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Budget uncertainty could derail expansion of special ops forces

Nov. 4, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
Marine critical skills operations troops train in this undated file photo. Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command will continue to build a force of 844 operators; it now has more than 700.
Marine critical skills operations troops train in this undated file photo. Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command will continue to build a force of 844 operators; it now has more than 700. (Marine Corps)
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Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, center, meets with Maj. Gen. Mark Clark, head of Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command, during a July visit to MARSOC's Stone Bay complex in North Carolina. (Sgt. Chadwick de Bree/Marine Corps)

Ambitious plans to expand the U.S. military’s elite special operations command are in jeopardy as the Pentagon considers whether to freeze force levels amid widespread budget cuts, Military Times has learned.

As the perceived need has grown for such surgical missions around the world, U.S. Special Operations Command was thought to be immune to the current downsizing sweeping the military. Indeed, plans call for SOCOM to expand from 66,000 personnel today to 72,000 by 2017.

However, the Marine Corps has announced it won’t be allowed to add more than 800 special operations jobs, which officials there had sought to round out its ranks, according to Capt. Adrian Ambe, a spokesman for Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command, headquartered at Camp Lejeune, N.C.

Ambe told Marine Corps Times in October that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s office issued guidance this summer freezing all special operations forces at their current manning levels.

Officials at SOCOM said they have not heard of any such directive from Hagel’s office, and policy staffers at the Pentagon said no such orders have been issued.

However, one Pentagon source added that as part of the Future Year Defense Plan for the 2015-2019 time frame, slowing the planned growth of special operations forces is among the range of options that has been discussed.

The source stressed, however, that no final decision has been made.

A defense official who declined to speak for attribution said: “There are a range of options being considered across the Department of Defense as part of our future years defense planning and the Quadrennial Defense Review. As these are both ongoing activities, it would be premature to comment on the details.”

A QDR is undertaken every four years to inform the Pentagon’s decisions about military strategy, and serve as a roadmap for its capabilities and force structure. Yet faced with the long-term budget cuts known as sequestration, which are eating into all of the services’ personnel accounts, Pentagon and SOCOM officials have stayed largely silent on the impact that those shrinking budgets could have on special operations.

For MARSOC, the freeze will cap end strength at its present authorized size: 2,742 personnel. A Marine spokesman at the Pentagon, Capt. Tyler Balzer, explained that MARSOC will continue to grow until it reaches that number.

Ambe said he did not have MARSOC’s current size.

Previously, plans called for MARSOC to top out just above 3,600. A year ago, MARSOC rolled out a detailed plan to bulk up its combat service support structure, the enablers who back up critical skills operators by gathering intelligence, for instance, or serving as joint tactical air controllers.

In all, officials hoped to fill 821 support spots, and it appears that’s where they’ll scale back expectations — not among MARSOC elite operators.

“MARSOC has accounted for the force reduction/end strength by reducing its combat support capability, but retaining three combat service support [units] that are regionally oriented within the support group,” Ambe said via email.

MARSOC’s authorization to expand to 844 critical skills operators — it currently has more than 700 — has not changed, he added.

Speaking last month in Washington, the Marine Corps representative to the QDR, Maj. Gen. Frank McKenzie, said plans to cut the active-duty Corps down to 174,000 troops would maintain capabilities introduced after Sept. 11, 2001, such as MARSOC, but that the Corps plans to “freeze” MARSOC’s expansion.

“A lot of things have changed for us since 9/11, and this force recognizes those changes,” McKenzie said. “... We feel it’s about right for the requirements we have and what we’re going to do.”

In a May interview with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, retired Army Lt. Gen. Frank Kearney, SOCOM’s former deputy commander, suggested that SOCOM’s expansion was vulnerable to current budget realities, saying “the force is going to shrink — the general purpose force — therefore, there’s going to be less people to feed the special operations force.”

Kearney also said he worried about the effect on SOCOM if it continues to grow while the services — which provide forces to staff SOCOM — shrink.

“If we go to 72,000,” he asked, “is that sustainable given the service populations?”

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