Send in the A-Team: A Graduated Response for Ukraine

Ukrainian Special Forces integrate with U.S. Forces at Combined Resolve 14

Of all the symbols of American power abroad, the U.S. special operations soldier occupies a unique place in the public’s imagination. The public appetite for tales of derring-do and gutsy ventures is limitless, and U.S. special operations provide enough of these, routinely and visibly, to propel that mystique. Such publicity obscures a less splashy type of special operations that work in a different meter. These are the special operations advisors who work quietly, persistently, and ethnographically with U.S. partners fighting their own wars. This is the overlooked, grinding handiwork that either wins wars, protracts them, or delivers a more favorable negotiating position to end them. Ukraine and its Western supporters need scale-tipping options, and they need them soon, before the metastasizing effects of sagging morale infect the Ukrainian ability to see and believe in victory. There is an option, realized and ready. The time has come to send in the “A-team(s).”

The A-teams, also known as Green Berets, are more formally called the U.S. Army Special Forces Operational Detachment–Alpha teams. These are compact units whose strategic and tactical design is exactly suited for this type of war (complex), these types of policy spaces (tight), and with calibrated footprints (small). The form, function, and operational employment of the A-team are perfectly matched for this political-military environment. The employment of A-teams into Ukrainian territory to train, advise, and assist Ukrainian forces — positioned well behind the active combat zones — requires little imagination, no adaptation, and few modifications. It does require political will and a fresh calculation of risk.



This incremental step is consistent with the two-year expanding arc of U.S. and allied support to Ukraine. Detractors will be quick to cite the risks of escalation and deepened U.S. military involvement. Indeed, all paths ahead for the United States — inaction included — contain rising risks and interminable friction. On the current trajectory, Russia will prevail, the United States and NATO will crisis-manage unattractive and costly containment options, and the Russian leadership will validate that NATO has neither the stomach nor the stamina to stave off the illegal Russian occupation of a democratic country. Instead of offering the battered Russian military a path to victory, this is exactly the time to raise costs and complicate ambitions. This is tactics advancing strategy. The A-team option, limited in scope and measurable in risk, redefines the strategically allowable activities to defend Ukraine, cuts a wider path for allied support, and signals that U.S. resolve goes beyond the one-time-use act of emptying out arms rooms and munitions bunkers. Rarely does a capability so succinctly match a requirement, and seldom is there a strategic moment where modest options could so appreciably alter outcomes.

The Operational Detachment – Alpha

The 12-person special forces A-team consists of one commanding officer (captain), an assistant commander (warrant officer), a senior operations leader (master sergeant), an operations and intelligence sergeant, and eight specialists. These specialists are noncommissioned officers that provide the core operating capability, two-deep, in communications, medical skills, weapons, and engineering. It is a task force in miniature. There are generally 54 A-teams in one special forces group. There are five active and two National Guard groups. This is a deep, seasoned, and uncommonly constructed formation.

The A-team structure has remained unchanged since its inception in 1952. The teams were a World War IIconstruct resurrected in the Cold War to fight as a stay-behind force, conjoined with Eastern and Central European partisans that would operate in the rear area of an advancing Red Army. While tank and artillery battles were to be the front-stage activity, these A-teams were missioned to operate the back-stage activity of mobilizing resistance within the occupied populations of Warsaw Pact countries. In this way, A-teams have returned to their founding: a force designed to asymmetrically contest Soviet, now Russian, aggression.

A-teams are not lone rangers. They are remotely distributed platforms that are force integrators. Inside the A-team is a staff structure that synchronizes the six warfighting functions: command, intelligence, maneuver, fires, sustainment, and protection. When the task is too big, they leverage reach-back capabilities, or they receive augmentation. A-teams integrate civil affairs and psychological operations and facilitate joint force capabilities from the air, land, sea, space, and cyber. A-teams are one tentacle of the United States Special Operations Command, which, despite its notoriety for counterterrorism, heavily invests in forces that provide indirect approaches.

The Employment Design

An A-team is a detachable unit that is survivable, multi-functional, and, when required, lethal. A-teams embed within populations, in villages, astride communities, and beside partners. As modern warfare serves up ever more video-game modes and antiseptic options, the Green Beret approach offers the opposite. It is terrestrial, relational, and patient. While the A-team can fight alone as a maneuver unit, it is not designed for that purpose. It is the sole U.S. special operations formation singularly selected, trained, educated, equipped, and rehearsed to operate with foreign partners, from regulars to irregulars, across the peace-war spectrum. All members are language-trained and regionally oriented. In truth, few Green Berets could passably communicate in Ukrainian, which is a less practical matter in this moment than bringing in skilled and partner-savvy forces to support Ukrainian combat training.

