WASHINGTON -- The tip of the spear may be losing its edge.
Navy SEAL teams don't have enough combat rifles to go around, even as these highly trained forces are relied on more than ever to carry out counterterrorism operations and other secretive missions, according to SEALs who have confided in Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif.
After SEALs return from a deployment, their rifles are given to other commandos who are shipping out, said Hunter, a former Marine who served three combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. This weapons carousel undercuts the "train like you fight" ethos of the U.S. special operations forces, they said.
Hunter said he's been contacted by several SEALs, but he declined to provide further information about the weapons they use in order to protect their identities.
U.S. military officials said they were looking into the issue.
Sharing rifles may seem inconsequential. It's not. The weapons, which are outfitted with telescopic targeting sights and laser pointers, are fine-tuned to individual specifications and become intensely personal pieces of gear.
"They want their rifles," Hunter said. "It's their lifeline. So let them keep their guns until they're assigned desk jobs at the Pentagon."
The problem isn't a lack of money, according to Hunter. Congress has frequently boosted the budgets of special operations forces in the years since the 9/11 attacks, he said. Rifles also are among the least expensive items the military buys, leading Hunter to question the priorities of Naval Special Warfare Command, the Coronado, California, organization that oversees the SEALs.
"There is so much wasteful spending," he said. "Money is not reaching the people it needs to reach."
Combat rifles can cost up to several thousand dollars depending upon the type of weapon and quality of the sights and other attachments. But the M-4 carbine, the standard combat rifle used by the military branches, cost less than $1,000 each when bought in bulk, according to Defense Department budget documents.
Hunter wrote last month to the Naval Special Warfare Command's leader, Rear Adm. Brian Losey, about the alleged weapon shortage and also asked him for a full accounting of how the command's budget was spent last year. Losey has told Hunter to expect a reply by Wednesday.
Army Gen. Joseph Votel, the top officer at U.S. Special Operations Command in Tampa, Florida, and Losey's superior, told Hunter last week he is aware of the congressman's concerns. "We're certainly running that down," Votel said during testimony before the House Armed Services Committee.
Votel added that heavily used rifles need to undergo maintenance and that may be contributing to the perception of a shortage. But "we'll certainly take immediate action," Votel said, if it's determined the combat readiness of the SEALs is being degraded.
One of the SEALs who contacted Hunter blamed a slow, penny-pinching bureaucracy that rarely seeks input from the service members who use the gear, according to a brief excerpt of his comments that the congressman's office provided to The Associated Press.
Delays of as long as three to four years paralyze the acquisition system, the SEAL said. Once an item has finally been approved for purchase, new and better gear may be available, triggering the same lengthy screening process to see if it's worth getting instead.
Ammunition also is in short supply for training, the SEAL said, because the bulk of it is being used for combat missions.
Hunter also questioned whether the expense of expanding the size of the special operations forces could have left too little in the budget for weapons.
To meet heavy demand, the number of active-duty troops assigned to Special Operations Command, which includes SEALs, Army Green Berets and Rangers, and Air Force combat controllers, has grown dramatically during the past decade - from more than 33,600 to 56,000. There are 2,710 SEALs.
The budget for Special Operations Command is $10.4 billion and the Obama administration is proposing a $400 million increase over the current total for the coming fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1.
In his Feb. 17 letter to Losey, Hunter also said he's received reports that the command is slow to settle official travel claims due in part to money shortages. This can cause personal and professional problems for SEALs, who hold high-level security clearances, he said.
Service members who hold U.S. government travel charge cards are ultimately responsible for any late fees, interest and accrued balance on the card. So if the government fails to quickly process a voucher, the service member might have to pay out of pocket or face an overdue bill. A lapse in payment could be forwarded to a credit agency, Hunter said, and that could result in a SEAL being declared ineligible to hold a clearance.