WASHINGTON – Special operations forces will see no slowdown in its war-fighting tempo, defense leaders testified at a hearing on Tuesday.
“We are a command at war, and will remain so for the foreseeable future,” Army Gen. Tony Thomas, commander of U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM), said at the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities hearing.
Thomas said about 8,000 special operations forces are currently deployed in more than 80 countries. They are also on the forefront of the advising mission in Iraq and Syria and conducting a counterterrorism mission in Afghanistan.
Thomas also said last month was difficult for SOCOM, when three special operators were killed in Afghanistan.
“Last month was particularly difficult for U.S. SOCOM, losing its 407th hero Staff Sergeant De Alencar in a firing fight in Nangarhar Province in Afghanistan while operating alongside his Afghan partners,” he said. “Then last week, we lost Ranger Sergeants Thomas and Rodgers, our 408th and 409th casualties, respectively. This comes on the heels of 16 other combat fatalities since I assumed command a year ago.”
The high pace of operations is expected amid continued defense budget strain and attempts to rebuild a military taxed by 15 years of war.
Despite a new administration in place, the 2011 Budget Control Act – which included a mechanism called sequester that cuts $500 billion of the Pentagon’s budget over ten years – is still the law.
Those cuts came on top of $487 billion in cuts during the same period, causing Pentagon leaders to cut down on things that could be quickly curtailed, such as training and maintenance.
Thomas said since SOCOM relies heavily on the military services, if the cuts continue, it will be “catastrophic going forward.”
“We’ve been operating at such a high [operational] tempo for the last decade-plus,” said Acting Assistant Defense Secretary for Special Operations/Low-Intensity Conflict Theresa Whelan, who testified alongside Thomas.
“And with budgets going down, what we’ve got to do is, essentially, we’ve had to eat our young,” she said.
“We’ve mortgaged the future in order to facilitate current operations. That has impacted readiness, and it’s also impacted the development of force for the future. And as the threats grow, this is only going to get worse,” she added.
Thomas said in Afghanistan, there was an expectation that the U.S. was going to be finished in 2014, when the Obama administration ended the combat mission.
“We’re now throttling into 2017 and beyond so that unexpected aspect of continued deployment where we would otherwise recapitalize people and capabilities elsewhere is something that has been a challenge to manage, but we’re able to do so right now,” he said.
President Trump has promised to eliminate the sequester, but it will depend on Republicans and Democrats’ agreement on tax and spending reform.
He has also promised to rebuild the military, but it is not clear whether Congress will grant the funds required to implement his vision.
Trump proposed a $30 billion increase in defense spending in 2017, but this week, Congress unveiled a budget with a $15 billion increase. He has also proposed a $54 billion increase in defense spending for 2018, but defense experts predict that he will not get that full amount, either.
Meanwhile, SOCOM missions are expanding.
The command in January took on a new mission – synchronizing the Pentagon’s efforts to counter weapons of mass destruction, including in North Korea.
And more U.S. forces are expected for the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS) and in Afghanistan.
Thomas acknowledged the OPTEMPO has had a toll on its forces.
“We are as–or more–challenged than the other services in the armed forces. That may come as a surprise to you, and I don’t want to get into the morbid [suicide] statistics, but we are suffering the same challenges as the rest of the services,” he said. “We have doubled and tripled our efforts in terms of availing our servicemembers to the services that otherwise might mitigate the challenges they’re facing, but nonetheless, we still suffer from this challenge, and we’re absolutely trying to rectify it. It’s a primary focus for us.”