• After 20 years of fighting terrorism, the American army is reorienting itself to the competition between great powers.
  • This change marks a change in the way American special forces are used.
  • To make that change, Pentagon leaders believe the force must shape up and slim down.

After more than two decades of fighting terrorist and insurgent groups in the Middle East, the U.S. military is reorienting itself to a different type of combat.

As the U.S. military has waged these campaigns in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria, the strategic challenges have only become greater and more complex.

While the Russian military is suffering heavy losses in Ukraine, U.S. officials continue to view it as a credible and unpredictable proximate threat that poses an “intense” challenge. As Beijing seeks to dominate the Asia-Pacific region, China’s military is becoming more capable and confident.

Special operations forces still represent the tip of the U.S. military spear, but Pentagon leaders believe that to be competitive in an era of intense competition with Russia and China, the force must shape up and slim down.

Drug testing and force reductions

Navy SEAL graduation

SEAL Qualification Training Class 336 during a graduation ceremony in Coronado, California in April 2020.

U.S. Navy/MCS 1st Class Anthony W. Walker

Navy Command announced in September that it would begin testing its personnel, including Navy SEALs and Navy Special Warfare crew members, for performance-enhancing drugs.

This initiative comes after several drug-related incidents in the Naval Special Warfare community and is intended to protect the health and readiness of the armed forces.

“My intention is to ensure that every member of Team NSW performs to the best of their ability, while maintaining the outstanding standards of excellence that define NSW.” he said Rear Admiral Keith Davids, Commander, Naval Special Warfare Command.

To become a Navy SEAL, a sailor must first complete basic underwater demolition/SEAL or BUD/S training. BUD/S is one of the most difficult selections for special operations in the world, putting an exceptional strain on the mind and body.

To help get through this, some students they took drugs to minimize pain and shorten the time needed to recover from injuries. The Navy is now looking eliminate this practice, reduce the use of steroids in SEAL teams and special forces, and increase discipline in the armed forces.

Army Special Forces Green Berets

Special Forces evaluation and selection candidates carry a telephone pole during a March 2020 march at Camp Mackall, North Carolina.

US Army/K. Cash register

The U.S. Army Special Operations Command will also begin testing operators and recruits for performance-enhancing drugs, but that’s just one of the changes facing the special operations military community. The website is also expected to implement a program to do this reduce size its special forces by about 10%, or about 3,000 soldiers.

Most of these cuts will affect support troops. These individuals perform a variety of roles – at higher levels there are explosive ordnance disposal specialists and cyber and electronic warfare operators, while less complex roles include mess specialists and mechanics.

Regardless of the complexity of their work, these individuals are critical to the success of special operations missions and lawmakers pushed away on the army’s plan to reduce their numbers.

Reducing the size of forces is a natural direction for the army, which is moving away from twenty years of conducting operations at a rapid pace. Beginning in the early 21st century, the U.S. special forces community grew rapidly in response to the demands of the War on Terror. Ultimately, community twice as large.

Over the years, each of the Army’s Special Forces groups added a fourth battalion, and the 75th Ranger Regiment added a fourth rifle company and a support company to each of its battalions. The Navy Special Warfare community has grown to approximately 4,000 SEALs – 10 times the number at the height of the Cold War. The first level units of the Joint Special Operations Command were also expanded.

Green Beret Army Special Forces Parachute

A U.S. Special Forces soldier freefalls from a drop zone in Germany in March 2015.

US Army/VIS Jason Johnston

Despite some difficulties, this growth was relatively smooth, although there was constant concern about what this meant for the community, as one of the basic “truths of special operations” is that operators cannot be mass-produced.

The troop reduction and drug testing requirement reflect the Pentagon’s focus on building special operations forces suited to a new era in which special operations commanders expect their units to focus more on supporting the operations of their parent units.

Reducing drug use and other measures to improve discipline will certainly be beneficial, but critics troop reduction plans argues that limiting support troops could make future operations more difficult by limiting the number of special operations units available and narrowing the scope of the missions they can perform.

Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations and a veteran of the Hellenic Army (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army Command). He earned a bachelor’s degree from Johns Hopkins University, a master’s degree in strategy, cybersecurity and intelligence from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and is currently pursuing a juris doctor degree from Boston College Law School.


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