Managing Risk for Special Operations Forces in Large-Scale Combat Operations

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In October 2001, under the cover of darkness, teams of American Green Berets landed in Afghanistan. This was the initial U.S. response to the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. The nation was still in shock, and the Bush administration knew it had to demonstrate American resolve. The United States needed to show that it would bring those responsible to justice. 

Afghanistan was landlocked, with neighboring countries less than supportive of a U.S. military intervention. Therefore, with no feasible options for an immediate response by the conventional military, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld approved the use of CIA assets and special operations forces as the opening salvo of what would eventually be known as the Global War on Terror. The Green Berets linked up with Afghan Northern Alliance tribes, and then, with the assistance of American airpower, conducted offensive operations to defeat the Taliban government in a matter of weeks. The mission was a stunning success. It was also incredibly risky, with minimal support available to the teams on the ground. 

For the next 20 years, U.S. special operations forces perfected tactics, techniques, and procedures to drastically reduce the amount of risk associated with their operations. However, with renewed focus on large-scale combat operations against a peer threat, special operations forces are confronting radically different operating environments than those they grew accustomed to in Iraq and Afghanistan. Special operations forces will likely find themselves in a “deep” fight, fending for themselves for an unspecified amount of time, with minimal or no support available.



This difference in operating environments doesn’t necessarily require special operations commanders to “reframe and reassess how they view risk,” as argued by Spencer Reed in a recent article for War on the Rocks. Experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq did not create a generation of risk-averse special operations commanders who refuse to conduct missions unless conditions are perfect. No matter what the operating environment is, commanders are expected to manage risk properly, avoid unnecessary risk, and apply appropriate levels of aggression. Reed is correct in pointing out many of the ways in which future missions will differ from past ones, but special operations forces are already preparing for this, training for the unknown, and incorporating lessons learned from previous conflicts when appropriate. Through updates to doctrine, habitual training exercises, and resource acquisition and development, special operations forces are actively working to effectively manage risk in a variety of operating environments, including during large-scale combat.  

Iraq and Afghanistan: Avoiding Risk or Managing It?

The Army defines risk as the “probability and severity-driven chance of loss, caused by threat or other hazards.” Twenty years of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan provided an immeasurable amount of experience and knowledge on how to reduce risk, and this informs special operations today. 

Over the past two decades, special operations forces developed and implemented numerous controls — actions taken to eliminate a hazard or reduce risk. By the end of combat operations in both countries, approval of missions was often dependent on the presence of these controls. Without them, missions were often delayed or canceled altogether. As both wars progressed, and more controls were made available, the term “risk-averse” entered the lexicon of deployed troops. It was intended as a demeaning term for commanders who were insufficiently aggressive in approving missions to go after the enemy unless every possible risk had been avoided. But were commanders truly risk-averse, or were they simply ensuring that all available controls were implemented?

In his article, Reed listed “seven deadly norms of risk avoidance” that emerged from the Global War on Terror. Amongst these were the requirement that operators wear body armor on missions, that there be intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets overhead, that teams travel in armored vehicles, and that forces operated within a “golden hour” of medical evacuation to higher level care. These aren’t “norms of risk avoidance,” they’re simply controls put in place by commanders to lower risk to their subordinates, their resources, and the mission itself. In the case of Iraq and Afghanistan, the operating environment often dictated that if these controls weren’t in place, commanders would be accepting unnecessary risk, violating the principles of risk management.

Reed also mentions the refusal to operate in GPS- or communications-denied environments as a norm of risk avoidance by special operations forces. Neither of these environments were prevalent during the Iraq or Afghanistan campaigns, and their absence does not imply a refusal by special operations forces to operate in their presence. The potential for those environments once again being prevalent in a large-scale conflict is already being confronted head-on by special operations forces.

None of this is to say that there weren’t risk-averse commanders in Iraq or Afghanistan. However, if the immediate success or failure of an individual mission wouldn’t affect the overall success or failure of a campaign, commanders would be accepting unnecessary risk if they sent special operations forces to conduct a mission without all available controls in place. Just because commanders waited for a different time or place where controls were readily available doesn’t automatically mean that they were risk-averse. 

On the opposite end of the risk management spectrum, an overly aggressive commander can not only put their subordinates’ lives at risk, but their decisions can also lead to strategic level fallout that can jeopardize operations. In 2017 in Niger, a special operations commander ordered a ground force to pursue a high-value individual without numerous controls in place. Islamic State fighters ambushed the ground force, killing four American soldiers, thus sparking political and strategic-level debate over the presence of U.S. forces in Africa. 

