By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON - With arguably the most heavily stressed troops anywhere, the commander of Army Special Operations Command updated Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates on Oct. 23, 2008, about ongoing missions and progress in growing the force to keep pace with ever-increasing requirements.
Army Lt. Gen. Robert W. Wagner briefed Gates during his visit here about ongoing operations and progress in boosting manpower across the Army special operations community. This elite force includes Special Forces, Ranger, special operations aviation, psychological operations, civil affairs, signal and combat service support Soldiers.
Wagner said he and Gates talked about the "quality of the people and their dedication to what they are doing," and the contributions they are making in the global war on terror. They also discussed improved coordination between the intelligence communities and the military – an initiative Wagner told reporters is "enabling us to do things much more effectively and efficiently, and saving the lives of soldiers."
Army special operations forces are deployed to 45 countries around the globe, with about 80 percent of those troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. "We're heavily deployed ... [and have been] continuously engaged since the beginning of the war," Wagner said.
In fact, most of his troops have been deployed 30 to 70 percent of the time since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks – more than even the most heavily taxed conventional forces. So, as he talked with Gates yesterday about ongoing missions, the discussion moved to the critical next question: How can Army Special Operations Command keep up the pace of operations without driving this highly skilled force into the ground, or out of the Army altogether?
A saving grace -- one Wagner said he credits Gates with supporting -- has been authorization to grow the force 43 percent by 2013. "That's pretty significant," he said, noting that he has 5,000 more people now than in 2001.
All five active-duty Special Forces groups will receive an additional battalion, beginning with the 5th Special Forces Group at Fort Campbell, Ky. In addition, each Ranger battalion will get an extra company. Reconnaissance and intelligence forces will be upgraded from detachments to companies. A new special operations aviation battalion, at Fort Lewis, Wash., brings additional capability to the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment.
Meanwhile, Wagner cited "dramatic increases" in the command's civil affairs and psychological operations forces. Historically, the lion's share of both organizations has been in the Army Reserve, but Wagner said both the active and reserve components are boosting their numbers.
The 95th Civil Affairs Brigade, the only active-duty civil affairs unit, went from 208 Soldiers in 2001 to almost 900 now. In addition, plans call for an additional civil affairs battalion dedicated to U.S. Africa Command, and one or two more 32-man companies within each other battalion. Ultimately, Wagner said, he expects the number of active-duty civil affairs troops to increase to more than 1,400 by 2013 or 2014.
Psychological operations also have experienced "phenomenal growth," Wagner said, from just under 1,300 troops in 2001 to more than 2,132 authorized today. That number will increase by almost 150 in fiscal 2009, but Wagner said it could go as high as 2,740.
Even while adding 5,000 authorized slots in the last seven years, Army Special Operations Command increased its unit strength from 97 percent in 2001 to more than 100 percent today, Wagner said.
"The recruiting piece is not a problem," he said. "There are lots of people who are fully qualified and want to join the force. We still are very selective in who we allow to come into the force, and we are able to grow and still meet all those standards."
Gates got firsthand exposure to the force's capabilities yesterday as he talked with the troops about their experiences, their training and their missions.
He told reporters he was particularly struck by the level of questioning he received when he had lunch with about 10 Special Forces noncommissioned officers. "They talked about problems," he said. "They asked me about my view of the challenges they were going to face down the road in different countries. The meeting was very geopolitical."
Also impressive, he said, was the depth of their language capabilities. One soldier Gates met speaks both Korean and Arabic. Another speaks three different Arabic dialects. "All of that is really impressive," the secretary said.
While he is gratified to be able to attract new recruits, Wagner said, he's far more interested in retaining the highly skilled, combat-experienced ones he already has.
"Our job is not recruiting," he said. "It's the retention of senior-grade people, because our force is about senior people."
Special Forces troops are typically more senior than those in other Army units, he explained. Soldiers typically join the force at the sergeant first class or captain levels. The typical Special Forces NCO is 33 years old with 12 years of service; the typical warrant officer is 39 years old with 18 years of service. A full one-third of Special Forces soldiers are eligible to retire.
The challenge, Wagner said, is to keep these soldiers in the Army despite repeated deployments and heavy operational demands.
"These people have put their lives on hold for seven years," Wagner said. "Most Americans are at home every night. These people have spent between 30 and 70 percent of their time deployed since the towers were struck."
Another challenge is the big dollars the private sector is willing to pay for their skills. Wagner called financial incentives the Army offers "very important to retaining the force," but said he'd like to see them raised even higher.
"Take a warrant officer pilot with 25 years flying," he said. "How much is he worth to you? How much would you pay to keep that guy from his 25th to his 30th year, and how much does it cost to replace him?
"The cheapest thing you can do, and the most right thing, would be to pay him enough to make him stay from the 25th to the 30th year," Wagner said. "He deserves it. And we need him."
Whatever incentives the Army pays its special operators, Wagner said, it's less than they deserve – and not really the reason they stay on duty.
"Ultimately, they stay with the force because they believe in what they are doing and they think it's important," he said. "And if we think what they are doing is important, we ought to recognize it."