2005 February 17 Thursday
Iraq Draining Special Forces

On the StrategyPage site a blurb about difficulties in scaling up the special forces has a hidden lesson. (my bold emphasis added)

The "operators," Special Forces troops qualified to go out into the field and deal with terrorists, or any other situation, are not numerous. Three years ago, there were 3,850 of them. Special Forces training schools turned out about 350 new ones each year. Soon after September 11, 2001, it was decided to double the number of operators, but in three years, the number has only increased to 3,950. The Special Forces schools are turning out 620 new operators a year. The major cause for the inability to increase the number of Special Forces is not casualties. Losses from death and disability have been less than a hundred. Most of the losses have been from experienced operators retiring (if they have at least 20 years of service), or just quitting (if not) to take better paying civilian jobs.

Well stop and ask yourself: What are these better paying civilian jobs? My guess is the vast bulk of those jobs are in Iraq for security of Western contractors working there doing rebuilding. So the invasion of Iraq is causing the draining of special forces into the private sector. Plus, there are no doubt special forces soldiers tied down in Iraq who are still serving in the US military. Therefore the number of "operators" available for use outside of Iraq is lower now than it was before 9/11. Next time someone claims that Iraq has not been a distraction from the war against terrorists here's another reason to cite for why it has been.

If anyone comes across any articles on the number of ex-Special Forces serving in Iraq as private contractors please post in the comments.

Update: The original source for this story appears to be a Rowan Scarborough article in the Washington Times (same article here) and it is about the Green Berets specifically.

The Army is producing slightly more Green Berets as the chiefs of U.S. regional commands, called combatant commanders, place increased mission demands on the commandos. The five groups boast 3,950 Special Forces-qualified soldiers today, compared with 3,850 three years ago.

I've previously read reports that a similar pattern is happening with other elite forces such as SEALs and Delta Force. If anyone comes across information about the staffing levels of those other elite units please post links in the comments.

Update II: The Navy SEALs are not able to keep staffed at full strength.

In addition, the Pentagon's 2006 budget proposal calls for increasing the current special forces by 1,200 military and 200 civilians. There are about 49,000 people in U.S. special forces today.

Yet some special operations branches already can't meet their authorized strength. The Navy SEALs have only 89 percent of the enlisted personnel they're supposed to have, Raines said, while an Army spokesman said the Green Berets are running at about 98 percent of expected strength.

Note that contrary to the argument of one person in the comments the military itself refers to all the soldiers in the special operations branches as "special forces".

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2005 February 17 01:54 PM  Terrorists Western Response

FriendlyFire said at February 17, 2005 2:43 PM:

Well considering that "private" security jobs pay start from $120,000. A lot of ex-military personal are finding work in Iraq. I find it strange that while US are struggling to fullfill enough troop with equipment shortages from watches to amoured humvees. Halliburton is able in addittion to make massive profits is able to pay extrodinary amounts for mercanries.

Dose anyone know the number of Private mercs are in Iraq ? or the number of casualties taken ?
I've heard numbers of 2000+

Stephen said at February 17, 2005 4:48 PM:

Under current stop loss rules they can't quit even if their enlistment is up. However, if the special forces are civilians working for the CIA, then I assume stop loss doesn't apply and they can resign just like any other civil servant.

My guess is that its a resource allocation issue - special forces are very expensive to make and maintain and aren't really that useful in an occupation force. Indeed, they're a hinderance because they tend to get themselves into more trouble than they can handle, and then have to be rescued by regular forces.

Randall Parker said at February 17, 2005 6:16 PM:


I do not understand your explanation. The US military has doubled its special forces training rate with very little increase in total numbers of special forces. So obviously they are leaving at a faster rate somehow. Given that some are old enough to hit the end of their years in service they probably can just leave.

Keep in mind that these guys are older than the average enlistee. Those enlistees sign up and leave still eligible for the reserve. But the older ones may not have any reserve obligations when their terms are up.

Resouce allocation issue? I don't see it. The military has the budget to retain more special forces. The military wants to build up larger special forces. No special forces soldiers are being told to leave due to budget limitations.

An occupation force? Where, in Iraq? They are fighting an on-going insurgency. The place is more like Vietnam than Bosnia. So I see our special forces as counter-insurgency fighters. That is right up the ally of special forces. What do you think special forces did in Vietnam with the Montagnards and in other settings? Plus, they are training a new Iraqi Army. Again, that is the sort of thing that special forces do.

Randall Parker said at February 17, 2005 9:09 PM:

Note to Vadim Gorshenin, Timothy Bancroft-Hinchey, and Tim Costello: If you keep posting off-topic materials and complete copyrighted articles in comments I'm going to ban your IP address from this site.

Stephen said at February 17, 2005 11:15 PM:

I don't think that special forces are being told to leave, nor do I think they are being defunded. But I am theorising that the military establishment is likely happy with the special forces they have and would prefer to allocate the additional funding elsewhere.

