Shifting Fires: Optimizing Special Operations for Today and Tomorrow’s Fight


Editor’s Note: This article was submitted in response to our call for papers on “roles and missions.”

Even though U.S. special operations forces are at the forefront of the fight against terrorism across the globe, they may fail without the right reforms. The National Defense Strategy prioritizes great power competition, as well as “rogue regimes,” such as Iran and North Korea, spreading instability. Considering the reshuffle of national defense priorities, leaders on Capitol Hill, especially those in the Senate, have challenged the Department of Defense to examine the roles and missions of the services. This has important implications for Special Operations Command, because, since its inception in 1987 after the Nunn-Cohen amendment, it dually has to be a functional combatant command and hold “service-like” responsibilities for special operations assigned to it.

To address the questions concerning its role and mission, Special Operations Command should review and answer some fundamental questions, such as whether its forces are performing too many missions and whether they are aligned to the priority threats identified in the National Defense Strategy. Additionally, it should account for the additional guidance the command received to be the Defense Department lead for countering violent extremism, countering weapons of mass destruction, and conducting irregular warfare in the context of great power competition. The central challenge for Special Operations Command, like the services and combatant commands, is that the guidance it is receiving from the National Defense Strategy and other strategic documents insists that the command must do more with less, which is a slippery slope that leads to doing less with less. If something is not done now, America’s special operations forces could very well face another Desert One moment.

As someone who has recently spent over three years at a theater special operations command supporting U.S. Central Command, I am keenly aware of both the challenges and the opportunities present to addressing the questions being asked. Special Operations Command is already considering enacting reforms in the ways it plans, allocates, and employs forces. These include greater integration with conventional forces, balancing and synchronizing the employment of special operations, and to developing new and innovative ways to operate in a more contested multi-domain environment. Doing so will ensure Special Operations Command remains the most flexible and adaptable element of the U.S. military in achieving the objectives articulated in the National Defense Strategy.

Integrate: Trust Conventional Forces to Do More

Determining whether special operations forces are doing too much and whether they are aligned to the highest-priority threats requires examining the size and responsibilities of Special Operations Command. According to Gen. Tony Thomas, commander of Special Operations Command, “the command has 56,177 active duty, 7,402 reserve and guard component, and 6,623 civilian personnel.” In total, U.S. Special Operations Command has over 70,000 personnel, which makes it almost as large as the British Army.

Today, the majority of special operations forces are currently deployed to Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia, conducting or enabling counter-terrorism campaigns. The rest conduct security cooperation engagements globally to meet the demands of the geographic combatant commands where their tasks to compete against great powers, rogue nations, and violent extremist continue to increase demand for special operations. Simply put, demand has outstripped supply.

To address the increased demand for special operations forces, Special Operations Command is working with the conventional services and with allied and partner special operations forces to perform some of the missions assigned. However, conventional forces could easily do some of the security cooperation activities currently conducted by special operations forces, such as basic marksmanship, land navigation, and basic maintenance procedures.

Beyond the tactical and operational levels, small special operations teams are not ideally suited for training foreign partners in complex institutional level areas, such as depot-level maintenance, logistics, doctrine, and finance — all the things that keep an army functioning. The Army’s security force assistance brigades were designed to provide such a capability. The Marine Corps is also developing a similar capability that could be used to alleviate the demand on special operations forces. However, it must be noted that the first employment of a security force assistance brigade was to the combat theater of Afghanistan, where the authorities governing its employment were different than they would have been if the brigade had been deployed to a small African nation under the direction of an ambassador.

While there is a strong desire on the part of Special Operations Command to better synchronize the security cooperation activities conducted by special operations forces and conventional forces, there are also challenges. First, conventional forces can do some, but not all, of the missions assigned to special operators. Special operations are often sensitive assignments aimed at developing a clearer picture of the operating environment, developing networks for counter-terrorism and/or irregular warfare operations, and providing a crisis response capability for ambassadors and their country teams. Conventional forces are ill equipped to handle these tasks. Second, some partner nations view being trained by America’s elite as a matter of pride, and it will take time to convince them of the utility of being trained by conventional forces. Third, some U.S. country teams do not support the use of Security Force Assistance Brigades. Hosting large contingents of U.S. troops can be politically sensitive. To address this, Special Operations Command and geographic combatant commands need to engage early and often with ambassadors and partner nations on what units like the Army’s Security Force Assistance Brigade can provide to achieve their diplomatic and security objectives in lieu of Special Operations teams.

Finally, Special Operations Command is working with allied and partnered special operations forces to determine areas of mutual interest and which missions they are willing to assume from the United States. For example, French Special Operations Command is taking the lead in parts of Africa, Australia is taking the lead with partners in the Pacific, and the United Kingdom is taking the lead in Oman. Today, Special Operations Command, U.S. Central Command, U.S. European Command, and NATO have established mechanisms for incorporating allied and partnered special operations forces to support operations in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. However, outside of these theaters and their named operations, the process is less mature, partly due to differences in the force allocation planning cycles.

Prioritize: Putting What is Most Important First

As America’s special operations enterprise adjusts to the 2018 National Defense Strategy, it must prioritize allocating forces more equitably to support all the geographic combatant commands to address the threats posed by great power competition, rogue regimes, and violent extremist organizations. Like the conventional services, Special Operations Command manages its force allocation process by engaging its subordinate theater special operations commands. These organizations are aligned to each of the geographic combatant commands, and they provide Special Operations Command a prioritized list of the resources, capabilities, and manpower needed to accomplish their assigned missions. Currently, America’s special operations enterprise cannot afford to take risks in the fight against priority violent extremist organizations and must somehow shift focus over time to address the complex challenges of emerging global competitors.

