Special Warfare: The Missing Middle in U.S. Coercive Options

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In the face of adversaries exploiting regional social divisions by using special operations forces and intelligence services, and dwindling American appetite for intervention, the United States needs to employ a more sophisticated form of special warfare to secure its interests. Special warfare campaigns stabilize or destabilize a regime by operating “through and with” local state or nonstate partners, rather than through unilateral U.S. action. Special operations forces are typically the primary U.S. military forces employed, but successful campaigns depend on bringing to bear a broad suite of U.S. government capabilities. The figure below differentiates special warfare from more familiar forms of conflict. Special warfare has particular relevance to the current global security environment as policymakers seek options short of large-scale intervention to manage both acute crises (e.g., ISIL, Ukraine) and chronic challenges (e.g., insurgency in the Philippines).


Special warfare fills the missing middle for exerting influence between the costly commitment of conventional forces and precision-strike options provided by drones, aircraft, missiles, and special operations forces’ direct action. The potential for escalation associated with precision-strike capabilities may render them too risky to employ in some circumstances, while in cases where the targeted regime’s core interests are involved, precision-strike options may be too little to compel desired changes in behavior. Despite policymaker antipathy toward the costs and risks of intervention, observed and forecasted instability around the world will continue to create situations in which policymakers are forced to act to protect U.S. interests. Special warfare provides these decisionmakers with an additional option that can help protect American interests and manage risks in some important cases.

Special warfare is not new. The United States has a long (and somewhat checkered) history of special warfare operations. Classic cases from the 1980s include U.S. support to the government of El Salvador against the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front Marxist insurgents and to the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan against the Soviets. In the former case, the U.S. military was restricted to providing no more than 55 advisors, who did not participate in combat operations. In the latter case, operations were conducted almost entirely from and through a third country, Pakistan. However, more than a decade of focus on counterterrorism, Iraq, and Afghanistan has atrophied U.S. special warfare campaign design skills in the military and appreciation for special warfare’s employment as a strategic tool in the policy community. Efforts are being made, however, to reinvigorate special warfare capabilities.

The United States is not the only country with special warfare capabilities, as explored by other analysts and practitioners on War on the Rocks, including Dave Barno, Nadia Schadlow, and Lawrence Freedman. Russia has recently been successfully exploiting a mix of coethnic sentiment, special operations activities, and conventional deterrence to annex Crimea and destabilize eastern Ukraine. Some Baltic officials, sensitive to the presence of substantial Russian minorities in their own countries, are anxious over what might come next.

Iran has skillfully employed its own special warfare capabilities as part of a long-term regional strategy, using state tools and nonstate proxies to advance its regional interests. Iran’s actions in Syria, for example, have contributed to a vexing dilemma for the United States, in which both action and inaction threaten policy disaster—the former an Iraq-style quagmire and the latter an uncontrolled regionalization of Sunni-Shia sectarian conflict. The Syria dilemma is symptomatic of Iran’s broader efforts to establish a sphere of influence in the Middle East through mechanisms that ingrain instability in the structure of sectarian interrelations, which are similarly exemplified by its patronage of clients such as Hezbollah and its Quds Force activities in Iraq and other Arab states. Coupled with its quest for nuclear capability, Iran’s activities risk a cascading proliferation of nuclear weapons in a deeply divided region. In the longer term, if Iran’s quest for, and Russia’s exercise of, nuclear deterrence and irregular influence are seen as successful asymmetric strategies for circumventing U.S. conventional dominance, other regional or aspiring global powers might adopt similar approaches to securing their interests.

The United States should consider employing special warfare campaigns to counter the aggressive employment of proxies by states competing for regional influence. Though there is no obligation for the United States to fight its adversaries symmetrically, adversaries are challenging the nation in ways difficult to credibly deter with conventional campaigns or precision strikes alone. If the United States were to rebalance its dependence on precision-strike, conventional, and special warfare capabilities, and how they are used to complement one another, it might constitute a change in strategic posture analogous to the shift from Eisenhower’s New Look dependence on massive nuclear retaliation for deterrence to Kennedy’s Flexible Response policy for deterring aggression at multiple levels of the escalation ladder.

