During the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama promised to build up the United States" special operations and civil affairs forces. Those military specialties -- carried out by forces trained in small-scale actions, special reconnaissance, unconventional warfare, psychological operations and counterinsurgency -- have become increasingly important in such current conflicts as Afghanistan and in protecting the nation from terrorism.
In a July 15, 2011, report, the Congressional Research Service wrote that special operations forces "play a significant role in U.S. military operations" and that the U.S. Special Operations Command, or USSOCOM, has close to 60,000 active duty, National Guard and reserve personnel from all four services as well as Department of Defense civilians.
The 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review -- a regular assessment by the Pentagon of its future needs and resources -- directs increases in special operations force structure, CRS noted. It quotes Adm. Eric T. Olson, USSOCOM"s commander, noting that since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, USSOCOM staffing has nearly doubled, its budget nearly tripled and overseas deployments quadrupled.
The numbers of personnel authorized for USSOCOM have increased from 55,890 in fiscal year 2009 to 63,779 for fiscal year 2012, according to the Pentagon. Meanwhile, the budget has increased from $8.9 billion to $10.5 billion over the same period.
"If you look at the most recent budget request, it shows that the special operations budget is projected to continue increasing through fiscal year 2016," said Todd Harrison, a fellow with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. "It dips a bit in fiscal 2011 due to the war funding beginning to come down, but it is projected to continue growing even without war funding in future years."
Meanwhile, civil affairs units -- those that work with civilian authorities and populations in the countries where U.S. troops are stationed -- are sprinkled throughout the branches, but a significant number also are included in USSOCOM. Within USSOCOM, civil affairs "has grown from one battalion to a brigade," said Ken McGraw, an USSOCOM deputy public affairs officer, though he added that not all of that growth has taken place under the Obama administration.
This is not to say that there aren"t challenges for special operations forces. CRS quoted Olson saying that due to the high level of demand, special operations forces are showing some "fraying around the edges," with "more time at home" necessary to keep forces in their best state of readiness.
Still, Obama has stuck to the general thrust of this promise. We rate it a Promise Kept.