The Dangers of the Benefits of Special Operations Forces

Earlier this week, a guest columnist at Tom Ricks’ Best Defense blog argued strongly that “Special Operations Forces should be niche units, not our foundational military assets.”

There are a couple of dangers here as we move forward.  Special Forces (SF) and Direct Action Special Operations Forces are distinct and both do great work if appropriately applied.  Both SF and the other lumped forces are SOF-but have different internal components with different purposes which are crucial to their application.

SF, through FID, primarily works to prevent other SOF forces (Tier One/Rangers/Task Force 160, etc) from having to be employed.  Or even better, create local forces that can do the job. In other cases, SF elements train locals to do what we could not do, such as internal drug interdiction, security application etc. The problem we now have with SOF has several components:

They are a highly effective and major force multiplier/economy of force tool.  Theater commanders-in-chief (CINCs) can get a lot done with a small discrete force application.  Inter alia, this has great political attraction at all levels.  Visibility can be a bad thing.

  • They are cheaper to maintain than conventional forces in toto which has attraction in some areas.
  • They are highly mobile compared to conventional forces.
  • They like what they do and always like employment and have excellent sales pitches to a CINC or situation in need.
  • They invariably create tension and jealousy at all levels of military management depending upon your viewpoint.

The great danger is that some senior leaders (civilian or otherwise) may view SOF as a great reason not to invest a lot in conventional forces.  Hence, SOF provides a risk insurance policy for deficient funding.  Historically, this creates great animosity among the deprived elements who don’t miss an opportunity to apply the death of a thousand cuts.

SOF is a balance with conventional forces, to be applied where appropriate, but it is not a substitute.  The Services need to build a coherent structure that uses both sides in a mutually understood balance and internally educate their leadership regarding appropriate use.  Left to their own devices, SOF and Conventional forces will internally compete.


Col (Ret) Keith Nightingale commanded four rifle companies, three Airborne and Ranger Battalions and two brigades.  He was a member of the Iran Rescue Task Force and a founding cadre member of the 1-75th Rangers.  He had two tours in Vietnam, was an assault force commander in Grenada and had several deployments to the Middle East, Africa and Latin America.  He presently acts as a consultant to several Fortune 500 companies on SOF related issues.