Special Operations Forces Outperform Investment, Carter Says
By Claudette Roulo
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, June 5, 2013 Special operations forces cost less than 2 percent of the Defense Department’s budget, but the service they provide far outperforms that investment, Deputy Defense Secretary Ash Carter said here today.
Tomorrow marks the 69th anniversary of the D-Day invasion, Carter told the audience at an Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis-Tufts University Fletcher School conference.
“Though known by different names, special operations forces during World War II performed many of the same tasks that they do today -- infiltrating behind enemy lines, partnering with allies on sensitive operations, and assuming the most dangerous tasks,” he said.
Special operations forces have been at forefront of the nation’s greatest military triumphs, the deputy secretary said.
“We all know about the bin Laden raid,” Carter said, but perhaps less well known is that special operations troops were some of the first responders in Haiti, opening airfields to enable relief operations following the 2010 earthquake there.”
In the Philippines, hundreds of special operations personnel continue to advise and assist local security forces in their struggle against violent extremists, he continued.
“In Somalia, Navy SEALs have risked their own lives to rescue others, including the 2012 raid that freed Jessica Buchanan and the 2009 operation that freed [merchant vessel] Capt. Richard Phillips,” Carter said. “Whether they’re working with civil society and tribes, training local security forces, helping villagers stand up radio broadcasts, or supporting intelligence and law enforcement operations, [special operations forces] give the United States an enormous competitive advantage over our adversaries.”
The United States is again at a moment of strategic transition -– facing new threats and new adversaries, but also new opportunities, Carter said. Special operations forces will play a pivotal role in that transition, he added.
The nation has undertaken strategic transitions before, Carter noted. Following each of the major conflicts of the last century, the country re-evaluated its strategic priorities, he said, and now is moving on from an era dominated by two wars to face the challenges and opportunities that will define its future.
“While the war in Afghanistan is far from over, we are completing the transition to Afghan responsibility for their own security,” Carter said. “Beyond Afghanistan, we know what many of these challenges are.”
Those challenges, he told the audience, include old threats such as turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa, enduring threats such as weapons of mass destruction in the hands of Iran and North Korea, and a range of new threats in new domains, such as cyber.
“This time of transition also presents opportunities,” he added. These include building on lessons learned in Iraq and Afghanistan to devise ways of using military forces most effectively, a mission in which special operations forces will play a central role, Carter said.
That role must be placed in the larger context of the current budgetary environment, which affects not just special operations but the entire defense and industrial complex, the deputy secretary said.
“History teaches us that economic strength and military strength are inseparable,” Carter said. The great strategic transition ahead, he added, coincides with a need to absorb reductions in defense spending in the interest of the nation’s overall fiscal situation.
“In terms of our responsibility to the American taxpayer,” Carter said, “we know that in making this transition, we only deserve the amount of money we need, and not the amount of money we have gotten used to. That’s why, well before the current budget turmoil, we made reductions to the department’s budget by $487 billion over 10 years. These reductions came on top of significant adjustments that [then-Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates] made to eliminate unneeded or underperforming acquisition programs.”
At the same time, he said, supplemental wartime funding also is decreasing now that U.S. forces have exited Iraq and are drawing down in Afghanistan.
“The department can adapt to a wide range of budget contingencies, but to do so responsibly, we need stability, time, and flexibility -- none of which we have.”
While sequestration for fiscal year 2013 ends when fiscal 2014 begins Oct. 1, Carter said, “no one knows what’s next here in Washington.” A few months ago, he noted, few believed that sequestration would go into effect in the first place.
In March, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered Carter and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to conduct a strategic choices and management review to examine the choices that underlie the defense strategy, posture, and investments, the deputy defense secretary said.
All past assumptions and systems are under examination, he told the audience.
“We scrutinized 38 categories of department spending -– every nickel –- ranging from bombers to cyber, from pay and health care to the Office of the Secretary of Defense and other headquarters,” Carter said. As a result, he added, the department will be ready in the months ahead to confront a wide range of budgetary circumstances.
Two things stood out during this contingency planning, Carter said.
First, the priorities of the president’s defense strategic guidance –- the rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region, cyber and special operations -– are essential to the strategic transition the United States must now make, the deputy defense secretary said.
Second, he said, “we cannot make the right strategic choices for the nation if we do not also make profound and difficult managerial choices.”
Management reforms will not be painless, Carter said, but they are necessary.
The department is ready for whatever happens to its budget, he said, “but the choices are unprecedented and will require congressional support to get them right.”
Like the rest of the force, the special operations community is undergoing change, Carter said. “After more than a decade of wars, the force is more capable and battle-tested than ever before,” he said. “But grueling combat, long periods away from home, missed birthdays, anniversaries, and graduations, burying friends and colleagues –- all this has taken a toll. The force is weary. Families are weary.”
At the same time, the nature of the threat has changed, Carter said. Asymmetric threats are now more diffuse and geographically dispersed, and as a result, operational environments have changed. More and more, special operations activities occur outside areas of active hostilities, he explained.
“This requires that [special operations forces] become more agile, flexible, and able to respond to a range of requirements,” the deputy defense secretary said.
“Given the budget, some have asked why we protected certain investments and capabilities over others in our budget proposal for [fiscal] 2014,” Carter said. For special operations forces, it boils down to four lessons the United States has learned since 9/11, he said.
“First, [special operations forces] are central to so many defense priorities -– from combatting al-Qaida and building partner capacity, to enabling conventional forces and supporting humanitarian and disaster relief,” he said.
Second, special operations forces are a highly skilled workforce that cannot be mass-produced or rebuilt quickly in times of crisis, Carter said.
“Third, the return on investment in [special operations forces] for the department as a whole is very high,” he said. Special Operations Command’s [fiscal] 2013 budget is less than 2 percent of the department’s overall budget, Carter added.
And finally, the United States cannot address tomorrow’s challenges alone, Carter said, which places a premium on capacity building, “not just to reduce the burden on U.S. resources, but to give our partners the capabilities that they need to provide for their own security.”
However, with everything on the table if sequestration continues beyond the current fiscal year, Carter said, there probably will be consequences, even for special operations.
“We are seeing those realities in the strategic choices and management review as we consider the tradeoffs we face between what we’re going to be forced to reduce and that which we’re going to protect,” he said.
Budget aside, Carter said, the key challenge for the special operations community is the same as it is for the rest of the force: how to rebalance and rebuild for the new strategic era.
“As we turn the page to a new chapter of American history, what is clear is that the [special operations] community will be part of this endeavor,” Carter said. “The task before us is one that has existed as long as nations have fought wars -– how to align resources with priorities.”