How to Fix U.S. Special Operations Forces

BB Spec Ops

The wars of 9/11 have taken a significant toll on the U.S. military, but special operations forces have arguably shouldered this burden most deeply. For almost two decades, special operations forces have been constantly engaged in a wide range of missions, and demand for these elite troops seems endless. Yet the growing strains on this insular and elite cohort are showing, and it may be nearing a breaking point. Misconduct, indiscipline, and leadership failures are rising, and threaten the very foundations of the community. Unless the underlying reasons for these problems are addressed, America’s special operations forces will remain at risk of a major breakdown that jeopardizes their ability to conduct critical missions in the national interest.



Twenty years of relentless pressure on special operations forces is clearly showing. Its size has more than doubled since 1999, but still includes only about 66,000 troops out of a total active force of nearly 1.4 million. During the last two years, special operators have been involved in an explosion of very public misconduct and indiscipline cases. For example:

These cases are deeply troubling, and should be viewed as the canaries in the coal mine. Such clear warning signs of problems in the special operations community stem from at least three key reasons. The first and most obvious is the unremitting pressure of continuous combat and operational deployments. Since 2001, special operations forces have been continuously tasked with missions as diverse as striking America’s enemies abroad, countering violent extremist organizations and insurgencies, building host-nation special operators, and conducting security force assistance. All of the combatant commanders have a substantial and often growing set of requirements for special operators in their areas of responsibility. As conventional combat forces have largely returned home, special operations forces continue to be whipsawed by these largely unconstrained demands and the never-ending stream of deployments that result. And this problem is only likely to get worse, as the new demands of great power competition add even more to their workload while these ongoing missions continue unabated.

Second, the special operations community continues to suffer significant casualties, since it remains deeply engaged in combat operations, while most conventional forces have been withdrawn. Earlier this month, for example, two U.S. Army Special Forces soldiers were killed and six others wounded in an insider attack in Afghanistan. One of the soldiers killed was on his 10th combat deployment. And, of the 22 Americans killed in Afghanistan during 2019, 10 were members of Army Special Forces and one was a member of the Army’s Ranger regiment. Though the U.S. footprint in Afghanistan may soon shrink, special operations forces will continue to operate in combat theaters that are less visible but can be just as deadly, including Somalia, Yemen, Libya, Syria, and western Africa.

Third, special operations culture is increasingly characterized by a sense of entitlement. Dangerous problems with entitlement are growing throughout the force, but are particularly acute in the special operations community. From the very start of their selection and training, prospective members of special operations units are segregated from the conventional military, which is often held in barely disguised contempt. Newly assessed operators are repeatedly told that they are the best of the best, and are immersed in an environment marked by seemingly unlimited resources. Even during times of tight defense budgets, special operations units have generally been protected from large cuts and continue to acquire new and expensive gadgets and weaponry. Many of these units have their own fitness trainers and dieticians, expensive gyms and special dining facilities, and treated like elite athletes preparing for the Olympics. Some units adhere to relaxed grooming standards, wearing beards and long hair which further marks them as exempt from normal military regulations. While many of these measures are needed to prepare special operations forces for the strenuous demands of their missions, they also instill special operators with an unhealthy sense of privilege from their very first days in the community. And the pressures of constant deployments and casualties make it all too easy for that privilege to transform into entitlement and a sense that normal military standards and discipline no longer apply.

Successive heads of Special Operations Command have been concerned about the pressures on their force for almost a decade, but the escalating number of public misconduct cases has spurred an increasing sense of urgency. In the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, Congress directed an assessment of special operations culture and accountability. In November 2018, the commander of U.S. Special Operations Command and the assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low intensity conflict jointly issued ethics guidance to the special operations community. And last August, Gen. Richard Clarke directed a comprehensive review on special operations culture and ethics, which was released in January. All of these efforts are steps in the right direction, but none go far enough in addressing the fundamental causes of the problem. The review, for example, found that some ethical problems have resulted from a culture that overemphasizes combat deployments and physical fitness, underemphasizes professional development, and breeds entitlement. Though these are important findings, the report focuses almost entirely on factors inside the command. A truly comprehensive examination must go further and examine broader external factors as well, such as the reasons for the ever-escalating requirements for special operations forces and how these servicemembers will be affected by the U.S. military’s broader shift to great power competition.

How can the problems plaguing the special operations community be solved?

A Congressional Commission 

Congress should charter a commission to investigate the roles, missions, and challenges facing U.S. special operations forces. Such an independent, high-level review is needed to fully examine the problems facing special operations forces, since many of the root causes lie far beyond the remit of special operations leaders. Only Congress is in a position to fully and completely investigate these potentially wide-ranging issues. A far-reaching, outside look is essential to ensure this critical force remains trained, ready, and sustainable to meet U.S. vital interests. The commission should address the following first-order questions:

  • What missions, if any, should special operations forces divest to conventional forces?
  • What changes need to be made to special operations recruiting, selection, and training to ensure the force remains effective and sustainable?
  • Are special operations organizations structured with the right ranks and responsibilities for the missions assigned?
  • How large should Special Operations Command and its formations be in order to sustainably meet its current and projected requirements?
  • Are special operations forces getting enough civilian oversight?
  • Should special operations forces be a separate service?

