How Special Ops Can Step It Up

schroden seal

In the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act, Congress mandated several reviews of U.S. special operations forces, one of which entails examination of the roles and missions of Special Operations Command and its component forces. With the publication of the National Defense Strategy and its emphasis on competition with the likes of China and Russia, this roles and missions review comes at a critically important time. It should provide the special operations community with a chance to review and balance its portfolio of forces for the counter-terrorism mission and other missions aligned to great power competition. It should also enable special operations leaders to advocate for other Defense Department capabilities to support the long-term health of special operations forces. As Special Operations Command undertakes this review, I offer four thoughts for its consideration, some of which build on previous suggestions in this outlet by Chad Pillai.

First, despite being deprioritized by Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, counter-terrorism will continue to be a necessary and vital mission for the Defense Department in the coming decades. Recently, retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal was cited as saying the best the United States could hope for in Afghanistan was to keep a reasonably sized force there and “to muddle along” as best as possible. Some were disappointed with this comment. I would submit that he is both right and that his thought extends to the counter-terrorism mission globally. Which is to say, these are issues without a military solution but for which the United States has largely chosen to apply military means. Until or unless Congress decides to put sizeable amounts of the U.S. budget into addressing the underlying drivers of terrorism abroad, the Defense Department will be stuck — as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joe Dunford recently said — managing “the symptoms of violent extremism” for the foreseeable future.

What does this mean for special operations forces? It means that whatever their inclinations for missions may be, they will have to maintain a set of task forces that can disrupt the most capable terrorist groups from striking the American homeland. They will also have to maintain the ability to monitor and neutralize new groups before they develop a capability to do so. This implies the maintenance of a certain number of counter-terrorism strike forces and associated intelligence, analysis, and communications architectures; commensurate capabilities in media/information operations, cyber, and threat finance; and a network of liaison entities and officers in key U.S. and foreign agencies. Barring any major unforeseen positive changes in the governance and security sectors of the developing world, these requirements should be seen as indefinite. Special Operations Command should therefore calculate the associated force size requirements using sustainable ratios of deployed time to time at home for the entities conducting these enduring missions. It should also appropriately budget and advocate for the indefinite sustainment of its Preservation of the Force and Family initiatives.

Second, while Special Operations Command will need to maintain a sizeable and sustainable counter-terrorism force going forward, the Defense Department will also need it to play a strong role in pre-conflict competition with state adversaries. This is necessary for several reasons: First, while the services also have strong roles to play in so-called “gray-zone” competition, many of these activities are politically sensitive, necessitate a small footprint, require low visibility or plausible deniability, and/or require sensitive placement and access. These are all attributes that are inherently aligned with special operations. Second, the National Defense Strategy places heavy emphasis on leveraging and expanding America’s network of allies and partners. Here too, special operations forces are at the forefront due to being the most widely forward-deployed element of the U.S. military. Third, gray-zone competition relies heavily on the competitive use of information and influence. These have been core competencies of Special Operations Command’s special warfare forces (e.g., Army Special Forces, psychological operations, and civil affairs units) for decades. And finally, lessons from the Cold War and the past few years of the Syrian conflict suggest that warfare by proxy may once again become a common feature of the great power competitive landscape, a mission that has traditionally been the raison d’être of Army Special Forces.

However, U.S. special operations forces are not currently optimized to provide special warfare capabilities at the scope and scale that are necessary to meet the challenges confronting the United States in the gray zone. This is in part because the forces with these capabilities have increasingly been applied to the counter-terrorism mission over the past decade, whether as additional strike forces, as trainers for partner nation counter-terrorist forces, or for countering terrorist ideologies. As such, Special Operations Command should undertake a rebalancing to ensure its force mix is more optimally aligned to the priorities of the National Defense Strategy. This should include, at a minimum, the following six items: first, determining whether it has the right number and alignment of psychological operations and civil affairs forces. Second, rededicating and realigning the entirety of Army Special Forces to their traditional missions of unconventional warfare and foreign internal defense in the physical domain. Third, exploring the creation of cyber special forces to conduct these same missions via the cyber domain. Fourth, exploring whether to dedicate the Marine Raider Regiment to these same missions to ensure adequate depth of capability. Fifth, examining whether the Air Force special operations component has enough capability to advise and assist partner nation air forces. And sixth, investing in the creation and retention of operational-level planners to help Special Operations Command and the theater special operations commands create and execute gray-zone campaigns.

