Are Special Operations Forces Safe From Sequestration?

The impending sequester may negatively impact our necessary special operations.

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A soldier with Iraq Special Weapons and Tactics Team (SWAT) examines weapons seized during recent operations in east Baghdad, Iraq, Thursday, Nov. 22, 2012.

Michael P. Noonan is the Director of the Program on National Security at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Pentagon officials are increasingly doubtful that sequestration will be avoided. While all elements of Department of Defense will suffer cuts under that scenario, some will suffer smaller cuts than others. Two areas that people have discussed as being less susceptible to cuts are in the areas of cybersecurity and special operations forces. Leaving aside cybersecurity, however, is it safe to assume that special operations forces are safe from such cuts?

The commander of Special Operations Command Admiral William McRaven addressed the National Defense Industrial Association's SO/LIC [Special Operations/ Low Intensity Conflict] Symposium & Exhibition last week in Washington, D.C., and, according to Paul McLeary at, he warned the audience that

…if Congress passes another continuing resolution to fund the Pentagon through the remainder of 2013, his Special Operations Command would likely lose about $1 billion in funding.

The continuing resolution "puts a greater constraint on us than I think sequestration will," McRaven said, adding that "we don't know what sequestration is going to look like, but there is an expectation that it is clearly going to be an additional bill on top of that."

Whatever the cut might be, however, he assured the crowd that his command's first priority will always be to protect SOCOM's ability to fight, saying, "we want to make sure first and foremost that we protect our war-fighting capability. And we will do that."

[See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

Major General Michael Repass, the commander of European Command's Special Operations Command,  also spoke at the conference and warned that

… his command could stand to lose about 23 percent of its funding this year to conduct Building Partner Capacity (BPC) operations under a continuing resolution. This would translate into "somewhere on the order of 25 percent-plus less BPC activity this year" in his area of operations, he said, which includes special operations forces in Eastern Europe as well as with allies battling powerful drug cartels shipping heroin and cocaine from Africa.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Should Special Operations Be Given More Autonomy?]

The loss of such building partner capacity funding is important because it not only helps to build local solutions to local problems which means fewer American "boots on the ground" down the road, but it also keeps the U.S. government engaged and better able to be plugged into indicators and warnings on the ground that might not be entirely evident in our embassies and consulates overseas. Of course this sort of engagement is far less sexy than things like launching daring raids in denied areas using stealth helicopters like the raid to get Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad.

What the above illustrates is that special operation forces are not homogenous. As retired Army Special Forces Colonel David Maxwell has written most special operations activities either take the form of "surgical strikes" (e.g., Abbottabad raid) or "special warfare" (e.g., working with the Northern Alliance to overthrow the Taliban after 9/11 or working with local governments to help defend themselves from insurgencies, criminality, and subversion in places like the southern Philippines, etc.). A concern moving forward then is that the elements of flashy surgical strikes will deprive resourcing from the quieter special warfare-focused units and thus throw their "yin and yang" out of balance. Both types of forces are necessary and oftentimes complimentary. But as Loch Johnson over at the The Atlantic warned, necessary and complimentary does not mean they are always the best options to solve complex political problems.

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