Special Operations Force Structure: Strategic Calculus or Organizational Power?
On May 1, 1952, the U.S. Army opened the special operations training center and school that still trains most of its special operations forces today. The school was then known as the Psychological Warfare Center, and it emphasized the importance of psychological operations in all military activities, including the newly conceived special forces.
Despite its pivotal role in creating Army special operations as it is known today, psychological operations has since been pushed to the bottom of the special operations hierarchy. In our decades of combined experience working in and researching special operations, irregular warfare, and military strategy, we have witnessed psychological operations and civil affairs’ continued relegation in the special operations hierarchy. In a time when U.S. competitors are investing heavily in information and influence operations, Army Special Operations Command plans to reduce these branches and further subordinate them to other parts of special operations. This would be a mistake.
The evolving character of modern warfare and strategic competition makes the need for these capabilities clear. Countries like China and Russia have recently poured unprecedented resources into disinformation and influence campaigns and capabilities. Information technologies and artificial intelligence are increasingly effective at causing confusion on the battlefield and shaping global opinion about conflicts. And the Russo-Ukrainian and Israel-Hamas conflicts have demonstrated the substantial impact of information influence operations on war today.
Despite these trends, the U.S. Army is reducing the size of its few units whose purpose is to understand and influence the modern information environment. The proposed cuts to these units, part of Army Special Operations Command, will increase risk to the joint force in modern competition and conflict and is a topic one of us has written about for this site. The increased risk reflects force structure decisions that are not driven primarily by strategic calculus, but instead by organizational power and interests.
For Army special operations, the power increasingly resides with leaders from special mission units and special forces. Branches with fewer resources, senior officers, and access to organizational leadership, like civil affairs and psychological operations, are especially vulnerable in times of austerity. No matter their operational utility or importance to combatant commanders, branches without senior representation and direct access to senior leaders will consistently lose resource competitions. These organizationally weaker forces, along with special operations support personnel, will bear the brunt of cuts to Army special operations.
Army and special operations leaders could consider eliminating psychological operations and civil affairs altogether and making them specialties within the special forces branch. If slots still need to be reduced from Army Special Operations Command, the command should consider eliminating the redundant 1st Special Forces Command. Alternatively, psychological operations and civil affairs could be removed from Army special operations and placed directly under U.S. Special Operations Command. A fourth option would be to remove psychological operations and civil affairs from special operations altogether. Although this move would sever these branches’ long lineage as part of Army special operations, it would place them in a better position to develop long-term capabilities that benefit the joint force.
Despite their importance on the modern battlefield, the history and capabilities of psychological operations are not well understood. We believe that understanding the past, present, and potential future of psychological operations and their relationship to other special operations organizations helps explain why they are in line for major cuts and damaging restructuring.
Hostile Takeover? The Historical Relationship Between Psychological Operations and Special Operations
The Office of Strategic Services, which was created in 1942 and served as a precursor to the CIA and special forces, grew out of the Coordinator of Information, an office responsible for both intelligence operations and psychological warfare. When the Office of Strategic Services was disbanded at the end of World War II, the Army maintained a small psychological operations staff and established a full psychological warfare department and training center in 1951 at Fort Riley. The following year, the center moved to Fort Bragg (now Fort Liberty) and the Psychological Warfare Center was activated. After the activation of 10th Special Forces group a few weeks later, special forces were vocal about their fearsof being “relegated to a subordinate role” beneath psychological operations. By 1956, the school changed its name to the Special Warfare Center, beginning a shift away from psychological operations and towards special forces that accelerated under President John F. Kennedy and during the Vietnam War.
No set of special operations forces were spared from cuts after Vietnam. The much larger special forces maintained three groups, but by the early 1980s psychological operations only had one poorly resourced group. In 1984, President Ronald Reagan, a staunch believer in the power of information, issued National Security Decision Directive 130, “U.S. International Information Policy,” calling “revitalization and full integration of Psychological Operations … a high priority of the Department of Defense.” The department’s subsequent 1985 Psychological Operations Master Plan contained over 200 specific Defense Department actions needed to revive the Army’s psychological operations forces, but the two centerpieces of the plan were the creation of a Joint Psychological Operations Center within the department and separating psychological operations from special operations.
When U.S. Special Operations Command was established in 1987, one of the most hotly debated issues was whether psychological operations would be assigned to it. The most important figure who opposed doing so was retired Gen. Richard Stilwell, the deputy undersecretary of defense for policy. An examination of letters in U.S. Special Operations Command’s archive between the unit’s new commander, Gen. James Lindsay, and Department of Defense leaders like Stilwell reveals that Lindsay was only able to win support for gaining control of psychological operations by “eliminating some of the layering in the chain of command” between psychological operations and the commander of U.S. Special Operations Command. Lindsay promised Stilwell that the command would establish a two-star psychological operations and civil affairs directorate to “provide necessary visibility” for those forces and that they would have direct access to U.S. and Army special operations leaders.
