WASHINGTON -- Challenges caused by limited resources, fiscal uncertainty and the changing nature of threats have forced the military's special operations forces to operate creatively, the Defense Department's top special operations officials told Congress yesterday.
Michael D. Lumpkin, assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict, and Army Gen. Joseph L. Votel, commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, appeared before the House Armed Services Committee's emerging threats and capabilities subcommittee to discuss Socom's fiscal year 2016 budget request.
Fiscal uncertainty requires creativity in bridging gaps between resources and national security objectives, Lumpkin said. Meanwhile, he added, the changing nature of threats demands the attention and engagement of special operations forces through agile authorities that enable the force to remain ahead of adversaries.
Lumpkin said special operations forces are navigating a challenging fiscal environment through enhanced oversight.
"As the service-like secretary of U.S. Socom," he said, "I provide oversight and supervision of SOF resources, develop SOF policies for counterterrorism to counter narcotics, and preserve and protect our special operations force. This role becomes ever more challenging in a constrained budgetary environment in which we must use limited resources efficiently and effectively so that SOF is globally postured to support the combatant commands."
With sequestration-level spending cuts scheduled to take effect in fiscal year 2016, which begins Oct. 1 of this year, Lumpkin said Socom continues to strengthen its budget management to maximize the return it provides on the taxpayer dollars the command receives. When agile authorities are available, he added, special operations forces can be most effective in handling the changing nature of threats they face.
"From [Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant] to pro-Russian rebel forces in Ukraine," Lumpkin said, "the United States and our international partners face a diverse set of unconventional threats worldwide centered within the physical terrain, the human domain, information environment and financial cyberspace.
"Additionally," he continued, "our response efforts often require security force assistance missions in nonpermissive and politically sensitive areas where the host nation demands a discreet U.S. footprint."
Due to their unique, irregular and unconventional capabilities, Lumpkin noted, special operations forces routinely become the force of choice, and agile authorities maximize their capabilities in their operations.
Preserving the Force
Lumpkin also emphasized to the subcommittee that taking care of special operations forces is a top priority.
"Protection and preservation of SOF is of utmost importance," Lumpkin testified. "Our people are the foundation of special operations, and we strive to ensure our force and their families have a support system necessary to ensure their long-term prosperity and health.
"We seek to ensure the physical and mental resilience of the individuals who make up our force," he continued. "Continual combat deployments, combined with the demanding training regimen needed to keep the force sharp, have caused stress on the force and with their families."
Votel lauded the "amazing actions" special operations forces take every day.
"Alongside our conventional force partners," he said, "the 69,000 quiet professionals of Socom are committed to values-based excellence and service to our nation. They relentlessly pursue mission success, and today, roughly 7,500 of them are deployed to roughly 90 countries worldwide supporting geographic combatant commander requirements and named operations."
Special operations forces have been heavily deployed over the past 14 years, he said, and have paid a significant physical and emotional price.
"We are very appreciative of the support we've received from Congress," Votel said, "to address the visible and invisible challenges, and we never forget that for Socom, people are our most important resource."
The general said the United States faces many challenges, noting that the spread of technology and the diffusion of power are tools not only for responsible leaders, but also for "wicked actors" to orchestrate terror and violence regionally and globally.
"Nonstate actors like al-Qaida and ISIL, and other violent extremist organizations, menacing state actors like North Korea, and growingly coercive actors like Russia are just a few examples of the entities affecting the strategic environment [in] which we operate," the general said.
The growing use of cyber capabilities and social media make it easy for U.S. adversaries to communicate, coordinate, execute and inspire their actions, he added.
Profound Fiscal Concerns
Votel said the fiscal environment is of concern to him as well. While Socom has been "well supported" in recent years, he told the House panel, sequestration still affects the command.
"I remain profoundly concerned by the impact of another round of sequestration," he said, "and how it not only impacts Socom, but more importantly, how it will affect the four services, upon whom we are absolutely dependent for mission support."
To address the challenging security environment, Votel said, Socom provides a portfolio of options to national leaders and geographic combatant commanders. Special operations forces are "uniquely suited" to operate in the "gray zone between normal international competition and open conflict," he added.
"It is in this area," he said, "where we see our very best opportunity to help shape the future environment."