Reed is right in saying that the operating environments that special operations forces will face in the future will likely be drastically different from those of the past 20 years. The Army’s recently updated FM 3-0: Operations codifies its new operating concept, known as “multi-domain operations.” This focuses on large-scale combat operations, envisioning combined-arms maneuver against a peer adversary. The role for special operations forces in this concept is somewhat vague, but they are most frequently mentioned as part of deep operations, defined as “tactical actions against enemy forces, typically out of direct contact with friendly forces, intended to shape future close operations and protect rear operations.” Put more colloquially, they would be expected to operate alone and unafraid, likely in support of a conventional maneuver force. Reed’s concern is that special operations forces would be reliant upon controls that are no longer available in this environment. However, special operations forces are already preparing to do exactly what doctrine tells them to when managing risk: react to changes within an operational environment.



Risk Management in Large-Scale Combat Operations

To understand how special operations forces are preparing for a deep fight, it’s helpful to start with U.S. Special Operations Command, which is the combatant command charged with the development and employment of special operations forces. Within this command, multiple staff directorates focus on adequately preparing special operations forces for whatever missions they might conduct. 

While special operations forces are known primarily for conducting irregular warfare, they should also consider what might be asked of them during large-scale combat operations. Based on Department of Defense guidance, U.S. Special Operations Command, along with each service-specific special operations component, helps to develop strategy specific to special operations forces. It also designs special operations-specific exercises to help to test concepts for how special operations forces would operate in a given environment. From this, U.S. Special Operations Command can understand what resources are required at the tactical level and then work to either develop or acquire the technology required to enable special operations forces to reduce risk to the mission and the force. 

At the theater special operations command level, special operations forces are not only continuously employed as part of FM 3-0’s “competition below the threshold of conflict,” but they are also employed in regularly occurring exercises, often as part of a larger combatant command exercise. These exercises give special operations forces the ability to test new equipment and to determine if tactics, techniques, and procedures are adequate for a given environment. This is also where many “risk avoidance norms” are cast aside and completely forgotten, and where new controls are tested and refined.

A recent tweet from Special Operations Command-Europe showed a nearly 90-second video of “prolonged field care.” The narrator explains that the concept is for environments where they can’t call in a helicopter, or might not have access to a hospital, exactly the controls that were in place in Iraq and Afghanistan. Given the possibility of conflict with Russia in northern Europe, special operations forces have trained in cold weather and Arctic environments for decades, with renewed interest over the past few years. This environment is unforgiving and special operators have dedicated time to developing controls that will enable them to survive prolonged operations with minimal support.

These exercises are not limited to Europe. In the Pacific, special operations forces are training in jungle warfare, subjecting themselves to a harsh and unforgiving operational environment that American forces haven’t had to confront for some time. They spend time living and surviving in the jungle without body armor or vehicles for transport, refining many of the controls originally developed in the jungles of Vietnam. Army special operations forces have also been participating in National Training Center and Joint Readiness Training Center rotations with conventional forces for years. Scenarios at these training centers are fully focused on the execution of large-scale combat operations in an uncertain and rapidly changing operational environment. They often deny friendly forces many of the controls that existed in Iraq and Afghanistan, such as consistent intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets overhead, forcing today’s special operators to innovate when it comes to risk management. 

A current Army special forces officer described this operational environment: “From a technical and non-technical perspective, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance looks much different on today’s battlefield, as does our tactical deployment. The truth is that the traditional intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance we got used to in Iraq and Afghanistan is somewhat obsolete, and we’re adjusting to what modern combat would look like for us.”

Within each of these exercises, special operations forces are determining what will and won’t work going forward. It’s a constant test of their equipment, tactics, techniques, and procedures. Along the way, special operations commanders are conducting risk management for operational environments that are nothing like what they experienced in Iraq or Afghanistan. Special operations are engaged in ongoing preparation for the next fight and they are not constrained by previous views on risk management from more predictable and supported environments. 


Managing risk is a central part of any commander’s decision-making process, helping to “maintain combat power while ensuring mission accomplishment in current and future operations.” Large-scale combat operations like those expected in the future are likely to result in a catastrophic loss of life and resources, and special operations forces won’t be exempt from those effects. 

The prospect of large-scale conflict makes it even more important for commanders to identify and mitigate risk to the greatest extent possible so that they can both accomplish assigned missions and preserve forces for the next fight. By properly managing risk and applying controls, special operations commanders can effectively apply combat power at the right place and time in support of the joint forces. This isn’t risk aversion — it’s simply how to fight a war in the most efficient and effective way possible. 



Lt. Col. Tim Ball is a U.S. Army special forces officer, currently serving as a professor of military science at the University of Texas at San Antonio. The views here do not represent those of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or any part of the U.S. government.

Image: U.S. Air Force photo by Alejandro Peña