But after Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger agreed to move psychological operations under U.S. Special Operations Command, the command convinced Defense Department leadership that the Joint Psychological Operations Center was unnecessary because it duplicated efforts of the psychological operations directorate. After plans for the center were shuttered, U.S. Special Operations Command also eliminated its psychological operations and civil affairs directorate. None of the robust psychological operations representation that was promised for the command to gain control of psychological operations forces, pictured below from a June 1987 memorandum, lasted more than a few years after its creation.
Source: Leon W. Babcock, “Memorandum for Commander in Chief, USREDCOM, from J5,” June 10, 1987, p.5. Proposed Psychological Operations chain of command. Organizations in red (several of which were outside of U.S. Special Operations Command’s control) were either never created or no longer exist. Other psychological operations organizations have changed or been created since 1987.
The elimination of or failure to create the Defense Department and national-level psychological operations organizations pictured above were far beyond U.S. Special Operations Command’s purview. But by successfully arguing to bring psychological operations under the new special operations organization, blocking the creation of the Joint Psychological Operations Center, and then eliminating the psychological operations directorate, the new command did more to limit military information influence operations than most people realize. By the time al-Qaeda terrorists carried out the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, a Defense Science Board report noted how psychological operations’ weak organizational structure, lack of high-ranking officers, and lack of representation at higher echelons within and outside U.S. Special Operations Command resulted in ineffective military messaging capabilities, especially at the strategic level. The lack of a strategic messaging capability would plague defense officials in the years following 9/11, and every attempt to upgrade psychological operations organizations would prove to be short-lived.
Psychological Operations’ Declining Organizational Power
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld directed the creation of a Joint Psychological Operations Support Element under U.S. Special Operations Command in 2003 because he recognized the need for coordinated combatant command messaging to support the post-9/11 wars. The unit was operational in 2006 and became a formalized command called the Joint Military Information Support Command in 2009. The command was dissolved in 2011 in favor of a psychological operations command that would fall under Army special operations. The move was meant to centralize control of psychological operations forces, but the new command would quickly be eliminated to create a new special forces command to oversee special forces, civil affairs, and psychological operations.
Part of the rationale for shuttering the Joint Military Information Support Command was that its functions and resources would be transitioned to a new Military Information Support Operations Command that would oversee all psychological operations forces in the Army, including the two reserve groups booted from Army Special Operations Command in 2006. The Military Information Support Operations Command, provisionally established in August 2011, would be headed by a brigadier general, creating an opportunity for the first active-duty general officer from psychological operations in decades. While the authorization for a psychological operations general officer languished, Army Special Operations Command placed a special forces officer in command of the Military Information Support Operations Command. The first commander was Col. Chris Sorenson, a self-described “commando” whose career ambition was to join the “most lethal-thinking commando force on the planet.” Sorenson was succeeded by another special forces officer, Col. Robert Warburg. A psychological operations officer only commanded the unit for less than a year in 2014 after Army special operations leadership planned to dissolve the command so they could use the personnel slots to create 1st Special Forces Command that would oversee most special forces, civil affairs, and psychological operations units.
1st Special Forces Command was created during another period of austerity measures as sequestration forced Army special operations leaders to curb planned growth to special forces, ranger, and aviation units. Under the guise of “unity of command,” 1st Special Forces Command (which was originally supposed to be called 1st Special Warfare Command to not privilege special forces) further subordinated civil affairs and psychological operations by placing an additional layer of leadership between those forces and Army special operations leadership. Unsurprisingly, key leader billets in the command have been held almost exclusively by special forces personnel. According to an interview with an officer involved in the deliberations, 1st Special Forces Command decided to use the special forces symbol as the unit crest and made all civil affairs and psychological operations forces begin wearing the special forces patch because the special forces leadership wanted civil affairs and psychological operations “to know who’s in charge.” 1st Special Forces Command took over the headquarters building built for the Military Information Support Operations Command, and interviews with officers working for proponent offices of the three branches revealed that special forces personnel frequently took billets designated for the other two branches.
The Current Plan to Cut Army Special Operations Forces: Organizational Power or Strategic Calculus?
Army Special Operations Command’s plan to absorb the loss of nearly 3,000 billets is to first reduce the number of unfilled billets in several of its units, focusing on special operations support, civil affairs, and psychological operations. Along with these reductions is a significant restructuring of special forces, civil affairs, and psychological operations organizations. This will reportedly result in one of two psychological operations group headquarters being eliminated. The remaining psychological operations group headquarters and the civil affairs brigade would lose control of their assigned battalions, which would each be assigned to the special forces group with which they are regionally aligned. The 1st Special Forces Command roundtables and discussions that led to this decision were comprised almost entirely of special forces officers with little or no input from civil affairs and psychological operations personnel.
There is some benefit to this arrangement. Special forces, civil affairs, and psychological operations could be more integrated in their training and preparation for deployments. Each of the three branches might gain more of an appreciation and understanding of one another, potentially creating opportunities to align operations that have not existed in the past.