Our findings and recommendations are based on semi-structured interviews with special warfare practitioners and researchers, observed military exercises, a review of relevant literature, country and theater campaign plans, case studies, and analysis of a dataset of special warfare operations that our team constructed for this study.

Characteristics of Special Warfare

Special warfare campaigns, properly conducted, are far more than an activity for Special Operations Forces. They involve the comprehensive orchestration of U.S. government capabilities to advance policy objectives. Special warfare campaigns have six central features:

  • Their goal is stabilizing or destabilizing targeted regimes;
  • Local partners provide the main effort;
  • U.S. forces maintain a small (or no) footprint in the country;
  • They are typically of long duration and may require extensive preparatory work better measured in months (or years) than days;
  • They require intensive interagency cooperation in which DOD may be subordinate to the State Department or Central Intelligence Agency (CIA); and
  • They mobilize, neutralize, or integrate individuals or groups from the tactical to strategic levels.

Special warfare might be thought of as the art of making or breaking coalitions. Historically, U.S. Special Operations Forces have found their comparative advantage at the tactical level, while other government agencies have found theirs at the strategic level. It is this political element at this strategic level of special warfare campaigns that requires intensive interagency collaboration, creating situations where the joint force may be supporting an effort led by the State Department or CIA.

Strategic Advantages

Some advantages of special warfare include:

  • Improved understanding and shaping of the environment. Special warfare, executed through intelligence or select military activities, can improve U.S. contextual understanding of potential partners and the situation on the ground before the United States commits to a course of action.
  • Cost-imposing strategies. Special warfare’s small-footprint approach allows the United States to pursue cost-effective, cost-imposing strategies, forcing opponents to spend disproportionate amounts to defend against friendly capabilities.
  • Sustainable solutions. Special warfare’s small-footprint approach can be more fiscally and politically sustainable than alternatives when underlying sources of conflict cannot be resolved in the short term, preserving core U.S. interests at costs that the nation is willing to bear. From a host nation or coalition political perspective, commanders can also use special warfare’s partner-centric approach to design campaigns around a partner’s core interests, rather than hoping to transform those interests in ways that have frequently proven to be ephemeral.
  • Managed escalation and credibility risk. Given a decision to intervene, policymakers could use special warfare to avoid making commitments beyond U.S. interests. However, decisionmakers must carefully assess the escalation criteria and the options of adversaries and their external partners. Assessing the adversary’s (and America’s own) likely escalation behavior is fraught with uncertainty, not least because adversaries may not understand how their own preferences may change as the situation evolves (e.g., jingoistic pressure from domestic constituencies).

The notion that special warfare campaigns’ escalation dynamics are simpler to manage than conventional or distant-strike campaigns is context dependent, but we offer the following evidence and arguments. Distant-strike campaigns against a peer competitor suffer from both a crisis instability problem, where each side has an incentive to strike first, and an ambiguity problem, where a lack of knowledge over the disposition of strategic weapons (e.g., mobile nuclear ballistic missiles) may cause the targeted state to believe that the United States is escalating vertically beyond what is intended. Because special warfare campaigns unfold over a protracted time horizon, the same crisis instability problem does not hold. Time and space exists for political deliberation and negotiations.

Conventional campaigns (here either major combat operations or counterinsurgency) suffer from much larger political sunk costs that create incentives for the gambling for resurrection phenomenon, which has been used to describe President Lyndon Johnson’s decision to escalate in Vietnam. Our analysis of special warfare campaign data found most outcomes indeterminate, meaning neither a decisive win nor loss at the operational level, and yet only in the case of South Vietnam was the conflict escalated into a conventional conflict. In the 1980s, Congress actually passed a law shutting down U.S. support to the Contras, indicating how different the political dynamics governing special warfare campaigns are when compared with other unpopular wars in which efforts in Congress to halt funding for the conflict became conflated with the emotive issue of support for U.S. troops (e.g., Iraq). Conversely, a U.S. unconventional warfare campaign supporting Tibet lasted decades without serious escalation risk or domestic political contestation.

