With rising demand for the U.S. commandos who train foreign militaries and carry out the highest priority missions, the nation's most elite military command is suffering growing pains as it adds to the ranks of special operations troops stretched thin in two wars.
The U.S. Special Operations Command has more than 50,000 Green Berets and other select troops operating in more than 65 countries. But with 8,000 of them fighting and training troops in Iraq and Afghanistan at any one time -- and most of the rest cycling in and out -- the force struggles to keep up.
"There is a global demand for special operations forces that we are currently unable to meet. We're in the midst of a fairly aggressive growth effort," said Adm. Eric Olson, a Navy SEAL who now heads the command. "We're on pace to meet our optimistic growth projections, and that will enable us to get back out into the rest of the world, where the demand is currently is undermet by our force."
When the Green Beret unit responsible for Latin America -- the 7th Special Forces Group -- leaves its home in Fort Bragg, N.C., for a seven-month stint in Afghanistan, it takes two of its three battalions. That leaves far fewer of the American troops who train the militaries that combat drug trafficking in hotspots, like Colombia.
To cope, the Pentagon is sending the Tampa-based Special Operations Command an additional 13,000 troops over the next five years.
The Special Operations Command oversees the most elite units in each armed service, including Navy SEALS, Air Force combat air controllers, the Army's Green Berets, Rangers and super-secret Delta Force and, as of 2006, a new cadre of select Marine commandos.
They embed in foreign militaries, such as Afghanistan's Northern Alliance, and take on secret missions, such as hunting for al Qaeda operatives in Iraq. That is the job a Navy SEAL, who asked us to identify him only by first name, Jordan, had until two months ago.
"We were busy," Jordan told ABC News. "We worked a lot, doing assaults, direct-action missions, going in and grabbing people."
Even a drawdown in Iraq would not ease the strain in the short term, because commanders here say that special operators will stay at roughly the same number, regardless of whether overall troop levels in Iraq fall over the next year.
Since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the military has increasingly shifted from a Cold War-era force, based on massive conventional armies, toward counterterrorism and unconventional warfare -- the specialties of special operations troops. Pentagon commanders expect that shift to continue in future armed conflicts.
So, the Pentagon is increasingly relying on the Special Operations Command, giving it not just more troops, but more money and more equipment, as well. The budget for SOCOM, as the command is known, has increased from $3.6 billion in 2000 to $6.2 billion in 2008 -- and that's without secret so-called "black ops" budgets and the "emergency" supplemental funding bills that have become routinely used to pay for the wars.
The administration has asked for $5.7 billion for fiscal 2009, plus $2 billion in war-related funding, an amount Congress could well increase.