Commandos' Reward for Success Seen as Threat to Their Mission

Special operations forces are perceived as the solution to any problem in the new U.S. defense strategy, experts say.

A team of U.S. Navy SEALs fires on insurgents from a rooftop Friday, April 21, 2006 in Ramadi Iraq.

Experts say special forces will be the the defense that the U.S. will begin to rely heavily on.

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Defense experts, including the chairman of the Joint Chiefs himself, say the American military cannot cover all necessary missions with only 420,000 soldiers in its arsenal.

Yet that’s the stark reality that faces the Pentagon, which has released its budget for the next year and its four-year outlook, known as the Quadrennial Defense Review. The balance sheet that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel presented to Congress is essentially two budgets: One that anticipates the budget realities of a postwar America, and one that reluctantly prepares for the continuation of the across-the-board budget caps known as sequestration.

In the latter plan, the size of the Army would drop down to a new low, as would the Marine Corps. The Navy would also have to retire one of its carrier groups, based around the USS George Washington, among other supposed disaster scenarios.

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Yet some are saved. Among these are special operations forces, or “SOF,” (the all caps is precisely how it’s pronounced around the Pentagon) which despite no longer having to focus primarily on Afghanistan, will also be increased from 66,000 to almost 70,000 strong.

“The Department will grow overall SOF end strength to 69,700,” the QDR states. “We will protect the ability of SOF to sustain persistent, networked, distributed operations to defeat al Qa’ida and counter other emerging transnational threats, counter [weapons of mass destruction], build partnership capacity for counterterrorism, deny enemy sanctuary, and conduct or support direct action, as appropriate.”

“As forces are withdrawn from Afghanistan, more SOF will be available to support Combatant Commanders’ efforts to counter a range of challenges across the globe.”

This means more Navy SEAL raiders, more reconnaissance Marines, more guerilla-training Army Special Forces, more elite Ranger infantry troops, and more Air Force pararescuemen who serve as last-chance saviors.

Yet many within these communities are not pleased with the new strategy. Multiple former special operators who spoke with U.S. News, and reports from those still in active duty, expressed frustration by what they see as a strategy that expects commandos to solve all problems.

Brandon Webb, a former Navy SEAL, says the nature of warfare in the 21st century has forced the Defense Department to become focused around SOF missions.

“Special operations are becoming more and more conventional in nature, and once this happens we are at greater risk in many ways,” says Webb, now editor at the military network “Many in the community don't want to admit this but it's the ugly truth, and should be dealt with head on.”

The Pentagon’s new approach reflects its expectation that it won’t conduct more major land wars or operations designed to create long-term stability, says Bobby Zarate, policy director at the Foreign Policy Initiative, a D.C.-based think tank.

“They’re trying to prepare for the conflicts that they’d like to fight: short, high-tempo conflicts with smaller ‘footprints,’” Zarate says. But special operations forces are designed to fight at the razor edge of a conventional force, not as a substitute for it.

“Elite forces are indeed at the sharp end, but now they’re at the sharp end of a toothpick, not a spear,” says Thomas Donnelly, a former House Armed Services Committee director, now with the American Enterprise Institute.

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The U.S. has become increasingly addicted to special operations commandos, he says, just as it has to drones. They appear to be inexpensive and decisively lethal, and operate without much or any infrastructure. Recent Hollywood depictions portray them as the ultimate solution to any security problem, such as in “Zero Dark Thirty,” which Donnelly says “reduces the war in Afghanistan to a CIA manhunt and a SEAL Team raid.”

Using Ukraine as an example, special operations forces simply could not repel any kind of conventional attack, he says, adding they would not have even been able to conduct the Osama bin Laden raid without the “protective cocoon” of conventional forces.

“Our SOF guys are very good, but they can't do everything,” he says.

Loren Thompson, a budget expert with the Lexington Institute, spoke with Defense Under Secretary Christine Wormuth this week to discuss the Pentagon’s new approach to security, leaving it unable to address multiple threats as it did simultaneously in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“The budget caps are making it impossible to cope with two simultaneous threats,” Thompson says. The U.S. could not, for example, take on both Iran and North Korea at the same time. “We just don’t have enough.”

“The increase in SOF is part of the shift to more innovative, small-footprint deployment context, in places like the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. But that approach only works with terrorists and insurgents. It’s not very useful against a state-based adversary,” he says.

Defense strategy under President Barack Obama, culminating in the QDR released this week, focuses primarily on the “pivot to the Pacific,” and then on response to small crises in Africa and Latin America.

“That’s where SOF can shine,” Thompson says. “But you’re not going to fight a war on the Korean Peninsula with just special ops.”

“If you’re going to use special operations independent of large conventional forces, then you have to recognize the limitations of such a light force. We still have, by far, the most capable ground forces in the world. But the problem is the trend.”

Corrected on March 7, 2014: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Defense Under Secretary Christine Wormuth.