In military jargon they are called "low-intensity conflicts." More commonly they are known as "dirty little wars." By any name they are the kinds of battles most likely to be fought by U.S. troops in a precarious nuclear age: rescuing hostages from terrorism, fighting guerrillas or teaching allies how to fight them, protecting disparate American interests in a variety of regions.
These unorthodox struggles require a special type of soldier: bold and resourceful, often trained in the black arts of stealth and sabotage, suitable for an elite unit that can vanish into alien territory or strike anywhere with speed and surprise. Recent events have underscored the need for such mobile, small-scale fighting units. As Americans abroad have become increasingly vulnerable to terrorist attacks like the Christmas-week atrocities in Rome and Vienna, Washington has recognized more than ever the utility of a quick and certain response. At the same time, the Reagan Administration has placed increased emphasis on a "new globalism" designed to assert U.S. interests abroad by providing covert and overt assistance to rebels fighting Soviet-backed regimes around the world.
Deciding just how the U.S. should go about organizing and deploying such Special Forces has provoked a fierce debate in the corridors of the Pentagon and in secret congressional hearings over the past few months. When he went West for New Year's, President Reagan took with him a secret report from the Holloway Commission, a White House task force set up six months ago to explore new ways of fighting terrorism. Next week the debate will spill into the open, as Secretary of State George Shultz and Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger join more than 100 experts to discuss the future of low-intensity conflict at a symposium at Fort McNair in Washington.
Every U.S. President since John F. Kennedy has preferred, whenever possible, to use the scalpel of a Special Forces operation rather than the blunter tools of conventional warfare. The Reagan Administration has given top priority to building up Special Forces, increasing their budget from $441 million in 1982 to $1.2 billion this year, and the number of troops from 11,000 to nearly 15,000. At the very least, the Administration has rescued special operations from the post-Viet Nam era of neglect, which was so ignominiously exposed in the wreckage of Desert One during the failed Iranian hostage rescue mission of 1980.
The military command, however, has been a good deal less enthusiastic about this new breed of warrior. Special Forces are often regarded by the brass as unworthy of precious defense dollars and a bit too independent to boot. Disclosures last November that members of the supersecret Delta Force had been charged with skimming covert intelligence funds only heightened Pentagon suspicions that the Special Forces are a bunch of freebooters. Shrugged retired Army Brigadier General Donald Blackburn, an expert on unconventional warfare: "Special Forces have always been the bastards of the Army."