DoD Paying Huge Bonuses to Retain Green Berets, SEALs

The Defense Department is paying six figure salaries to retain special operations troops that were previously being lured away by high salaries at mercenary firms hired by the Defense Department.

The Pentagon has paid more than $100 million in bonuses to veteran Green Berets and Navy SEALs, reversing the flow of top commandos to the corporate world where security companies such as Blackwater USA are offering big salaries. The retention effort, started nearly three years ago and overseen by U.S. Special Operations Command in Tampa, Fla., has helped preserve a small but elite group of enlisted troops with vast experience fighting the unconventional wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to Defense Department statistics. Overall, more than 1,200 of the military’s most specialized personnel near or already eligible for retirement have opted for payments of up to $150,000 in return for staying in uniform several more years.

The numbers gathered by The Associated Press and other Pentagon research indicate there has not been an extended exodus of commandos to private security companies and other businesses that value their talents. “Back in 2005, we saw quite a few exits,” said Rear Adm. Michael LeFever, director of the Navy’s military personnel plans and policy division. “What we’re seeing lately is just the opposite. We’ve become very aggressive.”

Defense Secretary Robert Gates remains so concerned over the lure of high salaries in the private sector that he has directed Pentagon lawyers to explore putting no-compete clauses into contracts with security companies that would limit their recruiting abilities.

Leave it to the federal government to bid against itself for its own employees. While the no-compete clause makes some sense, the more obvious solution would be for the government to stop hiring mercenaries.

Beyond that, though, it’s long past time for the Defense Department to overhaul its pay structure. By making compensation mostly based on rank, we make it very hard to retain enlisted personnel who are can command much more in the outside world for the training they’ve received. Re-enlistment bonuses are one way of dealing with that but radically higher special skill pay might be a more effective tool at attracting and keeping the best and brightest.

OPFOR’s Charlie argues that an expanded force structure and fewer deployments would be even more effective. I’m skeptical, however, of the ability to substantially expand the size of the special operations forces; there’s a reason they’re “special.”

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. JustADude says:

    Granted the special forces are special without a doubt and hard to expand.

    However one only needs to examine the gap between them and generalized troops/sailors etc then you see that part of the issue we have now is our rare and highly skilled special force people are being used in a lot of places that are less than the best employment of their skillset.

    It would be better to train up another class of people maybe 1/2 to 3/4 of the way across the gap to put into a lot of the jobs now done by the SF to release them for the jobs they really are meant to do.

    Warfighters we need, but there is also going to be a long term need for COIN specialists and multiple language / cultural skills.

    Simply a matter of optimization and working toward the most effective goals.

  2. DC Loser says:

    It would be better to train up another class of people maybe 1/2 to 3/4 of the way across the gap to put into a lot of the jobs now done by the SF to release them for the jobs they really are meant to do.

    I thought those were called Marines 🙂