Exhausted American and British special forces troopers, the West's front line in the war on terrorism, are resigning in record numbers and taking highly-paid jobs as private security guards in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Senior US commanders are so alarmed that they have held emergency meetings to agree new deals on pay and conditions for the men.
Men from the SAS in Britain and Australia and America's Delta Force are said to be weary after almost 30 months of nearly continuous service since the September 11 attacks.
Gen Bryan "Doug" Brown, head of the US special operations command, summoned his commanders to Washington for a crisis meeting last week. He told the Senate armed services committee that the retention of special forces had become "a big issue".
US special forces troopers earn up to pounds 30,000 but are being offered packages of pounds 60,000 to pounds 120,000 to work in combat zones.
For SAS soldiers earning pounds 250 a week in Iraq, the lure of up to pounds 1,000 a week is easily understood. The most experienced men in the most dangerous jobs are reported to be making pounds 5,000 a week.
The manning crisis comes as Donald Rumsfeld, the US defence secretary, pushes the military to use special forces more and more widely, favouring them over conventional forces, for their speed, small scale and ability to operate in complete secrecy with only minimal legal oversight.
Gen David Grange, a retired army Ranger, Green Beret and member of Delta Force - the elite, top-secret unit modelled on the SAS - told The Daily Telegraph yesterday that family pressures were also taking their toll on his former colleagues.
"In my Vietnam platoon two people were married. Now it's maybe 60 per cent. Even if special forces are wild characters, with high divorce rates, there's still enormous pressure from families. They've been away more or less continuously since September 11 and wives are asking, 'Where the hell are you?' "
The war on terrorism has placed unprecedented strains on special forces. Gen Grange said: "The US army alone has people in 120 countries.
"A lot of those people are special forces - counter-drug, counter-insurgency or counter-terrorism - as well as our own insertions."
The US government is also increasingly privatising its most sensitive missions, hiring defence contractors for such tasks as guarding Paul Bremer, the Iraq occupation chief, or Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, or heading overseas to train foreign militaries.
Peter Singer, author of Corporate Warriors, a study of such privatisation, said the US defence department was the largest client for such private security contractors, paying companies large sums to supply them with former special forces whose training was paid for by US taxpayers.
Gen Grange said special bonuses were now being paid to special forces for overseas deployment and hazardous duty. But money was never the key factor for many of his comrades, he said. "In the private sector you don't have the brotherhood or the sense of duty and country."
Though many of Gen Grange's missions remain secret, he conceded that special operations offered greater excitement than private work.
"Going out to destroy something or capture or kill someone - those have to be government or military missions unless you're a mercenary or doing something illegal."
Green Berets and other special forces receive 18 months' training in combat and survival skills, including airborne and amphibious warfare, and are also required to learn at least one foreign language. They may apply only after six to eight years in the military. Army Rangers are also counted as special forces, specialising in seizing airfields and ports.
The precise number of US special forces is shrouded in secrecy, though an overall figure of between 49,000 and 66,000 is quoted for Special Operations Command.
However, Jennifer Kibbe, an intelligence specialist at the Brookings Institution in Washington DC, said such large numbers included administrative and support personnel. "What they call 'trigger pullers' is more in the vein of 10,000," she said.
British officials say more than 300 soldiers have left the armed forces in the past six months to take up lucrative jobs with private companies such as Olive Security, Armour Security, Global and USDID. The problem goes beyond elite special forces. There are more than 160 British former paratroopers working in Baghdad, where the Coalition Provisional Authority has hired a battalion of Fijian soldiers to guard money deliveries to banks.
More than 500 former Gurkhas, working for Global Logistics Security, are guarding buildings for the CPA.
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