WASHINGTON, June 19, 2009 – With heavy demand on special operations capabilities and limitations on how quickly these forces can grow, it’s critical that the services develop more capabilities to support special operators, the commander of U.S. Special Operations Command told Congress yesterday. Navy Adm. Eric T. Olson told a Senate Armed Services Committee’s subcommittee on emerging threats and capabilities that it’s impossible to increase special operations forces by more than 3 to 5 percent per year, primarily due to the enormous training requirements involved.

“This growth rate will not meet the already-obvious appetite for the effects of [special operations forces] in forward operating areas,” he conceded.

Eighty-five percent of special operators have deployed to U.S. Central Command’s area of responsibility during the last several years, he reported. And while special operators continue their missions as trainers, advisors and combat partners around the world – operating in 106 countries during fiscal 2009 alone – Olson said heavy demands within the Centcom region have detracted from efforts elsewhere.

“We have been in fewer places with fewer people less often and for shorter periods of time around the rest of the world because of our commitment in Centcom,” he told the senators.

The mission requirement in Centcom isn’t likely to diminish any time soon, Olson said, even as U.S. forces begin drawing down in Iraq. And as more troops deploy into Afghanistan, Olson expressed concern that it will leave his special operators lacking in the airlift capability they need to operate effectively.

So while growing specific special operations capabilities, Olson said, the best way to mitigate demands on these forces is to develop and sustain supporting capabilities within the services beyond their own organic needs that can be used to directly support special operations commanders. This would enhance the impact of forward-deployed special operations forces without placing additional demand on their own limited enabling units, the admiral told the Senate panel.

Olson rattled off the “enabling capabilities” he needs the services to provide more of: mobility, aerial sensors, field medics, remote logistics, engineering planners, construction, intelligence, regional specialists, interpreters and translators, communications, dog teams, close-air support specialists and security forces, among them.

These forces, if provided in greater numbers, would free up more special operations operators to focus more directly on their missions, he said.

“We are and will be dependent upon our service partners for key force enablers,” he said. “Assigned at the unit or detachment level to support joint [special operations forces] commanders away from main bases, the effects of such a combined force can be impressive.”

Meanwhile, Olson said, he’s focused on growing special operations forces in a responsible way that maintains their unique capabilities and emphasizes the human element over equipment.

“Fundamental to this effort is the recognition that humans are more important than hardware, and that quality is more important than quantity,” he said. “Investments in weapons platforms and technologies are sub-optimized if we fail to develop the people upon whom their effective employment depends.”

So within Special Operations Command, Olson said, “we strive first to select and nurture the extraordinary operator and then to provide the most operationally relevant equipment.”

The complexity of current strategic environments and those likely to be faced in the future raises the bar on what special operators must deliver, he said. It “requires that our [special operations forces] operators maintain not only the highest levels of warfighting expertise, but also cultural knowledge and diplomacy skills,” he told the panel.

Toward this end, Special Operations Command is developing what Olson calls “3-D operators.” These troops will make up a multi-dimensional force he said will be trained to “lay the groundwork in the myriad diplomatic, development, and defense activities that contribute to our government’s pursuit of our vital national interests.”

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