"Tanks!" the American sergeant yelled.
From out of a thick haze and tall grass on the northern Iraqi highlands, obscured by three trucks feigning surrender, an Iraqi armored company was bearing down on a small band of US Special Forces.
"For about 15 seconds we were in awe - nobody even fired a shot," said Sgt. 1st Class Frank Antenori of the surprise attack. Moments later, a T-55 tank shell exploded just behind his Humvee. "We all knew we were in big trouble," he said.
One year ago, with quick wit and good aim, 31 Americans and 80 Kurdish fighters rolled back an Iraqi armored force of hundreds in an abrupt showdown known as the "Alamo," aimed at gaining a key crossroads.
But the success of such handpicked, highly trained forces has a downside: Today, as their missions grow exponentially, they're in shorter and shorter supply. "This is the highest [operational] tempo Special Operations ever had," says Gen. Bryan Brown, head of the Special Operations Command (SOCOM). While manageable now, "it's not sustainable forever."
From Iraq to the Horn of Africa, the 49,000-strong command is spearheading a global campaign against terrorists and the hunt for "high value targets" like Osama bin Laden. As a result, over the past year the elite force - including Army Special Forces (Green Berets) and Civil Affairs, Navy SEALs, and Air Force Special Tactics - has seen its biggest deployment ever. In Iraq, US Special Operations Forces (SOF) controlled operations in two-thirds of the country. Some 100 Special Forces teams took part, compared with 85 to 90 in Vietnam, says Lt. Gen. Philip Kensinger, commander of Army special operations.
But SOCOM may no longer be able to meet all requests for from US regional commanders, says Thomas O'Connell, assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict. Topping his list of concerns: "Are we going to be able to continue to support the combatant commanders with Special Operations Forces that are working for them?"
SOCOM gained new authority as a fighting command in 2003, including control over where its troops deploy. Before, it served mainly to train forces for missions directed by regional commanders. "In many respects, force management is the most critical problem facing SOF," Mr. O'Connell says. "SOF cannot be mass produced."
In the post-9/11 world, demand for the commandos is not only soaring within the military. Private firms and government organizations - including the CIA - are luring away troops with bigger salaries.
"It is a very lucrative opportunity right now for special operations folks to get out and take very high-paying jobs" with private security firms, says General Brown. A 20-year veteran leaving Special Operations receives about $23,000 in retirement pay, but can earn $100,000 to $200,000 in private industry, military officials say.
With no end to the demand in sight, the military must carefully allocate SOF while increasing their ranks. To fill the current gap, it is accepting added risks with less experienced forces.
Some Special Forces troops are now recruited directly from the civilian population, as drawing candidates from a stretched Army gets harder. So far, 120 of the "off-the-street" recruits have undergone schooling, and 38 are deployed abroad.
Special Forces teams are also being assigned outside the regions of their language and cultural expertise to meet the needs in the Middle East and Central Asia.
The strains have required SOCOM to step up the pace of rotations. For example, a recent surge in the deployment of Navy SEALs - from 25 percent to 34 percent of the force - means that SEALs now spend six months abroad every 18 months rather than every two years. "I worry about sustaining the force as we move through these multiple marathons," says Navy Capt. Robert Harward, who commanded SOF forces in Afghanistan and southern Iraq.
Finally, SOCOM has handed off some missions, like training foreign troops in Georgia and Afghanistan, to the Marine Corps and Army.
In the longer term, SOCOM seeks to ease the stress by ramping up training capacity. Schooling for a Special Forces soldier still takes 18 to 24 months, but with greater capacity the number of graduates annually has gone from 450 to 550.
Overall, the Special Operations Forces are to grow by 3,700 over five years, with hundreds of new regionally oriented civil affairs and psychological operations troops in both reserve and active duty units, two Navy SEAL teams, Special Forces, Army and Air Force aviators, and a new detachment of Marines.
The crunch is especially acute for civil affairs soldiers, who are playing key roles in rebuilding Afghanistan and Iraq. Out of a total of 28 civil affairs battalions, 27 are from the Reserves and National Guard, with a two-year limit on calls to active duty. "We are coming up to a mobilization problem with them," said Brown in Congressional testimony.
SOCOM is also seeking to retain its experienced cadre for longer, and is formulating new pay, benefits, and educational incentives to entice mature veterans to stay on for 26 or 28 years - well beyond the usual 20-year retirement point.
Meanwhile, the relentless pace of deployments continues. In Afghanistan, where Special Operations Forces led the fight to topple the Taliban, a large SOF contingent is likely to remain for years to stabilize the country and track down leaders of terrorists and insurgents, officials say. Recently, a CIA-SOF team was dispatched to Afghanistan to step up the hunt for Osama bin Laden.
Afghanistan's rugged terrain has tested the commandos' skills, both on the ground and in the air. In one precarious night mission, for example, an Air Force Special Operations crew maneuvered its MC130 H aircraft through jagged mountains and a barrage of enemy artillery to drop supplies to Special Forces troops in a firefight.
"As we got closer to the airdrop, there were ... a lot of people shooting at us," says Capt. Benjamin Maitre of Boston who banked and weaved as his copilot spotted fast-flying tracer rounds. Captain Maitre and his seven-man crew executed their airdrop within seconds of the assigned time, for which Maitre earned a Silver Star.
In Iraq, thousands of elite troops have carried out many of the riskiest tasks and captured dozens of regime leaders in a vast but largely invisible campaign. Early on, they hunted for Scud missiles, seized dams, and foiled a suspected plan to flood the Persian Gulf with crude oil.
"[Enemy] elements were popping up all around," says Capt. Terry Sears, an Air Force Special Operations AC-130 U navigator who played a lead role in capturing the oil pipeline valve station on Iraq's Al Faw Peninsula last March 20. Iraqi forces, alerted by US air strikes on Baghdad, massed in unexpectedly large numbers, outnumbering the US ground force. Captain Sears spotted the Iraqi forces and his gunship attacked them as close as 200 yards from US troops, and earned him a Distinguished Flying Cross.
In Iraq today, a new infusion of Special Forces has "significantly" boosted their numbers, Brown says. Known for their ingenuity, language skills, and ability to mobilize indigenous fighters, these forces are now taking on the essential job of strengthening Iraqi security forces. As the planned June 30 transfer of power nears "you will see a large number of American Special Forces ... assigned to Iraqi units to mentor, train, and provide linkages with the air system and other combat multipliers," Gen. John Abizaid, head of US Central Command, told Congress last month.
It's a job for which SOF are uniquely qualified, as shown last year at Debecka Pass. With no armored protection but their own flak vests, two 12-man teams of Special Forces soldiers in sturdy trucks called GMVs unexpectedly took on the Iraqi armored force after Turkey blocked the invasion of northern Iraq by the Army's 4th Infantry Division.
Initially without overhead surveillance, teams debriefed shepherds to learn of dug-in positions of Iraqi tanks. On the way to the crossroads, they drove through a surface-laid minefield to circumvent a 10-foot dirt berm. Lacking sufficient explosives, they defused Iraqi mines and used those.
When the Iraqi company surprised them, the Americans responded swiftly . "Nobody had to really even get on their radios. Everyone knew exactly what to do," says Sergeant Antenori. Using machine guns, grenade launchers, and shoulder-fired Javelin antitank missiles, they threw the Iraqi force into disarray - with several close calls. One Iraqi artillery round struck just 50 yards away. "Lucky for us," says Antenori, "it was a smoke round."