Even before the May 2011 Navy SEAL raid on bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, U.S. special operations forces had already shown signs of fraying, according to Special Operations Command chief Adm. William McRaven.
The force has been consumed by multiple deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001, aside from the other missions U.S. special operations forces conduct in nearly 80 countries worldwide each year, according to McRaven.
That kind of operational tempo, along with the relatively small percentage that special operations forces make up within the U.S. military, is starting to take a large toll on the force.
Looming budget concerns for McRaven's command could accelerate that breakdown even further, due to the across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration.
While the special operations budget is set to grow in the Pentagon’s current spending request, McRaven said that if the sequester is not averted, it’s only a matter of time before the cuts will be felt and his forces will be “taxed” by sequestration.
“Make no mistake about it, the budget will affect us either directly or, as it affects the services, it will affect us,” he added.
The Pentagon has long warned about the widespread consequences of sequestration cuts.
The Defense Department is preparing to cut $41 billion in 2013, and its 2014 budget request could get slashed by another $52 billion if the sequester is not eliminated.
Command officials are looking to ease that blow somewhat, by driving U.S. special forces toward a strategy emphasizing smaller U.S. troop presence backed up by partner nation forces.
But that move, according to McRaven, was "absolutely not driven by economics."
Building military partnerships has long been a top priority for Special Operations Command, and has become a greater focus for the command in the wake of the U.S. drawdown in Afghanistan.
But as that war comes to an end, and other looming threats from Syria, Iran and elsewhere emerge, U.S. special operations forces "will be able to provide what the nation needs," McRaven said.