A-teams are a force multiplier, which means their combat power is measured in their ability to employ and elevate partner forces. Tricky variables might include doing so in a foreign language, with Soviet-era weapons, through a high mountain pass, while mounted on Toyota trucks. In such a scenario, expect an A-team to increase size and scale but yield precision and control. Otherwise, that is a normal day at the office for a force routinely operating in some 70 countries.

Politically, Special Forces teams provide the backbone for multinational operations. A-teams and their joint higher commands integrate and control the special operations forces of friendly nations. This adds political weight, encourages burden-sharing, and capitalizes on exceptional partner nation special operations forces. U.S. special operations have decades of continuous interoperability work, in peace and war, with the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Poland, Italy, Denmark, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Georgia, and dozens of other countries in and outside of NATO. In this way, the A-team is a mothership operation. It orbits in an area, attenuates to its environment, actuates native networks, combines capabilities, and persists in unhospitable places. When done right, this alchemy provides greater effects than the small force structure would indicate.

Political Risk  

Two factors suggest that the return of A-teams into Ukraine is feasible, reasonable, and ripe.

The first is that the Ukraine theater of operations has settled into a relatively predictable enemy-friendly battlespace geometry. The lines are fixed, for now. Ukrainian society has normalized in that macabre, unsettled manner of a state engaged in a perpetual war. Businesses are operating, schools are educating, farmers are harvesting. External supporters are back inside Ukraine as well. Embassy functionaries are returning, politicians are visiting, journalists and academics are free ranging. Ukraine’s wartime political economy, with its new, normative behaviors, is established. Returning to activities such as steady-state, safe-zone training of Ukrainian forces is a logical and natural evolution.

This new normal includes Russian munitions crashing into Ukrainian cities. This is deadly and psychologically unsettling for Ukrainian inhabitants, but militarily, this is also a deception. Lobbing cruise missiles into Ukrainian rear areas is how Russia erects a cheap and false demarcation of what constitutes an impassablewar zone. To allow this screening action to prohibit the forward-basing of U.S. forces is to give Russia an easy win at a cost it can sustain indefinitely. Here, military logic can light a path for political action: This is manageable and medium-risk operating space for U.S. military forces. The first declared footprint of a U.S. advisor in this space shatters this illusion and resets the war zone cartographically and psychologically in favor of Ukraine.

The second factor is that A-teams are a limited escalation measure that signals an elevated commitment but falls short of the confrontational arrival of a guidon-bearing U.S. armored brigade. To be clear, the A-teams will not deter the Russian military from continuing combat operations. But they will reassure the Ukrainian leadership and cut a wider path for allies to follow and support. The A-team presence suggested here is not a low-visibility, secretive operation. It is a declared presence. Such a policy adjustment, corporeally exhibited by A-teams inside Ukraine, provides ground actions that match the strident Washington words about its commitment to a Ukrainian victory. This will factor into Russian calculations in military planning and — where most wars end — at the negotiating table.

Risk calculations balance what can be lost against what might be gained. The introduction of A-teams exhibits political moxie at a moment where neither the West nor Ukraine nor Russia appear to have novel ideas or hidden aces. Ennui presents opportunity. In this moment of static battlefields, operational pauses, and electoral politics, there is a clear opening to seize the strategic initiative. The return of A-teams to Ukraine, for all its practical benefit, is a geopolitical chess move that shakes up the board precisely when Russia is sensing that its brutalist operational art has a path to victory.

Military Risk

The Pentagon task would be to forward-deploy, protect, and support U.S. soldiers within the range of Russian long-range fires. These forces would operate well behind the actual zones of direct contact. This is not new; it is a return to the U.S. advisory posture from 2015 to 2022 inside Ukraine, albeit under unsafe skies. To take this step, the U.S. military should override its convention of providing “golden hour” medevac, responsive air support, and the protective wrappings of U.S. conventional force power. A-teams are designed to operate outside of those support mechanisms and have been since their antecedents, the Jedburghs, parachuted into occupied France in 1944. For example, a special forces medic is trained in trauma management, field surgical procedures, and extended life-support care. Communicators operate a multitude of long-range communication systems that can withstand electronic warfare–heavy environments. Weapons sergeants will be comfortable in the arms bazaar of mix-and-match weapons platforms inside Ukrainian ranks. Engineers are explosives experts. By design, A-teams are “normalized for deviance” to operate in this very setting.

