When you “double down” in blackjack you double your bet because it looks like the dealer is going to end up with a busted hand. We’re in the process of doubling down on special operations, something we should have done long ago. Like back in the bad old days when Mr. Clinton’s social experimentation and other baloney turned too many of our best guys into civilians.
The guys at Special Operations Command — SOCOM — are at full throttle, and we need to keep them there. In the lead-up to the Iraq campaign, some of us were advocating that the Spec Ops guys be tasked to take out Saddam’s Scud missile batteries in the first minutes of the war, robbing him of the ability to fire them into Israel as he did in 1991, trying to try to widen the war. When the balloon went up in Iraq (or, as sources say, a day or two before the operation went to prime time) that’s just what they did. They performed many other strategic and tactical missions, from reconnaissance and sniper work in downtown Baghdad to rescuing PFC Jessica Lynch. Congress has just approved a Defense Department budget that raises Special Operations Command’s budget by about $1 billion a year over the next five years, basically doubling it. When you double down on SOCOM, you can get a lot of bang for the buck.
First, SOCOM needs more operators. They’ll get 4,000 more, which is probably about right. All of those billets are being taken from other services, but so what? There are way too many people in non-military jobs anyhow, and moving slots from tail to tooth sounds good to me. What to do with them? One of my Brit pals — a very smart guy who spent many years serving in one of those units the Brits never speak of — told me this. “I would be inclined to look at spending money on selection, training, motivation and reward. And in that order. You are not trying to hire mercenaries. And remember that in this game, more is not always better.”
He said, “Select ’em well, give ’em as much training as you possibly can” — he stresses language skills for the Middle East — “trust ’em. And take care of those at home if it goes wrong… and them when they retire.” I think we’re doing most of that, except for the last part. It’s a continuing scandal that a Republican Congress won’t raise the pay and allowances of our people, especially in the enlisted ranks. (It’s a redundant proof that the Dems don’t give a damn about the troops. If they did, they’d be yelling about pay raises every day.)
In addition to people, our Spec Ops guys need new and upgraded weapon systems. They will get at least some of them. SOCOM says that their most urgent need is for more and better air mobility assets. There aren’t enough helos, transports and delivery vehicles to get the guys in and out of the tight places they need to go. In the ’04 budget, they’re getting at least some of what they need: $428 million of the $1 billion increase is going to upgrade and lengthen the service life of the heavy helos they rely on.
Sea mobility is also a problem. To be concealed is to be safe, but launching from submarines at periscope depth puts severe limits on how and where SEALs can be inserted and recovered. Further, being towed behind a sea sled or swimming through cold water for an hour or two has, in the words of one of my ex-SEAL pals, a “suck factor nine” on a scale of ten. Which means they need ASDS.
ASDS — the advanced SEAL delivery system — is a small submarine that can ride on the back of the boomers or attack boats being fitted for it. It delivers a full SEAL squad warm, dry, and with real-time communications. ASDS ain’t cheap. The first one will come in at about $300 million. Because it operates off the deck of a nuclear sub, it has to be able to withstand the same operational environment as the deep-diving and fast moving nuke boat. Which makes it expensive. If Congress gets smart — as soon as pigs fly — they could halve that cost by making a multi-boat buy.
The SOCOM guys have three “flagship” programs — the big-dollar stuff they need most urgently. They are ASDS, the AC-130U gunship, and the V-22 Osprey. ASDS is doable, and would be quite affordable if Congress (meaning Rhode Island Sen. Jack Reed) got out of the way and let the SOCOM guys buy the boats efficiently. Reed wants a Rhode Island shipbuilder to compete for all of the boats beyond #1, which means more delays and much higher cost. (Won’t someone tell this guy that he should go sit in Pork Corner with Byrd Brain and Larry Craig, and shut up while there’s a war on?) The AC-130U “Spooky” is the easy part. Awesomely deadly, we should buy ’em by the bunch.
About the V-22, the less said the better. It’s something the Marines and the Spec Ops guys need badly. And that’s how they’re likely to get it: badly. Vice President Cheney tried to cancel it more than a decade ago when he was SECDEF. I’m not convinced the V-22 will ever be safe to fly. But the warriors need the vertical/short takeoff capability for larger numbers of troops and heavier cargoes that V-22 supposedly will provide. Now, the requirement is immediate, and the solution is still years away.
We need to keep giving the SOCOM guys what they need to do the job. But that’s only one part of the problem. During the Clinton years, we went on what the Pentagon all-too-politely calls a “procurement holiday.” It was, to be more accurate, a vacation from responsibility. We didn’t spend enough on R &D or weapon system procurement. We’re beginning to make up for that, but only beginning. We need Big Dog to accelerate transformation, increasing tooth and reducing tail.
And he’s doing just that. After years of fighting future Hawaii senator, and temporary Army Chief of Staff, Eric Shinseki, Big Dog is rid of both Shinseki and Army Secretary Tom White, who was also a problem. That Spec Ops is the future is undeniably in Mr. Rumsfeld’s mind. He chose retired General Peter Schoomaker as the next Army Chief, a decision to be confirmed publicly this week. Schoomaker — according to one of his War College classmates — is as steady as they come. He should be. In his younger days, he was a Delta Force operator, and then commander of Delta and then of SOCOM itself.
There’s an old saying around the Lower Latitudes that goes something like, “If you can’t run with the big dogs, you’d better go sit on the porch.” Shinseki was a decoration, a poodle in Rotweiler’s clothing. Now when Big Dog looks at the Army, he’s got someone who is big enough to run with him and won’t try to bite his tail on Capitol Hill. Welcome back to the big leagues, General Schoomaker.