Third, Special Operations Command needs to seek help from Pentagon leaders — and especially the service chiefs — in offloading some of its current missions in order to create space for what I’ve described above. A flurry of articles in the wake of Lt. Gen. Richard Clarke’s nomination hearing to become the next leader of Special Operations Command have suggested that this is already happening. However, these are largely speculative, being based on Clarke’s oral comment that “Special Operations Command should only do those missions that are suited for Special Operations Command, and those missions that can be adjusted to conventional forces should go to those conventional forces.” In his written comments to Congress, he stated “At the moment, I am not prepared to advocate for divestiture of current USSOCOM missions.” This latter comment hues much more closely to what I’ve observed in recent years.

In addition to the recommendation that others have offered of reexamining its global slate of advisory missions, I would offer two more for Special Operations Command to consider. First, it should look at transitioning one of the traditional missions of the Army Ranger Regiment — namely, the seizure of expeditionary airfields — to the Marine Corps so as to allow the Rangers to focus full-time on generating surgical strike capabilities in support of global counter-terrorism operations. Second, it should strongly advocate for the Army to complete the standup of all five security force assistance brigades — and for the Marine Corps to create an advise-and-assist regiment — so as to provide additional advisory capacity within the Defense Department and relieve special operations requirements for global security force assistance missions (especially in permissive or less politically-sensitive environments).

Fourth and finally, Special Operations Command should advocate for increased experimentation and engagement with the services for integrated special-conventional force packages to deliver unique capabilities for gray-zone environments. This has been a subject of conversation within the Defense Department for some time. But there is tension within the special operations community between those who see value in the integration of their forces with conventional ones and those who prefer to avoid giving control of their forces to conventional commanders. It has also proven difficult to capture the services’ interest in this, given their own priorities, which increasingly revolve around capital assets and high-end warfighting. Those difficulties notwithstanding, lessons from the U.S. experience with war since 9/11 suggest that there is real value in combining the capabilities of special and conventional forces to generate multiplicative effects.

Suggestions for potential integrated force packages might include the marriage of SEALs with Navy platforms, such as the Littoral Combat Ship or Zumwalt class destroyers, or the creation of single L-class ship special operations task forces centered on a Marine Raider unit with associated Marine Corps air and enabling assets. At a minimum, they should include the continued combination of special operations strike elements with conventional fires and logistics support as we have seen in Syria. Special Operations Command also needs to stay engaged with the services to ensure that service rivalries and latent jealousies of Special Operations Command’s leading role for the past 15-plus years don’t derail the important gains that have been made in the area of special-conventional force cooperation from their many years of joint operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Syria.

There are, of course, many other options that Special Operations Command could consider, but the ideas I’ve described are hopefully sufficient to throw gasoline on what is already a simmering flame within the special operations community. To be sure, none of this will be easy, as Special Operations Command has been on a trajectory of increasing counter-terrorism for nearly two decades, comprising an entire generation of special operators. Yet, if Special Operations Command wants to remain a prioritized element within the construct of the National Defense Strategy and the broader Defense Department portfolio of capabilities, it will have to undertake some critical self-examination, engage in rigorous force analysis and design, and make some hard choices about its future roles, missions, and associated capabilities. But just as the nation needs the services to think radically differently about the decades to come, so too does it need Special Operations Command to be a leader in doing the same.


Dr. Jonathan Schroden directs the Special Operations Program, and the Center for Stability and Development, at the CNA Corporation, a non-profit, non-partisan research and analysis organization based in Arlington, Virginia. His work at CNA has focused on counterterrorism, counterinsurgency, and other special operations across much of the Middle East and South Asia, to include numerous deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. You can find him on Twitter @jjschroden.

Image: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Everett Allen