Islamic extremists jarred America 14 years ago in a coordinated attack that also rattled to attention a backwater military command that had done a lot of training in past decades but only sporadic fighting.
Shortly after al Qaeda’s massacres in New York, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld issued one of his white-paper memos directing his forces to get into the manhunting business.
Much of the hunting would by done by that then-obscure outpost — U.S. Special Operations Command. SOCOM oversees some of the nation’s most ruthless and sophisticated warriors, yet remained on Sept. 11, 2001, an little-known group, housed on an Air Force base amid Tampa’s palms and warm rains.
Today, SOCOM is the bustling nerve and muscle center of the war on terror. Its ranks have swelled and its technology has advanced. Its air force is larger, faster and stealthier. Al Qaeda saw this skill set in May 2011, when super-quiet Black Hawk helicopters penetrated Pakistan’s air space: Their passengers, Navy SEAL Team Six members, killed Osama bin Laden.
“When I was in SEAL Team Six, we focused a lot of time on training,” said Rep. Ryan Zinke, Montana Republican, recalling the pre-9/11 era. “We looked at possible missions. We looked at advancing tactics, techniques, procedures and equipment. And then, occasionally, we would go into conflict, usually of short duration. Then you would return to the cycle of training.”
“Today,” he said, “our young warriors, whether they enter as Green Berets or SEALs or one of the other special operations units, they’re coming into a service that is at war. It’s likely they will spend their entire career at war.”
Mr. Rumsfeld, who openly talked of the need to kill terrorists, handed SOCOM another prize. He made it a “supported” combatant command — Pentagon-speak for saying it now had the power to plan and execute its own missions. On the organization chart, it ranked with Central Command and Pacific Command as a major combatant player.
SOCOM was spending about $2 billion a year when hijacked airliners hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001. Its budget today passed the $10 billion mark. Its total force has nearly doubled, to 71,000 commandos and support personnel serving in 80 countries. On the battlefield, they fused into special task forces with the CIA and the National Security Agency to coordinate the hunt for terrorists.
SEAL Team Six, where Mr. Zinke commanded a squadron, has expanded in both men and territory at its base at Dam Neck, Virginia, under an official name: Naval Special Warfare Development Group.
“It’s much larger today,” the congressman said. “When I was there, we were all in one building. You could tell everyone in the command by their first name. Not only did I know everyone’s name, I also knew their wives’ first names. Today, when I go back to the compound, it’s huge. The mission portfolio is also more complex.”
Within a month of 9/11, Green Berets invaded Afghanistan to oust al Qaeda’s main ally, the Taliban. Within several years, a mix of Green Berets, Delta Force, Navy SEALs and special gunships were hunting terrorists in Yemen, the Horn of Africa, North Africa, Iraq and the Pakistan border. Today, the hunt has been expanded to Syria in missions to kill leaders of the Islamic State.
Delta Force and SEAL Team Six had practiced rescuing hostages over and over again, but had not paid as much attention to direct surgical strikes on a mud hut or walled compound. That has all changed.
The campaign to take down al Qaeda in Iraq centered on Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) and its Delta Force, SEAL Team Six and intelligence operatives, led by a hard-charging commander, Army Gen. Stanley M. McChrystal.
The melded agencies pinpointed the whereabouts of hundreds of high-value targets, including Jordanian Abu Musab Zarqawi, the al Qaeda in Iraq leader. Mr. McChrystal stood over his body in 2006 after his men had tracked him to a hideout and bombs from a U.S. warplane had killed him.
“We are uniquely able to operate in a variety of environments to support strategic progress in achieving national security objectives,” Army Gen. Joseph Votel, SOCOM commander, told Congress last spring in his annual report on the state of special operations. “We are continuing to disrupt the violent actions of extremist organizations.”
One statistic that illustrates the high tempo: The average special operations warrior has deployed overseas between four and 10 times since 9/11.
“What we’re seeing is, special operations are being used more and more and more, partly because we are unwilling to accept risk so you use your best asset more,” Mr. Zinke said. “But using special operations for the amount of ‘ops’ that we are seeing has a cost.”
One cost is in blood. Nearly 400 commandos have died in combat and another 74 died from non-combat causes. There are 7,500 special operations personnel in the community’s wounded warriors program, many of them suffering from traumatic stress.