Big increases are proposed in budget for special forces

$1 billion, 4,000 soldiers more sought by Rumsfeld

White House OK pending

January 08, 2003|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The Pentagon wants a double-digit percentage increase in the budget for its special operations troops - the elite commando force that includes Army Green Berets and Navy SEALs - saying they are an important tool in the war on terrorism and pointing to their success in ousting the Taliban from power in Afghanistan.

"The global nature of the war, the nature of the enemy and the need for fast, efficient operations in hunting down and rooting out terrorist networks ... have all contributed to the need for an expanded role for the special operations forces," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told reporters at a news conference yesterday.

Rumsfeld wants to add about 4,000 special operators to the current 46,000-man force, while boosting the current annual Special Operations Command budget of $4.9 billion by $1 billion starting next year.

The White House has yet to sign off on the proposal, officials said.

Under the plan, many of the new special operators would be assigned to the headquarters of U.S. regional commands, working as planners, logisticians and intelligence operatives to devise operations against terrorist targets, officials said.

In addition, officials said there is a need for more helicopter pilots to join the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment at Fort Campbell, Ky. The unit, known as the "Night Stalkers," flies special operations forces on missions and has been stretched thin by its anti-terror mission.

Currently, special operations units work in support of larger commands. Under the plan, they would have the capability to initiate their own operations. And the special operators would be able to call on conventional forces - such as Navy aircraft or Army infantry - to support missions they generated.

"It's a big change," said Michael Vickers, a former Green Beret and CIA operative.

The Special Operations Command was created in 1987 to oversee the Army's Green Berets and Delta Force, Navy SEALs and Air Force commandos. Some elite Marine units are now being added to the mix.

The command always had the statutory authority to plan and execute its own operations - from demolitions and commando raids, to the "snatch and grab" of an enemy commander and a side-by-side fight with indigenous forces. What it lacked, officials said, was the staff - especially planners - to mount such actions.

The special operators, who account for about 2 percent of the Pentagon budget, often have had to fight for budget increases. And while they have captured the public imagination in movie and song, they were often seen within the military as the wild and unruly stepchildren of the more conventional military forces.

But the war in Afghanistan has produced a new appreciation for the special operators, who slipped into the Taliban- controlled country in small numbers, linked up with rebel Northern Alliance forces and called in U.S. airstrikes with radios or laser target designators.

The special operators, numbering only several hundred, were credited with playing a large role in the collapse of the thousands of Taliban fighters.

One officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that it was Rumsfeld himself who was the driving force behind the proposed budget and personnel increases for the special operators, as well as the greater role envisioned for them in missions around the world.

Officials said that as part of the expanded mission, the special operators would hand off some of their traditional duties, such as training foreign troops and helping create new government institutions once hostilities end. Already in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, the Green Berets have turned over the training of troops to the Marine Corps.

The plan also calls for new equipment for the special operators, such as high-tech communications gear, and additional helicopters to replace ones lost in Afghanistan.

It is uncertain how long it would take to expand the numbers of special operators. Army Green Berets and Navy Seals, for example, spend a year or more in training. Of the 46,000 active duty and reserve special operators, the majority, about 30,000, are Army troops.

"We've got a steady flow of recruits," said one senior military officer, who briefed reporters on condition that he not be named. "The quality ... is excellent."

But another officer, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said some in the special operations community are worried that the plan may lead to a lowering of standards or abbreviated training.

"There's a concern in the special operations force community, in general, that in trying to boost numbers, you'll lose quality," he said.

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