Back to the Future: Getting Special Forces Ready for Great-Power Competition

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Have the U.S. Army Special Forces (commonly known as Green Berets) lost the language skills and deep cultural understanding that made them “special,” and enabled them to work closely with indigenous forces? Not only have advanced  language capabilities and cultural knowledge atrophied, but these are precisely the skills necessary — along with specialized equipment for covert resupply and communications — for effectively competing with great-power rivals below the threshold of open, armed conflict.

Special Forces was established in June 1952 to fulfill a unique role. Unlike many of its brethren in the larger special operations forces community — which encompasses Army Special Forces as well as other special operations forces like Navy SEALS and Air Force Combat Controllers — which are focused on direct action missions, Special Forces was specifically designed to enable indigenous resistance in areas behind enemy lines. Since 9/11, however, the size and organization of special operations forces within U.S. Special Operations Command has undergone a transformation. One of the changes was the shift in focus of Special Forces from enabling indigenous forces to direct action missions. Training has increasingly emphasized skills from scuba diving to high altitude, low opening parachute insertions to support this direct action role. Certainly the majority of the Special Forces deployment schedule is still built around its core foreign internal defense mission, but even here, much foreign internal defense training is conducted with foreign commando units and focused on “high speed” direct action capabilities.



Due to Russian aggression in Eastern Europe and widespread Chinese assertiveness, Special Forces training and focus requires a rethink. This should include revitalizing some of the capabilities from the very first mission set from the birth of Special Forces: training and operating with indigenous resistance forces behind enemy lines. Revamping language training is of critical importance to enabling Special Forces to again work with indigenous forces to galvanize resistance to Russian and Chinese aggression. In addition, further investments need to be made in covert resupply and communications capabilities, which are essential if Special Forces are to be able to operate in denied areas for extended duration. Similarly, Special Forces medics are qualified emergency medical technicians prepared primarily for combat medical procedures. For sustained operations in denied areas where evacuation for other medical conditions may not be possible, they should undergo additional training in one of the available civilian programs to attain certification as physicians assistants.

Special Forces Should Revisit Its Original Mission

Special Forces’ unique contribution to the special operations enterprise has historically been its ability to train and lead indigenous forces over sustained periods of time. However, the overwhelming — albeit understandable — recent emphasis placed on direct action counter-terrorism has resulted in privileging skill sets required for lightning speed high-value target raids on terrorist leaders and their enablers. Regrettably, this comes at the expense of the skills required to build rapport and enable indigenous resistance or insurgent forces during an extended campaign. Perhaps nowhere is this change more visible than when it comes to language capabilities and cultural understanding among the current generation of Special Forces soldiers.

Special Forces’ unique ability to operate with indigenous forces is made possible in part by the emphasis placed on initial language and cultural training during the final phase of the Special Forces Qualification Course and mandatory annual language sustainment training. However, the sustained high operations tempo during the last two decades has increasingly led to a situation where maintaining sufficient language and cultural proficiency on each Special Forces operational detachment alpha is no longer possible. Moreover, this is unlikely to change absent concerted action by Special Forces leadership. Although the 2018 National Defense Strategy relegates counter-terrorism to a secondary focus, the threat of terrorism is not subsiding. Indeed, 2019 saw nearly 8,500 terrorist attacks, which caused over 20,000 fatalities. Because U.S. Special Operations Command remains the global integrator for counter-terrorism, Special Forces will continue to be called upon to perform counter-terrorism missions. Nevertheless, Special Forces may also have a role in America’s engagement in great-power competition with China and Russia. As one author, Barnett S. Koven, observes in his recently released article in Special Operations Journal, great-power competitors recognize that they can often more cheaply and easily obtain their strategic objectives through asymmetric means. And it is here, in this “new” arena of conflict, that Special Forces should be prepared to rebuild and restructure some of its components to revitalize its original core mission.

U.S. Special Forces was originally created to support indigenous resistance in areas overrun by communism. During the Vietnam War, training and leading such irregular forces raised from non-Vietnamese ethnic groups in the Central Highlands such as the Montagnards was the primary Special Forces mission. But the first mission envisioned for Special Forces was to be set in motion in the event of a Soviet offensive that overran NATO defenses in Western Europe. In this scenario, Special Forces A-teams were to remain behind or insert into Soviet-occupied areas and create, support, and operate with anti-communist resistance groups.

Rebuilding Special Forces’ capacity to support indigenous resistance and insurgent forces would give the president another option in the event of Russian or Chinese aggression. The existence of the capability itself could act as a deterrent to forestall such Russian and Chinese activities at relatively minimal cost to the United States in two related ways. First, resistance and insurgent forces (and thus unconventional warfare, which the Department of Defense defines as “activities conducted to enable a resistance movement or insurgency”) operate by imposing costs on their target. Therefore, equipping Special Forces to effectively and credibly support indigenous resistance in Russia’s near-abroad may — in combination with other extant conventional deterrence means — provide a sufficient check on Russian territorial aggression directed against important U.S. allies and partners. For example, the Baltic countries have invested in a Total Defense model, which emphasizes a whole-of-society commitment to impose costs on would-be Russian occupiers through guerrilla warfare aided by support from allied and partner forces including, in this case, operators from the U.S. Army 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne). An enhanced role for Special Forces would contribute to deterring Russia at a far lower cost than other alternatives, like increasing the size of the Baltic states’ defense forces or forward deploying up to seven U.S. and NATO brigades on a permanent basis.

