Cutting Army Special Operations Will Erode the Military’s Ability to Influence the Modern Battlefield
The U.S. Army is currently undergoing significant force structure changes as it wrestles with two major challenges. First, its current recruiting problems have reduced the number of active-duty soldiers by about 30,000 from 2021 through 2024. Second, it is trying to modernize its force structure and capabilities to confront challenges posed by China’s military. To do this, the service’s leaders have chosen to focus on capabilities most “relevant for large-scale combat operations.” As a result, Army leaders have chosen to reduce Army special operations forces, which they view as a force primarily meant for counterinsurgency and counterterrorism, by 3,000 slots.
By cutting special operations forces, the Army is making the contentious yet defensible decision to optimize for the less likely but potentially more catastrophic possibility of a large-scale war with a peer adversary. This decision assumes risk in the joint force’s ability to compete and engage in irregular warfare, which is historically more frequent than conventional wars and will be a critical component of any large-scale conflict.
Army Special Operations Command was granted discretion to decide which parts of its formation will be eliminated and has chosen to reduce support forces like intelligence and logistics as well as civil affairs and psychological operations. These forces are amongst the smallest yet most in-demand units in special operations. The command has spared Ranger, aviation, special forces, and other special mission units. In doing so, Army Special Operations Command is assuming risk in operations to understand and influence the modern battlefield.
The result of these cascading decisions is the unintended reduction of Army capabilities that are not only critical to competition with China and other strategic rivals, but also capabilities that are often at their most effective during large-scale combat. These decisions may have a devastating impact on the Army and the joint force by reducing the ability of military forces to influence relevant populations, competitors, and adversaries at a time when information influence operations are becoming increasingly important.
Cutting civil affairs and psychological operations may make sense on paper, but this move will negatively impact the military’s capabilities in the conflicts that the United States is most likely to fight. As modern competition and irregular warfare evolve to create more avenues for influence operations through information technology, the skills and capabilities required to conduct effective irregular warfare should also evolve accordingly. The units with the requisite skills are not only the ones facing cuts, but they are already amongst the smallest parts of Army special operations as they did not enjoy the same growth as other special operations forces over the past two decades.
Examining Post-2001 Growth to Special Operations Forces
The frequently cited statistic that special operations forces doubled in size after 2001 is not true (though the command has almost doubled in size since its creation in 1987). Based on a review of Defense Manpower Reporting, budget justification documents from the Department of Defense Comptroller, and additional sources like posture statements and Congressional hearingshearings, total growth to U.S. Special Operations Command’s military and civilian personnel is a more modest 58.4 percent from 2001 through 2022. Counting only military personnel, U.S. Special Operations Command has grown 52.6 percent over the same period, numbers confirmed by Government Accountability Office reports. Of the command’s service components, the Army’s component added the most military personnel (approximately 10,000) but grew by the smallest percentage (37.4 percent growth). Naval Special Warfare Command grew by 67.4 percent, adding around 4,000 military slots; Air Force Special Operations Command increased 60.5 percent with 6,000 more military slots; and Marine Forces Special Operations Command was created in 2006 and has since added around 3,500 military personnel.
Source: Author created
One large change amidst the overall growth has been a shift away from reserve component forces towards active duty. In 2001, nearly 30 percent of all special operations forces resided in the reserve component. But as special operations grew, the slots for reserve component forces shrank by 5,000. That means that less than 10 percent of special operations currently reside in the reserve component. The shift was even more dramatic for Army special operations. In 2001, over 41 percent of their billets were in the reserve component. By 2022, this number dropped to just 12 percent. In this time, active-duty billets more than doubled from 15,000 in 2001 to over 31,000 in 2022.