Limits and Risks

As noted earlier, special warfare campaigns are characterized by operations in which the local partner provides the main effort. This dependency on partners carries a set of risks and limitations, as do other characteristics of special warfare. These include:

  • Divergent partner objectives. A U.S. partner may have core objectives that conflict with those of the United States, or the partner may simply prioritize them differently.
  • Ineffective partner capability. The opponent’s level of capability and operational tempo relative to the partner’s may render special warfare solutions ineffective within the required time horizon.
  • Unacceptable partner behavior. Some partners may behave in ways that transgress America’s normative standards (e.g., respect for human rights) and undermine their own sources of legitimacy.
  • Policy fratricide. If special warfare campaigns are not carefully integrated into a holistic U.S. policy toward the targeted country (e.g., through geographic combatant command, country team, and NSS coordination), U.S. efforts can either turn into direct conflict (e.g., between diplomatic and military lines of effort) or become out of balance.
  • Disclosure. The global proliferation of information technology erodes the ability to keep covert activities covert.

Though the United States might avoid some of these risks by acting unilaterally, doing so would likely come at the cost of at least some of the strategic advantages identified earlier.


When the United States seeks to achieve its goals through special warfare, it will require a different conceptual model to design and conduct campaigns than what it is accustomed to. This is because special warfare works principally through local actors, employs political warfare methods, and requires the integration of a much broader suite of U.S. government agency capabilities than are typically envisioned in conventional campaigns. Special warfare is a way of achieving strategic goals, and given recent trends in security threats to the United States and its interests, it may often be the most appropriate way of doing so. As a result, the U.S. national security community needs to begin thinking seriously about special warfare capabilities, authorities, and options in strategic and operational planning. We recommend that DoD strengthen its special warfare planning capacity and culture, conduct institutional reforms to facilitate unified action among relevant U.S. government agencies, and place greater emphasis on developing capabilities required to prevail in the human domain.


Dan Madden is a project associate at the RAND Corporation. His research focuses on irregular warfare, force modernization, and strategic and campaign planning. He is a former Marine, and has served as a defense advisor to members of Congress.

Dick Hoffmann is a defense research analyst at the RAND Corporation. His research covers human performance in extreme environments, joint special operations, and counterterrorism strategy. Before RAND, he served 20 years in the Navy as a SEAL.

Michael Johnson is a former U.S. Army strategic plans and policy officer with expertise in military strategy, risk assessment, joint campaign planning, joint and Army operations, military transformation, network-enabled battle command, and doctrine and force development.

Fred T. Krawchuk is a consultant, visiting professor at IESE Business School, and retired U.S. Army special forces colonel who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Fred specializes in organizational design, leadership and management, cross-cultural collaboration, complex problem solving, negotiations, and conflict resolution.

John E. Peters is a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation and a professor at the Pardee RAND Graduate School. He joined RAND in 1994 after a career in the U.S. Army. His background includes work in arms control and international security policy.

Linda Robinson is a senior international policy analyst at the RAND Corporation. Her areas of expertise include national security strategy, international affairs, U.S. foreign policy, security force assistance, joint force development, special operations forces, irregular warfare, and stability operations.

Abby Doll is a research assistant at the RAND Corporation and focuses on military capabilities assessment, scenario development, and escalation dynamics. She is currently pursuing a PhD in war studies from King’s College, London.


This article is based on a project sponsored by Lieutenant General Charles T. Cleveland, commanding general of U.S. Army Special Operations Command. The research was conducted within RAND Arroyo Center’s Strategy, Doctrine and Resources Program. RAND Arroyo Center, part of the RAND Corporation, is a federally funded research and development center sponsored by the United States Army.

The Project Unique Identification Code (PUIC) for the project that produced this document is RAN136470.

For questions about this study, please contact the primary investigator, Dan Madden, at 703-413-1100 ext. 5622 or at dmadden@rand.org.

Inquiries on this document or the project that produced it should be directed to Dr. Terrence Kelly, Program Director, Arroyo Center – Strategy and Resources, at tkelly@rand.org, 412-683-2300, ext. 4905.

For more information on RAND Arroyo Center, contact the Director of Operations (telephone 310-393-0411, extension 6419; FAX 310-451-6952; email Marcy_Agmon@rand.org), or visit Arroyo’s website at http://www.rand.org/ard.html.


Photo credit: The U.S. Army