A Special Forces soldier assigned to 10th Special Forces Group reloads his M4 carbine during a live-fire range at Panzer Kaserne.

A Special Forces soldier assigned to 10th Special Forces Group reloads his M4 carbine during a live-fire range at Panzer Kaserne. U.S. Navy photo by Lieutenant Robert Kunzig

Lawmakers, Army headed for a fight over cuts to special operations forces

“It doesn’t pass the smell test,” said one Senate staffer.

Lawmakers are worried that a U.S. Army plan to cut up to 3,000 people from its special operations forces will embolden China. 

One defense official told Defense One that the Army is not looking to reduce the number of operators, but rather to eliminate redundant positions in headquarters, logistics, and support. But lawmakers say the Army hasn’t given them enough information about their plans and they won’t allow the service to make any cuts without their approval. 

The public first learned about the Army's proposed SOF cuts last May during a Senate Armed Services subcommittee hearing. Four months later, a Senate staffer told Defense One that U.S. Special Operations Command head Gen. Bryan Fenton did not agree with the plan, and his objections were under consideration by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.

“So the reason it's at Austin's level is because there was a non-concurrence from SOCOM to the Army's plan,” the staffer said. 

Last week, Sen. Ted Budd, R-N.C., met with members of the SOF community and others on Capitol Hill and fretted that cutting SOF would embolden China. 

“I'm very concerned about the pacing threat of China simultaneously with the reduction of SOF. When you look at the things that would deter China, SOF are on the tip of the spear. And so I think that the more we invest in our special operations, problems that ultimately could harm our nation over the next decade or two could be prevented,” he said. “It’s unclear that this administration understands the value of SOF. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be proposing cuts.”

Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, an Army National Guard veteran who, like Budd, sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said, “Special operations forces are our nation’s premiere force during peacetime and war. In the face of recruiting challenges for our military and growing threats around the world, cuts to SOF are not the answer."

But the cuts may have limited impact on the Army, sources said, because they are intended to spare the highly specialized tactical operator teams that people associate with special operations forces. A senior defense official told Defense One that SOCOM will decide what to cut, but: “The Army does not recommend cutting ‘shooters.’ Army leadership believes in the SOF truth: special operations forces cannot be mass-produced.”

Only a small fraction of individuals in Special Operations Command count as "shooters," which leaves a lot of other people that do things like logistics or accounting. Over the years, particularly during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the bureaucracy within Special Operations Command has grown to unsustainable levels, the official said. 

“At some point, we have to recognize the excess size we grew to during the post 9/11 era,” the official said, pointing to the multiple Army SOF headquarters units as an example of bureaucratic bloat. 

“The Ranger Regiment has more military intelligence than an entire Army division…There’s U.S. Army Special Operations Aviation Command and the U.S. Army Special Operations Command…These are not warfighting headquarters. When deployed, the operational units would be commanded and controlled by the combatant commands and theatre special operations command.”

The Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation office had recommended cuts to support, logistics, and communications, the official said, and the office noted that many SOF support units spend more time at their home stations than other people in similar roles. Other services should also chip in more to support SOF teams, they said, since right now Army units support Navy SEAL teams. 

Finally, while the Army is not considering cutting Operational Detachment Alphas, or A-Teams, those teams are only manned at 60% due to recruiting shortfalls, he said.

Still, cuts to SOF support and logistics mean that SOF would have to go to the services to fill roles in things like cyber, logistics, or support. Those people won’t have as much time to train or build relationships with their SOF teammates. 

During a July hearing, Ernst mentioned a SOCOM effort to assess the impact of the cuts: “It says that SOF can only execute its assigned mission with SOF enablers, and cutting enablers increases risk to mission.”

Said Budd, “I just think we need to let more folks know, not just on the Senate side, but on the House side as well, about those potential cuts. Will the Army make some window dressing cuts to say that they did something, maybe? Even play politics? Perhaps. But I think it'd be devastating, especially when you look at the critical capabilities, like the access they provide for cyber, intelligence, and targeting."

The Senate staffer told Defense One: "We’ve heard cuts are likely to affect various headquarters positions and enablers, and that the intent was never to cut ODAs. The biggest problem, though, is that the department hasn’t actually briefed Congress yet on their plans … If some of the headquarters positions we’re hearing about are cut, those tasks and responsibilities are either not going to be done or pushed down to the operational units. That will reduce the operational capacity of those very specialized units. It doesn’t pass the smell test."

What happens from here? The House and Senate are currently working through two separate versions of the NDAA. While the House version prohibits the cuts, the Senate version requires the Army to report its reasons and the potential impact. 

But the Army shouldn’t confuse that reporting requirement with a rubber stamp, the staffer said. In fact, the Senate is more likely to try and block the cuts rather than agree to them, at least until it understands them better. 

“We have a reporting requirement and a sense of the Senate that those cuts should not occur…Given the ongoing recruiting crisis and that Army end strength is shrinking, SOF may very well have to take a cut, but the department needs to show Congress its math and how it arrived at its decision. It appears the Army has opted to make cuts to SOF to maintain conventional capabilities that not everyone is convinced will have the same impact in either competition or potential conflict.”