Source: Author created
As the charts show, the most dramatic change came in 2006 when Army special operations shifted almost 10,000 reserve billets out of their command. These billets came from U.S. Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command — the same two branches that are now slated for further contraction. The loss of reserve forces was mostly replaced with active-duty forces across Army Special Operations Command’s various units. During the period of growth, active-duty civil affairs and psychological operations forces each added over 1,000 personnel to their units. The additional 12,000-plus slots went to the so-called “trigger-pullers,” the slang used for soldiers who lead raids and combat operations. Such forces, protected from the current round of cuts, include the Ranger Regiment, Army special operations aviation, special forces, and special mission units. In 2001, military personnel in civil affairs and psychological operations units comprised around 20 percent of U.S. Special Operations Command and 33 percent of Army Special Operations Command. By 2022, they were far less than 10 percent of U.S. Special Operations Command and 15 percent of the Army’s component.
Special operations leaders are understandably reluctant to reduce force structure. But after their growth over the past 20 years, the Army’s mandated cuts represent less than 5 percent of military personnel in U.S. Special Operations Command and less than 9 percent in Army Special Operations Command. The bigger concern is not the number of personnel being cut, but how the reduction of specific units will limit the military’s ability to operate in the increasingly important information environment during competition and conflict.
The Evolving Information Battlefield
The wars in Ukraine and Gaza demonstrate the tremendous effect of information influence operations in supporting military operations and shaping global opinion of the conflicts. In the Russo-Ukrainian war, such operations have been credited with convincing some 17,000 Russian personnel to desert from the military by eroding the will of Russian fighters. In the war between Israel and Hamas, messaging campaigns that use both truthful content and disinformation have supported military operations and targeted global and domestic public opinion about the conflict. Information campaigns are using artificial intelligence to increase the fog of war by muddling what is real and fake and to amplify social and political cleavages through disinformation. While new technologies may make these campaigns more potent, they do not replace the need for trained personnel to plan and implement them.
Combatant commanders recognize the growing importance of information influence operations as part of their campaigns, but the U.S. military does not have enough personnel who specialize in these operations to support commanders’ needs. The Departments of Defense and Army have signaled that information is critical to everything the military does with recent publications of a strategy and doctrine dedicated to information. While the Air Force, Navy, Army, and Marine Corps have created new operational units to focus on all aspects of information operations, the Army is poised to cut two of its branches that focus primarily on understanding and influencing the battlefield.
Optimizing for Modern Competition and Conflict
In the event of major conflict, special operations forces have unique capabilities that can help support and enable the joint force. Special operations forces can also contribute to strategic objectives through other means by organizing and training guerrilla forces, operating through proxies, and conducting psychological warfare. All the while, special operations forces are critical for counterterrorism and crisis response missions that show no signs of abating.
Short of large-scale conflict, special operations forces can provide persistent engagement in foreign countries through irregular campaigning and shape strategic outcomes through what a recent report calls “strategic disruption.” This report outlines five categories conducted in special operations campaigning: enabling foreign actors to resist their government or an occupying power; building capacity of foreign security forces to support them against internal or external threats; using information and actions to influence beliefs and behaviors of foreign audiences; gaining strategically relevant information to understand operational environments; and operations to target key personnel, equipment, or infrastructure in foreign countries.
But special operations force structure is not equally prepared for each of these types of operations. Over the past two decades, special operations optimized its force for short-duration counterterrorism and crisis response missions that are most applicable to targeting. To a lesser extent, special operations forces were built to train and support partnered military forces (often to conduct short-duration counterterrorism missions). In addition to the growth to special operations forces outlined above, the Army created additional capabilities focused on supporting partnered forces. Thousands of soldiers are now assigned to the six brigades within Security Force Assistance Command to advise and support operations with partner and allied conventional forces. Special operations forces, along with other Army units, have therefore developed to focus on targeting and supporting partnered military forces.
Special operations forces are far less prepared for operations to better understand sensitive environments, influence foreign actors, and enable resistance movements. Though the required skills for the various types of missions overlap, counterterrorism and advising missions require different capabilities and ultimately a different force structure than campaigns centered on a competition for influence with a rival power. The former set of missions require the highest levels of tactical proficiency and maybe some language ability to build rapport with a partnered force. The latter demands skills to understand social, economic, political, and security dynamics in other countries and determine how limited military resources can be used effectively in these contexts to further U.S. national interests where they align with partner interests. Such campaigns require a range of tactical, cognitive, social, and linguistic skills that units focused on force rather than influence have not developed.
