The view from the inside
Behind a barbed-wire fence in an obscure corner of Tampa's sprawling MacDill Air Force Base, SOCOM's Center for Special Operations has a staff of 600 and a deployable headquarters that can plan and direct missions with an array of high-tech tools. From the aluminum prefab building, a commander can monitor his special operators via a communications system called Blue Force Tracker and watch real-time video from unmanned aerial vehicles. Using Web-based tools, the CSO can discuss plans and imagery with up to 50 commanders anywhere in the world. The CSO's intelligence shop keeps the deployed forces supplied with information updated constantly. It's a far cry from Grenada in 1983, when special forces teams were handed tourist maps just before the island assault. More than 100 representatives from intelligence and other agencies also work in the CSO, which will move next year into a new $20 million, 112,000-square-foot complex.
The place is, almost literally, buzzing. As of late September, 7,648 special operations forces were deployed in 54 countries. Over the course of the past year, forces have been deployed in 128 countries, including Greece for the Olympics, and South Korea, Thailand, and the Philippines. Iraq and Afghanistan unsurprisingly are claiming the lion's share.
A big push is underway to increase the size of special operations forces from 47,285 last year to 52,561 in 2009. But operators are not made overnight. The high standards and tough training mean that volunteers who made the cut after September 11 are deploying only just this year. The washout rate of would-be Army Special Forces and Navy SEAL s is over 75 percent.
SOCOM's budget has grown, from $5.5 billion in fiscal year 2002 to $7.8 billion this year--still just 1.8 percent of the defense budget. Unique among the commands, SOCOM has authority to buy, develop, and modify high-speed gear such as laser target designators, special-use radios, unmanned aircraft, even miniature submarines. SOCOM's deputy commander (and the SEAL s' first three-star admiral), Eric Olson, glanced at his watch as his briefing ended. His comment was pure reflex: "On target, plus or minus 30 seconds." -Linda Robinson
This story appears in the October 18, 2004 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.