Special forces' role may expand

Additional troops, equipment sought by military leaders

SEALs, Green Berets included

August 03, 2002|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - They were crucial to the defeat of the Taliban government, calling in precision airstrikes while huddled in the hills with Afghan allies. And these shadowy warriors are playing an increasingly larger role in the overall war on terror, training foreign troops from the gorges of Georgia to the steamy jungles of the Philippines.

Now, military leaders are looking at these special operations forces - from the Army's Green Berets to the Navy's SEALs - with heightened interest, proposing to increase their numbers, provide new equipment and set up more training missions with rank-and-file troops.

"The special operations forces - Army, Navy and Air Force - really teamed up" in Afghanistan, said Col. Fred Wieners, head of an Air Force task force coming up with "lessons learned" from the American-led campaign against the Taliban and al-Qaida forces. "It was a real turning point as far as regime change."

The Marine Corps - the only service without a special operations component - for the first time will provide a Marine contingent to the Special Operations Command, the Tampa, Fla.-based umbrella group for all services. The size of the unit is being worked out, officials said.

"The Marine Corps forces in Afghanistan would not have been as successful as they were without assistance from the special operations forces," said Lt. Col. Giles Kyser, a Marine planning officer in the Pentagon, pointing to the intelligence and reconnaissance aid of the special operators, some of it because of their close relations with Afghan warlords.

Analysts say the Afghanistan campaign accelerated an already increasing interest among the Pentagon brass in the skills of special operators.

`Small footprint'

During the Cold War, the focus was on large standing armies. But with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the special operations forces were increasingly called upon for small-scale skirmishes and training foreign troops, operating with a "small footprint" overseas, said Michael Vickers, a former Green Beret and CIA operative in Afghanistan.

"I think these were trends well under way before the war in Afghanistan," said Vickers. Besides their high-level military prowess, including familiarity with many types of weapons and hand-to-hand fighting skills, some of the special operations forces are versed in the culture and the languages of the region they operate in.

"There's high demand for them now. [Special operations] forces tend to be very resourceful and work in small groups," Vickers said.

Among the new proposals:

The Army wants to expand its 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, a helicopter unit known as the Night Stalkers, which flies Army special forces troops into battle. The regiment has 1,400 troops, and the Army wants to add about 900, along with 35 helicopters. The increase is being proposed for 2005 to 2009, Army officials said.

The Navy is looking at increasing its SEAL force, which has 2,200 troops, although the exact number and timetable is uncertain. Also, the Navy is considering recommissioning an aircraft carrier or coming up with another ship that could be used as a staging base for special operations forces. During the Afghanistan campaign, most of the attack aircraft were flown off the carrier USS Kitty Hawk, which was then used as a floating base in the Arabian Sea for special operators. It was termed the "Cadillac" by the special operators, who are used to more rugged living conditions.

The Air Force wants to provide additional training between its pilots and the combat controllers, its special operations forces who teamed up with Green Beret and SEAL teams to call in airstrikes, using hand-held lasers or radio. The Air Force air-ground teams in Afghanistan learned a great deal about targeting - from attacking caves to striking urban targets with minimal additional damage - that can be widely shared in the service, said Wieners, the Air Force colonel.

High-tech equipment

Wieners said the Air Force also is looking at accelerating the purchase of high-tech equipment for the combat controllers. Specifically, he spoke of a hand-held device that would determine the coordinates of a target and electronically beam them to an aircraft overhead. "The technology is there; getting it to the people is what we're working on," he said.

Passing on coordinates by voice or typing them in can lead to deadly mistakes. In Afghanistan, friendly-fire casualties have resulted when incorrect or misinterpreted coordinates were given to U.S. warplanes, officials said.

The Army is looking at more training involving its Green Berets and conventional soldiers, who are working together more closely in operations in relatively small-scale wars like the one in Afghanistan, where there is no clear battlefront. It makes more sense for them to train that way, said Col. Mike Hiemstra, director of the Center for Army Lessons Learned at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.

High dropout rate

The Special Operations Command includes about 45,000 troops. It accounts for 1.3 percent of the Pentagon budget and a slightly higher percentage of uniformed personnel. The training periods for each of the services range from one to two years, with a dropout rate that can reach as high as 70 percent for SEALs and Green Berets.

Vickers said that expanding the Army's 160th Aviation Regiment makes sense. He noted that the Pentagon has been "using it to death." But he cautioned against increasing the special operations forces too much, saying he was worried that there could be a loss of quality, a concern expressed by others.

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