Special Operations Command compiles the requirements and develops a master prioritized list. This list accounts for the priorities established by the National Defense Strategy, for the regional priorities of the geographic combatant commanders, and for Special Operations Command’s internal priorities. This list must account for Special Operations Command’s responsibility to be the lead in counter-terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, and irregular warfare. While the majority of the special operations inventory is being allocated to support the current fights in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, the prioritized list also informs Special Operations Command’s service components, such as U.S. Army Special Operations Command and Air Force Special Operations Commands, on the near-, mid-, and long-term manning, training, and equipping requirements to compete against greater powers and rogue regimes. For example, to compete in a multi-domain contested environment against competitors such as Russia or China, America’s special operators will need to adapt to an environment where persistent intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance and/or special operations MC-130 gunships may not be able to operate or survive in advanced anti-access/area denial environments. The future will require more low observable platforms to survive the increased threats.

To do more with less against the prioritized efforts and act as a force multiplier, leaders on Capitol Hill and in the Pentagon need to adjust the various authorizations special operations forces are deployed under.

Under current global force allocation rules, a special operations element deployed to Lebanon to conduct security cooperation activities can only be employed for that specific mission and country — creating a situation where those units are geographically constrained and their agility is reduced. If that unit had broader authorities to support the full range of missions assigned to it by the geographic combatant commander across the entire geographic region, that team in Lebanon could rapidly move to take advantage of an opportunity or to fill a gap to conduct security cooperation in the Central Asian states to address counter-terrorism threats and compete with Russian and Chinese influence.

This would serve two purposes. First, it would create the conditions in which Special Operations Command and its service components could better manage their inventory by fulfilling multiple requirements with fewer forces. For example, 5th Special Forces Group, assigned to the Central Command area of operations, could man, train, and equip its forces for a broader set of missions while deploying a fraction of what it currently does to fulfill the requirements placed on it by U.S. Central Command and the theater special operations command. Second, it would allow the theater special operations command to plan to transition away from manpower intensive persistent presence in countries like Lebanon and Jordan to more episodic or opportunistic engagements. This will allow geographic combatant commands to more effectively compete against great powers and rogue regimes like Iran, which will then have to contend with the dilemma that U.S. special operators could rapidly appear in an area where they are attempting to spread their influence. Russia and China will realize that the United States too can employ “little green men” as Russia did in Crimea. Additionally, the flexibility to episodically and opportunistically engage serves as a powerful tool because, while many nations are buying Chinese or Russian equipment, their preferred partners of choice to train their forces are from the U.S. special operations community. In this case, Special Operations Command’s known quality would be its comparative advantage in achieving the requirements of the National Defense Strategy.

Posture: Right Force, Right Time, Right Fight

As the command responsible for integrating efforts for violent extremists, countering weapons of mass destruction proliferation, and irregular warfare, Special Operations Command leverages its global network of U.S., allied, and partner special operations to support the joint force by developing a common operating and intelligence picture of the threats across the seams and boundaries of all geographic combatant commands.

While conventional forces are increasing their posture to deter, and if necessary, defeat threats in Europe and the Indo-Pacific theaters, Special Operations Command is currently globally postured to act below the threshold of conflict globally. This includes assisting in the development of plans to establish resistance forces in areas overrun by conventional enemy forces. Additionally, by utilizing its networks of theater special operations commands, it can help develop irregular warfare plans to compete by putting Chinese, Russian, or Iranian interests at risk in South America, Africa, and the Middle East. As noted above, this will have implications on the “service-responsibility” of Special Operations Command to develop, experiment, and employ new capabilities in partnership with the services. Current planning efforts can get special operations forces in motion to compete now, but these plans will also determine the long-term capabilities and methods needed to challenge the competition in a more complex and contested multi-domain environment.

The Goal: Fit-For-Purpose

To address the key questions proposed by the National Defense Authorization Act, Special Operations Command needs to focus on several areas. First, it needs to continue seeking ways to transfer the load of assigned missions to conventional forces and allies and partners where practical. Second, it needs to expand the authorities for the allocation and employment of special operations forces deployed in support of geographic combatant commands. This will ensure that they are more agile and flexible so that they can effectively compete against great powers, challenge rogue regimes, and address persistent violent extremist threats. Finally, it needs to utilize its network of theater special operations commands to plan asymmetric responses, to act as a force multiplier to the conventional forces deterrence posture, to the pacing and priority threats identified in the National Defense Strategy.

The United States has the most capable military force in the world, and its special operations forces are the best of the best. They are a precious asset, and are the face of the fight against terrorism in popular culture. Although their numbers are small, their strategic impact is tremendous. The future security environment will likely be characterized by global competition, regional challenges, and the ever-present threat of violent extremism. If the entire American special operations enterprise can integrate, prioritize, and posture correctly, it will be able to remain fit-for-purpose and continue to deliver a high return on investment for the United States in the future.


Chad M. Pillai is an Army strategist who completed a three-and-a-half year tour as the command strategist and then deputy director for strategy, pans, and policy (J5) for U.S. Special Operations Command-Central. Pillai is a member of the Military Writers Guild and an alumnus of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.