Reduce Requirements

Because the appetite for special operations forces is almost insatiable, senior defense leaders should closely scrutinize all combatant commander “requirements” and scale them back as much as possible. This effort has already begun, but needs to be accelerated. The secretary of defense needs to continue to remain directly involved in these efforts, since they affect the overall readiness of the force and since the combatant commanders report directly to him. But this is also an important mission for the chairman of the joint chiefs and the Joint Staff, as the global integrator of the force. These senior officials should regularly vet all requests for special operations forces, prioritize them ruthlessly, and deny them more frequently. They should also scrutinize the number of 179-day deployments, an artifice that deliberately falls one day short of the threshold that requires the personal approval of the four-star commander of Special Operations Command. Troops deployed for 179 days, rather than 180 days or more, may also avoid being counted against troop caps for any given theater.

Heed Differences Between Special Operations Formations 

Not all special operations communities and units have the same problems and are subject to the same demands. The review conducted by Special Operations Command notably failed to explicitly recognize this. Marine Raiders, Navy SEALs, and Army Rangers and Special Forces each have distinctly different cultures, mission profiles, organizations, and people. The strains facing SEALs operating independently in 16-man platoons are not the same as those facing Army Rangers operating in larger units inside a tightly structured chain of command. 12-man Army Special Forces A-teams operating independently face different problems than their counterparts in Marine Raiders, whose teams comprise more junior members. The roster of misconduct and disciplinary infractions highlighted above make clear that Special Operations Command ought to examine each of the communities separately, and craft solutions tailored to their unique demands.

Vacant Billets and Force Size 

Expanding special operations units is fraught with risk. Two of the “SOF Truths” — the core principles that define the community — declare that “quality is better than quantity,” and that “Special Operations Forces cannot be mass produced.” Yet even if combatant commander requirements are constrained in the ways discussed above, demands for special operations forces will remain high. To reduce its operational tempo, the special operations community ought to do everything it can to fill the vacancies in its ranks without sacrificing its standards. Special operations recruiters should do more to target soldiers and marines leaving service after their initial enlistment, such as reaching out to them in the first six months after their departure. Those using the GI Bill to advance their educations might make particularly good prospects for Army Special Forces and Ranger units, leveraging their previous time in uniform, new college education, and growing life experience. Enlisting these prior-service veterans would help bring much-needed maturity and diverse experience into special operations forces in ways that current efforts have failed to address. The reserve component should also be a greater target for recruiting, since interested reservists can be brought onto active duty to compete for understrength special operations specialties.

More Time in Conventional Assignments 

Some parts of the special operations community, including Army Rangers and Marine Raiders, regularly rotate their people into assignments with the conventional force. This helps spread the skills and experiences of special operators throughout conventional Army and Marine units, but equally importantly, these soldiers and marines return to special operations units with a wider range of experience and better-developed leadership skills. This cross-fertilization may be one reason why there have been relatively fewer cases of misconduct and indiscipline by Army Rangers and Marine Raiders. By contrast, Navy SEALs and Army Special Forces are career-long specialties, often characterized by little contact with the conventional parts of their service. Assigning operators from these units to also serve a tour outside their extremely small and insular communities would broaden their experiences, and they would return to special operations forces as better-developed leaders with a fresh perspective on service standards, values, and ethics. 

Shift Some of the Burden to Conventional Units 

In the past, advisory missions often required breaking apart Army brigades or Marine battalions, which reduced overall combat readiness and proved relatively ineffective. Today, however, both the Army and the Marine Corps now field units that are dedicated to security force assistance, which help reduce the pressures on special operators to conduct those missions. Moreover, special operations units assigned to perform these tasks are often called upon to teach fundamental military tasks (such as rifle marksmanship or patrolling) to conventional forces in the developing world. Yet both Army and Marine infantry units are capable of providing such basic levels of military training to foreign forces. They should do so more frequently to free special operations units from this mission.

Standards and Values

Special operations leaders should double down on their standards, and ruthlessly eliminate those who do not measure up. The comprehensive review noted a widespread trend toward valuing combat performance and battlefield experience more highly than any other attribute — and found that leadership, mentoring, and professional development all suffered as a result. Numbers of previous deployments and combat experience cannot continue to be used as a shield from accountability. Special operations leaders need to relentlessly teach and model the values of unbending standards, selfless service, and quiet professionalism to the entire community.

U.S. special operations forces are at a critical crossroads. Demands on this already-stressed part of the force will only continue to grow, while it faces some deep cultural problems that are threatening to undermine its much-acclaimed but hard-won effectiveness. Special operations leaders have taken some important first steps towards addressing these problems. But they ought to be complemented with a more holistic assessment of the root causes of the problems, and concrete action to both improve the health and long-term sustainability of special operations forces. The United States depends too heavily on the capabilities of this small but indispensable slice of the force to leave these escalating problems unaddressed and risk any further breakdown in culture, standards, and discipline.



Lt. Gen. David W. Barno, U.S. Army (ret.) and Dr. Nora Bensahel are visiting professors of strategic studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and senior fellows at the Philip Merrill Center for Strategic Studies. They are also contributing editors at War on the Rocks, where their column appears monthly. Sign up for Barno and Bensahel’s Strategic Outpost newsletter to track their articles as well as their public events.

Image: U.S. Navy (Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Russell Rhodes Jr.)