Despite Wider Cuts, Special Operations Command Budget Outlook Remains Rosy

By Stew Magnuson
On the surface, Special Operations Command is holding its own in a time of fiscal austerity.
As far as what is requested at the beginning of the budget cycle and what is eventually enacted, it normally receives what it asks for along with a little bit more.

The 2016 presidential budget request is almost $8 billion, plus overseas contingency operations funds to defray the cost of Middle East deployments.

In 2015, it received $7.6 billion plus $2.3 billion in OCO funding.

Special Operations Command has strong support in the administration and among lawmakers, a senior Defense Department official said.

“Despite the austere budget environment that we currently face, the administration and Congress have demonstrated a clear commitment to the SOF community,” said Michael Dumont, principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations/low-intensity conflict.

There are open lines of communications to all four major defense committees, he added.
Yet SOCOM leaders are quick to point out that the command’s base budget is just a small percentage of the overall Defense Department topline.

“SOCOM only represents 1.6 percent of the Department of Defense budget, so we must spend wisely using our [Special Operations Forces] dollars for things that are truly SOF unique and maximizing our relationships with the services, to provide the rest,” said Army Gen. Joseph L. Votel, SOCOM commander.

Dependence on the services is a major cause for concern, even as SOCOM enjoys strong backing from policymakers and appropriators.

The threat of sequestration returning in 2016 and further fiscal austerity can undercut SOCOM’s ability to deploy personnel needed on the ground.

“The reliance on the services is where we see the largest impact from where I sit,” Michael D. Lumpkin, assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict, said at the House Armed Services Committee subcommittee on emerging threats and capabilities.
Special operators rely on the other services for a variety of jobs, including air- and sealift, communications, and intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance.  

“I fear that if sequestration were to take affect in [FY] 16 the services would divest of their support and we are more reliant on them than before,” Lumpkin said. “The impact would not be direct, but it would be significant nonetheless.”

Votel singled out Navy helicopters as an example of a program that special operators rely upon, but could face cutbacks in the coming years.

“I am very concerned about the impact it will have on the services. The lack of availability of air, ground and especially maritime platforms will affect our readiness, our training exercises, that we count on to be ready,” he added.

That isn’t to say that draconian cuts would not have a direct impact on its operations, Votel added at the hearing.

“Where we would see immediate impact is some of our key investment areas. That would include procurement and recapitalization of some of our air, ground and maritime platforms,” he testified.

“It could effect the enhancing of some of our SOF specific ISR capabilities that have been so effective for us fighting some of the enemies that we deal with today.

“It could also affect our communications infrastructure and equipment technology upon which we depend to conduct global operations,” he added.

Dumont pointed out that this all comes at a time when crises throughout the world are proliferating, and demands for what special operations forces provide are on the rise.

“There are no short term fixes to the unprecedented levels of instability that we are now witnessing,” he said.

“At a minimum, we need to have the capacity to try to shape events on the ground with as little force and as little risk as possible. Otherwise, we will have to deal with problems that will require us to use more resources, more force and under conditions that will allow us to assume even greater risk,” Dumont said.

The 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review calls for an additional 3,700 special operations personnel.

Todd Harrison, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, predicted SOCOM’s funding will remain relatively steady.

“SOF has been prioritized in the force since 9/11 and I actually think that trend is going to continue. But it doesn’t mean SOF are immune from any cuts. You might see some reductions in SOF but probably far less than the cutbacks we are likely to see in other areas, particularly if we have to stick to the [Budget Control Act] level of funding,” Harrison said.

Andrew Feickert, a specialist in military ground forces at the Congressional Research Service, noted in a May 2014 report that the personnel increase will have to be addressed by Congress. At the time of the report, SOCOM had some 66,000 military, reserve and civilians under its command.

“The 2014 QDR calls for approximately 3,700 additional personnel to be added to the command and places a heavy emphasis on the conduct of counterterrorism operations, but it provides little detail or discussion on how these mandates will be accomplished,” Feickert wrote. “In terms of the 3,700 additional personnel, are they ‘operators,’ headquarters, or support personnel or a combination of all three?” he asked.

Harrison said SOCOM may actually be able to boost its numbers in the coming years despite the austere budget environment.

“In the grand scheme of things 3,000 SOF is a drop in the bucket compared to about 1.4 million in the active force overall,” he said.

Operations are already putting pressure on other parts of the command’s budget, noted James F. Geurts, SOCOM acquisition executive. He showed a chart at the conference where the command’s science and technology and test and evaluation budget was facing a steady decline. It drops from $508 million enacted in 2015 to $344 million in 2019.

That is because operations and maintenance, and sustainment accounts continue to grow, he said.

“What does that do? It puts pressure on the R&D dollars. And when you put pressure on the R&D dollars, you won’t get the boss’ vision of always being ready and planning for the future,” Geurts said.

His goal is to have at least 5 percent of the command’s funding dedicated to R&D. “I think that’s achievable,” he said.

Despite the low numbers, “In the execution year, we almost always have the same amount,” he noted. Congress normally comes through with more funding. But that might not be sustainable, especially after 2017.

“We are looking hard at ’17,” he said.

The command is rethinking the way it carries out its logistics operations. There may be some savings there that can “create some headroom and tradeoffs” and thus help out the R&D account, he said.

SOCOM has traditionally been combat focused, usually looking two to three years out, not 10 to 15 years on the equipment development side, he noted.

SOCOM is creating technology roadmaps, looking at programming 20 years out. “What I want to buy 10 years from now is probably what I want to be developing six or seven years out,” Geurts said. International partners and industry can start planning now, he said.

“That will also be good for the service labs and the DoD labs that are doing that basic research,” he added.

The wild card for special operations funding continues to be the overseas contingency operations budgets. In recent years, almost 25 percent of the command’s final number comes from this annual allotment.

Lumpkin said operations in Iraq and Syria are paid through OCO. As for hardware requested in the budgets, it is preferable that it comes out of the base budget, he testified.

“It increases my fiscal uncertainty,” he said.

There is no guarantee that if SOCOM buys a piece of equipment that it will have sustainment costs in the out years.

It’s like buying a car and not being sure there will be money to pay for insurance and gas two years from now, he said.

“In the out years it becomes very problematic when you have this reliance on OCO and don’t move it over to your base budget,” he said.

Votel added: “Base money provides us certainty in a time of uncertainty as we continue moving forward in this very complex environment so I think that helps us plan better. It helps us make better investments long term and then of course it gives us the best ability to sustain those programs.”

Dumont said: “We need to maintain special operations capabilities to support our national objects wherever and whenever.”

“We are watching the sequestration process closely. … We are in pretty constant dialogue with our comptroller staff about adjusting resources when they need to be adjusted.

“It has us engaging in Capitol Hill quite frequently. We have a lot of proponents on Capitol Hill who are working closely with us to make sure the impact on the budget this coming year and going forward is not such an abrupt change that we have to make drastic changes, especially at the last minute.”

Topics: Defense Department, DOD Budget, Special Operations-Low Intensity Conflict

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