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CRS: U.S. Special Operations Forces: Background and Issues

Author: Andrew Feickert
Updated: February 6, 2013


This Congressional Research Service report details the background and issues surrounding Special Operations Forces (SOF), elite military units with special training and equipment that can infiltrate into hostile territory through land, sea, or air to conduct a variety of operations, many of them classified.

Special Operations Forces (SOF) play a significant role in U.S. military operations, and the Administration has given U.S. SOF greater responsibility for planning and conducting worldwide counterterrorism operations. U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) has about 63,000 active duty, National Guard, and reserve personnel from all four services and Department of Defense (DOD) civilians assigned to its headquarters, its four components, and one sub-unified command. The 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) directs increases in SOF force structure, particularly in terms of increasing enabling units and rotary and fixed-wing SOF aviation assets and units.

USSOCOM's FY2013 Budget Request is $10.409 billion, 0.6% lower (due to decreases in Operations & Maintenance, Research, Development, Test, & Evaluation, Procurement, and Military Construction funding) than the FY2012 Appropriation of $10.477 billion. USSOCOM's FY2013 Budget Request also represents the first year some Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) funding will be migrated into USSOCOM's baseline budget request. As part of USSOCOM's FY2013 Budget Request, it plans to add an additional 3,355 service members and civilians, bringing it to a total of 66,594 personnel. During FY2013, USSOCOM plans to add its fifth and final 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR)-mandated Special Forces Battalion, as well as additional forces for the Ranger Regiment, Special Operations Aviation Regiment, and Civil Affairs and Military Information Support Operations units. In a similar manner, Air Force Special Operations plans to add additional personnel to a number of its units, and Naval Special Warfare, in addition to adding combat support and service support personnel, plans to add additional personnel to the Naval Special Warfare Center and School. The Marine Special Operations Command plans to add additional combat support and service support personnel in FY2013 as well.

On January 5, 2012, the Administration unveiled its new strategic guidance refocusing U.S. strategic efforts to the Pacific and the Middle East and, at the same time, proposing significant cuts to ground forces. While there are presently few specifics known, this new strategic direction has the potential to significantly affect U.S. SOF. Of potential concern to Congress is that with fewer general purpose forces, SOF operational tempo might increase. While DOD maintains that it is willing to increase its investment in SOF, there are limitations on expansion because of stringent qualification and training standards. In addition, little is known about how SOF would be employed under this new strategy and if it even has the ability to take on new mission requirements. The further downsizing of ground forces (Army and Marines) also brings up concerns that the services might be hard-pressed to establish and dedicate enabling units needed by USSOCOM while at the same time adequately supporting general purpose forces. An
examination of proposed force structure in relation to anticipated requirements for enabling forces could prove useful to Congress.

Reports suggest USSOCOM is seeking expanded authority to deploy and position SOF and their equipment in an effort to achieve greater autonomy and increase presence in Asia, Africa, and Latin America—areas in which SOF has not had a large presence over the past decades. Some view this as beneficial to USSOCOM's overall global presence, but reports suggest that geographic combatant commanders and ambassadors have concerns with such a course of action. USSOCOM leadership has stated that no SOF will be deployed into a country without the Chief of Mission's knowledge or approval.

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