When the White House released the 2013 budget proposal, the writing was on the wall for ground forces. For the Army, 72,000 soldiers were slashed from its end strength. For the Marine Corps: 20,000.
In addition, the Navy may lose 6,550 slots, and the Air Force, 9,900 billets.
But no one in the White House or Pentagon was talking about cutting the ranks of special operators. They number about 66,000 personnel now, and the goal to reach 70,000 will not change.
Adm. William H. McRaven, Special Operations Command commander, said, “The future of special operations forces looks very bright.” It is a cost-effective force spread out in 75 different countries on any given day, he said. Its funding only comes to about 1.6 percent of the Defense Department budget. “You can’t pick up a paper without seeing some reference to special operations, and I am very proud of that fact,” McRaven said at the National Defense Industrial Association’s annual Special Operations/Low Intensity Conflict conference.
Special Operations Command has doubled the number of personnel since 9/11 and its budget has soared from $3.5 billion to $10.5 billion, he noted.
Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command will be adding 821 troops, mostly intelligence, communications and other specialists needed to support the 2,500 troops already in the units, said Maj. Gen. Paul Lefebvre, MARSOC commander.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in a speech revealing the 2013 budget that the drawdown of the post-9/11 wars will provide more opportunities for Special Operations Forces, not less, namely in the realm of training and assisting partner nations in other regions.
The “Sustaining Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense” document President Obama released in January reemphasized many core missions that coincide with those associated with special forces, including: tailored counterterrorism and irregular warfare missions; interdicting weapons of mass destruction; projecting power in inaccessible areas; and building the capacity of partner nations.
The downside is the potential losses conventional forces may suffer as budgets shrink. SOCOM is dependent on the other services and other agencies for support such as intelligence and logistics, McRaven stressed. And those services may not fare as well in the budget battles.
Another factor that may put a damper on special operations growth is the threat of sequestration. The Budget Control Act calls for a special committee to find $1.5 trillion in federal budget cuts by the end of the year. If it fails, it will trigger automatic, across-the-board spending cuts totaling $100 billion per year that will be spread out among defense and non-defense departments.
James W. Cluck, SOCOM’s acquisition executive and director of the Special Operations Research, Development and Acquisition Center, was asked at an NDIA breakfast whether the possibility of sequestration was spoken about in the halls of SOCOM’s Tampa, Fla., headquarters.
“Is it talked about a lot? I think the answer is ‘no,’” he said. “But it is a concern — anytime you’re going to lose money, that has an impact on the capabilities you can deliver.”
With or without sequestration, SOCOM may lose about $1 billion over the 2014-2019 budget cycle, “which is lot of money to a small portfolio,” Cluck said.
The community has also been the recipient of supplemental budgets over the past decade, but that may come to an end.
They helped SOF buy “a lot of stuff” over the past 10 years, said Michael Sheehan, assistant secretary of defense for special operations/low intensity conflict. As those temporary accounts shrink, Special Operations Forces will have to find funding in the baseline budget.
But Sheehan said even this scenario wouldn’t be all that bad.
“That’s not going to be easy, but I am here to tell you today that we’re going to make that happen in the Department of Defense for the special operations community,” Sheehan said. “We’re going to be in pretty good shape.”
There will be budget battles, as there always have been, Sheehan said. But he has seen a strong commitment from “the highest levels of this administration” for SOF, he said.
But changes are ahead. The strategic shift outlined in documents released early this year will mean requirements for new equipment, and more emphasis on non-Middle East cultures.
What happens to the special operations mission after the planned troop drawdown in Afghanistan? The debate within the community remains whether special operators will continue to be known for commando style raids, or return to its roots as trainers and advisers. There are 12,000 SOF personnel deployed overseas at any given time, and only a handful are directly engaging enemies of the United States. There will be a shift back to the advisory role, said Sheehan.
“Instead of a SOF operator kicking in a door and bringing an action against an enemy, we want a local to do that,” he added.
That doesn’t mean the kinetic skills will atrophy. “A Special Forces guy has to know how to do it first before he can train and advise. So they will keep that capability. But hopefully, they will be doing less of it.”
Ideally, SOF will be reducing its direct action role in Afghanistan as that conflict winds down.
