America's elite commando forces are poised to get more authority, money, manpower and equipment under a Pentagon plan designed to bolster the U.S. effort to fight global terrorism.
Although conventional forces are streaming, by the thousands, to the Gulf region for a possible war with Iraq, military officials concede small and secretive Special Operations units are likely to play a key role in a new conflict with Badghad.
These are the same forces, Navy Seals, Army Green Berets and others, who spearheaded the attack on al-Qaida and Taleban forces in Afghanistan. They have also led the training effort for anti-terrorist operations in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, the Philippines, and Yemen.
They are, in short, the future of a military being transformed to meet what Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld views as the unconventional challenges of the 21st century. "Over the past year, men and women in uniform have done a truly remarkable job, notwithstanding the fact that the Department of Defense is, for the most part, still organized, trained, and equipped to fight armies, navies, and air forces, not to target small cells or even individual terrorists," said Donald Rumsfeld. "One of our most important goals, then, is to transform for the 21st century, and one of the key areas where we're doing so is in the U.S. Special Operations Command. In Afghanistan and elsewhere, we have seen the indispensable role that Special Operation Forces have and are currently playing."
What Mr. Rumsfeld is proposing is a plan to boost the budget of the military's Special Operations Command. That budget is currently about $5 billion a year. Defense officials say the Pentagon wants to increase that by a billion more, a 20 percent hike.
In addition, the Pentagon wants to add another 4,000 personnel to the 47,000 in the Special Operations community.
Some of the new money would go to replace equipment, like the specially-outfitted commando aircraft lost in operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Mr. Rumsfeld says some of the new personnel earmarked for the elite command would be assigned to the special aviation unit tasked with flying combat forces on sensitive missions behind enemy lines.
Perhaps most importantly, Mr. Rumsfeld wants to change the relationship between Special Operations and the regional commanders in charge of conventional units.
In the past, officials say, these commanders would call in Special Operations units for specific missions.
Now, the Pentagon wants to let the Special Operations Command plan and execute its own missions, calling on regional commanders for support as needed.
And in another change, the Special Operations Command will be freed from its past responsibility for routine foreign military training and certain civil affairs missions.
Mr. Rumsfeld says his plan should give the United States a leaner, meaner force for fighting terrorism. "The global nature of the war, the nature of the enemy and the need for fast, efficient operations in hunting down and rooting out terrorist networks around the world have all contributed to the need for an expanded role for the Special Operations forces. We are transforming that command to meet that need," he said.
The plan has been forwarded to the White House as part of the Pentagon's budget proposals for 2004. It could undergo changes, but defense officials appear optimistic the plan will ultimately win overall approval.