Adapting the Image and Culture of Special Operations Forces

July 22, 2020
moore parker

Despite the highly publicized strikes and manhunts of the past two decades, there is a diminishing need for special operations forces to shoot, move, and communicate. Special operations forces must reorient and diversify their collective skillset to compete against state adversaries and prepare for major wars. The Trump administration’s 2018 National Defense Strategy postured the U.S. military toward revisionist regimes such as China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea, all of whom are actively undermining the liberal world order. The Department of Defense has not explained what it expects irregular warfare to look like in coming years, and special operations forces today are still heavily engaged in counter-terror and counter-insurgency operations. “Special Operations Command must adapt to combatting nations that pose threats,” Gen. Richard D. Clarke, now its commander, acknowledged in confirmation hearings. As the command shifts away from violently kinetic raids against terrorists, it must adapt its image and culture to be more attractive to individuals with a broader array of skills to defend the United States in the uncertain future.

Considerable thought has been given to how special operations missions and force structure could and should adapt to competing against malign influence from nation-states, but such analysis often lacks a personnel perspective. While special operations forces are skilled in navigating ambiguity, to maintain their capability in the kill chain of future warfare, U.S. Special Operations Command must challenge itself beyond just adopting new technologies. More consideration must be given to the who in special operations, not just the what and the how. After all, the first of the “SOF Truths” — the five guiding imperatives of the special operations community — is, “Humans are more important than hardware.”



To win the wars of the future and continue excelling at the varied demands placed on the enterprise, U.S. Special Operations Command must find new ways to engage and recruit a different kind of operator. Reconsidering who is enlisted and how they are selected is a key step in maintaining special operations forces’ unconventional competitive edge. Leaders must capitalize on momentum from the 2020 comprehensive review on special operations culture and ethics, and build more diverse teams to be effective in the evolving operating environment. As recent research from Deloitte highlighted, “Even though culture reigns as one of [special operations forces’] greatest attributes … leaders can’t let it completely eat strategy for breakfast.” Current special operations forces are simply too homogenous and too focused on kinetic operations to succeed in the coming war for influence.

The official U.S. Special Operations Command fact book is a snapshot of the force that has proven itself over and over after nearly 20 years of intense counter-terror and counter-insurgency operations. The fact book features images almost entirely of armed white men poised to execute with speed, surprise, and violence of action. These special operators have deployed nonstop in pursuit of designated terror groups such as al-Qaeda, ISIL, and affiliates across the globe. Special operations forces and select interagency and foreign partners have implemented an evolving “by, with, and through” approach in places where American unilateral engagement is illegal, impossible, or undesirable. The fact book states the “typical” operator conducting these kinds of missions is married, has completed many advanced tactical courses, has eight years of prior military service, and is a “thinking athlete.” Operators of the post-9/11 era are recruited and trained for short-duration strikes, raids, and offensive action. While they are often tactically successful, overuse of these operators in the past two decades has led to many problems in the community.

In the future the “typical” special operations forces will look different and be trained with new priorities in mind. For example, special operations forces should consider older recruits with established skills and college degrees who can operate across the physical, virtual, and cognitive domains. Personnel policies must be updated to target individuals with subject matter expertise and backgrounds in influence operations to operate below the level of armed conflict, where nation state adversaries are most adept. To help secure U.S. interests in contested spaces, special operations forces will need to respond to a variety of threats in a continuously changing environment. It has been well established that diverse teams make better and smarter decisions. Accordingly, the operator of the future will not, and should not, look like the operator of today. Neither should the processes that identify, assess, and select candidates for positions in special operations.

To remain an agile learning organization, U.S. Special Operations Command has to start at step one: recruiting. This is already a challenge, because the command’s ability to directly recruit forces is limited. It must work through existing service recruiting policies, which are focused on broader personnel requirements. Points of entry into special operations are not standardized across the services. The command can do more, however, to be attractive to a diverse and broadly skilled group of candidates. To start, the command should create imagery highlighting more than the warriors of today and showcasing examples of the variety of skills — such as strategic communications, economics, and deep industry knowledge — needed for the influence operations of tomorrow. Marketing materials must feature greater demographic diversity, but this symbolic shift must also be backed up by practical steps to establish new pathways of engagement with potential candidates. The services should limit implicit bias by doing what they can to remove references to gender and race on application packets. Furthermore, U.S. Special Operations Command must reinforce this image shift by expanding its engagement, such as with historically black colleges and universities and women’s sports teams. If the command wants to compete for talent, then it must commit to adapting both its image and its behavior.

