Recalibrating Special Operations Risk Tolerance for the Future Fight

Special Operations Forces Training

During the Cold War, U.S. Special Operations Forces accepted extreme levels of operational risk during routine training exercises. The Green Light teams, for instance, would practice parachuting into “enemy territory” with live Small Atomic Demolition Munitions. Today, however, the tactical risks of modern special operations missions to rescue American citizens or capture terrorists pale in comparison. 

Special operations forces have been successful on the battlefield over the past twenty years. Yet those tactical successes are poor preparation for the dangers they will face during large-scale combat operations against a strategic adversary. Due to the consistent, limited nature of the conflict environment during the “Global War on Terror,” modern U.S. ground special operations have allowed a set of risk-averse tactical norms to ossify. While the 2018 National Defense Strategy has helped the Department of Defense focus on great power competition rather than low-intensity conflict, its approach to risk has not changed. For U.S. ground special operations leaders, attitudes toward risk tolerance remain shaped by the last two decades of war in the Middle East and Africa. But if these leaders are to offer utility to the joint force or their parent services in the future fight, they should reframe and reassess how they view risk now, ahead of a future armed conflict with a great power adversary. 

Seven Deadly Norms of Risk Avoidance

In a larger conflict against strategic adversaries, U.S. ground special operations will support the conventional services and the Geographic Combatant Commands. But despite some U.S. Army Warfighter Exercises over the past few years, Division and Corps headquarters are still struggling to understand how to effectively employ special operations during large-scale combat operations. In recent exercises, special operations has shifted from the supported force to a peripheral and supporting force. Moving forward, special operations will be focused on the hard problems for which few others have the time or capacity. They will also be used for deep operations on behalf of conventional commanders to fix and delay uncommitted enemy forces. As the types of missions carried out by special operations change, so will the technology they require and the tactics, techniques, procedures, and standard operating procedures they use. With this in mind, special operations leaders should begin by rethinking seven fundamental tactical norms of risk avoidance that emerged from the Global War on Terror. 



Requiring intelligence surveillance reconnaissance aircraft overhead during risky missions 

While requiring intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance aircraft overhead during risky dynamic missions provides vital information to leaders and the ground force, it also demands conditions that will only be present when fighting non-state actors. More information allows for better decisions, thereby reducing risk to forces. However, having these intelligence-gathering aircraft overhead during an operation also assumes U.S. air superiority. This is not a given when fighting a strategic adversary. Additionally, the aircraft’s loitering presence in fairly small portions of airspace will alert an adversary to a ground team’s potential location. This can be problematic for special operations units conducting special reconnaissance or other long-duration missions. If Al Qaeda can publish a how-to about detecting and avoiding U.S. drones in Africa in 2013, certainly future strategic adversaries could go a step further and narrow down potential U.S. ground unit locations in real-time. 

Intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft should only be required overhead when the mission truly depends on it. Despite the number of these craft tripling between 2007 and 2017, the U.S. Air Force was only able to fulfill 66 percent of the requests for them. If left unchecked, the increasingly unscrutinized requirements for these assets in an armed conflict against a strategic adversary will make both the aircraft and the ground units using them especially vulnerable because of their overt signature and lack of air defense capabilities. 

Ensuring that higher level medical treatment is available within the Golden Hour

The Golden Hour concept undoubtedly saved hundreds if not thousands of lives in Iraq and Afghanistan by decreasing the time between injury and medical care. However, the concept assumes the existence of resources and access that will not be present during a future fight with a strategic adversary. In 2009, then-Secretary of Defense Gates implemented the so-called Golden Hour Mandate, cutting in half the previous goal of two hours from point of injury to a higher level of medical care, and prescribing helicopter transport to the hospital. The results were positive, decreasing deaths and mitigating wounds. As a result, U.S. military medical intervention timelines are now largely based on this expectation. 

However, this norm also relies on the assumptions of air superiority and distributed advanced medical care facilities that allow helicopters to fly wherever needed in a combat theater. In a larger conflict, even the radar signature of the helicopters would prove problematic for those in need of medical care, whether the helicopters were at a laager site or airborne. As a result, special operations leaders should grow more comfortable with relying on only the highly trained medical personnel in their formations when fighting strategic adversaries. 

Only executing missions during low-illumination windows 

Conducting missions during low illumination periods in the lunar cycle may be preferable, but it relies on the assumption that the enemy is largely lacking basic night vision technology. Against non-state actors, special operations generally have a significant advantage using night vision devices when the night is darkest and the unaided human eye is weakest. But these advantages disappear against an adversary with better technology. In this situation, insistence on a specific lunar cycle window would simply make special operations units predictable. Further, a special operations unit that assumes night superiority can easily take common infrared light standard operating procedures for granted. But many of these, like using infrared light beams to point out potential enemy locations to other friendly forces, would prove disastrous when used against an adversary with night vision capabilities. 

Always wearing body armor regardless of mission type 

Every combat force is issued body armor and expected to wear it because of the protection it provides. However, there are situations where wearing body armor makes members of a unit less effective. And some of these situations are particularly likely to occur during ground special operations. They include traveling in armored vehicles for long periods, designated marksman-style rifle engagements beyond 200 meters, certain types of jump operations, certain hot, humid, or maritime operational environments, and sensitive operations where the bulky silhouette of body armor showcases true affiliations to an adversary. In some scenarios, wearing body armor inhibits mission accomplishment or degrades the performance of ground troops to the point of ineffectiveness. For example, if a special operations unit were forced to wear body armor in a humid jungle environment, heat injuries would certainly be a problem. If a special operations team employs designated marksmen or snipers from a concealed position, analysis from the Naval Postgraduate School indicates they will be more effective in shooting over 200 meters without body armor. Finally, it is also possible that other countries develop new cartridges and weapons to defeat current body armor. The U.S. Army is already working to do just this with their Next Generation Service Weapon competition and should assume adversaries are doing the same.