As for using them SF in counter insurgency operations, what particular skills would an SF unit bring to counter-insurgency that a regular unit couldn't do just as well?

I'm worried if SFs are being used for training the Iraqi army. Western armies have specialists for training raw recruits (ie a grumpy RSM assisted by some even grumpier sergeants who build unit cohesion and discipline by making you march up and down all day and paint rocks in the evening). Special forces are not good at that kind of training, so if they are actually being used to train Iraqis, then they are briefed to turn out killers rather than disciplined soldiers.

Its just occured to me - from the numbers quoted in the blurb, its my guess that they aren't actually talking about military special forces (eg US Rangers, UK Paras or even elite regiments like the SAS). I think they're probably talking about civilian assassins/spies etc operating entirely outside the military chain of command.

Randall Parker said at February 17, 2005 11:39 PM:


The Rangers are not that elite. They are talking about Delta, SEALs, and other really elite forces. No, they are not talking about civilian spies.

Advantages of special forces: Higher average IQ for one. Also, more years in the service. Also, higher average level of dedication and motivation. Special forces guys try harder to learn local languages and culture. In Afghanistan they grew beards and dressed like locals and learned the languages.

Have you actually met special forces? I've met SEALs. They are kinda extreme. A couple of decades ago some SEALs attacked a police precinct down in San Diego County for kicks and captured all the police in it. A woman friend of mine was a girlfriend to a SEAL. Back in the roaring Reagan 80s fight against communism in Central America her boyfriend and his friends would suddenly just disappear for a few weeks with no warning at any time of the day or night and then come back having nothing at all to say about where they were. But she did get out of her boyfriend that they knew Central America really well.

No, I seriously doubt the military is driving special forces to resign so that they can defeat the will of the President.

Stephen said at February 18, 2005 2:35 AM:

I think that Rangers, Paras etc are all classed as special forces, but I agree that the article is probably only referring to SEALs and their ilk.

But in terms of counter insurgency, in what situation would you need to call upon a SEAL or Delta team because Rangers, Marines or regular army aren't up to the task? Would those situations be so numerous that you need to double or triple the SEAL establishment?

As for dressing up as the locals, I can just imagine a muscled Delta towering a foot or more over the locals, wearing his turban back-to-front, while speaking a non-indiginous Farsi dialect with a southern drawl. More seriously, I can imagine the general staff being worried about the actions of ununiformed soldiers - especially if they were acting independently of the military chain of command. Maybe that's the answer to where they've gone - they've been court-martialled!!

I doubt the IQ correlation. For instance, Delta's select from Rangers and SEALs, and I suspect those who don't have sufficient smarts to do that kind of job have long since been filtered out at the earlier levels. Indeed, I'd imagine that other more practical selection criteria have far more weight. As for the longer period of service, I'd have thought that average overall duration of a Delta would be less than for Seals or Rangers - ie there won't be too many Deltas in their 50s.

As for fighting communism in central america, I don't recall any communist governments there, but I do recall a whole bunch of fascist juntas. I thought that during the Reagan era, the special forces were mainly training local death squads to go out and rape the odd troublesome nun, shoot the odd troublesome priest or machine gun peasants who wanted evil commie things like land and labor reform. I assume that the sf's were much more active (in terms of pulling the trigger) during the 'war on drugs'.

Randall Parker said at February 18, 2005 7:56 AM:


You are comparing Rangers and Deltas, not regular soldiers and Deltas. Do you really think Rangers are no smarter on average than the average enlistee in basic training?

Communist governments in Central America: Forgotten Daniel Ortega and the Sandinistas?

MichaelA said at February 18, 2005 8:55 AM:

Is it possible that there is simply a limit to the number of people who meet the selection requirements of the SF? I am sure that the number is marginally higher than the number that currently exist, but there would have to be a natural and probably low threshold to the number of people that meet both the physical and psychological requirements for these elite units.

Randall Parker said at February 18, 2005 9:18 AM:


Of course there is a limit to how many people are capable of becoming special forces. But the military has doubled the number of people becoming special forces and yet it has barely increased the size of the special forces. The problem is that the rate of departures has increased.

I've read elsewhere that an additional reason for the higher rate of departures is that the special forces are deployed so much of the time that they rarely see their families. Keep in mind that these guys are in their late 20s and 30s. Many have wives and kids. They are being utilized much more heavily post-9/11 in Afghanistan and elsewhere and also due to Iraq.

Stephen said at February 18, 2005 7:37 PM:

I think that once a threshold IQ level is reached, more IQ isn't much help to any type of soldier. Indeed, thinking too much will get a soldier killed, and its training and not intelligence that will keep a soldier alive.

