Special Ops Command Faces Funding Cuts

By Jon Harper

Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Joseph P. Leveille

U.S. Special Operations Command could see reductions in modernization investments in the coming years as the Pentagon focuses on great power competition.

President Donald Trump’s fiscal year 2021 budget request included $2.3 billion for procurement for SOCOM, a reduction of about 12 percent compared to the enacted amount for 2020, and 26 percent less than what it was allocated in 2019, according to budget documents.

It also included $732 million for research, development, test and evaluation, about 14 percent less than the $852 million it received in 2020. However, that would still be well above the $613 million it received for RDT&E in 2019, providing more money to develop next-generation systems.

“The FY 2021 budget for [Special Operations Forces] investments procures, modernizes, and/or modifies SOF-peculiar aviation, mobility, and maritime platforms, weapons, ordnance, and communications equipment,” the Pentagon said in its budget overview. “The FY 2021 budget sustains SOF growth and readiness, and increases lethality through modernization and recapitalization, and investing in new technologies.”

Special Operations Command declined to provide topline numbers for projected modernization investments over the course of the future years defense program, saying the information was “pre-decisional.”

Steven Bucci, a defense analyst with the Heritage Foundation and a former Special Forces officer, said SOCOM might see its budgets trimmed in the coming years as the Pentagon’s main focus turns toward great power competition with China and Russia and away from counterinsurgency and counterterrorism.

“It’s kind of inevitable,” he said. “The world has changed.”

However, there are still counterterrorism and counterinsurgency challenges out there, he noted, and SOF also has a role to play in great power competition.

“Now we’re going to have to have a lot more scrutiny so that the equipment buys and equipment usage that we come up with is going to have to be useful in both fights,” Bucci said. “That’s the only way SOCOM is going to maintain the capability that it needs to do both” missions.

SOCOM’s total funding request for 2021 was $13 billion — about $700 million, or 5 percent, less than was enacted for 2020.

Requested procurement funding for 2021 includes: $211 million, an 18 percent increase, for rotary-wing platform upgrades and sustainment; $34 million, a 70 percent increase, for unmanned intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems; $243 million, a 4 percent bump, for precision strike packages; $163 million, a 14 percent boost, for AC/MC-130J gunships; and $101 million for a new Armed Overwatch aircraft program. 

Other procurement requests include: $21 million, a 64 percent cut, for underwater systems; $292 million, a 29 percent decrease, for ordnance; $111 million, a 5 percent reduction, for intelligence systems; $33 million, a 71 percent cut, for tactical vehicles; and $293 million, a 13 percent decrease, for warrior systems.

SOCOM spokesman Navy Lt. Cmdr. Tim Hawkins said the command now has six top capability areas where it is focusing its science-and-technology efforts. They are: biotechnologies/human interface; hyper-enabled operator; network and data management; next-generation effects/precision strike; next-generation mobility and advanced technology solutions for air, ground and maritime forces; and next-generation ISR and tactically relevant situational awareness.

The hyper-enabled operator effort “focuses on improving the speed and quality of operator decision-making by providing the benefits of advanced data analytics at the edge in contested and denied environments,” Hawkins said in an email.

Network and data management initiatives will help ensure connectivity for communications and navigation in contested or denied areas, he noted.

Next-generation precision strike efforts are focused on “enhancing SOF lethality and ensuring dominance in denied and future operating environments by developing technology, scalable effects weapons, and cyber/electronic attack effects with increased range,” Hawkins said.

Next-generation ISR and situational awareness initiatives will include the development of cutting edge, autonomous systems that will reduce operators’ cognitive load and support “rapid, on-the-move ability to learn and communicate knowledge in all domains,” he added.

Topics: Special Operations, Special Operations-Low Intensity Conflict, Budget

Comments (3)

Re: Special Ops Command Faces Funding Cuts

In a special forces world were stealth and quickness is often a decisive factor, I do wonder if communications, ISR, and small arms will "Win the day" in the future.

True, USSOCOM's Legacy vehicles are being updated, upgraded, and new, but with the conventional forces and peer nations adopting stealthy aircraft, vessels, and vehicles, I wonder how future stealth and silent speed will play an integral role in USSOCOM because some SOF vehicles just aren't stealthy or fast enough, such as the AC-130J.

For years, Aviation magazines have promoted the need for a stealthy supersonic transport plane...and yet nothing materialized. The helicopters flown are upgraded versions of 1970s and 1980s designs. A lot of the piloting has to do with pure luck, great intelligence, awesome piloting skills, high training, and defensive aids.

Yes, there was the Stealthhawk/Blackhawk, but rumors had it that it didn't perform that well, hence few were built. I am sure that there are other classified "Black Programs" kept secret, but one has to wonder how many of them panned out such as the Navy's "Stealth Ship" or the M80 Stiletto that never was made into a USSOCOM vessel. Against great powers with armor and infantry, how will SOCOM fit and deal with these threats driving around in pickups, open vehicles, dune buggies, and propeller craft armed mostly with small arms and weapons available to conventional forces? How then could they be innovative enough if their body armor is the same as conventional forces and the "Iron Man Suit" failed to produce a full suit of protective armor? How then can SOCOM think that they are innovative enough to tackle all asymmetrical threats in the future, especially against peer nations? How then can SOCOM battle AI, robots, and long-range threats if it can't get there fast, far, and stealthy enough with sheer force and firepower?

Cenebar at 2:00 PM
Re: Special Ops Command Faces Funding Cuts

Is aerospace superiority a given during great power contests? If not, then war will continue to be fought by humans on the surface and subsurface of the earth. Should the battlefield shift to the Northern Hemisphere, then new mobility capability and capacity must be developed to contest the warming terrain and waters of the soon to be ice-free, coastal, arctic nations. U.S. Army Northern Operations Doctrine states that Mobility is a cardinal principle for victory in arctic combat. That doctrine was written by actual victors in arctic combat...not by academics, who never faced a bullet fired in anger. Special Forces and Rangers normally operate forward of the front lines. Their survival depends on mobility, perhaps more than firepower, protection, and communications. In non-linear combat, maneuver dominance is critical. Special Forces needs air deliverable, battery powered, all-terrain vehicles that use sustainable energy from (wind, solar and water-powered, hydrogen) fuel cell dumps. Batteries can drive vehicles underwater, as they drive submarines. Unleashing the Army by untethering it from roads and fuel supply lines is the way forward. It is lunatic hubris to take vehicle innovation funding from Special Forces, Rangers and their Army. After all, most humans dwell on terra-firma. And if Clausewitz is right, war remains a human activity.

Jari Karttunen at 8:04 PM
Re: Special Ops Command Faces Funding Cuts

NO NO NO Our Spec Op Team must ALWAYS have the Best equipment and Personell. They are on the front lines and are protecting our oncoming Military. I do support for Spec Ops and my Son was EOD. DO NOT cut funding for these men and women in the front lines.

nancy cowart at 7:10 PM
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