Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday signaled concern about potential cuts to spending and personnel for Special Operations Forces (SOF) in the upcoming fiscal year 2024 budget request.

The lawmakers pressed senior Special Operations leaders during a hearing on the impact of possible cuts as the community faces increasing requirements from combatant commands.

U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Jim Slife, Air Force Special Operations Command commander, speaks with Mr. Christopher Maier, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict, during an orientation tour July 28, 2022, at Hurlburt Field, Florida. In his role, Maier oversees special operations, irregular warfare, counterterrorism, and information operations policy issues, among other responsibilities. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Michael Charles)

“I regret that you’re here today and not 48 hours from now when we’re going to get the president’s budget, because I am troubled that you may in fact get a reduction in budget or forces,” Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) said at the hearing. “If my fears are proven out, I think you can count on many members of this committee, probably in both parties, to try to make sure that our Special Operations Forces have the resources they need.”

President Biden is expected to roll out the administration’s FY ‘24 budget request on Thursday, to include topline spending figures, while more detailed budget documents are planned for release on March 13. 

“Senator, as you know, I can’t talk to what’s likely to be in the budget. But I think as…I have said, the priorities that we have identified are represented in that budget,” Christopher Maier, assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict,  said in response to Cotton. 

Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) echoed Cotton’s outlook on a potential flat or declining budget outlook for the SOF community and pressed Maier and Army Gen. Bryan Fenton, head of U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM), on how they would navigate that facing increased requirements.

“I am very, very concerned about that,” Ernst said. “I just need to stress to this committee how important it is that we continue to fund you at the appropriate levels. You give us the greatest bang for the buck with what you do all around the globe.”

Maier affirmed that SOF is “being asked to do more,” while Fenton added he is “constantly focused” on the balance and adjustment of SOCOM requirements.

“This is the crux of the challenge, right. We’re being asked to do more and our force [size] is probably static. So I would not advocate for a reduction in forces,” Maier said. “First and foremost, it’s a risk assessment and it’s weighing against the requirements. There are always more requirements from the combatant commands than we can meet as a force and those numbers keep going up. But I think at the same time, we’re very focused on the idea that, while the strategic focus is of course on the pacing challenge of [China] and the acute threat of Russia, we can’t be surprised by an attack from another adversary. And I think managing that risk is, in many cases, what the SOF enterprise does very well. We are, in essence, the hedge against that risk.”

Fenton added that a potential budget cut for SOCOM would lead the command to be “forced at some point to make hard choices” as it relates to allocating resources for meeting requirements.

“No one wants to see a decrease in personnel or the budget. I would tell you that it would not reflect the requirements, number one…And number two, we would be forced at some point to make hard choices because each and every time I think you’ll see me give you the best Special Operations Command for the budget we get,” Fenton said. 

Maier reiterated to the panel that he believes his office is “on a good pathway” for funding, while noting the Special Operations community has to remain aware of potential inflation impacts.

“Speaking just to my specific office, I think we are probably on a good pathway just in terms of funding,” Maier said. “In terms of the entire Special Operations enterprise, I think our priorities are represented, understanding full well that the challenge with inflation means that if our budget is flat that reduces our buying power. So that’s something we’ll need to keep a close eye on”

Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), the ranking member on SASC, said the panel will “lead the charge” for increasing the defense topline for the FY ‘23 cycle, adding he has “little confidence” the White House’s request will be up to a “sufficient” level this year as well.

“There’s no doubt that continued real growth in the defense budget topline above inflation remains essential to our national security. This requires action now, not later. Our adversaries are not waiting, neither should we,” Wicker said. “ I frankly have little confidence that the administration budget request this year will be sufficient. If it is not, this committee will again need to step up to ensure that our military has the resources it needs to defend the nation.”