But the costs to the long-term capabilities of civil affairs and psychological operations units far outweigh the benefits. Without moving the battalions from Fort Liberty to the location of each Special Forces Group, integration between the three branches will be minimal. If Army special operations leaders eventually decides to relocate civil affairs and psychological operations battalions, the remaining psychological operations group and civil affairs brigade headquarters would likely be eliminated because they would serve little purpose. These moves would place a career ceiling of lieutenant colonel on civil affairs and psychological operations officers, which would have the dual effect of damaging future recruiting into the branches and stripping them of the little remaining institutional influence they have. Operationally, the realignment would make civil affairs and psychological operations missions fully subordinate to those of special forces. The missions of each branch often overlap, but they are not entirely the same. It could become even more difficult for psychological operations to support regional and global efforts to counter disinformation from competitors like China and Russia because those missions could sap attention and resources from more narrowly focused special forces units.
Army Special Operations Command’s plan to move civil affairs and psychological operations battalions under special forces groups is but the latest in the historical trend of subordinating these branches to special forces. Without a major shift, there is no reason to think this trend will reverse: The next steps might be to assign all civil affairs and psychological operations companies to special forces battalions, or all civil affairs and psychological operations detachments to special forces companies. The logical conclusion is an option worth considering: eliminating civil affairs and psychological operations altogether and making those functions specialties within the special forces branch.
But this move would fail to address the need for joint and strategic messaging capabilities. Civil affairs and psychological operations functions could risk falling further by the wayside during irregular or conventional conflict as special forces focused more on combat operations.
Another possibility would be to eliminate 1st Special Forces Command. The young organization has not invested in the long-term vitality of civil affairs and psychological operations, and it is a clear example of the “overstructure” that Secretary of the Army Christine Wormuth hopes to target with the force structure reductions. Any warfighting responsibilities envisioned for this command could be performed by theater Special Operations Commands that already have regional expertise, relationships, and context for special operations missions. Rather than enhance Army special operations’ operational capabilities, 1st Special Forces Command is a headquarters that has enhanced special forces’ ability “to fight and win … [its] scramble for funding and authorities.”
But these options each fail to address the growing disconnect between the increasing importance of information influence operations in competition and conflict and an Army force structure that does not prioritize capabilities to conduct these operations. Military leaders and civilian policymakers should instead view the cuts as an opportunity to reform the way the special operations and the joint force are structured to prevail in an era of strategic competition.
Cutting Army Special Operations: An Opportunity for Reform
A different approach would be to keep active-duty psychological operations and civil affairs units part of special operations by removing them from Army special operations and assigning them directly to a command under U.S. Special Operations Command. This command could incorporate the Joint MISO WebOps Center already under U.S. Special Operations Command and become the center to integrate all information influence operations across the various services. Like Air Force joint terminal attack controllers or Navy explosive ordnance disposal units, Army psychological operations and civil affairs forces would still deploy as special operations teams that work for theater Special Operations Commands. In addition to this operational role, the command could also house an institutional center to develop doctrine, training, career progression, and the long-term institutional health of all assigned branches.
But the past two decades of growing special operations resources have given little indication that U.S. Special Operations Command values information influence operations more than Army Special Operations Command and special forces. A final option policymakers should consider would therefore be to remove civil affairs and psychological operations out of special operations entirely by assigning them to a new joint center. Operationally, such a center would primarily coordinate information influence operations conducted by the combatant commands rather than conduct its own operations. Forces assigned to the center could still be allocated to support global special operations missions. But the center’s real benefit would be the long-term institutional support of all forces that conduct influence operations across the joint force. Not only would the joint center oversee the development of doctrine and training, but it would also directly represent the equities of assigned branches in each service’s resourcing processes without filtering interests through Army and U.S. Special Operations Commands.
Unquestionably, these moves would require significant changes across the services and could not be taken quickly or easily. These proposals would also not solve the Army’s shrinking force structure and would therefore require reconsidering where to absorb losses. But the potential of changing the military’s institutional structure to better support the operational capabilities that combatant commanders demand the most would better position the United States for long-term strategic success. A sensible first step would be for Congress to require a study on the costs, benefits, and feasibility of these two options. This effort would have to be led by an objective party outside the Department of Defense and could build on previous work that organizations like the Center for Naval Analyses and the RAND Corporation have conducted to examine special operations force structure. The study should make every effort to equally consider everyone with expertise and all those who would be affected by the moves without privileging leaders from any single branch or organization.
Bureaucratic competition has and always will be central to institutional strategy, but the Army’s shrinking force has catalyzed the pressures of parochial interests and created an especially large obstacle to modernization efforts. Civil affairs and psychological operations are the latest victims of this competition. Without major organizational reforms, the military’s ability to understand and influence the modern battlefield will continue to erode.
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.
Ken Gleiman is a professor of practice at Arizona State University’s Future Security Initiative, a retired special forces officer, and Army strategist. He is also the president of the Army Strategist Association. He is the co-author of a forthcoming book on irregular warfare and competitive statecraft.
The views expressed are those of the authors 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.