Joe Boyles Guest Columnist
The acronym SOF stands for Special Operations Forces. These irregular military troops that each of the four services contribute toward are sometimes referred to as “snake eaters.” Their headquarters (Special Operations Command or SOCOM) is located at Tampa’s McDill Air Force Base. SOCOM planners put together last week’s raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden.
There are about 60 thousand members of SOCOM. The Army contributes Special Forces (aka Green Berets), the Rangers, and the elite Delta Force. Another Army unit is the Night Stalkers of the 160th Aviation Company that flew the Seals into the compound last week. The Air Force elements are primarily located in Florida’s Eglin complex at Hurlburt and Duke Fields and include gunships, aerial refueling aircraft, and heavylift helicopters. The Marines have RECON companies while the Navy contributes six SEAL teams including Team Six that conducted last week’s raid on ObL.
Our special operations forces, the best in the world, have come a long way in thirty years. In the spring of 1980, the services threw together a complex mission to rescue the hostages from the American Embassy in Tehran. To transport the assault team, six helicopters were needed. The team asked for 12 and were given eight. When they landed at a remote site in Northern Iran named Desert 1, three helicopters were broken and unable to continue. Since they had less than the six required, the mission was scrubbed. During a night refueling in blowing sand, a Marine chopper collided with an Air Force C-130. The accident cost the lives of eight American servicemen including a good friend that I had gone to flight school with nine years before, Rick Bakke.
The failure of this mission made President Jimmy Carter look weak, one of many factors that led to his electoral defeat six months later. Each of the services investigated this mission. The Air Force team included a Texan by the name of Jey Younger who I later worked for. Jey had done special operations helicopter work in Vietnam ten years before. One of the recommendations was to build a special operations command with elements from each of the services. This would be the forerunner of today’s SOCOM.
President Reagan’s Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger accepted the notion and told the four military services to pony-up their forces for the new command. In turn, the four services drug their feet. For one matter, they didn’t want to give up control. For another, the traditional services hated the snake eaters. You see, military traditionalists despise the unconventional nature of special forces. Cap Weinberger had to get really tough and lay down the law to make SOCOM happen.
SOF has had its up and downs over the years. When Don Rumsfeld was the Secretary of Defense from 2001-06, he made sure that SOCOM had the resources they needed to build an effective fighting force and Bob Gates has continued this emphasis. Consequently, SOF is in great shape today, witness the success of the difficult May 1st mission to kill ObL.
Many other nations have SOF capability including England, France, Italy, Germany, and Israel, but none can match the size and scope of SOCOM. These nations have invested in special operations because they are uniquely qualified to match and defeat para-military organizations like al-Qaeda. If al-Qaeda is the equivalent of a nuisance fly, then special operations uses a flyswatter. You wouldn’t want to try and kill a fly with a baseball bat, would you?
I think that SOF forces are the ideal fighting force in the war against al-Qaeda going forward. Whether the mission is retaking an embassy, freeing a hostage, capturing a high-value enemy combatant, or assassinating a terrorist, the best option is to turn the mission over to SOCOM. These are finite, precise missions where special forces specialize.
You won’t see these guys seek publicity or attend a press conference. They work in the shadows. A large measure of their success is anonymity. Just be glad they’re on our side.