By Adam Levine
If there was any question that the Obama administration sees the shadowy world of special operations as an instrumental element in their vision for the military's future, the drama around the State of the Union and the speech itself removed any such doubt. That point will be driven home further on Thursday when Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta reveals the first details of its budget decisions to deal with half a trillion dollar in cuts over the next 10 years.
It was the heroics of the Navy SEAL team's killing of Osama bin Laden that Obama used to open and close his State of the Union speech. But a few hours later, the world would learn that even as Obama headed to the floor of Congress to speak, a Special Operations team was just finishing up a raid to rescue two hostages, including an American, in Somalia.
These elite troops operate in daring and dangerous ways, and the administration sees them as an integral part of the military's future with a continued focus on counterterrorism.
Special operations and related new technologies that allow for less 'boots on the ground' - such as drones; intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities (referred to as ISR); and cyberwarfare and defense capabilities - will be spared and in some cases see budget increases as the administration prepares to cut back on ground troops and related capabilities.
That reflects a reality the Obama administration sees about the nature of warfare in the future, placing a "premium on flexible and adaptable forces that can respond quickly and effectively to a variety of contingencies and potential adversaries," Panetta explained earlier this month.
The teams are hard to generate given their skills and the support staff needed to make the operations possible. Across the services there are close to 60,000 special operations forces and support staff, including 20,000 trained to Special Operations Forces operators in the field.
The high demand for their skills to degrade the insurgencies - as they were used in Iraq and are still being used in Afghanistan, as well as train and work with partner nations and conduct raids such as the one on Osama bin Laden's hideout and the Somalia hostage rescue - has the force "fraying at the edges," as the previous commander of Strategic Command told Congress in 2011.
Since September 11, 2001, special operations manpower has nearly doubled, its budget nearly tripled and overseas deployments have quadrupled, the admiral noted when he testified to Congress in March.
The return on investment is great, noted current commander Adm. William McRaven when he testified before Congress this fall.
"With an annual budget of $10.5 billion, [U.S. Special Operations Command] comprises only 1.6% of the Department of Defense" budget in 2012, "put simply, provides a tremendous return on the nation's investment," McRaven said.
That these troops are more affordable, have a lighter footprint than using massive forces in ground wars than those of the Army and Marines, and puts fewer people in harm's way, is a major attraction for the president and his national security staff, said American Enterprise Institute's Mackenzie Eaglen.
Eaglen said the emphasis started before Obama, but this president, having ended the war in Iraq and declared a target end to the war in Afghanistan, is "de-emphasizing counterinsurgency, which is manpower intensive, and emphasizing counterterror capabilities."
The challenge, Eaglen said, is that elite troops are not easily "scaleable" and the pace they are being used is "unsustainable."
"Many special forces are in double digit tours overseas," Eaglen noted. "There is a very real chance that you can break this force. If they haven't already crossed the invisible red line, it is close."
With the anticipated cuts of tens of thousands of marines and soldiers, the pool from which to recruit will shrink dramatically, observed Eaglin.
Her concerns were reflected in a 2011 Congressional Research Service report that noted shrinking the Army and Marines carries an additional risk.
"These force reductions might also have an impact on the creation and sustainment of Army and Marine Corps "enabling" units that [U.S. Special Operations Command] is seeking to support operations," the report said.
While reliance on special operations can lead to spectacular results, like the bin Laden raid and the Somalia rescue, it carries incredible risk.
"There is a tendency to turn this into a movie rather than a serious mix of operational skills and talents," Anthony Cordesman, military analyst at Center for Strategic and International Studies, said. The tendency, I would caution, is to talk about this as perfect warfare."
Cordesman said that in these carefully planned operations, "something can happen that changes the facts on the ground quickly." Like when the helicopter in the bin Laden raid crashed into the compound.
"When you focus on the strategy, you still take significant risk because you are taking a very limited number of truly talented people and putting them in harm's way to do something you would traditionally use larger forces to do," he said.
But operations like this week's are not the norm for special operations.
"This was a mission to accomplish an important goal, but it was not really a demonstration of what the new strategy was talking about," Cordesman said.
Instead, it is missions in Afghanistan and Pakistan to degrade al Qaeda and the Taliban where the skill set is being honed and taken advantage of.
"They've been doing it for more than a decade," in Iraq and Afghanistan, Cordesman said. "Having watched some of these things. The level of sophistication ... has generally improved."
But William Hartung, a military analyst at New America Foundation, said de-emphasizing boots on the ground and emphasizing a more flexible force is "a logical way to go." But the success can be blinding, warns Hartung.
"The only issue I would have is are they oversold on this? Are they going to try to use it more often than needed or have a sense of hubris of what they can accomplish."