U.S. 'Snake Eaters' to Spearhead Ground Assault
Friday, October 19, 2001 4:38 PM EST
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Special operations forces -- the so-called ``snake eaters'' of the U.S. military -- are trained and equipped for clandestine combat ranging from nighttime snatch-and-grabs to sniping with .50 caliber rifles and sabotage.
Marking what could be a new phase in the U.S.-led campaign against terrorism, defense officials confirmed on Friday that small numbers of such U.S. commandos, who typically travel in units of 12 or fewer, were on the ground in Afghanistan.
Even before mounting direct strikes, U.S. Army special forces would take the lead in advising and supporting anti-Taliban rebel groups such as the Northern Alliance.
Ultimately, they could call in bombing, strafing or rocket fire from U.S. Air Force Special Operations AC-130 gunships or other aircraft.
``Special operators,'' as they like to call themselves, are carefully selected and highly schooled for missions requiring different skills from those normally found in conventional military units.
Among these are short, small-scale strikes such as raids, ambushes and ``surgical strikes'' -- like capturing or killing terror suspect Osama bin Laden and his top lieutenants.
Army special forces, also known as Green Berets, are trained to live off the land for long stretches while they scout suspected hide-outs and enemy positions using night-vision goggles.
When the time came, they could use hard-to-detect ``burst'' transmissions or hand-held laser designators to guide in heavier forces, air strikes or laser-guided munitions.
Green Berets are trained to speak the languages of the countries in which they specialize, developing a cultural awareness that is polished by frequent overseas deployments and training missions in the region.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said on Thursday that U.S.-British air strikes that began on Oct. 7 had weakened the Taliban military and driven some of bin Ladin's al Qaeda guerrillas from their hide-outs but unconventional moves were needed to win the battle.
``You don't do it with conventional capabilities. You do it with unconventional capabilities,'' Rumsfeld said, noting that aircraft ``can't crawl around on the ground'' as the special operators might do.
Without confirming the presence of elite U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Navy Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem, a deputy director of operations on the Pentagon's joint staff, told a briefing on Friday their capabilities were ``always important.''
He cited special operators' ``tremendous capability in intelligence gathering and ... tremendous capability in training others, especially in small unit military tactics.''
The bulk of the Army's 26,000 special operations forces are known as Rangers -- light infantry who may deploy with just five days' worth of supplies but with lots of firepower -- including the .50 caliber Barrett sniper rifle capable of firing metal-piercing rounds nearly a mile (1.6 km).
In Afghanistan, Rangers likely would be the muscle of any major special operations deployment. They could be used for short strikes or to protect a ``snatch-and-grab'' by the Army's ultra-secretive Delta counter-terrorist force, military experts said.
Equipped with shoulder-mounted antitank missiles and grenade launchers, the Rangers could secure an area for Delta forces ``to go in for a specific target,'' said Andrew Gembara, a retired Army Special Forces lieutenant colonel who served in Iran and has toured Afghanistan.
Gembara said special operations forces probably had been on the ground in Afghanistan for some time, both to work with rebel and tribal groups and to dig in to heavily camouflaged positions for ``strategic reconnaissance.''
A large number of U.S. special operations forces are on the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk, which has been steaming to the Arabian Sea.
BRITISH SPECIAL FORCES
According to persistent reports, also on the ground in Afghanistan are special operators from Britain's highly regarded Special Air Service (SAS) regiment units. That unit grew out of covert desert warfare in World War Two.
U.S. special operations forces -- including the Navy's multi-role Sea, Air and Land (SEAL) teams -- include a total of 45,000 active and reserve personnel across the services, or about 2 percent of all U.S. active and reserve forces.
The Marine Corps has no dedicated special operations units, but some are trained in special operations ahead of overseas deployments, according to the U.S. Congressional Research Service.
The current, dedicated budget of the Tampa, Florida-based U.S. Special Operations Command is about $3.7 billion per year -- a bit more than 1 percent of the annual U.S. defense budget, the research service said in an Oct. 15 report for Congress.
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