The lack of eligible and interested recruits for military service has led U.S. Special Operations Command to think differently about recruitment and selection, turning to algorithms and artificial intelligence that assess attributes rather than performance. These technologies purport to control for selection biases, though raise some concerns previously elevated about the underlying foundations of these algorithms, which have been shown to perpetuate the biases of those who wrote them. The lack of transparency in such algorithms and lack of demographic diversity in the tech world should be an important caveat for the command. These tools may represent one part of the solution to building special operations forces of the future; however, they will not be able to truly assess grit, capability, or ability to adapt. These tools may neglect the third key tenet of special operations, “Special Operations Forces cannot be mass produced,” or in this case, mass assessed. New selection tools run the risk of reflecting the biases of the current enterprise rather than reflecting where it needs to move to. As others have astutely argued, “The future of warfare will continue to be human.” While special operations forces should invest in adaptive technologies, it should keep this in mind when building forces of the future.

Additionally, U.S. Special Operations Command must undertake serious cultural change to attract fresh talent. A congressionally mandated review of special operations culture and ethics revealed, among other things, a perverse obsession with tactical skills coupled with a concerning atrophy of the leadership and management skills needed to compete in the intensifying war for influence between near-peer competitors. Societal fascination with, and media and entertainment portrayals of, special operations forces reflect this bias.

At a time when the community needs to reassess and recruit a broader array of skills and interests, both the public and conventional forces continue to idolize high-speed tactical engagement and manhunts, potentially decreasing special operators’ appetite to engage in the challenging work of influence operations. Such depictions perpetuate the image and mission set of special operations, which can lead to potential recruits interested in these missions self-selecting into the pipeline. As Clarke has also noted, “It may no longer be that the most important person on the mission is actually the Special Forces operator who is kicking down the door.” Instead, cyber, intelligence, and regional skills may play a bigger role. Refocusing on skills and personalities recognizes the fourth tenet of special operations, “Competent Special Operations Forces cannot be created after emergencies occur.”

Changing the bias toward direct action in recruitment, selection, and training will require overcoming institutional barriers, which the culture and ethics review shows is easier said than done. Despite advances in tactics and operations and a focus on mission accomplishment, the congressionally mandated ethics review shed light on the many factors contributing to unethical behavior. Advocating for a cultural shift is not an indictment of all current special operations personnel, despite the criminal actions of a select few within the community, but an argument for changes to reorient for the future fight reflected in the people who make up special operations forces. Andrew Milburn, former commanding officer of the Marine Raider Regiment and Combined Special Operations Task Force-Iraq, noted, “For members of any organization, it’s never easy to identify symptoms of cultural decline.” This is why effective civilian oversight of U.S. Special Operations Command is so important to achieving lasting cultural change.

As Mark Mitchell, Zachary Griffiths, and Cole Livieratos argued, lack of significant civilian oversight will further exacerbate culture problems and, “It is unlikely that U.S. Special Operations Command will enact the necessary changes to produce capable and ethical special operations forces.” Congressional engagement and civilian leadership are essential for backing strategic change with personnel change. Meaningful progress will not come with an attempt to change minds through memos and reviews, but systemic reform emerging from courageous leadership at all levels. Recent efforts have started the process. First, Sen. Tammy Duckworth recently proposed a bill to evaluate barriers facing minorities hoping to serve in special operations. Second, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper named two initiatives: a defense board on diversity and inclusion with carte blanche to present recommendations to him directly, and an external defense advisory committee on diversity and inclusion to provide long-term guidance.

These initiatives must not allow the varied demands of U.S. Special Operations Command’s mission set to distract from the critical diversity work that needs to be done. To support progress, it is critical that Congress approve nominations for civilian positions such as the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations/Low-Intensity Conflict to provide stability and oversight. The position has seen repeated turnover under President Donald Trump, with a string of acting secretaries, and has been unfilled since June 2019. Because special operations is “service-like,” civilian oversight is critical as a policy counterweight and to craft guidance.

Changing special operations recruiting to meet its unique and evolving mission set and capabilities will require greater authority for U.S. Special Operations Command to recruit talent directly. However, this should be premised first on substantive culture change. Civilian oversight will be integral to overhauling the process, though those conducting the oversight should themselves be cognizant of the concentration of white men in Pentagon leadership and Congress. Furthermore, challenging the status quo will be an iterative process involving civilian leadership and Congress. It is the people in special operations who ultimately make the difference between mission success and failure. The special operations forces of today are not what is needed for an evolving mission set, characterized not by intelligence-driven counter-terror operations, but by patient preparation of the environment against global competitors. U.S. Special Operations Command therefore needs to better align recruiting and training initiatives to meet evolving missions.



Emma Moore is a research associate at the Center for a New American Security and Non-Resident Fellow at the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Creativity at Marine Corps University.

Lt. Col. Stewart “PR” Parker is a career special tactics officer. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the position of the Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Image: U.S. Navy