Marines with the Marine Special Operations Support Group fire at targets during the Special Operations Training Course aboard Camp Lejeune, on Dec. 7 2010.

Marines with the Marine Special Operations Support Group fire at targets during the Special Operations Training Course aboard Camp Lejeune, on Dec. 7 2010. U.S. Marine Corps Forces, Special Operations Command

Peeling the Onion Back on the Pentagon’s Special Operations Budget

When compared to the Pentagon’s $560 billion budget, U.S. Special Operations Command’s share is relatively small, but not as tiny as officials say. By Marcus Weisgerber

The U.S. special operations budget has been seen as one of the most stable parts of the Defense Department’s $560 billion budget in recent years.

That’s because the Obama administration has placed a premium on the use of these elite units for complicated missions in places like Yemen and Somalia. And don’t forget these were the types of units that flew deep into Pakistan on the mission that killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in 2011. Now, more than 12 teams from Special Operations Command, or SOCOM, are advising and assisting Iraqis who are battling Islamic State militants.

While military spending has come down following large-scale ground wars in Afghanistan and Iraq over the past decade, SOCOM’s budget has remained relatively flat.

In 2015, SOCOM received about $10 billion of that $560 billion defense budget, according to commanders and budget documents. That’s about 1.8 percent of DOD’s budget.

(Related: Obama To Propose Pentagon Boost in 2016)

SOCOM commander Army Gen. Joseph Votel mentioned that small percentage during a presentation this week at the National Defense Industrial Association’s annual special operations-low intensity conflict conference in Washington, D.C.

“SOCOM accounts for approximately 1.6 percent” of the defense budget, he said, referencing that figure while articulating the need for the command to get the biggest bang for its buck.

But let’s peel back that onion a little bit on the Pentagon’s complicated and secretive special operations spending. That 1.6 percent figure referenced by Votel is the percentage of SOCOM’s 2015 base budget ($7.7 billion) when compared to DOD’s base budget ($496 billion). SOCOM received an additional $2.3 billion in 2015 war funding known as Overseas Contingency Operations. Overall, the Pentagon received about $64 billion in war funding.

But SOCOM’s budget does not include two key factors, the cost of the nearly 70,000 special operation forces and major weapons.

That includes pay and benefits for those troops and equipment, like Bell-Boeing CV-22 Ospreys, Lockheed Martin MC-130J combat tankers, Boeing MH-47G Chinooks, Sikorsky MH-60 Blackhawks, General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper drones and MRAP ground vehicles. The individual military services pay for that.

In 2015, the services contributed about $7 billion in what is termed “enabler support,” according to Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas Trask, SOCOM vice commander.

With that money factored in, we’re now at about 3 percent of the overall defense budget.

The majority of SOCOM’s budget is allotted toward operations, money spent flying aircraft, putting gas in vehicles and deploying troops into battle. More than $5 billion will go toward this in 2015. As for weapons buying, SOCOM spends much of its procurement money modifying the equipment purchased by the services. This includes putting advanced sensors and other high-tech gear on Lockheed MC-130Js.

For example, Lt. Gen. Bradley Heithold, head of Air Force Special Operations Command, said he is looking to update his aircraft incrementally in the coming years. This includes adding a second weapon to new Lockheed AC-130J gunships in the near-term and eventually adding a laser weapon in the 2020s.

Todd Harrison, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said it's difficult to pin down precisely who is shouldering how much of the cost of special operations forces.

"That's one of those things that's a definitional issue -- what do you consider a SOCOM-related expense? I don't think you can come up with a definite number amount of special operations force cost," he said. "It's greater than SOCOM's budget for sure, and the services provide all of the kind of enabling infrastructure that also supports SOF ... what fraction of the budget goes to SOCOM becomes a definitional issue."

For example, out in the field, SOCOM may be using a portion of the satellite systems, or if SOCOM aircraft are flying somewhere, Air Force tankers may be handling the refueling.

"I don't think it's any one organization," Harrison said. "I think it is being shouldered in part by each of the services and by SOCOM itself."

But, Harrison noted the military overall is increasingly relying on SOCOM, as part of an overall shift in the U.S. defense strategy.

"It's fair to say special ops funding has definitely grown significantly in the past decade or so ... and for good reason -- we're asking more and more of our SOF community, day to day operations, and it doesn't look like that’s going to slow down anytime soon," he said. "That is one of the growing areas of the budget in terms of importance in overall defense strategy, but it’s still relatively small if you compare it to our surface fleet in the Navy, or the Marine Corps, or combat aircraft in the Air Force, or other major components of our force."

Where SOCOM is unique in terms of spending, he said, is in its independent acquisition authority. "They can use that to good effect, they can buy specialized things for their needs that the other services do not necessarily buy for them. That’s a good thing, and they have used that very effectively in the past. But they also rely on things the services are already buying, and it makes sense some capabilities are being provided by the services. So it’s a mixed bag -- not SOCOM alone or any one service out of proportion with the others."

Looking to the future, Votel said he is most concerned about the readiness of special operations forces. Coming out of Afghanistan and Iraq, military brass across the services have stressed the need to reset forces, making sure they are properly trained for future battles, something these generals and admirals argue is at risk if federal spending caps remain in place.

“We must spend wisely, using our SOF dollars for things that are truly SOF unique and maximizing our relationships with the services to provide the rest,” Votel said.

Michael Dumont, DOD’s principal deputy assistant secretary for special operations and low-intensity conflict, said he is concerned about the demand on the force and operational tempo.

Votel said the “ability to see and understand” is a “core requirement” for all of SOCOM’s operations. Like many of his four-star combatant command counterparts, the general said airborne intelligence from manned aircraft and drones is critical moving forward.

“This is an area where we must continue to collaborate with industry,” he said.

Votel also stressed the value of international partnerships, noting the command has partnerships with 60 countries.

Molly O'Toole contributed to this report.