Deep budget cuts would hurt special operations forces and make it difficult to meet demands for those units on missions beyond the current war zones, the commander of the military's elite troops told Congress on Thursday.
As the fighting requirements increased, aircraft and commandos had to be moved to Iraq and Afghanistan from other parts of the world. Now, as the wars begin to wind down, those resources must be shifted back, Adm. William McRaven, commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, told the House Armed Services Committee.
McRaven and Michael D. Lumpkin, acting assistant secretary of defense for special operations, said that special operations troops rely on the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines for critical services, including transport, intelligence and surveillance assistance. Large military budget cuts would affect the ability of commandos to carry out operations.
"We rely heavily on the general purpose forces," McRaven said. Any impact on them "will impact us."
Such challenges could hamper his command's ability to begin addressing demands for the elite teams elsewhere, he said. Specifically, he said special operations forces in the Pacific and South America need more intelligence and surveillance capabilities.
President Barack Obama and Congress agreed this summer to cut roughly $350 billion from the defense budget over the next 10 years. But Pentagon leaders are more worried about the prospect for as much as $1 trillion in military cuts if a special congressional committee can't agree on $1.5 trillion in spending reductions from all government spending.
Military commanders have pressed for more surveillance capabilities to gather intelligence and, in some regions, help track terrorist threats.
U.S. officials have made it clear that in the coming years, the Pacific will become increasingly important and require more attention. That stems from the rise of the China as a military power, the threats from North Korea, and persistent terrorist activities around the Philippines and Indonesia.
The surveillance capabilities also could help during natural disasters such as the Japanese earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis this year.
McRaven said there is no one cause for the fraying of the special operations force. But he said the repeated and intense deployments since Sept. 11 have put much pressure on the troops and their families.
A task force has recommended ways to deal with the problem, such as a concerted effort to make war rotations more predictable.
The growing dependence on special operations is evident in its growth over the past 10 years. Its budget has tripled, to about $10.5 billion a year, while the number of forces has doubled and the requirements for them have grown four-fold, according to military officials.
Right now about 13,000 special operations forces are deployed abroad, including about 10,000 in Iraq and Afghanistan. The remaining 3,000 are scattered across 75 other nations.