Saturday, June 6, 2009

Adm. Olson on USSOCOM growth; needs

In testimony before the U.S. House Armed Services terrorism subcommittee, Adm. Eric T. Olson, head of U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), addressed both the challenges of growing the force and the emerging need for operations focused on North and East Africa. The first point is perhaps the most nearly self-evident:
Special operations forces can only grow by 3 percent to 5 percent a year, Olson said. But the need for those units to deploy in hot spots around the globe is outpacing that growth, he said.
Think of this in civilian terms for a moment. Pick your favorite professional sport... say Major League Baseball... in that example any time the league tries to expand by a couple of teams, pitching quality drops and general standards of play and management take a knock as well. That's because there are really only about 1200 Major League quality players out there (30 teams, maximum 40 man rosters) by the most generous measure these days. Only about 750 of them are up on the Major League clubs most of the season. The remainder are either on the DL (injured players) or down with Minor League teams. *That* pool, by the way, is less than 6000 players either on the Big Club rosters or trying to climb up to the Majors. Not a whole lot of players there in the whole system, and only ~1 in 5 is actually in The Show.

Keep those numbers in mind and now let's go back to Adm. Olson's problem.

The current manpower allocation for USSOCOM is (in round numbers) 48,000.

Based on what it takes to be a Special Operator, that's an astoundingly high figure already. If it even can be grown at a 3~5% annual rate, there is a serious risk of diluting the force quality. I'll presume the training capability is in place, but there is more to it than just having "more players in the Leagues". Getting, and retaining, good Operators just has to be harder with every expansion.

Now to his second point, made in reply to a question:
He turned to intelligence concerns in North Africa in response to a question from Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., chairman of the subcommittee.

Smith asked Olson if the special operations forces could use more intelligence and surveillance coverage in North Africa, where al-Qaida (al-Qaeda) has set up a franchise in the vast ungoverned areas.

"We've got to find ways of having a better understanding of what is happening there," Olson said, adding that increased surveillance would be one answer.
In fact, the area of concern is both North and East Africa. North Africa is just a bigger concern. The U.S. military and intelligence services have never had more than a very small number of "Africa hands". It was a problem when Western Sahara turned into a war (Kingdom of Morocco vs. the Polisario Front); it was a bigger problem when Mu'ammar al-Qadafi got greedy and tried to annex the Aouzou Strip (northern Chad). The picture isn't very different today. Without Operators who specialize in the region, and this is true for any region, Special Operations is limited in what it can be called upon to do.

So good luck, Admiral. Here's hoping that you've got some "young arms in the farm system" that are ready to step up... and that some of them speak Hausa, Bambara, and North African Arabic.


Side note: The force commitment from USSOCOM to Afghanistan is ~5,000 and is about to increase by 1,000 this month. With the requirements for troop rotation these days, that is a big chunk of Special Operations locked in deployment-wise.

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