We currently have about 43,000 SOF, so the Demos want 43,000 more. But numbers alone show that’s impossible. All SOF must be airborne qualified and almost all new SOF would come from the Army. Yet the total of non-SOF paratroopers in the Army is about 27,000. If every last one volunteered for an SOF school and every one passed (Tough luck!), you’d still be 16,000 short.
Consider also the experts I interviewed.
- 14-year SEAL veteran and well-known military blogger Matthew Heidt: “Doubling SOF is a joke."
- Former Capt. Steve Maguire, recent president of the U.S. Army Ranger Association: "'Doubling' is one of those throwaway statements with no meaning."
- Jim Hetrick, who spent 15 years with Special Forces, three tours in Vietnam, and has been president of the Special Operations Association for 15 years: "Talking about doubling the numbers is just talking. It's cosmetic."
- Former Capt. Larry Bailey, a SEAL for 27 years and commander of the SEAL school (actually called “Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL School or BUD/S”): "Doubling the size is impossible.”
Says Bailey, "There's something about special ops that appeals more to Democrats than the GOP." He adds, "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."
But what if this doubling stuff goes beyond talk? These same experts all expressed worries that a push to dramatically expand SOF units (a slow expansion to 53,000 is already underway) can only be done by lowering qualifications and thereby greatly reducing their mission capabilities.
For example, everybody loves SEALs. 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 their legend is deserved. It would be great to double the SEAL force to about 270 men. But the BUD/S attrition rate "is 70 percent or more," says Heidt, and even to man the two new authorized teams by 2010 "will be difficult . . . unless training standards are radically lowered."
Expanding other units will prove more doable because their attrition rates are lower. Maguire says you could get more Rangers by making more training slots available; therefore we should.
Yet talk of a massive expansion spooks even this brave warrior, who lost both eyes to a Viet Cong booby trap but now thrives as a businessman. “A lot of us in and out of service feel we're guardians of the bar,” he told me. “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."
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 that it knows better how to pursue the nation's defense interests than the GOP, these aren't just truths – they're a warning.