U.S. Special Operations and the Shadowy Promise of Irregular Campaigns
American special operations forces, 70,000 strong and drawn from four services (Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps), are engaged on a dizzying number of fronts. These forces are called on to counter Russia’s hot and cold wars in Europe, to bolster allied forces on the Korean peninsula, to deter Chinese expansionism in the Indo-Pacific, to contest violent extremist organizations, to fight intractable wars in Syria and the Levant, and to patrol vast spaces with African security forces. One reason is that special operations forces are selected, educated, and trained to operate across the competition-conflict-war spectrum. Whether fighting at scale in major theater wars or applying power indirectly via proxies, information, and civil affairs, special operations forces have proven scalable, rapid, and lethal.
The roles for U.S. special operations forces have expanded significantly since Sept. 11, 2001, and so should the conceptualization of their employment. Special operations forces are a campaigning organization. The U.S. military defines a campaign as “a framework to orchestrate and synchronize simultaneous activities and operations aimed at accomplishing or enabling policy aims.” Put simply, a campaign is a continuous series of military actions, moves, and signals guided by an authoritative hand with the resources and will to follow through beyond disruptions, setbacks, and shocks. Ideally, campaigns integrate all elements of U.S. power.
Herein lies a problem: the U.S. military’s campaigning methods and tools are often reductive of the irregular warfare modes of power projection that characterize special operation forces’ contributions. To manage this, special operations forces are creating their own irregular warfare campaign constructs. Such campaigns are necessary as U.S. adversaries pioneer their own campaigns that bypass U.S. strengths in favor of exploiting places, populations, and problems that erode U.S. influence.
In recent years, special operations forces have innovated successful models such as Colombia, the Philippines, and Syria. As special operations forces stay firmly in the counter-terror world and are used simultaneously for strategic competition, the joint force should not merely drag and drop employment templates from one theater to the next. Creativity is required.
At times, special operations forces are called on to crisis manage, conduct singular missions such as hostage rescue, or provide stop-gap solutions to chaotic environments. These are operations, not campaigns. Alternately, within the larger joint force campaigns that possess a logic tied to clear objectives, special operations forces can provide irregular campaigning methods that confront threats not well addressed by other forms of U.S. power. Irregular campaigns, when artfully conceptualized and crafted, provide options that alter enemy decisions, bolster partner performance, and demonstrate reach in the outlying spaces where Russia, China, and Iran prefer to contest U.S. power. To improve the understanding and application of irregular campaigns, select campaigns or aspirants to campaigns are instructive. Using three modes that I describe as probe and pick, the middle way, and the deep commit, these approaches have yielded excellent results or, in some cases, small and smart hedging investments. By making plain how special operations campaigns take shape, policymakers and military planners can employ special operations to their greatest strategic impact.
Probe and Pick
The first approach is the “probe and pick” method. This method is for underdeveloped policy places or roiling operating environments where U.S. interests are limited, where no policy solution is obvious, and when no path to engage is without hazard. Such environments might include the Levant, Myanmar, Nepal, Serbia, Venezuela, Moldova, and select archipelagic regions in the Asia-Pacific.
These environments merit some engagement that demonstrates U.S. interest and intent but are adjustable. Special operations forces’ footprints, in these instances, are not a definitive marker of U.S. political or military will. Special operations forces act as policy frontiersmen, exploring what type of U.S. policy actions are deemed suitable in the security arena. Special operations forces act as corporeal expressions of policy by virtue of presence, activity, and influence, aligned with foreign partners. Here, U.S. policymakers want to probe but also seek the flexibility to pick (or decline) options served up by forward-deployed special operations teams.
Probe and pick deployments may stay on the low burner in perpetuity, never developing into something bigger, singularly purposeful, or enduring. Nepal is one such case, where special operations forces remain consistently engaged, but with a small number of troops conducting month-long exercises, training exchanges, and high-altitude mountaineering events.
To special operators on the ground, these can feel like unproductive or half-hearted efforts, no matter the origin of the policy restraints. In the case of Nepal, it is the host country that limits the U.S. presence. Moldova fits into this category as well. Moldova balances its security by keeping U.S. military investments limited to basic border, cyber, and security force engagements, in line with their proclaimed policy of neutrality. In such cases, special operations engagements are a signal of greater possibilities or are indicators of limited appetites for U.S. involvement. The approach in such cases is to stay active and episodically engaged so that if policies change or interests grow, the United States has a relational toehold from which to grow.
The Middle Way
The second option is the “middle way.” This approach is typified by rotational deployments on heel-to-toe schedules. These operations are ostensibly guided by some overarching strategic road map that prioritizes and synchronizes U.S. resources.
The middle way accepts that not all areas can be appropriately understood, resourced, and leveraged in a manner that military doctrine describes as a “main effort.” U.S. special operations forces are deployed in 80 countries on any given day. The commitment of steady-forward special operations forces in such places as Thailand, Georgia, East Europe, the Balkans, Chad, and Lebanon typify this approach. In these environments, special operations teams have episodic breakthroughs and moments of inspired genius, alternating with spells of plodding results that are barely detectable.
