A Few More Good Men
For over 40 years, Army Special Forces trainees have roamed the pine forests of central North Carolina in an elaborate and unusual military exercise known as Robin Sage. This final two-week test in a yearlong journey to receiving the trademark green beret requires the soldiers to recruit and train a guerrilla force.
In the latest version played out this spring, the trainees and their "guerrillas" descended by helicopter on the vacant Scotland County prison to free a friendly "governor" from his jail cell. Things did not go quite according to plan (they rarely do); when the guerrilla leader could not get her radio to work to call for the Black Hawks' return, the group opted to spirit the freed prisoner away in a "stolen" van. Hundreds of local residents like Henry Hicks play roles and let the Army use their property. As a boy, Hicks lit buckets of sand and gas to mark landing zones at night. Now, the retired bridge inspector plays a wily guerrilla leader with gusto. "If I can help one soldier stay alive over there," he says, "it's worth it."
Robin Sage now takes place eight times a year instead of four, as special operations forces from all the servicesArmy, Navy, Air Force, and Marineshave embarked on the most ambitious attempt ever to expand their numbers. They are in high demand not only in Iraq and Afghanistan but also for low-visibility missions in festering trouble spots around the world. They specialize in commando raids on terrorists, training foreign troops, and raising guerrilla forces. Last year, the Pentagon rolled out a plan to add a total of 13,119 military and civilian personnel to the current force of 46,223 by 2013. That's a very tall order since the great majority of those who try out fail to pass the arduous training. It is a challenging task to quickly expand the country's most elite unitswhose members are carefully chosen and groomed at great expensewithout jeopardizing the force's high mental and physical capabilities. Special operators want to avoid at all cost repeating the Vietnam-era experience in which rapid expansion led to lower standards and a crisis in morale and reputation.
Twenty years ago, when the four-star Special Operations Command was set up to look after all the services' elite units, two slogans were adopted as reminders of this painful lesson: Quality is more important than quantity, and special operators cannot be mass-produced. U.S. News gained unusual access to Robin Sage and other training and to top leaders of the special operations forces to report on the expansion and the challenges it faces.
The expansion is essential if the special operations community is to be able to maintain its current operating pace, says Lt. Gen. Robert Wagner, the head of Army special operations. About one third of his troops are deployed at any one time. "We are not growing them so they can do more but to make more reasonable what we are asking them to do," he says. "This is a marathon," he added, emphasizing that units cannot be increased significantly overnight. Along with trying to fill the ranks, Wagner is concerned about stanching the loss of experienced operators who are the backbone of the small teams that work unsupervised in distant lands. As part of the plan, the most experienced veterans have been offered six-figure re-enlistment bonuses, and new financial incentives for others are being considered. The success of the entire venture ultimately depends on whether the military's overall re-enlistment rate holds up.