February 15, 2012

SOF Power

Special operations forces are one of the big winners in the Obama administration's new Pentagon budget request released this week. The budget cuts hundreds of billions of dollars from the U.S. military's spending plans, but it protects funding for special operations forces (SOF) -- the elite, bin Laden-killing commandos whom the New York Times described Monday as the Obama administration's "military tool of choice." In the emerging strategic environment, it is clear that U.S. military power will increasingly be exercised by SOF acting by, with, and through partners around the world. Yet in embracing this approach, the Obama administration has not adequately addressed important questions about the impact on SOF culture, political oversight, and the risk of further budget cuts.

U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM), the organization that manages SOF, has grown tremendously since 2001. Its manpower has nearly doubled, its budget has nearly tripled, and its overseas deployments have quadrupled. Demand for SOF has been driven by the global war on terror and by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Though America's military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan is receding, this transition presents an opportunity to redirect SOF's unique capabilities to other regions and missions that have received less attention while the United States has been at war. In a remarkable sign of the enduring value of special operations forces, the Pentagon's new budget seeks to add 3,000 people to SOCOM, making it one of the few parts of the U.S. military that will actually grow -- while the rest of the military shrinks.

Yet the administration's growing reliance on SOF may soon clash with the culture of these forces. There are five "SOF Truths." One is that "quality is better than quantity." Another is that the special operations forces "cannot be mass produced." These mantras are what keep SOF special. But the Pentagon has not yet demonstrated how it will sustainably increase the number of special forces and continue to meet their high standards of excellence. Congress needs to wring more details out of the Department of Defense about how it plans to preserve this unique fighting culture.

Ensuring proper oversight is another unresolved issue. SOCOM is requesting greater autonomy to position its forces and equipment worldwide in response to rapidly emerging threats. This approach mirrors the decentralized and adaptable organizational model used by the terrorist organizations SOCOM seeks to uproot. However, while one can appreciate the need to keep SOF operations secret and swift, American political leaders must preserve their ability to fully control the instruments of U.S. military power. It's not clear that oversight procedures have kept pace with the swelling use of special forces. As Michele Malvesti, a former senior director for combating terrorism strategy at the National Security Council, concluded in a 2010 study, "While SOF are operating on an unprecedented scale across the globe, both their capabilities and the 21st-century threat environment are in many ways outpacing the nation's policies for employing SOF." Civilian leaders should update oversight and control policies in order to ensure that the influx of additional SOF does not compromise these leaders' ability to exercise strategic control of U.S. military activities.

A third and final challenge for SOF is budgetary uncertainty. While the $487 billion in cuts over 10 years reflected in the new budget request should not appreciably undermine the effectiveness of SOF, deeper cuts -- such as those scheduled to occur in January 2013 via sequestration -- very well could. That's because sequestration will make across-the-board cuts to all Pentagon programs, including those supporting SOF. Moreover, the amount of cuts imposed by sequestration, totaling at least $950 billion over 10 years, will force the Pentagon to further reduce the conventional forces that are essential to the continued success of SOF operations.

Indeed, another "SOF Truth" is that "most special operations require non-SOF support." This support takes many forms, including training, equipment, intelligence, and tactical coordination. Last month, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, reinforced this point. "The special operating forces can only be 'special' if there's a conventional force that allows them to conduct their operations and shape the environment," he said. But sequestration will undoubtedly force the Pentagon to reduce these conventional forces, making them smaller and less capable.

The United States faces a strategic environment of smaller defense budgets and declining political support at home and abroad for large foreign interventions requiring tens of thousands of troops. In this environment, special operations forces will remain one of America's most important and effective military capabilities. To ensure its continued success, civilian leaders must immediately address these uncertainties about culture, oversight, and budget cuts. Repealing sequestration -- an irresponsible way to reduce defense spending -- would be a good place to start.