U.S. Special Operations Commander Gen. Bryan Fenton testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 7, 2023.

U.S. Special Operations Commander Gen. Bryan Fenton testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 7, 2023. Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Special operations seeing growing demand amid planned cuts: commander

Faced with a more active China, “I certainly wouldn't support” shrinking the force, SOCOM's Fenton told lawmakers.

Even as the U.S. Army makes plans to cut up to 3,000 special operations soldiers, the demand for such forces is growing around the world, the head of U.S. Special Operations Command told lawmakers Wednesday. 

Consistently poor recruitment numbers and other factors have forced the Army to consider a variety of cuts, including special operations forces, Gen. Bryan Fenton, the commander of SOCOM, told the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Intelligence and Special Operations. But the timing couldn’t be worse, he said. The Army makes up the largest portion of SOCOM by service.  

“The challenge is that that's against the backdrop of ever-increasing demands from our combatant commands—a 150% increase or more in our crisis response missions over the last three years—and this ever changing, more challenging character and environment of war,” Fenton said. 

Now, the special operations community must analyze how to do more with less, a process that will take years, Fenton said. "Against the backdrop of what I'm seeing, I certainly wouldn't support thinking that way as we go forward the next couple of years,” he said of the proposed cuts.

Special operations forces are no longer called on to perform as many close-range tactical missions as they were during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But they remain very engaged in the CENTCOM area of responsibility, as well as in Africa and South America—where Russia, Iran and China are seeking greater influence. 

Fenton described Chinese activities in these regions as “diplomatic coercion and predatory behavior,” and said China also uses private security “that we're really calling parasitic sham corporations, because we know what they mean: They mean nothing good for SOUTHCOM or CENTCOM, or AFRICOM.”

Evidence of the global nature of that competition for influence was demonstrated again this week, when Niger cut ties with the U.S. military. That followed a July coup, which saw Russian military actors in the country near key dates.

“In general, any time we detach from or lose a partner in that region, it's a challenge…It gives us less insights, indications, and warnings into what any of the groups that are there, terrorists…potentially Russia and the PRC, are doing or thinking about towards the U.S. and towards partners and allies.” But, Fenton said, “There's still a lot to watch vis-à-vis Niger.” 

To counter those trends, Fenton said, the U.S. must continue to train partner militaries, in the mold of the successful training of Ukrainian special operations troops. “We are a teammate of choice in the SOUTHCOM,” he said.