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WASHINGTON — As Congress bickered toward a debt limit deal, the price for compromise included $350 billion worth of defense spending cuts over 10 years, an amount Pentagon officials said they could live with, without putting national security at risk. That figure could yet grow as a congressional panel looks to find additional cost savings.

Several of President Barack Obama’s handpicked crop of new top military officers have in recent weeks sought budget-cutting immunity for special operations forces and counterterrorism operations across the Middle East. But the budget deal Obama signed on Wednesday leaves most of the Special Operations Command budget exposed to the proposed cuts.

The bill is supposed to protect war funds contained in the special “overseas contingency operations” account, but only 34 percent of SOCOM funds requested for 2012 fall under that account.

Vice Adm. William McRaven, Joint Special Operations Commander and Obama’s choice as next SOCOM commander, told the Senate in June that any budget cuts “would severely impact my ability to meet the demand for [special operations forces] and significantly increase the risk to our nation’s security.”

“Since 9/11, SOF manpower has roughly doubled, the budget has roughly tripled and the overseas deployments have quadrupled. Demand is outpacing supply,” he said. “The pace of the last 10 years is indicative of what we expect for the next 10 years.”

In the last 10 years, SOCOM, the unified combatant command presiding over special operations in all four services, has grown to 57,000 active, Reserve, Guard and civilians, including SEALs, Rangers and Green Berets, as well as analysts, linguists and planners. SOCOM missions range from the door-kicking raids to launching submarines, training foreign militaries and conducting psychological and information operations to influence publics. Special operators deploy to dozens of countries on a typical day but about 85 percent of deployed personnel work in Iraq or Afghanistan and Operation Enduring Freedom, according to Olson.

McRaven said the five percent maximum growth rate for special operations force personnel needs to be sustained to meet the demand.

Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert and director for the Center for Peace and Security Studies, said Congress could scarcely afford to slash funding for such operations.

“Special operations forces provide the most effective return on the dollar, in terms of counterterrorism,” he said, noting that killing Osama bin Laden proved to Washington that maintaining elite military forces to target global terrorists was worth the price. “In Congress, they see it as a counterterrorism tool that is as economical as it is effective.”

But special operations forces rely on large numbers of conventional troops to provide significant enabling capabilities, from air support to logistics to communications.

Directly across the Gulf of Aden from Yemen, Africa Command is installing more housing units and buying hundreds of acres of land to expand Camp Lemonnier, the base in Djibouti that is a jumping-off point for counterterrorism and piracy operations.

At Naval Support Activity Bahrain, the U.S. is expanding facilities to house a new forward-deployed headquarters for Marines conducting counterterrorism operations. And the CIA is building a new desert airstrip for drone flights over Yemen, according to a recent Washington Post report.

It all points to a future McRaven calls the “new normal,” where special operations forces are constantly forward-deployed and engaged with local forces.

On his first trip to Afghanistan and Iraq as defense secretary, Leon Panetta talked excitedly about the military’s future hunting down the remnant leaders of al-Qaida across Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and North Africa.

“We’re going to be around for a hell of a long time, making sure that the world goes right,” he said.

But it will be up to Congress, the White House and Obama’s new military leadership to protect the counterterrorism expansion.

“I think with the killing of bin Laden and our budget travails, a lot of people in the U.S. would like to turn back the clock to Sept 10, 2001,” Hoffman said, “but you can’t. ... The new world that emerged after September 11, 10 years ago, is here to stay.

“It’s up to us because we’re the country that’s in the crosshairs. Of that, there’s no doubt.”

baronk@stripes.osd.mil

Twitter: @StripesBaron

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