Budget watchdog: Special operations forces need more Rosetta Stone subscriptions, fewer white guys

It seems everyone these days is clawing for a bigger piece of the Pentagon’s shrinking budget pie and special operations forces (SOF) are elbowing their way to the trough. But even elite forces need help fighting Beltway budget wars and winning battle space in the coming Quadrennial Defense Review — the good book that informs ...

DoD photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Kyle D. Gahlau, U.S. Navy
DoD photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Kyle D. Gahlau, U.S. Navy
DoD photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Kyle D. Gahlau, U.S. Navy

It seems everyone these days is clawing for a bigger piece of the Pentagon's shrinking budget pie and special operations forces (SOF) are elbowing their way to the trough.

But even elite forces need help fighting Beltway budget wars and winning battle space in the coming Quadrennial Defense Review -- the good book that informs (or at least gives cover fire) to all Pentagon spending. On Friday, Adm. Bill McRaven, head of U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM), who has called for expanding a "global SOF network," just acquired a major ally in the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA). 

The watchdog released on Friday a 125-page report, "Beyond the Ramparts: The Future of U.S. Special Operations Forces" outlining how special operations forces should use the post-war era to expand and solidify a global network with more forward basing, more personnel, more "stealthy" and appropriately SOF-like equipment, more foreign headquarters and training centers, and ... well, more of everything.

It seems everyone these days is clawing for a bigger piece of the Pentagon’s shrinking budget pie and special operations forces (SOF) are elbowing their way to the trough.

But even elite forces need help fighting Beltway budget wars and winning battle space in the coming Quadrennial Defense Review — the good book that informs (or at least gives cover fire) to all Pentagon spending. On Friday, Adm. Bill McRaven, head of U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM), who has called for expanding a "global SOF network," just acquired a major ally in the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA). 

The watchdog released on Friday a 125-page report, "Beyond the Ramparts: The Future of U.S. Special Operations Forces" outlining how special operations forces should use the post-war era to expand and solidify a global network with more forward basing, more personnel, more "stealthy" and appropriately SOF-like equipment, more foreign headquarters and training centers, and … well, more of everything.

"Returning SOF to their pre-9/11 roles would undoubtedly squander what has been gained over the past decade and forfeit a major U.S. competitive advantage," writes CSBA Vice President Jim Thomas and Chris Dougherty, research fellow and 75th Ranger Regiment veteran.

CSBA tries to wrap its hands around how to expand SOF forces around the globe in an era where they also predict more restrictive rules of engagement (outside of the "hot" war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq), smaller bases, and yet far more available conventional "enabler" forces to support their missions as those wars wind down.

To get started, elite U.S. forces will need language training and more diversity. Thomas suggested sending troops abroad with "things like Rosetta Stone" books, which allow them to train and test remotely. The face of elite troops, he added, is overwhelmingly white and male, and so does not tap into America’s ethnic diversity, which he called "one of the greatest strategic strengths of the United States."

It will take money. Thomas’s final slide shows a tiny sliver emerging from a pie chart: it’s SOF’s current share of DOD’s more than $600 billion budget.

But there are other reason SOF is an affordable must-have, they argued.

"We’re moving toward more austere basing. The main operating bases, the Baghram’s, the Balad’s, and other places, we think this is largely going to be a thing of the past," said co-author Jim Thomas.

Among the recommendations: strengthening SOF commands within the regional combatant commands by adding more manning; and transferring or permitting more operational control of SOF forces from SOCOM to the regional combatant commanders.

"This has been an area that has really been neglected in the past 20 years," Thomas said. "That’s starting to change now."

They called for more partner SOF training, but did not appear to have crunched the number to determine if the Pentagon has enough trainers for such a mission. Dougherty said the United States should leverage — train the foreign trainers to train the SOF forces in their own regions.

"I think we need to stop thinking about just the number of U.S. SOF," he said.

Take a look for yourself, the report is posted at CSBA’s website.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this post incorrectly attributed the Rosetta Stone and diversity quotes to Dougherty. They came from Thomas. 

Kevin Baron is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy, covering defense and military issues in Washington. He is also vice president of the Pentagon Press Association. Baron previously was a national security staff writer for National Journal, covering the "business of war." Prior to that, Baron worked in the resident daily Pentagon press corps as a reporter/photographer for Stars and Stripes. For three years with Stripes, Baron covered the building and traveled overseas extensively with the secretary of defense and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, covering official visits to Afghanistan and Iraq, the Middle East and Europe, China, Japan and South Korea, in more than a dozen countries. From 2004 to 2009, Baron was the Boston Globe Washington bureau's investigative projects reporter, covering defense, international affairs, lobbying and other issues. Before that, he muckraked at the Center for Public Integrity. Baron has reported on assignment from Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe, the Middle East and the South Pacific. He was won two Polk Awards, among other honors. He has a B.A. in international studies from the University of Richmond and M.A. in media and public affairs from George Washington University. Originally from Orlando, Fla., Baron has lived in the Washington area since 1998 and currently resides in Northern Virginia with his wife, three sons, and the family dog, The Edge. Twitter: @FPBaron

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