Sandinistas?? Politically left with socialist elements, but certainly not commies. Two non-commie signs that come to mind: (1) Multiparty government: Sandinistas left government (voluntarily!!) after losing its majority following a multi-party election; (2) No collectivisation. Indeed, the Sandinistas did the reverse and transferred public land to formerly landless peasants and tenant farmers (no collectives involved, just individual personal ownership of property).

The big mistake the Sandinistas made was pissing off Washington by opening up formal relations with Cuba and by supporting peasant revolutions in neighbouring countries (which really got Washington worried that the pro-US juntas would fall).

Lonni said at February 19, 2005 7:07 AM:

Guys, the term Special Forces is very specific. It applies only to the soldiers known as "Green Berets" in popular culture. It does NOT refer to Delta Force, SEALs, Rangers, Marine Force Recon, etc. Those are Special Operations groups.

And Stephen, it is the SF's JOB to blend into the local culture. Many SF groups are assigned specific cultures and geographic locations where they are required to learn the language fluently and cultural norms intimately. Also, the Green Berets PRIMARY role is train foreign troops. Yes, they are the ones who are supposed to be training the Iraqi security forces. Sure, a RSM is great for training British troops, who are British, speak English, and have British culture. To expect the Iraqi's to follow the same methods as the British, while having to listen to an interpeter is another thing entirely. The SF guys speak the local language (and likely with the local dialect), know the culture well, and therefore are better able to train the locals.

Rememeber, the Special Forces original and primary role is to insert a 12-man team behind enemy lines, and for that team to train enough indigenous personnel to create a regimental sized force to fight the enemy from within.

As for why with even the higher training tempo the Special Forces are not increasing is simple, and has been touched on here. The higher operational tempo is burning out the operators with families, and also the private sector is just salivating at the skill sets and training these guys have, and desperately want these guys on their payroll.

For more information, I suggest reading a book or two on the Special Forces. I recommend Tom Clancy's book on the subject for starters, which is about only the Special Forces, and not Special Operations groups.

Stephen said at February 19, 2005 9:35 PM:

Read a book?? But,but then I'd be at risk of sullying an argument with mere facts! That said, thanks for clarifying the terminology.

max said at November 28, 2005 6:09 PM:

SF guys are currently getting upwards of $150,000 retention bonus. For the first time in over twenty years, SF guys I know are not volenteering for combat tours. The B.S. politics (within the military, not the Washington DC stuff) is getting them down. They are not allowed to do the jobs they can best do without some "conventional force" commander fighting some turf battle for bragging rights. It's all about getting results guys, not about getting yourself promoted...Let the experts do there jobs and sit back and be thankful the SF guys are there.

AReal American said at August 12, 2010 11:14 PM:

Wow all this talk and speculation, and not actually knowning anything about what theyre talking about because not one of them are special forces, not one of you with a shred of respect for special forces who complete mission oblectives that would have you soiling your lil girly panties. Come on, show some respect for these men. I am a 11b option 40 awaiting ranger school and i will take great pride in the fact if i make it. it is grualing training that not many can do. out of a class of 240 only 39 graduated. You sit there and flash your free speech like nobodys business even to degrade or sell short some of the most specialized, hardest fight units out there who fight the fight that you wont so you can partake in such freedoms, if only we could go back to red flagging communists cause we deffinately have some non-patriots in here speculating about what they know little or nothing about. save all your breath or put your money where your mouth is and join up as an 18x or 11b option 40. in life there are those who run out to meet challenges and then there are those who run and hide .. and talk trash. and please save all the "im not talking trash or degrading anybody", cause really do i have to go back and quote you? really you all have no idea what you are talking about and if wanna go flashing around your ex military this or that then you should know better and know that rangers and pjs are not spec ops and that only green berets navy seals and marsoc formerly known as force recon are in socom and all of those units are special forces falling under the United States Special Operations Command. get your facts straight before you go online degrading and insult people who are twice the men you are. you should all be ashamed especially "stephen". Special forces are prefect by the way for the afghan/iraq war where its counter insurgency 24/7 they are a guarilla and unconventional warfare unit and a force multiplier they have trained numerous armies around the globe and other countries send troops here just to train with them. obviously they serve their purpose because theyve been around long before your egg headness and will be here long after. someone has to do the dirty work that noone ever knows about but keeps planes from crashing into builds and bombs from leveling cities. you really shouldnt talk about things you really dont know about.

Antagonist said at August 22, 2010 7:50 AM:

Well...I'd say that was a rather pointless rant. You almost sounded like you knew what you're talking about until you said PJs and Rangers are not considered SOF. Now, before you get all sideways with me and possibly blow an O-ring you should check out SOCOM's website. ST PJs absolutely fall under SOCOM my angry friend. Ever hear of the 24th STS? They're basically AFSOCs contribution to our Tier 1 assets. Get your facts straight before you make an attempt to "big league" people on the internet.

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