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Service cuts could hamper special operations

U.S. Special Operations Forces, spread out over more than 80 countries around the globe at any given time, are at the forefront of the Obama administration’s military strategy, including training Iraqi and Syrian forces in the fight against Islamic State.

From the Quadrennial Defense Review to the Defense Strategic Guidance to President Barack Obama’s recent request for the Authorization of the Use of Military Force against Islamic State, U.S. military doctrine talks about the importance of special operations capabilities in defending the nation.

But commandos do not magically appear like mushrooms after a rain storm. They are members of the individual services and have to be trained, transported, fed, supplied, protected and medically treated. Those are functions provided either largely or wholly by the services at a time when the Pentagon’s budget has been trimmed by nearly a half trillion dollars over the course of a decade because of the Budget Control Act of 2011, along with additional cuts resulting from the associated sequestration. And while U.S. Special Operations Command, which synchronizes the global war on terror, has seen its budget remain relatively unscathed in recent years after a long period of unprecedented growth, there is concern by the command and groups like the Global SOF Foundation and others that any budget cuts to the Air Force, Army, Navy (which handles the budgets for the Marines) will eventually have a deleterious effect on commandos.

“We remain more concerned with the potential, future cuts to Service budgets and its impact on our ability to prepare for the future and the more immediate impact it could have on training and readiness capabilities,” says Navy Lt. Cmdr. Matt Allen, a Socom spokesman.

One immediate example of that could be in the Navy’s decision to trim two helicopter units that provided services for Navy SEALs.

But figuring out dollar values for what the services provide Special Operations Forces is difficult at best, says Allen. Those are figures, however, that the Global SOF Foundation argues Congress should order the Pentagon to provide.

The Fiscal Year 2016 budget dance is now underway. On Tuesday, the House Armed Services Committee subcommittee overseeing Socom’s budget introduced its legislative proposal, announcing it intends to “fully resource and authorize U.S. Special Operations Command programs and activities” in the proposed Presidential budget. The subcommittee will hold a hearing on the issue tomorrow.

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Socom’s budget represents a little more than 1.8 percent of the overall White House budget proposal, This year, the White House is asking for $585 billion, including $10.6 billion for Socom, headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base. Last year, the command asked the Pentagon for $10.3 billion. The Pentagon submitted that request to the White House, which asked Congress for that amount. But Congress authorized a smaller amount — $10 billion, according to Allen.

Regardless of what happens with Socom’s current budget request, it is very difficult, if not impossible right now, to determine just how much each service spends for supporting Special Operations Forces.

“Given the complexity of the budget process and the individual ways the components interact with their parent services, it’s difficult for most of them to quantify with any degree of certainty the exact dollar amounts of impacts they are experiencing,” says Allen. “This is because many of the programs they rely upon their parent services to provide to non-SOF units as well. There is no exact way to say how many dollars went to pay for services used by a SOF service member or unit versus a non-SOF unit or service member.”

The Air Force, which requested $134 million in the current budget discussion to cover Special Operations Forces support — a decrease of $1 million from the previous year — was the only one of the services to provide The Tampa Tribune with any information about the dollar value of what it provides for Special Operations Forces. The Army and the Navy deferred questions to Socom’s service components, on whose behalf Allen responded.

“The Services provide funding and resources for their programs which are used by all their personnel or units,” says Allen. “How much money or resources being used to pay for the support of a SOF member or unit cannot be clearly defined. What we can say with some degree of certainty is, if the pool of money a service uses to pay for programs that support all of its members or units shrinks, the waves created will be felt by the Special Operations community.”

Stu Bradin, a retired Army colonel who ran the Global SOF Operational Planning team at Socom when William McRaven ran the command, says Socom shouldn’t have to wait for the waves to crash before getting a clearer picture of the approaching storm.

Congress, says Bradin, who now runs the Global SOF Foundation, should require that the Pentagon provide a tally.

