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Demand for Special Operators Could Strain Force, Commander Says

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, June 5, 2009 – Demand for the services of U.S. Special Operations Command could strain the force, the command’s top officer said here yesterday.

Navy Adm. Eric Olson testified before the House Armed Services Committee’s subcommittee on terrorism, unconventional threats and capabilities.

Special Operations Command, with headquarters in Tampa, Fla., is responsible for organizing, equipping, training and providing fully capable special operations forces to serve under the operational control of geographic combatant commanders around the world. This gives the command many of the administrative details in managing the force.

In addition, the command is a combatant command in its own right, responsible for synchronizing Defense Department planning against global terrorism, and also is the department’s proponent for security force assistance.

“In this role, we expect to foster the long-term partnerships that will shape a more secure global environment in the face of global challenges such as transnational crime, extremism and migration,” the admiral said.

The command has broad responsibilities and capabilities, and this makes it “the force of choice,” Olson said. While 86 percent of the overseas force is deployed to the U.S. Central Command area of operations – most in Iraq and Afghanistan -- the command must maintain a global presence. “In fiscal 2009, special operations forces have already conducted operations and training in 106 countries around the globe,” Olson told the representatives.

This has put stress on the force, but the command – along with the services – is handling it for now. Rotations are different for different services and specialties, the admiral said.

“The service components have sort of evolved into different rotational paces,” he said, “depending on the nature of the force, the type of equipment they use [and] the nature of the operations that they’re conducting.

For example, Olson said, some aviators who fly a lot at night with night-vision goggles may deploy for periods as short as 90 days. Special Forces Operational Detachment “A” teams have battalion-level rotations of seven months. Still others, usually at higher levels, deploy for a year.

“The rate now is sustainable,” Olson said. “We didn’t think that we could sustain it at this pace this long, but the force is proving resilient beyond our estimate. I think, personally, that we are at about the maximum rate that we can sustain, but I think that we can sustain this rate for some time longer.”

The current high deployment pace “has now become the new normal,” Olson said. Retention remains high and recruiting remains healthy, he noted.

“So if the demand didn't increase, we’re probably pretty OK,” he said. “But what we see is an increasing demand for special operations forces, and so we've got a growth plan in place to accommodate that.”

Working with interagency partners is integral to the command’s mission. “The most important thing to push forward are structures that provide a forum so that the interagency community can provide the content to the discussions,” Olson said. “These are relationships that are building over time. We are way better than we have ever been.”

Even before the attacks of 2001, the command led in integrating personnel from other government agencies, Olson said. “We’re even seeing now what I call second- or third-generation, or second- or third-order effects, as people [who] have worked together in one place now [are] coming together in another place and already having a relationship so that they can move much more quickly together,” he added.

In addition, 85 uniformed members of Special Operations Command go to work each day in other agencies of government inside the national capital region.

“We also wake up every day at our headquarters at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa with about 140 members of other agencies coming to work in our headquarters,” Olson told the subcommittee, “and this has provided a transparency in the interagency environment that’s very helpful.

“It’s hard now, having seen it in action for a few years, … to remember back what it was like before,” he continued, “back when we used to look around the room and see only uniformed members. It really is a good, solid team effort at this point.”

Olson called the command “a team of teams.” The force is suited to the irregular operating environments, “and its proven abilities have created an unprecedented demand for its effects in remote, uncertain and challenging operating areas,” he said.

Special operators will continue to find, kill or capture irreconcilable enemies, and will continue to train, mentor, and partner global friends and allies, Olson said.

“United States Special Operations Command headquarters will continue to lead, develop and sustain the world’s most precise and lethal counterterrorism force,” the admiral said. “We will provide the world's most effective special operations trainers, advisors, and combat partners with the skills, leadership, and mindset necessary to meet today's and tomorrow’s unconventional challenges.”

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