The A-team task would be to amplify Ukrainian capabilities by combining efforts. From the U.S. standpoint, this is still an indirect approach. U.S. soldiers would not directly confront Russians but instead would provide expertise to Ukrainians who have been, are, and will be fighting Russians. The teams would also be able to better observe, understand, and relay the hard-won wisdom from Ukrainians who have been doggedly fighting Russians. This would enable A-teams to provide informed inputs to calibrate the machinery of technical, logistical, and lethal support that pours into Ukraine daily. By moving this work into Ukraine proper, U.S. forces would be leaving the safety of living in protected NATO countries. U.S. forces would surely be at risk but would do so with the 31 million Ukrainian citizens living daily with an enemy at the gates.


There are three obvious counterarguments that deserve consideration. The first is that U.S. military assistance is under way and is working. It is true that U.S. and NATO forces, A-teams included, have been training and equipping Ukrainian forces that rotate to European countries. The remote advise-and-assist model via video-teleconferences, digital transference, and third-country training programs is severely constraining. With Russia spending one-third of its budget on defense and with Western ammunition stockpiles exhausted, the continuation of this method is insufficient to tip the scales in Ukraine’s favor.

Indeed, Russian leaders assess that they can defeat this allied support arrangement through mass and with time. The moment is ripe to discomfit Russian confidence with a fuzzy math problem. Comparatively, the United States deployed more than 40 A-teams or sister service equivalents (Navy SEAL platoons, Marine Special Operations Teams) to Afghanistan and Iraq, simultaneously, for decades. If the Afghanistan and Iraq wars — wars of far less strategic consequence and low public interest — merited such a commitment, then surely this war merits some consideration. With even a fraction of that force, the United States could alter the strategic landscape in Ukraine. This move presents horizontal escalation and positional warfare combined with psychological bravura. Actual numbers notwithstanding, this gives Russia a dilemma to manage. This cannot be done from bases in Poland and Germany.

The second counterargument points to the inability of A-teams (and advisors more broadly) to tip the scales in places like Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, A-team partnership with Afghan forces occurred inside a disintegrating political and social order. The U.S.-trained Afghan commandos fought well, but the population had no commitment to the ruling government and exhibited low interest in fighting for a political order that they often could not see, understand, or feel. The political backdrop in Ukraine is the opposite. Ukrainian democracy has demonstrated its legitimacy, the government survived a decapitation strike, and its people withstood and repelled an annihilationist invasion. Ukraine has employed Western material assistance to great effect and at the estimated cost of 500,000 casualties. Matching capabilities to needs is essential, but doing so inside a favorable political context is rare and distinguishes this option from similar-looking advisory missions.

The third concern is the fear of a “forever war” and the specter of American casualties. There is a distinction between a forever war and a steadfast partner. Helping the Ukrainian military to train their forces is less of the former and more of the latter. It is hard to envision a world with Russia in it where the United States would not seek Ukraine as an enduring partner. This requires investment and assurance. Few words can match the power of a small and steady U.S. presence of highly qualified “quiet professionals.” U.S. advisors in Ukraine would demonstrate resolve, and with that resolve comes the requisite political and personal risks of U.S. casualties. This risk can be reduced but not eliminated. This is why the A-team, both as a practical instrument and as a well-understood tool of hazardous statecraft, presents a better political option, for now, than the introduction of advisors from units such as the U.S. Army Security Force Assistance Brigades.

Assumptions and Provocations

The assumptions that underpinned the counter-Kremlin playbook have been shattered, repeatedly and frequently. Leading up to and after the Feb. 24, 2022, invasion, the United States incrementally provided support that was once unthinkable: intelligence disclosures, high-mobility artillery rocket systems, Army tactical missile systems, M1 Abrams tanks, Patriot air defense systems, F-16s. Russian threats are to be taken seriously but should not dictate Western options. In that vein, the consideration of “boots on the ground” deserves a fresh look. The anxiety over U.S. soldiers stepping into Ukraine is a pathology of U.S. origin, not a Russian red line. The debate over U.S. soldiers operating on Ukrainian territory, a necessary and justifiable conversation, requires an animating idea and a sensible starting point. Statecraft includes updating assumptions and hazarding perceived provocations against strategic openings. If U.S. politics can find the unity to act, the mechanics of reintroducing A-teams in a training and advising role is, surprisingly, a routine military task.


The dialogue characterizing this war is progressively dominated by the shop talk of the industrialist: munitions provided, weapons procured, drones built, conscripts mobilized, mines laid. Yielding to this reductive framing favors Russia. To displace terms of industry with terms of art, there is a harmonic convergence of capability, opportunity, and risk that is present now. One capability is the A-team, designed precisely for this environment. The opportunity is the stalemated ground war, which also provides a stabilized, regularized Ukrainian rear area. The risk calculation is to horizontally escalate not as a provocation but as a normalization and a reframing of U.S. support thresholds. Taken together, this is a measured military path ripe for political action. The next graduated response option is ready: Send in the A-teams.



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.

Image: U.S. Army photo by Sgt Patrik Orcutt