For example, a recent Government Accountability Office report found that most Army special operations units requiring foreign language skills failed to meet elementary proficiency goals. It is unreasonable to expect that every member of special operations reaches advanced language proficiency. But the debate around the role of language in special operations is enlightening because it is a tangible metric that serves as a useful proxy for the other cognitive and social skills that would be required to execute the types of irregular campaigns that U.S. Special Operations Command envisions and describes. Campaigning effectively in politically sensitive environments like Myanmar and Venezuela would not just require more than the 17.6 hours of language training per year that Army special operations forces complete (and 6.2 annual hours for Marine Corps special operations). It would require far more emphasis on non-tactical skills that the evidence shows are not currently a priority in special operations units.
One of the lowest priority missions in special operations based on resources like funding and personnel is information influence operations. Strategic competition is increasingly conducted through digital platforms and social media through information campaigns. This trend will likely accelerate with the advent of deepfake technology and generative artificial intelligence. Yet while countries like China and Russia are making unprecedented investments in disinformation and influence campaigns, the U.S. military is inexplicably moving in the opposite direction with its proposed cuts to psychological operations and civil affairs.
Cutting these capabilities could also be devastating in large-scale combat operations. Historically, civil affairs capabilities have been critical for helping commanders understand the social and political environment during combat operations and for consolidating gains and enhancing stability after major operations. Psychological operations have proven invaluable in supporting military deception and for eroding the will of enemy combatants and convincing them to surrender or desert. Due to low psychological operations capacity and a risk-averse attitude towards information influence operations, the U.S. military would be challenged to replicate the success of Ukrainian influence operations that have convinced thousands of Russian soldiers to stop fighting. Reducing civil affairs and psychological operations capabilities further is therefore a great risk to large-scale combat operations in addition to competition and irregular warfare.
To be sure, psychological operations and civil affairs forces have a host of problems to overcome within their own ranks to make further investment pay off. Active-duty psychological operations units were among those to fall short of language proficiency goals, an underwhelming performance by the Army’s “premier influence agents.” For the past several years, psychological operations battalion commanders have repeatedly shied away from group command, another troubling sign. But the position of psychological operations and civil affairs at the bottom of the special operations hierarchy contributes to the lack of resources and the frustrations that create these types of problems. With few colonels and no general officers, professional advancement for officers in these units is extremely limited. Demands more closely related to other special operations activities, such as airborne operations, become prioritized over training that would enhance influence-related skills, like language or social media analytics training.
Special operations and the Army already lack the capability and capacity for influence-related capabilities important for competition and conflict in the digital age. Rather than cutting them even more, the Army should be investing to shore up this critical gap.
More than Special Operations Forces at Stake
The debates over cuts to Army special operations forces are emblematic of problems across the entire service. The service has not reconciled its efforts to change its operational formations and capabilities with entrenched institutional structures that have become too parochial. For example, the Army has created new operational formations like Multi-Domain Task Forces and Theater Information Advantage Detachments. Information advantage efforts in the Indo-Pacific include psychological operations forces and are currently being led by a psychological operations colonel. But if the planned changes to Army special operations are executed, such efforts will be nearly impossible in the future with significantly fewer psychological operations forces and almost no psychological operations colonels.
Army Special Operations Command’s plans to cut special operations support, civil affairs, and psychological operations units will make the military less prepared for modern competition and creates greater risk for the joint force in large-scale combat.
Cole Livieratos is an Army strategist and former psychological operations officer. He holds a Ph.D. in international relations and is authoring a book manuscript about the development of U.S. special operations forces and strategy in irregular warfare. He is currently a Council on Foreign Relations international affairs fellow examining the intersection of emerging technology and national security.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or any other branch or agency of the U.S. government.