Add U.S. lawmakers to the ranks of those worried the country's special operations forces are being stretched to a possible breaking point.

Pentagon officials raised the issue months ago, telling lawmakers in May the continuous, heavy reliance on the most elite U.S. forces was threatening to erode their capabilities.

Since then, such concerns have only grown, highlighted by a series of high-profile incidents, including a probe into whether two members of the Navy's SEAL team may have been involved in the death of an Army Green Beret member in Mali this past June, and the death of four special operation soldiers in an ambush in Niger last month.

"I do worry about overuse of SOF [special operations forces]," House Armed Services Committee Chairman Republican Mac Thornberry said Wednesday at a conference in Washington.

"They are increasingly an organization of choice because SOF is very effective," he said.

Force of choice

There currently are about 70,000 active duty, reserve and civilian personnel serving under U.S. Special Operations Command. According to Congressional testimony, approximately 8,000 forces are currently deployed to more than 80 countries.

Some of the more high-profile missions include critical roles as part of the effort to defeat the Islamic State (IS) terror group in both Iraq and Syria, as well as assistance to Afghan forces fighting both the Taliban and IS.

Efforts to stem the influence of terror groups in Africa, including the mission in Niger, as well as efforts to reassure U.S. allies in Europe and Southeast Asia, have only increased the need for special operations forces.

"The operational tempo is so incredible," Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member Democrat Jack Reed said at a policy forum on U.S. special operations forces.

"The idea that you would have within six years, multiple deployments, some people every six months to deploy, that in and of itself causes lots of consequences," he said.

Operational tempo

Some lawmakers fear that even as U.S. special operations forces perform well while they are deployed, the high operational tempo is taking a toll once they return home with personnel sometimes suffering from physical and emotional scars that cannot be easily identified.

"These men and women are some of the most hardcore, determined people that we have in our armed forces," said Republican Senator Joni Ernst, a combat veteran who served in Iraq.

"It is very hard for them to step forward and say, 'Hey, I need to go see the doc. Hey, I need to visit with the counselor,'" she said. "We have to provide more support for those who are engaging in this high op tempo environment."

Some of the country's elite forces are starting to get more help.

Ernst said some Navy SEAL teams now have psychologists assigned to their units. Other units are doing more to monitor and detect changes in behavior following deployments.

But she and others worry existing programs are not working well enough, and they say more needs to be done.
"We spend so much time and effort talking about the stuff we're going buy for the military. I'm not sure over the years we have spent enough time on our most valuable assets, which is our people," according to Thornberry, who chairs the House Armed Services Committee.

Still, there are nagging concerns the current special operations force may be nearing its limit.

"What they're capable of is unbelievable, but for how long?" said Representative Adam Smith, the ranking member of House Armed Services Committee. "How many missions can you send them on? How many times can they do this? I think that's what we don't know."

Growing demands

In the meantime, lawmakers expect Washington's reliance on special operations forces is only going to grow, in part due to an expanding set of global hot spots and also because of a U.S. foreign policy approach that seems to be minimizing the use of diplomacy.

Senator Reed pointed to the U.S. operation in Niger, where four U.S. soldiers were killed, as an example.
"Part of that operation was sort of civic engagement those special operators were talking to the head person in the village," he said. "Typically, with adequate security, that's a State Department function."

According to Ernst, "We should run the gamut before we are engaging our military and we can't do that if we don't have the personnel outside of DoD [the Department of Defense] that are shaping that battlefield for us, shaping that discussion.

"They have to be properly funded. It's critical to our national security," she said. "They help our [special forces] operators significantly."

Another option, according to both Reed and Ernst, is to expand the number of U.S. special operations forces, which they say may be necessary even with a bulked-up diplomatic corps.

"We have to increase numbers and resources," Reed said, warning, "We cannot sacrifice quality for quantity."