“To fully understand any negative impact on SOF, the U.S. Congress should request from (the Office of the Secretary of Defense) an annual report that details what the services provide SOF, cyber, intelligence, and other (Quadrennial Defense Review) priorities,” says Bradin, whose organization is not affiliated with Socom but does advocate for Special Operations Forces and Socom-related issues. “This report will help determine the impact that budget cuts will have on these critical elements of hybrid warfare.”

This is especially important, at a time of likely budget cuts that Bradin says could be presaged by disagreements between the House and Senate over war funding — proposed at nearly $51 billion — and a possible disagreement between the House and the White House over defense spending.

“With the Budget Control Act still unsettled and our inability to come to grips with entitlements, the possibility of future budget cuts is all but certain,” he says. “Additional defense cuts will be on the table, and SOF could be impacted by those cuts — even if Socom’s budget is not specifically cut.”

Bradin’s idea about legislative oversight has garnered mixed response from two local members of Congress who sit on key defense committees.

“I would have no problem with that,” says U.S. Rep. Richard Nugent, of Bradin’s idea.

A member of the House Armed Services Emerging Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee, which is taking up the Socom budget, Nugent says that a recent visit to the Navy’s SEAL training facility in Coronado, California, left him feeling confident that commandos have the support they need.

Nugent said he “doesn’t disagree” with Bradin’s concerns, but that “my biggest concern today is how the heck do we turn off sequestration?”

Sequestration, automatic budget cuts enacted as part of the Budget Control Act of 2011 that were kicked off when the White House and Congress couldn’t agree on how to reduce the national debt, could begin anew and result in tens of billions in spending gaps.

U.S. Rep. David Jolly, who sits on the House Appropriations Committee’s Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Subcommittee, was less supportive of legislation mandating that the Pentagon spell out what the services provide for SOF.

During a recent meeting with Army Gen. Joseph Votel, the Socom commander, there was no discussion about concerns over service cuts and what that could mean for commandos, Jolly says.

“I don’t know that legislation is necessary,” says Jolly.

However, Todd Harrison, a senior fellow for the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment, says Bradin’s concerns about the lack of funding clarity “is a legitimate issue to be somewhat concerned about.”

The program budget review that determines if Socom’s requirements are being met “can be some sort of ham-handed process at times,” says Harrison.

While Socom in theory should get what it needs, “there is some concern if they don’t make a compelling case, or if the senior leadership is not listening, or the services come back after the fact and do reprogramming actions that undermine the decisions on how resources should be allocated.”

Harrison says that while he can see some benefit from the kind of Congressional oversight Bradin proposes, he has an alternative.

Blow up the current Pentagon budget process and start over.

The Pentagon “needs to take another look at how it categorizes and reports budgets each year,” he says, adding that money should be allocated across functional areas not the services.

“It’s out of date,” he says of the current budget process, “and not fully inclusive of how the military operates today.”

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One real-time test over the concern about how service cuts will affect special operations may be the planned retirement of two squadrons of Navy helicopters, an issue addressed by the Emerging Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee.

The helicopters are providing special operations-specific capabilities for Naval Special Warfare training and operations, as well as commando headquarters in the Central and Pacific regions, according to the subcommittee’s proposed legislation introduced Tuesday afternoon.

“The committee understands that the retirement of these aircraft could cause a considerable capability gap particularly for maritime interception operations, personnel recovery, helicopter visit, board, search and seizure operations, and the countering weapons of mass destruction mission sets. As such, Naval Special Warfare Command expects a major degradation in capability and readiness for its forward deployed crisis response units.”

For those reaons, the subcommittee is proposing that the Secretary of Defense brief the House Committee on Armed Services by July 30 on the planned retirement of the squadrons, HSC-84 and 85, planned for later this year.

Eliminating those helicopters, says Bradin, is just one example of how special operations capabilities are at risk with service cuts.

Socom’s Allen says that while there are alternatives — like the Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment and Air Force Osprey tilt-wing aircraft — the Navy’s decision “is an example of how budget reductions cause the Services to make difficult decisions that impact not only the Service but USSOCOM and Special Operations Forces as well.”

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