“It’s always a better scenario when a local goes through a door and he puts somebody in handcuffs as opposed to taking other, more kinetic action,” Sheehan said.
Air Force Lt. Gen. Bradley Heithold, SOCOM vice commander, also said the strategic shift will mean changes.
That means different missions and programming priorities as the command moves to other regions, particularly in the Pacific and in Africa, while still maintaining its focus on violent extremist organizations.
“Mobility is going to be key. Aviation is going to be critical to us in some very large theaters. It is a different challenge from what we faced in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said.
The emphasis on operations in Iraq and land-locked Afghanistan has meant that some of SOCOM’s sea-based equipment has lagged.
Cluck said: “We have spent the last 10 years without the sea in SEAL.”
“Maritime mobility is also very important to us. We have taken some risk over the years,” Heithold said.
“Naval special warfare command has been largely landlocked. We have taken some risk in maritime mobility and that is something as we shift back to the Pacific that we need to focus on,” he added.
SOCOM is in the process of producing a roadmap to look at mobility needs for the next 10 years, he said.
Intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance sensors are going to be different from what special operators used in Afghanistan and Iraq, he noted. There will be a need to do this from the sea and have naval support for ISR “so we can reach out in the Pacific,” he said.
Stealth is another key enabler for the command. Special operations leaders are normally reticent about discussing such capabilities in public forums.
Without mentioning the Osama bin Laden raid in Pakistan, and the apparently modified helicopter that crashed, Heithold said every time special operators “use the magic you kind of burn that capability somewhat. How much magic is left in there?” he wondered.
The command can look at modifying existing platforms, he said. “But to start from the ground up and build a stealthy, penetrating capability for special operators in today’s [fiscal] environment is tough.”
That also goes for maritime platforms, he said. “I will tell you that there is a lot of consideration on how we’re going to do that. . . You got to think a little bit outside the box. How else can we get them there?”
Jim Brooks, deputy director of Air Force strategic planning, said: “Quite frankly, I don’t see that there will be much room in the fiscal environment that we’re in to go out and explore a completely different approach to” stealthy platforms.
Cluck said a new emphasis in lifecycle costs that has spread across the Defense Department has reached SOCOM acquisitions as well.
“It’s crazy that we are buying things that we can’t sustain,” Cluck said. The past decade has seen a proliferation of new, expensive-to-maintain gadgets that were rushed into the field to fight the post-9/11 conflicts.The command is currently going through these to see what will be kept, put away, or gotten rid of altogether, he said. Lifecycle costs are going to be a major factor in future acquisitions, he said. That will mean more stringent requirements for reporting reliability.
SOCOM will be looking for technologies that are “better deals” for both the operators and the taxpayers in the long run, he added.
Air Force Maj. Gen. Thomas Trask, director of force structure, requirements, resources and strategic assessments at SOCOM, said special operations growth does not mean SOCOM did not have to undergo scrutiny in order to wring savings out of the command’s budget. Every program has undergone the “wire brush” treatment to scrub it of inefficiencies, he said.
Despite tighter budgets, Special Operations Command still has needs it wants to fulfill.
“Clearly mobility is a very big part of who were are,” McRaven said. “If we can’t get to the target, and we can’t get to the target clandestinely, and if we can’t get to the target ready to fight, then we are not going to be of a lot of value.”
SOCOM will continue to invest its research-and-development dollars into platforms, as well as soldier systems, he said. Those would include night vision goggles, general optics and weapon systems.
Yet, Cluck, speaking several weeks after McRaven’s comments, lamented a large cut in SOCOM’s research, development, test and evaluation accounts in the fiscal year 2013 request. Operations and management accounts are “eating into” the RDT&E budget, he said.
“If we’re expecting to innovate, if we’re expecting to bring in the latest, next-generation capability, we have got to do that and fund it with R&D to get the creative juices going in industry,” Cluck said.
Vendors will either have to go after a shrinking pot of contracts or ramp up their own internal research-and-development programs, he said.
“I’m seeing that more and more in the future,” he added. Cluck said McRaven understands the risk of a continued erosion of the R&D funding, and is working to reverse that trend in future budgets.