The Army is mulling cuts to its special operations programs in the coming years, potentially trimming the forces amid a general U.S. military shift in attention to more conventional capabilities and wars.
A planning process known as Total Army Analysis, which the service is using to plan its budget requests to Congress in fiscal years 2025 to 2029, projects a cut of about 10% to Special Forces, a congressional aide confirmed to Military.com.
Army special operations has become synonymous with unconventional warfare. Its Green Berets and other commando units were the cornerstone of the Global War on Terror in the years after 9/11. But as the service pivots its focus toward China, those unconventional units could see cuts in favor of building up the rank and file.
The size of U.S. special operations across all branches doubled after 2001, as the counterinsurgency battlefield called for swift nighttime raids and training of militias in the Middle East and across Africa. The Pentagon is now investing in other capabilities, such as long-range missile strikes and cyberwarfare.
"There will be some changes which [special operations forces] will be part of. With SOF, it has grown continuously while the rest of the Army has come down," Mark Cancian, a senior adviser for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, told Military.com.
"SOF is going to have to reorient itself and could take significant cuts along with a number of other Army communities,” he said.
The potential cuts, which were first reported by Defense One, would come from enablers, including in logistics and intelligence, but could also include changes to the structure of some Special Forces units that would represent an overall reduction in those forces, the aide said.
The plan, which is still awaiting approval from Army Secretary Christine Wormuth, is being considered as part of a sweeping look at force structure as the Army faces a slump in recruiting and possible reductions in its overall end strength, the aide said. It's unclear whether the cuts would come entirely in 2025 or be spread out from 2025 to 2029.
"The Army has not yet made decisions on its future force structure. Army leaders are looking at how best to ensure our Army is manned, organized and equipped to deter enemies and win future fights," Lt. Col. Ruth Castro, a service spokesperson, told Military.com in a statement. "The Army has shifted from focusing on counterterrorism operations to large-scale combat operations, and our force structure will need to shift as well."
Congress has not been formally briefed on the plan, but "mid- and senior-level officials" in both the Army and special operations community have spoken to congressional offices about the proposal, the aide said.
The potential for cuts to Army special operations has alarmed lawmakers, particularly Republicans, who have argued at recent hearings that it would be a mistake to think those forces will be less necessary in a conflict with China.
"As threats increase, ongoing discussions in the department about cutting SOF budgets and force structure is out of step with the threats and SOF's growing requirements," Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee's emerging threats subpanel, said at a hearing last week on the role of special operations in the era of great power competition.
"We can't get to a point where we're faced with a crisis and we do not have the operators that are able to step forward," Ernst added. "So, we really do have to push back against that."
At that same hearing, Sen. Ted Budd, R-N.C., asked the expert witnesses what a 10% cut to Army special operations would mean for its ability to provide forces to respond to counterterrorism, war or conflict with another global power, or any other crisis.
"I think they'll be crippling," retired Lt. Gen. Ken Tovo, former commanding general of Army Special Operations Command from 2015 to 2018, told Budd during the congressional testimony. "We're a force that is very much driven by our intelligence community. And if the cuts are taken in there, and that's one of the places I believe the service wants to take the cuts, that will be devastating."
Tovo also said he's heard the cuts could be as high as 20%, though the congressional aide told Military.com they have not heard it would be that high.
-- Steve Beynon can be reached at Steve.Beynon@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StevenBeynon
-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.