Defaulting to improvised explosive device-resistant vehicles for all missions

Since the mid-2000s, the ubiquitous threat from improvised explosives has caused the U.S. military and its special operations units to default to using improvised explosive device-resistant vehicles for the protection they offer from the low-technology weapons commonly used by non-state actors. Yet these vehicles have some drawbacks when used in environments not populated by improvised explosives or where agile maneuver is needed. They often differ from standard armored Humvees in that they have a V-shaped armored hull that directs blast energy away from the occupants. At the tactical level, it’s easy to see that any kind of large v-hull armored vehicle does not blend into normal traffic. They are big, heavy, slow, and unwieldy when compared to modern civilian vehicles. Their use made sense at a time when improvised explosive devices were the number one killer of U.S. forces and accounted for 45 percent of wartime deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan. Against a strategic adversary, though, improvised explosives are unlikely to be as much of a threat. This leaves U.S. forces free to use more mobile and agile vehicles.

Refusing to operate in communications-denied areas

Over the past twenty years, U.S. forces have seldom had to operate in areas where communications were denied by the enemy. As a result, they have made a practice of avoiding these areas. Moreover, with myriad ways to contact other units, supporting assets, and headquarters, U.S. forces have come to count on constant communication. This will change if they have to face the communications jamming and denial capabilities that strategic adversaries could deploy. Moreover, both sides in the current Russia-Ukraine war are using communication transmissions to locate enemy forces with enough precision for an artillery or rocket attack. This means that special operations units will increasingly be forced to operate under both communications-degraded and communications-denied conditions. Instead of declaring these conditions too risky to consider, U.S. special operations units must be trained and better prepared to conduct missions without the current comfort blanket of constant communications.

Refusing to operate in global positioning system-denied areas 

A strategic adversary should be expected to employ relatively low-cost global positioning system jammers to wreak havoc on incoming and outgoing signals, increasing the prevalence of Global Positioning System-denied areas. Operation Desert Storm highlighted the huge advantage of  Global Positioning Systems for military operations in areas where navigation is difficult or where pinpoint accuracy of munitions is required. Since that time, the U.S. military’s reliance on global positioning systems has only grown. In future conflicts against strategic adversaries U.S. forces will not be able to simply avoid global positioning system-denied areas. Analog skills like celestial navigation and paper map reading should be developed. Missions in which a global positioning system cannot be relied upon might even require ground special operations to return to a Son Tay-style cycle of exhaustive preparation for a single mission instead of conducting multiple missions a night, as was common during the surge in Iraq. 

Further Steps

Beyond these seven specific instances, special operations leaders should continually evaluate their tactical norms related to risk and the future scenarios in which they might be used. Evaluations should cover the spectrum of U.S. Special Operations Command’s twelve core activities. Some of these, like foreign humanitarian assistance, security force assistance, civil affairs operations, or military information support operations are longstanding or peripheral to active armed conflicts. Other core activities like counterinsurgency or counterterrorism are central to low-intensity conflict but would be rare during major combat operations. However, core activities like direct action, special reconnaissance, and countering weapons of mass destruction will be in much higher demand going forward. These will need to be rethought, requiring extensive testing and evaluation in anticipation of changing risk norms in new conflict environments. 

Finally, it is important to expand the discussion of risk tolerance beyond ground special operations. Maritime special operations and special operations aviation are not immune from the same calcified and complacent risk norms. Since many maritime special operations units like the Navy SEALs and Marine Raiders have largely been used on land during the Global War on Terror, they might benefit from rethinking some of these same norms. However, they also have maritime expertise that other special operations units do not, which have their own norms related to risk tolerance. Similarly, many special operations aviation units have been intimately involved with combat operations against non-state actors over the past twenty years. However, the risk acceptable to aircraft, manned or not, and the tactics used in contested airspace all call for careful consideration. 

The risk the Green Light teams assumed in training matched their conflict environment. Today’s U.S. military is wholly unaccustomed to suffering casualties and takes extraordinary lengths to avoid them. This was possible when fighting non-state actors, but it won’t be in future conflicts. No one will ever want to see unnecessary casualties. But leaders across the military and particularly in special operations should recognize that against a strategic adversary, the American military will take significant losses in personnel and equipment. This means a different degree of risk will be required to successfully complete military objectives. Not all tactical risk is capable of being mitigated. For example, losing multiple aircraft or a naval surface ship seems unfathomable when fighting non-state actors, but all too likely when fighting a strategic adversary. If special operations leaders are expected to succeed in future conflicts with strategic adversaries, they should begin by rethinking their tolerance for risk.



Spencer Reed is a career special operator with six combat deployments over the course of 14+ years in the community. He has been a leader at all tactical levels. He has worked with nearly every U.S. special operations component, both in training and downrange, informing his views and observations. These views do not represent the views of the Department of Defense, Special Operations Command, or any particular service branch. 

Image: U.S. Army photo by K. Kassens