Over in the House, the Emerging Threats and Capabilities subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee is marking up its version of next year’s defense bill on Wednesday. And chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Tex.) is making sure that it strengthens the special operations role in counterterrorism for years to come.
The “mark,” as it’s called in Hill-speak, wants the U.S. Special Operations Command to consider changing its command structure to “better support development and deployment of joint special operations forces and capabilities.” Expect that to strengthen the role of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), responsible for killing bin Laden, especially as the next spec ops chief will be JSOC’s leader, Vice Adm. William McRaven.
Better still for the command, Thornberry’s mark asks it to examine “future requirements” for its role in counterterrorism, and provide Congress with what it will need to “support special operations counterterrorism, unconventional warfare, and irregular warfare” ahead of a scheduled expiration of authorities in fiscal 2014. The command’s cash for counterterrorism missions will go up to $50 million under the bill, a modest increase of $5 million.
In return, Congress just wants to be kept in the loop. The mark seeks “quarterly” briefings to the defense oversight committees on counterterrorism operations worldwide, as well as an “outline of interagency activities and initiatives” — in other words, missions pairing it with the CIA, a la Abbottabad.
“We are well aware that it was Special Operations Forces that conducted the operation on Osama bin Laden earlier this week,” Thornberry said Wednesday. “They deserve our thanks and our support, and from this subcommittee they get it.”
Not just from that subcommittee. Since 9/11, Special Operations Command’s budget has nearly tripled (PDF), with the Obama administration requesting $10.5 billion for the next fiscal year. Adm. Eric Olson, the outgoing commander, recently marveled at Congress’ support for special operations — but warned that commandos are run ragged by their frequent deployments.
A quick for-instance: if you think that fast-roping from helicopters down into bin Laden’s compound was impressive, consider that JSOC forces “conduct these kinds of operations two and three times a night in Afghanistan,” as CIA Director Leon Panetta — nominated to be the next secretary of defense — told PBS’ Jim Lehrer on Tuesday.
There are lots of congressional hurdles to jump through before Thornberry’s mark reaches Obama’s desk. But it’s doubtful that after the success of the bin Laden operation anyone on the Hill is going to want to rein in special operations. Thornberry’s Democratic counterpart, James Langevin of Rhode Island, predicted that the role of the elite troops “will only grow and we must continue to make supporting them a central aspect to our national security strategy.”
Photo: U.S. Army