The Special Operations budget looks “to be in pretty good shape” even as defense budgets are slashed, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations Michael Sheehan told a special ops conference in Washington on Tuesday, adding that he sees “commitment from the highest levels of this administration for the Special Operations community.”
Good thing, because the U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) expects to have about 12,000 operators forward-deployed around the world at any given time in the coming years, even after NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. There are currently about that number deployed globally, with most in Afghanistan. USAF Maj. Gen Thomas Trask, USSOCOM’s director of force structure, added that he sees that number “as an enduring requirement,” and that the money to pay for those operations could come from either the base budget or supplemental funds. USSOCOM “really could live either way,” Trask said.
While USSOCOM’s leadership doesn’t appear too concerned about budgets, it has at the same time managed to avoid the wartime trap that has ensnared some of the other services, by using supplemental funds to pay for procurement costs and other requirements that are normally in the baseline budget.
“We have been very successful in U.S. Special Operations Command in getting our baseline increased to sustain the level of forces we are going to have forward,” Lt. Gen. Bradley Heithold, SOCOM vice commander, said. He added that most operations and maintenance spending comes from the baseline budget.
While all of its programs were scrutinized by the Pentagon in the latest round of budget cuts, Heithold noted that the V-22 and the MH-47 helicopter program are “intact.”
And that lift will be in demand. The number of special operators is slated to rise to 70,000—up from about 67,000 currently—growing at a 2-3 % rate over the next five years. (That’s the same five years that the Pentagon will trim $259 billion from its books, the Army will shed about 80,000 soldiers and the Air Force will lose 10,000 airmen.)
One of the requirements that USSOCOM is looking to fill as it transitions toward Asia and Africa is a vertical-takeoff-and-landing (VTOL) intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capability to fill coverage gaps left by current systems. And since it looks like “a lot of the target sets [will be] in the littorals” in the coming years, “sea-based ISR is probably the thing we need soonest,” Trask said.
As far as future operations in Afghanistan, Sheehan sees a gradual shift for special operators away from taking a direct combat role to assuming more of an advise-and-assist mission. “It’s always a better scenario when a local goes through the door” on a combat mission rather than foreign troops, he said, adding that in any stabilization operation “the ideal counterinsurgent operator is a citizen of that country.” Concerning the coming drawdown of NATO forces in Afghanistan, the former special operator says he thinks “the time is right to make this transition,” since a few more years of fighting local Taliban and insurgent fighters “doesn’t get us anywhere.” When it comes to Pakistan, he mused that while “maybe they’re not even considered an ally anymore,” when it comes to the counter-terror mission in the region, “they’re our partner.”