Since the May 2, 2011, Navy SEAL raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound, President Obama has lauded the mission’s success and championed U.S. Special Forces as a major component of future military operations. Both Obama and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta have stressed that, as conventional forces draw down in Iraq and Afghanistan, special operations units will become an increasingly significant component of America’s national security strategy.
However, the relationship between conventional and nonconventional forces is not so simple. The President makes the assumption that lowering the number of active-duty troops will leave more resources for elite forces. An article in the Washington Examiner exposes a number of weaknesses in this assumption. “Special operations forces are a scalpel, not a Swiss Army knife,” said Heritage’s James Carafano. “They are not a substitute for all the instruments of military power needed to protect the nation’s interests.” Another military official stated: “I have a spare tire in my car, doesn’t mean I’m going to get a flat every day, but I know one day I will.”
Many proponents of this “leaner” force argue it is unlikely that the U.S. will engage in a large-scale conventional conflict such as Iraq or Afghanistan in the future. Unfortunately, that was the argument made before Korea, Vietnam, and even the two conflicts from which troops are currently withdrawing. The U.S. has consistently failed to predict where or when its next large-scale operation would be. It is irresponsible to hollow out America’s conventional forces based on an assumption that has been incorrect several times in the past.
Special Forces capabilities will not be left unaffected by reductions to conventional forces. “One consequence of a smaller military will be fewer troops from which to select the men who eventually become Army Delta Force soldiers and Navy SEALs,” the article states. Moreover, as the overall defense budget erodes, so does the support infrastructure for special ops to perform their missions. This was regrettably evident during the failed attempt to rescue 50 American hostages from Iran in 1980. The Obama Administration cannot forget what caused this tragic failure: systematic budget reductions in the aftermath of Vietnam. The special forces unit in Iran was operating helicopters they knew were old and ill-equipped, yet they were the best the military could provide. It may be unfair to assert that the mission would have been a success if newer equipment were available. Nevertheless, it is irresponsible to put America’s forces in harm’s way without the support and funding they require.