It was born out of deadly failure and evolved into an organization that other nations seek to emulate, a command that accounts for a fraction of the Pentagon's budget but a large measure of how the world sees the U.S. military.
This week, U.S. Special Operations Command, with headquarters at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, turns 30.
Created by Congress in the wake of Operation Eagle Claw, the disastrous attempt to rescue American hostages from Iran in 1980, SOCom opened its doors at MacDill on April 16, 1987. It was an attempt to coordinate the work of military services that all did things differently.
Up until the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, SOCom was a relatively sleepy, train-and-equip organization. In 2001, SOCom had about 43,000 people and a budget of about $3 billion. After 9/11, as the role of special operations forces in the fight against jihadis expanded, the command experienced dramatic growth. Today, it has 70,000 people and a budget of more than $10 billion.
About 8,700 commandos are serving in about 100 countries, with more than half of them — 4,400 — in the region that's the responsibility of MacDill-based U.S. Central Command. This includes Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. Seeing the success of U.S. special operations, representatives from foreign militaries are traveling to Tampa to see how they can recreate such a powerful force. One that offers great bang for the buck — SOCom makes up just 2 percent of the U.S. defense budget.
The symbol of commando success is the 2011 Navy SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Yet every day, in ways unknown outside their secretive world, commando teams perform missions like building partner capacity and training foreign troops, hostage rescue attempts, humanitarian relief, tracking jihadi financing and coordinating efforts to counter weapons of mass destruction.
Unlike any other military combatant commands, SOCom has the authority to spend billions of dollars each year on equipment and services tailored for commandos — the SEALs, Army Delta Force, Green Berets and Rangers, and Air Force and Marine teams. To help speed things along, the command created SOFWerx, a research and development effort in Ybor City.
To help educate the force, SOCOm created the Joint Special Operations University, which opens a new building at MacDill next week.
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Yet despite all this, or maybe because of the workload, there are concerns the command at 30 will become a victim of its own success. With such a heavy rate of deployments, the force, as former commander Eric Olson once said, is "fraying around the edges."
Of the seven troops who died supporting U.S. military operations so far this year, four were commandos. Yet the entire force represents just about 3 percent of the U.S. military.
"I think being overworked is a concern," said Bryan "Doug" Brown, a retired Army general who ran the command from 2003 to 2007. "Special Operations Command is not the 'easy' button that you can hit and put them into every scenario. Special Operations Command is not the answer to every problem around the world."
Brown is one of several experts, including the current commander and his predecessor, contacted by the Tampa Bay Times for their view on the challenges ahead for SOCom.
"While our mission, manpower, and global reach have grown substantially since Congress legislated our existence 30 years ago, our core truths have remained steadfast," said Army Gen. Raymond A. "Tony" Thomas III in an email to the Times. He also attributes the command's success to daring, skill, maturity, versatility and the professionalism of its people."
SOCom, said Thomas, "is not only integral to our own national security, but to the security of so many other nations as well."
That comes more from working with others than through high-profile direct missions like the bin Laden raid, he said.
"Our ability to work alongside our partners makes us an incredibly versatile and potent force."
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One ongoing example of working with partners is the battle for Mosul being fought by Iraq's elite Counter Terror Service troops, said Linda Robinson, an expert in special operations who has written several books and studies on the subject.
Robinson says three major accomplishments stand out over the command's three decades.
The development of SOCom's global counterterrorism capability and its role synchronizing U.S. and partner missions in the fight against violent extremists is the biggest, she said. The second is building partner capacity, as in the battle for Mosul where U.S. and allied commandos trained the elite Iraqi forces. And the third, she said, is managing the growth of special operations forces, which are likely as big as they are going to get.
Brown, the former commander, brought the Marines into SOCom and got the ball rolling on the synchronization effort, as well as caring for the people in the force. As the role of commandos increased under his watch, so too did the stresses. He launched the Care Coalition to help cope with that.
"I think one thing that keeps every commander up at night is the welfare of the people on the battlefield," Brown said.
Olson and retired Navy SEAL Adm. William McRaven, who expanded SOCom's global reach, added to this initiative with what became known as the Preservation of the Force and Family. The effort to help troops and their loved ones continued under Army Gen. Joseph Votel and his successor, Thomas.
As the current commander of CentCom, Votel is the only leader to have headed up both MacDill-headquartered commands, giving him a unique perspective.
"The silent professionals of SOCOM continue to have a tremendous impact, not only in the highly visible areas of Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan, but also in many other countries throughout our region," Votel said in a statement to the Times. "Without question, SOCOM's strength has been its ability to evolve and innovate, and that is a tribute to the incredibly talented men and women that have been a part of that great team since its inception."
Contact Howard Altman at [email protected] or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.