WASHINGTON — The head of U.S. Special Operations Command said his troops are highly skilled, but they can't do everything.
"We are not a panacea," said Gen. Raymond Thomas III in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee Thursday. "We are not the ultimate solution to every problem, and you will not hear that coming from us.
"That has been misconstrued in some of the media circles."
The comments came in response to senators concerns about the operational tempo facing special operations forces, and the growing reliance on those personnel for an even-broadening range of missions.
More than 8,000 special operations personnel are currently deployed in 80 different countries. That includes almost 700 in Iraq and Syria, working with local forces on a host of counter-terrorism and support missions.
SOCOM leaders have also in recent months taken the lead in coordinating military anti-terrorism efforts and monitoring the spread of weapons of mass destruction, even though the command only represents about 2 percent of the Defense Department’s budget and manpower.
Earlier this week, Theresa Whelan, acting assistant secretary of defense for special operations, told House lawmakers that the high tempo of operations has forced the command to "eat our young … we've mortgaged the future in order to facilitate current operations.
"That has impacted readiness and it's also impacted the development of force for the future. And as the threats grow, this is only going to get worse."
On Thursday, committee chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., also warned against "a seemingly insatiable demand for the unique capabilities of our special operators" among military leaders. Sen.Tim Kaine, D-Va., said he worries about the "growing SOF myth, that you can use special forces and nothing else to achieve your goals."
Thomas said he lectures his troops about the importance of working closely with other combatant commands and foreign allies on a regular basis.
"You’re right to worry about the perception, and it’s something we battle all the time," he said. "There have been too many books and movies that imply that we go it alone or do it alone. That’s completely incorrect."
Still, he acknowledged the increased pressure on his forces has drained readiness and modernization resources, bills that will have to be paid in future budgets if his command is to remain prepared for future threats.
And the cost in lives has also been high. Last month, three Army Rangers were killed in operations overseas, bringing the total to 16 since Thomas took over a year ago and 409 since the 2001.
"It is a stark reminder that we are command at war and rule remain so for the foreseeable future," Thomas said.
Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.