A Helicopter Shortage Puts Green Berets at Risk

Some U.S. special forces in Afghanistan and Pakistan may be at higher risk than usual of injury and death because the Pentagon has not equipped their units with enough helicopters to transport them safely around the countries, say six current and former military officials. Two of those officials, all of whom asked for anonymity fearing retaliation by Pentagon brass, tell NEWSWEEK that the roughly 800 Green Berets in the Afghanistan-Pakistan theater engaged in what are known as "white" missions—recruiting and training local antiterrorist militias—have only three Chinook heavy-lift helicopters to move them around combat zones infested with snipers and roadside improvised explosive devices. By contrast, Green Berets assigned to "black" ops commando units hunting high-value terrorist targets are much more generously equipped. The white forces, assigned to vital but unglamorous counterinsurgency missions, are the Pentagon's "bastard stepchildren," says one of the officials. The helicopter shortage is so acute, say three of the officials, that requests for helicopters for white Green Beret airlift are rejected 80 percent of the time; some commanders no longer bother asking.

Green Beret officers have worried privately for years about the helicopter shortage, and top military officials have publicly acknowledged that it is a concern. In April, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that one of his top priorities was getting "more Special Forces-optimized lift mobility": Pentagon-speak for helicopters. But the officials NEWSWEEK spoke to say it was difficult to get traction on the subject with their superiors. The brass, they say, worried that reassigning helicopters from one unit to another could shortchange other troops who also need them.

Several members of Congress have now taken up the cause, and the issue may soon get the kind of airing long hoped for by commanders on the ground. Republican Sen. Kit Bond, a member of the Senate's Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, tells NEWSWEEK that he is "looking into disturbing reports of a shortage of helicopter support." One solution might be to create a new helicopter unit for the Special Forces. But this would cost as much as $3 billion—money that the Pentagon, already stretched, doesn't have. Another option: hire private helicopter operators. But this carries political risks. One of the best-equipped contractors is an affiliate of Xe Services, the controversial company formerly known as Blackwater. Instead, the military may resort to scouring Reserve units in the United States for whatever spare choppers haven't already been sent overseas. "The fact is both personnel and equipment … are finite," says Col. Tim Nye, U.S. Special Operations Command spokesman. "Airlift is a top priority, and one of many concerns to which USSOCOM devotes considerable attention."