Nine years of mostly unconventional and counterinsurgency conflict have stressed Army Special Operations Forces and required a significant increase in its end strength. But the conflict also has resulted in SOF becoming integral to the operations of the entire Army, a panel of Army leaders said Oct. 26.
Army SOF "is not a niche force. It is integral to what we do today," said Lt. Gen. Charles Jacoby, director for strategic plans and policy on the Joint Staff.
"Integral and essential to our mission," Brig. Gen. Kevin Mangum, commanding general of Army Special Operations Aviation Command, added at an Association of the United States Army Institute of Land Warfare Contemporary Military Forum held during the Association of the United States Army’s Annual Meeting and Exposition.
"There was a time when they really were apart. We can’t afford that anymore," said Command Sgt. Maj. Jeffrey Mellinger, a former Army Ranger, now command sergeant major for Army Materiel Command. "The capabilities and skills those (SOF) soldiers bring is of tremendous value to other soldiers."
Lt. Gen. John Mulholland, commanding general, Army Special Operations Command, gave a briefing on the organization, manning and operational tempo of his command, which is part way through a planned end strength increase of 23 percent by 2017. That gain includes the active component and National Guard SOF elements.
Army SOF includes the Special Forces, or Green Berets; Special Operations Aviation; the 75th Ranger Regiment; the Special Operations Sustainment Brigade, and units specializing in psychological operations and civil affairs.
A key part of the build-up is in Mangum’s aviation assets, which have been heavily tasked in the expansive and rugged terrain of Afghanistan.
Despite the increase, Army SOF will be unable to meet all of the combatant commanders’ requests for its forces, Mulholland said.
"The demand signal is growing faster than command growth. There’s a limit to how fast you can grow special operations forces," he said. "If you grow too much, you are no longer special."
Lt. Gen. Daniel Bolger, Army deputy chief of staff for operations, plans and programs, said Congress has been very generous in providing most of the resources Army SOF needs. "The one resource we don’t have is time."
Because the SOF units have been deploying at such a high rate – exceeding even the overall Army’s ratio of gone as often as they are home – they only have time for their combat training between deployments. The professional military education, such as command and staff school for officers and advance leadership schools for non-commissioned officers, suffers, Bolger said.
The panel cited numerous examples of how SOF and general purpose forces interact and help each other.
The SOF soldiers were cited as the source of innovation and inspiration for the regular soldiers, as trusted and sharing team mates and as "seed corn" for improvements when Rangers and other SOF soldiers move back to the general purpose forces.
But the SOF leaders also stressed their dependence on "big Army" for much of their equipment, the young soldiers who join the special operations command and for logistical and aviation support in combat.
Asked what equipment or technology improvements they need, the officers cited improved and lighter communications and intelligence processing systems and better ways to power their increasingly sophisticated radios, sensors and targeting systems.
Lighter and longer duration batteries would be a great help in reducing the load SOF soldiers carry in the field, they said.
And greater commonality and interoperability, Mulholland added.