Reuters recently reported on a contingent of U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) personnel in southern Niger assisting the West African country in its battle against the terrorist organization Boko Haram, which is increasingly raiding into Niger.

The contingent is a portion of the approximately 1,000 special operators currently deployed across the continent, part of President Obama’s strategy of training indigenous forces to quell security threats before they become so large that the United States must intervene.

Though the strategy has flaws, as all do, it is sensible, given the challenges of operating in Africa. Yet it is also SOF-intensive at a time when the size of the conventional military is shrinking, increasing the demand for SOF around the globe.

Obama’s SOF-first strategy playing out in Niger and other hotspots in Africa is going to be undercut if conventional forces continue to contract.

Africa is vast, approximately three times the size of the United States. It is also diverse, hosting thousands of tribes and languages and hundreds of unique cultures. It is as well home to a range of security threats that directly affect the United States. Five African countries have groups that have declared allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Al-Qaeda has two major affiliates—and a variety of associated groups—on the continent that kill and kidnap Westerners and destabilize U.S. allies. There are also a number of weak, failed, or malign states that can provide sanctuary to terrorists (lest we forget, Sudan sheltered Osama bin Laden for five years in the 1990s).

Given the nature of the African security challenge, the United States has few options other than to deploy SOF to train up local forces.

Special operators are experienced in operating in remote environments and do not require the extensive support infrastructure that conventional forces do. They are also adept at training, cross-cultural interaction, and thinking creatively about difficult problems, all critical skills in this context.

Yet the reduction of the conventional military undercuts the SOF-first strategy on the continent. The following excerpt from a chapter in The Heritage Foundation’s 2015 Index of U.S. Military Strength explains the problem:

While reducing the number of conventional ground forces overall—and specifically in the Middle East—is current U.S. policy, such cuts do not make for sound defense policy and, in fact, harm the ability of SOF to do their job in two key ways:

  • Since SOF depend so heavily on conventional forces for organic combat support and combat service support, the drawdown of Army and Marine Corps end strength “brings up concerns the services might be hard-pressed to establish and dedicate enabling units needed by USSOCOM (United States Special Operations Command) while at the same time adequately supporting general purpose forces.”
  • Because SOCOM draws its operators and support staff from the various services, a decrease in the size of the conventional force subsequently decreases the recruiting pool on which SOCOM relies for quality personnel.

Furthermore, demands for SOF are almost certain to swell, including in Africa. There are plans to increase the number of SOF, but there is a limit to how large and how quickly they can grow. Another excerpt from the same chapter cited above:

The current force is about 67,000 personnel, a figure slated to increase to 70,000 over the next several years, of which around 12,000 can be deployed at any given time. However, the strict requirements for entry into the SOF and the emphasis on retaining a top-tier fighting force limit the growth rate for SOF expansion. The maximum growth rate per year without sacrificing quality is about a 3 percent to 5 percent increase in personnel.

Combined with the greater use of SOF, this low growth rate will put additional pressure on an already stretched force…One can conclude that despite the growth of SOF (both current and planned), they are probably only marginally at an appropriate size for the present and coming missions. This is a concern because the pressure on SOF to pick up a greater share of duties will be strong.

In short, if current trends continue, the military will be unable to meet demands for SOF that are virtually certain to grow, including in Africa.

A few National Guard and Army units have long-term relationships with African countries and can fill some of the gaps, but they lack the high-end SOF skill set. And while training local forces is not always successful, it is currently the most sensible approach and is likely to remain our primary area of effort in Africa for the foreseeable future.

Unless Obama quickly reverses the shrinking of the U.S. military, his Africa strategy will founder, with serious repercussions for U.S. national security.