Beyond the Baltics, China has moved recently to consolidate its dominance over Hong Kong, and Taiwan could be next in China’s territorial sights, while Russia pours resources into supporting the al-Assad regime in the Syrian Civil War. There may also be other countries in the future of interest to Russia or China, where the ability to operate with indigenous forces against governments either hostile or antithetical to the United States will be essential. It is possible to imagine such a covert role for Special Forces in the future of Afghanistan’s resistance to Taliban ambitions to dominate that country by force. However, some skills, language capabilities, and specialized equipment needed to conduct this mission today are in critically short supply.

Second, China, which has observed America’s experience fighting costly small wars in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria over the last two decades, has largely prioritized political and economic influence over military forms of dominance. Nevertheless, a confluence of exploitative agreements, corrupt practices, debt traps, and environmentally destructive activities have the potential to galvanize indigenous resistance to what may locally be perceived as economic and political domination by China. Indeed, this has already happened in Baluchistan, Pakistan, for example, where the Baluchistan Liberation Army has targeted Chinese interests in retaliation for perceived Chinese commercial exploitation of its territory. The authors are not suggesting support to the Baluchistan Liberation Army or aiding attacks of this nature, but rather recreating a capability to provide covert support to other, future indigenous resistance movements that could oppose more overt forms of Chinese aggression. During the Vietnam War, both China and the Soviet Union openly provided materiel support to North Vietnam and sent advisers and surface-to-air missile technicians who may have downed U.S. aircraft. Moscow and Beijing were able to do so without escalating the conflict to a war between superpowers and established a clear precedent for this type of engagement in the gray zone. Fully recapitalizing the skill sets needed to conduct unconventional warfare will take decades, and a reorientation of some current training time for direct action toward the original focus of Special Forces.

Next Steps

The most important thing the military can do to ready Special Forces for great-power competition would be to re-prioritize language training. Many studies have shown that interpreted conversations are inadequate for the kind of relationships critical to leading and supporting indigenous forces. The time to send soldiers to the Defense Language Institute to learn critical languages is today, not after those countries are attacked. Immediate priority should be devoted to Ukrainian, Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Czech, Slovakian, Taiwanese Mandarin, and Dari. These are all currently taught at the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center. The guerrilla warfare course at the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School should be brought out of mothballs and put back at the center of the training plan for designated components. Operating far from friendly lines is already a core competency for Special Forces, of course, but operating covertly for extended periods with indigenous resistance and insurgent forces would require training in methods of resupply and communications not needed in most short-duration direct action missions that Special Forces is currently training for. Renewing high proficiency levels with Russian and Chinese infantry weapons would also be essential for teaching indigenous resistance or insurgent forces how to use them. Finally, Special Forces teams operating in this mission environment would also require a higher degree of organic medical capabilities than is normal, since medevac could be impossible. Special Forces medics are already highly trained emergency medical technicians, but medics on such long missions would need additional training to become fully qualified as physician assistants.

Training in covert resupply and communications needs to be coupled with new technologies and methods for doing so. These need to be developed or adapted quickly from existing technologies, such as a stealth variant of the Silent Arrow cargo delivery drone or the unmanned aerial vehicle cargo technology recently tested by the Unmanned Logistics Systems Air Joint Capabilities Technology element of the Marine Corp Warfighter Lab at Fort A.P. Hill. U.S. Special Operations Command is already deploying resupply drones in the form of the CQ-10 Snowgoose, a derivative of the Mist Mobility platform with a 600-pound payload. However, without stealth visibility or jamming adaptations, slow moving cargo drones would compromise a team’s location. This capability is not as far-fetched as it sounds: China is already fielding stealth drones. Maintaining covert communications over protracted periods represents another challenge, but the technology for this is more developed. Receiving encrypted real time communications is a simple matter, but outgoing traffic would likely take the form of encrypted burst transmissions. Fortunately, a considerable amount has been learned since a CIA covert communications debacle led to the compromise and deaths of dozens of covert agents in China, Iran, and elsewhere from 2010 to 2013.

The capabilities and skills that make Special Forces unique within the special operations enterprise have been de-prioritized over the last two decades given the overwhelming U.S. government focus on direct action counter-terrorism. Maintaining and further developing skills that atrophy after the Robin Sage exercise culmination of the Special Forces Qualification Course should again become a part of the training cycle for designated Special Forces components, and cultivating advanced language skills should be moved back to its central position in the training of designated Special Forces Groups. The ability to support and sustain armed resistance in occupied and contested countries is an essential option for effectively competing with today’s great-power competitors. Great-power competition is underway all around the globe, and Special Forces should be revitalizing the skills and acquiring the specialized equipment needed for operating on this “new,” old battleground.



Barnett S. Koven, Ph.D., is the training director, near-peer competition lead researcher, and counterterrorism lead researcher at the University of Maryland’s National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, a U.S. Department of Homeland Security Emeritus Center of Excellence. He holds additional academic appointments at the Modern War Institute at West Point, Joint Special Operations University, U.S. Air Force Special Operations School, George Washington University, University of Maryland, and the Jack D. Gordon Institute for Public Policy at Florida International University. Koven has conducted extensive overseas research in conflict and post-conflict zones employing cutting-edge quantitative and qualitative methods to answer pressing defense and homeland security questions, and routinely presents his findings to diverse U.S. government agencies and departments.

Chris Mason, Ph.D., is a professor of national security affairs at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College, where he focuses on unconventional warfare and teaches the annual elective courses on Internal Conflicts and the Vietnam War. He leads the Study of Internal Conflict, an ongoing research project into the reasons that governments succeed or fail in civil wars and insurgencies. He is a former Navy officer and retired foreign service officer. His last tour of duty on active service was on the Afghan-Pakistani border in Paktika province, Afghanistan.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the Department of Defense, the U.S. government, or that of any organization with which the authors are affiliated.

Image: U.S. Army (Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Whitney Hughes)