One of Kerry's proposal in his acceptance speech last week was to double the size of the special forces in the military. Surprisingly, NPR the next day interviewed someone from the far right who tore into each of Kerry's military proposals (material for another post...why would NPR allow a key part of a speech by their favored candidate be torn apart without an attempt at balance...are Democrats strengthening the military that repulsive?)
The analyst argument was that it was impossible to double the special forces due to difficulty in recruiting.
Which is true enough. There are a limited number of people in the military who are qualified for special forces by temperament, physical makeup, and intellectual strength (most special forces personnel are quite smart -- though often in less traditional academic ways). I met so many people who joined the Navy to become a SEAL, yet they were a scrub reject pushing paper somewhere. Why? Because a true SEAL candidate would be excelling wherever in the military they currently happened to be instead of complaining they couldn't get their shot. Right now, special forces is a tough sell -- minimal increase in pay, huge increase in job difficulty and time deployed away from home, tough promotion outlook. A certain group is still attracted to working with the best of the best.
But many others are happy where they are. The civilian job market has traditionally been quite hostile to the types of skillsets a SEAL has (not officers though -- they can easily get MBAs and transition). While we enjoy watching movies about people who regularly kill with their bare hands and could lead a revolution (see Northern Iraq), many companies are somewhat wary of employing them. And their skills can be hard to transfer. But now that there are plenty of contractors hiring, not surprisingly they're leaving as soon as possible. Its the first decent transition they've been offered. As compared to say submarine officers, who are paid at least $10K more each year to start and $20K more after 5 years. The enlisted side is the same -- $50K reenlistment bonuses and $8-10K/year submarine pay are routine. (Submarine pay is high due to difficult working conditions and significant academic requirements for running a nuclear power plant. Also the skills for officers and enlisted are very transferable to high-end manufacturing and engineering firms as well as civilian nuclear power).
Why? It is much harder to become a SEAL officer than be a submarine officer. They take in 10% or less of the numbers. And there are outstanding people turned down every year. But supply and demand for SEAL officers clears at a lower level than for submarine officers. Enough people are attracted to the field that they don't have to pay as much. The value equation for both fields has been tailored to get exactly the number of people the need.
But the reverse works as well. If Kerry wants twice as many special forces, this doesn't imply a loss of quality. It implies thinking differently. Don't reduce standards (but increase the rate at which you can screen people to those standards -- read about "Hell Week" for an idea of the standards). To recruit more special forces, you increase the pay -- a lot. And then you shape recruiting to fill the seats. There's a substantial number of college graduates who might really enjoy the high-performance environment, physical challenges, and excitement of being in special forces. Officer billets aren't feasible (more than enough ROTC and Academy graduates). But enlisted pay is not competitive (since its designed for low-skill high school graduates). And there's always the risk that you'll fail out (even very, very good people fail) and end up chipping paint in some Naval shipyard. So these people, with their bachelors (or masters) degrees in Arabic languages, or international relations, or civil engineering, go off and get a civilian job today.
So here's my solution for special forces. Increase pay as necessary ($40K is a good starting salary for successful graduates of SEAL training). Pay is a fraction of the cost of fielding a special forces unit (or any sophisticated military unit -- yearly salary for a submarine crew is 1/200 the construction cost and not significantly more than the annual maintenance costs). Have a special recruiting program for graduates from well-respected public and private universities. If you haven't run a marathon, speak three languages, and were a Division I athlete, don't bother applying. Go to boot camp, go to special forces training -- if you drop out you go back to the civilian world and no offense is taken. Otherwise, the job is yours. After two years, you can compete for a commission as an officer. Many won't want one -- they'll leave at the end of their four-year enlistment and enter an extraordinary range of fields (government, intelligence, business). Others will stay for a career.
There are some things that cannot be solved by the intelligent application of money. Fielding twice as many special forces from 293 million Americans isn't one of them. We assume things are impossible -- because they are impossible with current processes designed to maintain the current state instead of to achieve the desired state.