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Fort Bragg may benefit as special ops budget gets boost amid Defense cuts
By Drew Brooks - Staff writer

The Navy is preparing to retire ships, the Air Force is looking to streamline its fleet and the Marine Corps and Army are planning for cuts in the number of active-duty troops.

Officials in military communities across the nation are bracing for cuts, but special operations forces on Fort Bragg are looking for a boom.

Plans call for more than half a billion dollars just in construction spending for special operations facilities on Fort Bragg over the next five years, according to defense budget documents.

Special operations troops - from the secretive Delta Force to the growing ranks of Special Forces - have emerged as one of the clear winners in the recently released defense budget.

That's good news for Fort Bragg, which is home to thousands of special operations troops and trains thousands more.

The higher headquarters for the troops - U.S. Special Operations Command - is based at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla., and units are spread across the country and around the globe. But the career arc for most special operations troops comes through Fort Bragg, which is home to Joint Special Operations Command, Army Special Operations Command, the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School, Army Special Forces Command and Army Special Operations Aviation Command.

The nation's special operations forces have doubled from 33,000 to 66,000 since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and those numbers are still growing, according to the Department of Defense. The budget for special operations has tripled in the past decade, from $3.3 billion to $10.4 billion.

Fort Bragg has seen much of that growth. Despite the loss of more than 2,000 soldiers with the 7th Special Forces Group, which moved to Florida in 2011, Fort Bragg special operations forces are growing with the expansion of the 3rd Special Forces Group, the 95th Civil Affairs Brigade and the 4th and 8th Military Information Support Groups.

Higher profile

Matt Leatherman is an analyst on defense budgeting for the Stimson Center, a national security policy think tank in Washington. Leatherman said planned budget cuts in the Department of Defense - part of the nation's deficit-reduction plan - will slow the expansion of special operations. But he believes that the command will not lose its preferred status.

"Priority in this environment can mean being spared from cuts," Leatherman said.

Special operations troops - who come from all combat branches - make up less than five percent of the military. But their profile has grown significantly over the last decade of war.

They were the first soldiers in Afghanistan in 2001. They captured Saddam Hussein. And, perhaps most memorably, special operations troops - Navy SEALs - killed Osama bin Laden.

"Since 9/11, the role of special operations forces has been highlighted like never before," said Adm. William McRaven, commander of U.S. Special Operations Command. "You can't pick up a paper without seeing some reference to special operations, and I am very proud of that fact."

The first head of U.S. Special Operations Command, retired Gen. James J. Lindsay, said he never envisioned the growth in special operations forces or their emergence into the national spotlight.

Lindsay, who now lives in Vass, said he was originally concerned that special operations forces would be a victim of their own success and, in a rush for growth, be over-expanded.

But current leadership has proven that they have not let up on the rigorous selection process and top-end training for the troops, he said.

Lindsay said he doesn't foresee any sort of drawdown of the elite units. He believes that Fort Bragg will continue to benefit from the growth.

"It's their home," he said. "They're always going to be here."

They are also going to continue to be a big presence in Afghanistan.

Lt. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, deputy commander of U.S. Forces-Afghanistan, has said that special operations troops will continue to have a key role as American forces draw down.

Scaparrotti, a former commander of the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, said total troop levels would be down to 68,000 by September.

"You know, the special operations forces have been a significant part of this campaign," Scaparrotti said, "and they'll continue to be . both in what they bring to the fight in terms of their own op tempo and their special capabilities, particularly against the select leaders of the insurgency, et cetera, but also in training response forces.

"They bring a quality to the campaign that's very important," he said.

Many of those special operators in Afghanistan are members of Fort Bragg's 3rd Special Forces Group.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, nearly 300 special operations troops have been killed in Afghanistan, according to a tally by the Observer, representing more than 15 percent of all troop deaths in that war.

As troop totals have dropped, levels of special operations forces have been largely unchanged.

Next fiscal year, about 11,500 special operations forces - more than 8,000 from the Army - will be deployed, mostly to Afghanistan, according to defense budget documents. That's a decrease of less than 1,000 from recent years.

"I have no doubt that (special operations forces) will probably be the last folks out of Afghanistan," McRaven said while speaking at a symposium in Washington earlier this month.

The admiral said his relatively small force, at least compared with the general purpose force, had proven to be cost effective during the past decade of war.

While the special operations budget has grown, McRaven said, it remains a relatively small part of the Department of Defense budget at less than two percent.

Success from failure

The special operations force as it exists now grew in part out of a failed mission more than 30 years ago. That was the aborted attempt in 1980 to rescue American hostages in Iran.

The U.S. Special Operations Command was created in the aftermath of that failure. It was activated in 1987, following years of Congressional research and debate.

"In the fall of 1986, all of the services were very opposed," Lindsay said. "We had a lot of battles after that."

But over time, special operations forces proved their worth. They played a key role in the Panama invasion and the first Gulf War, Lindsay said.

And after 10 years of the war on terror, officials say, the reputation of special operations forces has never been higher.

For the past several weeks, defense officials have repeatedly praised special operations forces.

Michael Sheehan, assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict, told a symposium this month that special operations had a commitment from the highest levels of government as officials seek to limit direct action and place more of an emphasis on working through local nationals in Afghanistan.

"We're going to come out of this pretty well," he said, referring to the defense budget.

Sheehan was echoing the remarks of McRaven, who had, earlier in the same symposium, said there was a "clear recognition of the value of special operations."

"The future of special operations looks bright," he said.

In several public appearances since the budget was released, defense secretary Leon Panetta has repeatedly stated that special operations was among the areas the Department of Defense was prepared to emphasize.

"We can't just cut," Panetta told the Senate Armed Services Committee. "We have to invest."
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