Adm. Eric T. Olson says that while the number of special operations forces has doubled to about 60,000 over the last nine years, the total of those deployed overseas has quadrupled. Roughly 6,500 special operators are in Afghanistan and about 3,500 are in Iraq, although those numbers can vary as units move in and out of the war zone.
Olson said the demand for the specialized units in Afghanistan is insatiable, forcing troops to deploy to war at a rate that is off the charts. And he said he does not see that demand declining in the next several years.
As an example, he noted that while 100,000 regular forces have been pulled out of Iraq, leaving about 47,000 there, just 500 or so special operators were part of that withdrawal, which was just a fraction of the elite force there.
"Not on the same scale, but like the rest of the force we're seeing the indicators - pressure on duty, pressure off duty," Olson said at a conference in Washington. Even though the size of his special operations force has grown, they are being asked to do more, he said, "so we are, frankly, beginning to show some fraying around the edges that we are addressing."
Altogether, about 12,000 special operations forces are deployed, and those not in Iraq and Afghanistan are scattered in other hotspots around the globe, such as Yemen.
Olson said one sign of the strain is that more mid-grade forces are opting to leave service this year than in previous years. As much as 60 percent of his force, he said, joined in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks and believe they were part of something important for the last eight or nine years.
"But what seems good for eight or 10 years, maybe doesn't seem as good looking ahead to 18 or 20 years," Olson said.
While the force and their families have proven to be resilient, he said leaders are now taking measures to address the emerging strains.
Officials, he said, are trying to increase training, make deployments more predictable, and stick to the schedules so there are fewer unexpected shifts.
In addition, he said they are working to educate families about what the forces do and what they can expect. And Special Operations Command is devoting more resources to programs for wounded and ill service members, he said.
The challenge, said Olson, is to stem the loss of the mid-grade troops, so that over the next 20 or 30 years the U.S. will still have a high-quality special operations force.