Tuesday, February 8, 2005

The Army’s Green Berets, a key weapon in the war on terror, are operating at under their authorized strength because of the high-attrition qualification course and because of the lure of higher-paying security work at private companies, military officials say.

A number of military analysts and politicians have noted the Green Berets’ importance in hunting al Qaeda terrorists and called on the Pentagon to increase significantly the Green Berets’ ranks. For example, Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, said during the presidential campaign that the number of Green Berets — officially called Special Forces — should double.

But an examination by The Washington Times shows that there has been no budget authorization for significantly more Green Berets because Army Special Operations Command cannot fill all the billets it had before the September 11 attacks.

“Special Forces cannot be mass-produced overnight,” said Maj. Robert Gowan, a command spokesman. “We work very hard to maintain our standards.”

A Green Beret, who asked not to be named, said, “We are always understrength because we cannot find enough qualified candidates. … The notion of expanding Special Forces was always a pipe dream. Special Forces could never get bigger without the Army getting bigger. The more milk, the more cream.”

Elite Green Berets are a perfect fit for the war on terror because they train for the kind of unconventional warfare now going on in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Today, a Green Beret force of five active-duty groups stands at 98 percent of billets. It had been at 94 percent before the September 11 attacks. The soldiers deploy from the 1st, 3rd, 5th, 7th and 10th Special Forces groups headquartered at bases in North Carolina, Kentucky, Colorado and Washington state.

The Army is producing slightly more Green Berets as the chiefs of U.S. regional commands, called combatant commanders, place increased mission demands on the commandos. The five groups boast 3,950 Special Forces-qualified soldiers today, compared with 3,850 three years ago.

The Army managed the slight increase of 100, not by increased budgets for more billets, but by graduating more soldiers to both meet the mission demand and to cover losses as some soldiers left for higher-paying private-sector jobs.

Still, only about one-third of recruits successfully complete the grueling 63-week qualification school and earn the unit’s signature green beret. The Army was graduating about 350 soldiers per year in 2002, but last year nearly doubled the number to 620.

“We are slightly understrength, but we are working to fill those shortages,” Maj. Gowan said. “The training to become a Special Forces soldier is tough, rigorous and long. To produce the type of warrior we want, it has to be.”

The standards helped produced victory for the United States in Afghanistan. Green Beret A Teams infiltrated the country, teamed with local Northern Alliance and other guerrillas and defeated the Taliban with the help of pinpoint air strikes.

Green Berets, long kept out of counterterrorism on a large scale, suddenly saw their reputation and popularity skyrocket.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, very much a fan of what special operations forces can do, further enlisted Special Forces to fight in Iraq, Yemen, the Horn of Africa and the Philippines. Green Berets have even been tapped for clandestine spy missions in some al Qaeda-heavy countries.

In Iraq, Green Berets teamed up with Kurdish fighters to destroy the al Qaeda-linked terror camp of Ansar al Islam. It was one of dozens of Special Forces missions, some conducted behind enemy lines.

Mr. Rumsfeld was not the only person who noticed their attributes. Private companies in need of bodyguards and security experts started dangling higher-paying jobs. A senior enlisted Special Forces soldier, who earns $40,000 to $50,000 a year, can double his income performing private security. The Bush administration is asking Congress for bonus money in next year’s budget to entice special operations troops to stay.

Army Special Operations Command acknowledged some Green Berets are quitting, but could provide no retention statistics. Figures on Green Beret casualties during the war on terrorism were not immediately available yesterday.

A Special Forces source said the Army designs the long qualification course to weed out the weak — quickly.

“What really gets most of the people are the higher reasoning functions that are made even more difficult because they are conducted under stress from a lack of food and sleep,” said the source, a graduate of the Berets’ Qualification Course at Fort Bragg, N.C. “Many have never been really alone their entire lives. Now they are expected to work alone, in the middle of nowhere for days at a time.”

The source added, “The most physically rigorous portion of the training is the initial ‘selection and assessment.’ This is done to weed out the weak by running them hard.”

The source, who has been deployed on secret missions overseas, said Mr. Rumsfeld remains popular within the special operations community despite his political problems over Iraq.

“He is fully for the transformation of the military to fight the wars to come. That puts Special Forces front and center,” the source said. “He is implementing things we’ve recommended for years. Special Forces has been allowed to do what we’ve said we could do for 30 years and have now proved it.”

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