One approach that led to a light-footprint, long-dwell mission is the U.S. involvement in the southern Philippines (2001–2014). I commanded a U.S. special operations task force in the Philippines in 2008. Our approaches were defined by restraint and patience, a marked departure from the high-tempo, deterministic strategies then underway in the desert wars of Iraq and Afghanistan (campaigns in which I also took part). The Philippines campaign aimed to corral regional, al-Qaeda-affiliated terror networks, but not at the cost of upsetting U.S. strategic (naval and air) access to a Pacific ally. Despite its decade-plus commitment in the southern Philippines, the main headquarters never expanded beyond the plat of a tract home. The mission remained narrowly scaled and geographically bounded, with a light presence and a limited mandate. This quiet campaign was assessed by the United States and the Philippines as successful. Such campaigns do not end with a ticker tape parade. They quietly and soberly transition.
In the middle way, a single, specialized operator or a small team may identify and exploit unforeseen areas where U.S. advisory assistance can produce great benefit at a relatively low cost. Examples include forward liaisons in sponsoring countries that skillfully program special operations (or other) events and place talent into the cognitive spaces or physical regions where the partner and the environment are ripe to achieve meaningful gains. Special operations forces emplace such liaisons in Africa, Europe, Asia, South America, and the Middle East. When enabled sufficiently, a forward-based element can align finicky, floating variables into a synchronized whole and cause a seismic leap forward in progress. Prior to the February 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, Special Operations Command Europe utilized such a coordinator in Ukraine who achieved success, if imperfectly, in weaving together semi-synchronized efforts to help build Ukrainian special operations forces.
From this posture arises a type of operational art: the harmonious sequencing of activities and operations that, taken together, create effects beyond what the light footprint would indicate is possible. This might involve bombs, relationships, access, materiel, or ideas. This big leap forward is neither scripted nor can it be templated. It involves the intersection of variables that can only be mapped and exploited by the experienced and attentive eye of an empowered human sentinel.
Alternately, the middle way provides camouflage for mediocrity or misdirected energy. Precisely because this environment has erratic openings and closings and many moments of unobserved activity (or inactivity), it is hard to detect and root out underperforming units. In these challenging environments, some teams just muddle through, blind to the opportunities that a better team might otherwise identify. If operating remotely, such teams are also far removed from the in-stride course corrections that campaigns require from a synchronizing headquarters. Operational art, in these cases, remains a foggy idea waiting for a deft-handed actor.
The Deep Commit
Where and when special operations forces are directed to compete, contest, or fight, the results are often excellent. This third model describes the “deep commit” approach. Modern examples include the special operations and CIA pairing in Afghanistan in October 2001 that routed the entrenched Taliban in weeks. Another case is the March 2003 northern front of Operation Iraqi Freedom where a special operations task force, paired with Kurdish formations, swept through and collapsed Saddam Hussein’s line of defense. These are examples of doctrinal U.S. unconventional warfare, a mode of irregular warfare that is led by special operations forces but is enabled by joint forces and contributing government agencies.
The Cold War offers useful models that avoid large-scale maneuver warfare. One deep commit example is that of Edward Lansdale, a World War II Office of Strategic Services operative and sui generis intelligence officer. In the era of staunch anti-communism, Lansdale became a strategic advisor to the Philippine national leadership in the 1950s and later, in the 1960s, a dissenting voice on the American approach in Vietnam. Lansdale, labeled either the “Ugly American” or the “Quiet American” depending on one’s viewpoint, was known for his embrace of local people, local problems, and local solutions. Special operations forces are at their best when, like Lansdale, they view U.S. power from the eyes of the affected, non-American populations on the receiving end of U.S. policy actions.
Another Cold War example that speaks to organizational choices is the Berlin-based, U.S. Army Special Forces “Detachment-A” or “Det-A.” Instead of rotating special operations forces into Berlin, the method was to specially select and forward employ a semi-permanent detachment (40 to 90 servicemen). Thus, Det-A could — and would be expected to — grasp the policy, the risk, and the threat and craft approaches and stylized tactics that pricked but did not provoke. Here, leaders acknowledged the severe consequences of mishaps on the tension-filled border of a divided Germany. Special operations leadership then brought down the risk with studied organizations focused only on this liminal space.
In murkier environments, the deep commit approach has a reduced muscularity and a less visible face. Such actions emplace select talent and expressly crafted force packages at key intersections where they can best leverage special operations power. U.S. counter-terror organizations, often out of the public eye in places such as the Middle East, typify this approach. This is about micro-moves and heterarchical networks instead of mass and blunt firepower. Where the United States contests in quieter spaces, special operations forces can draw on this body of work.
Special operations forces, a growing arm of American power, might just be a match for the moment. If so, their employment will require irregular campaigns that are conceptualized, crafted, and connected to all U.S. power projection modes. If part of a coherent strategic approach, made-to-measure irregular campaigns provide options for the United States and present dilemmas to her adversaries. These three special operations approaches — probe and pick, the middle way, and deep commit — show how irregular campaigns can influence the future and, indeed, meet the moment.
Brian Petit, a retired U.S. Army colonel, teaches and consults on strategy, planning, special operations, and resistance. He is an adjunct for the Joint Special Operations University and a 2023 non-resident fellow with the Irregular Warfare Initiative, a joint production of Princeton’s Empirical Studies of Conflict Project and the Modern War Institute at West Point.