This column recently predicted that in terms of public image, recruiting, and budget, the special operations branches of the U.S. military would be the big winners of the Afghan war. Apparently, this is already coming to pass. In the next Pentagon budget, the funding for special ops forces is scheduled to go up nearly 12 percent—some $500 million—to about $4.2 billion. And this week’s U.S. News & World Report says that the Army may recruit more commandos, not just from within Army ranks but also from the outside world. It’s not too early to warn that while the budget growth is probably a good thing, a big increase in personnel is definitely not.
There are currently about 45,000 special ops service members—a mere 3 percent of the total U.S. military. It takes an enlisted person about two years of highly specialized, intense training to qualify for a beginning position in these units. Officers can take even longer to get to one. The weekslong assessment courses that the services operate to decide which already-serving military members even get a chance to try to become special operations soldiers routinely reject almost all participants. Special ops forces have to be extraordinarily proficient at a wide range of skills, such as shooting, hand-to-hand combat, parachuting, scuba diving, demolition, navigation, communications, medicine, infiltration, evasion, and survival. As the Afghan war illustrates, they also must be able to control tactical aircraft attacks on ground targets, know local customs, and be good at learning languages. And these jacks of all trades must be masters of all—they are the best shots in the military, the best parachutists, etc. There are very few people not already satisfying special ops requirements who could. There’s a moral here that’s worth pointing out to the country that brought you the $2 million-per-year .230 hitter and the recentered SAT score: There’s really no way to make many more special operations soldiers without making them, on average, less special.
There is one reform that could lead to some quick growth in the special ops force: Let military women try out too. (As with espionage, having women in the special ops inventory would confer some clear advantages, no?) But don’t change the standards they have to meet.