By JOHN T. BENNETT
WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is poised to scale back funding for the US military’s most elite forces, which spearheaded the fight against al-Qaida and embodied the Pentagon’s rapid post-9/11 budget growth.
Budget analysts and sources had expected Defense Department and White House officials to propose a fiscal 2015 military spending request that continued growth in funding for special operations forces (SOF).
But after 13 years of constantly swelling budgets, Pentagon and White House budget officials are now expected to propose slowing SOF funding as the war in Afghanistan winds down and America’s commandos come off what President Barack Obama has described as a “permanent war footing.”
“SOF will be flat” across the 2015 budget plan’s five years, said one defense source with ties to the Pentagon and White House.
Another source, citing conversations with senior special operations officials, told Defense News that SOF funding will be “reined in.”
The coming proposal to slow funding for the highly lethal forces follows a decade during which special ops ranks grew substantially to support the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as other missions against al-Qaida and similar groups.
Along with armed drones, special forces have become Obama’s preferred tool in the fight against Islamic extremist groups.
“SOF’s operational successes have been underwritten in part by significant growth in the force since 2001,” according to a recent Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment (CSBA) report. “Prior to 2001, approximately 2,800 SOF were deployed overseas. Since then, the number of SOF personnel deployed overseas on an annual basis has roughly quadrupled.”
US Special Operations Command’s (SOCOM) total force grew by around 25,000 after the September 2001 attacks, swelling from 38,000 in 2001 to 63,000 by 2012, according to CSBA.
In large part to pay for that 68 percent hike in commandos and equip them, SOCOM’s annual funding climbed from $2.3 billion in 2001 to around $10.5 billion in 2013, according to the Washington-based think tank.
Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute said setting SOF funding on a flat trajectory from 2015 through 2019 “sounds reasonable given the tremendous growth that area has seen in recent years.”
Special Operations Command chief Adm. William McRaven, during a Feb. 11 conference here, described in broad terms the shape of the coming SOF funding request.
“What we’re trying to do is, we’re trying to get rebalanced in terms of our O&M, our operations and maintenance money, and our procurement and [research, development, test and evaluation] money,” McRaven said.
“We got a little bit out of balance in terms of our long-term procurement, our long-term R&D,” McRaven said. “I’ve asked my staff, ‘Look, we’ve got to put this back into balance in terms of the share of the pie,’ if you will.”
The expected flattening of special operations funding shows, analysts say, that budget realities have finally caught up to the military’s most elite units.
“The bottom line is that we remain in a defense drawdown, with a defense budget that has actually gone down every year since FY 2010, and today we have a projected defense budget that is now well below the appetite the services counted on just two years ago,” former Clinton administration national defense budgeting chief Gordon Adams wrote in a recent blog post.
“If you look at the space between the healthy appetite of two years ago and the likely budgets today,” he wrote, “more than $1 trillion in total has disappeared from the 10-year wish list the service chiefs once had.”
A Pentagon spokeswoman declined to comment on specifics of the coming budget request.