With job cuts and drug tests, the Pentagon hopes to prepare its special-ops forces for a new era of warfare

  • The US military is reorienting to great-power competition after 20 years of counterterrorism.

  • This shift means a change in how US special-operations forces are used.

  • To make that change, Pentagon leaders say, those forces need to shape up and slim down.

After more than two decades of combat against terrorist and insurgent groups in the Middle East, the US military is reorienting for a different kind of fight.

As the US military has waged those campaigns in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria, strategic challenges have only become bigger and more complicated.

While the Russian military is suffering heavy losses in Ukraine, US officials continue to see it as a credible and unpredictable near-peer threat that poses an "acute" challenge. China's military is also growing more capable and more confident as Beijing pursues supremacy in the Asia-Pacific region.

Special-operations forces are still the tip of the US military spear, but Pentagon leaders say that to be competitive in an era of intense competition with Russia and China, those forces need to shape up and slim down.

Drug tests and force reductions

Navy SEAL graduation
SEAL Qualification Training Class 336 at their graduation ceremony in Coronado, California, in April 2020.US Navy/MCS 1st Class Anthony W. Walker

Naval Special Warfare Command announced in September that it would start testing its personnel, including Navy SEALs and Naval Special Warfare Combatant-Craft Crewmen, for performance-enhancing drugs.

The initiative comes after several drug-related incidents in the Naval Special Warfare community and is designed to protect the force's health and readiness.

"My intent is to ensure every NSW teammate operates at their innate best while preserving the distinguished standards of excellence that define NSW," said Rear Adm. Keith Davids, the commanding officer of the Naval Special Warfare Command.

To become a Navy SEAL, a sailor must first complete Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training, or BUD/S. One of the toughest special-operations selections in the world, BUD/S is exceptionally hard on the mind and body.

To help get through it, some students have used drugs to minimize pain and reduce the time needed to recover from injuries. The Navy is now looking to eliminate that practice, limit the use of steroids in the SEAL and Special Boat Teams, and bolster discipline in the force.

Army Special Forces Green Berets
Special Forces Assessment and Selection candidates carrying a telephone pole during a ruck march at Camp Mackall in North Carolina in March 2020.US Army/K. Kassens

US Army Special Operations Command is also set to start testing operators and recruits for performance-enhancing drugs, but that's only one of the changes facing the Army special-operations community. The service is also set to roll out a program that will reduce the size of its special-operations force by about 10%, or some 3,000 soldiers.

Most of those cuts are expected to affect support troops. These enablers perform a variety of roles — at the higher end 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 job, those enablers are critical to the success of special-operations missions, and lawmakers have pushed back on the Army's plan to cut their numbers.

Reducing force size is a natural direction for an Army that is moving away from two decades of high-tempo operations. Beginning in the early 2000s, the US special-operations community expanded rapidly in response to the demands of the war on terror. The community ultimately doubled in size.

Over the years, each of the Army's Special Forces groups added a fourth battalion, and the service's 75th Ranger Regiment added a fourth rifle company and a support company to each of its battalions. The Navy Special Warfare Community has swelled to about 4,000 SEALs — 10 times as many as at the height of the Cold War. The tier-one units of Joint Special Operations Command also expanded.

Army Special Forces parachute Green Beret
A US soldier assigned to 1st Battalion, 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) free falls after jumping out of a C-130 Hercules over a drop zone in Germany in March 2015.US Army/VIS Jason Johnston

Despite some difficulties, that growth was relatively smooth, though there have been persistent concerns about what it means for the community, as one of the core "special-operations truths" is that its operators can't be mass-produced.

The reduction of troop numbers and requirement for drug testing reflect the Pentagon's focus on building a special-operations force suited for a new era in which special-ops leaders expect their units to focus more on supporting the operations of their parent branches.

Limiting drug use and other moves to improve discipline will surely be beneficial, but critics of the reduction plans say trimming support troops may hinder future operations by limiting the number of special-ops units available and shrinking the range of missions they can do.

Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations and a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ). He has a B.A. from the Johns Hopkins University, an M.A. in strategy, cybersecurity, and intelligence from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and is pursuing a Juris Doctor degree from Boston College Law School.

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