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Thoughts on the Future of Special Operations: A Return to the Roots - Adapted for the Future
David S. Maxwell
As the post 9-11 era of the War on Terrorism winds down, the Services are rightly looking to the future. With the severe fiscal constraints, drawdown of personnel, and an uncertain future of threats there is a debate on whether the military should focus solely on traditional war fighting and deterrence or sustain and further develop the capabilities to deal with the unconventional warfare threats posed by state and non-state actors from the Iran Action Network to North Korea’s Department 39 to Al Qaeda. The Special Operations community is having this debate as well and it has resulted in controversial visions for the future including establishing a Global SOF Network (GSN).
The purpose of this paper is to briefly argue that the future of Special Operations rests in a thorough understanding of its fundamental and traditional missions and then adapting sound, tried and true, and still relevant historical doctrine, mission sets, and tactics, techniques, and procedures for the uncertain future operating environment.
In summary this paper will briefly highlight six specific points.
- The U.S. faces national security threats in three fundamental forms of warfare: nuclear warfare, conventional warfare, and unconventional warfare.
- The future is characterized by the need to conduct unconventional warfare (UW) and to be able to counter unconventional warfare.
- The U.S. has the greatest surgical strike capability in the world but it needs to prioritize and resource equally our special warfare capabilities.
- The U.S. needs Strategists and Policy makers who have a deep understanding of and value the strategic options of UW and Counter-UW.
- Effective Special Warfare is counter-intuitively characterized by slow and deliberate employment – long duration actions and activities, relationship establishment, development, and sustainment.
- SOF will always have a role in hybrid conflict and conventional warfare.
Unconventional Warfare is defined as “activities to enable a resistance or insurgency to coerce, disrupt or overthrow a government or occupying power through or with an underground, auxiliary and [or] guerrilla force in a denied area.” This is not an exclusively U.S. centric definition but in fact describes the activities from Al Qaeda to the Iran Action Network. There are myriad resistance movements around the world including but not limited to the Free Syrian Army to the Uighurs in China to the FARC in Colombia, Boko Haram in Africa and both Moro Islamic organizations and the New Peoples Army in the Philippines just to name a few. It may be in the U.S. strategic interests to either support some of these movements through unconventional warfare or counter the unconventional warfare efforts of others.
The current doctrinal definition above does not describe the full range of unconventional warfare conducted by the U.S. There is controversy over the definition and many do not agree with it even in the Special Operations Community. One seemingly slight controversy is that the definition reads “underground, auxiliary, AND guerilla forces” implying that to conduct UW all three elements are required. Some, as I do, argue that “and” should be replaced with “or” because a guerrilla force is not always necessary and in fact most people seem to get think the unconventional warfare equals guerrilla warfare. In the 21st century effective unconventional warfare does not require a guerrilla force and certainly not one in the “traditional” sense as in World War II, Korea, or Vietnam. Undergrounds and auxiliaries can be much more sophisticated elements of a resistance movement and employ terrorist tactics to achieve their political aims. Rather than focus on the terrorism conducted, we should really consider how such organizations are actually conduct a form of unconventional warfare to achieve their strategic aims.
Therefore, it is important to look deeper into the meaning of unconventional warfare particularly since here is no agreed upon theory of unconventional warfare and certainly nothing to balance with theory of special operations put forth in Admiral McRaven's seminal work on special operations raids and direct action with his important principles of how small special operations forces can defeat larger ones. The no longer published 1997 Joint Doctrine Encyclopedia is that last time that UW was fully described in non-SOF military publication. This excerpt provides a foundation for the concept of UW that remains relevant today:
UW is the military and paramilitary aspect of an insurgency or other armed resistance movement and may often become a protracted politico-military activity. From the U.S. perspective, UW may be the conduct of indirect or proxy warfare against a hostile power for the purpose of achieving U.S. national interests in peacetime; UW may be employed when conventional military involvement is impractical or undesirable; or UW may be a complement to conventional operations in war. The focus of UW is primarily on existing or potential insurgent, secessionist, or other resistance movements. Special operations forces (SOF) provide advice, training, and assistance to existing indigenous resistance organizations. The intent of UW operations is to exploit a hostile power’s political, military, economic, and psychological vulnerabilities by advising, assisting, and sustaining resistance forces to accomplish U.S. strategic or operational objectives.
When UW is conducted independently during military operations other than war or war, its primary focus is on political and psychological objectives. A successful effort to organize and mobilize a segment of the civil population may culminate in military action. Strategic UW objectives may include the following:
• Undermining the domestic and international legitimacy of the target authority.
• Neutralizing the target authority’s power and shifting that power to the resistance organization.
• Destroying the confidence and will of the target authority’s leadership.
• Isolating the target authority from international diplomatic and material support while obtaining such support for the resistance organization.
• Obtaining the support or neutrality of the various segments of the society.
Although this is from 1996 it offers a description of the kind of activities that SOF can conduct “to coerce, disrupt or overthrow a government or occupying power” in support of U.S. strategic objectives and is as relevant at the time of President Kennedy as it is at the time of President Obama. It also can describe what organizations such as Al Qaeda and the Iran Action Network are doing today.
Since 9-11 we have reinvented numerous terms and concepts from counterinsurgency to irregular warfare to describe what many thought were new phenomena. John F. Kennedy and Barak Obama each articulated the enduring threats that we faced in the 1960’s and that we still face in the 21st century with these two quotes:
“This is another type of war, new in its intensity, ancient in its origins - war by guerrillas, subversives, insurgents, assassins; war by ambush instead of combat; by infiltration instead of aggression, seeking victory by eroding and exhausting the enemy instead of engaging him. It requires - in those situations where we must encounter it - a whole new kind of strategy, a wholly different kind of force, and therefore, a new and wholly different kind of military training.”
“History teaches us that nations that grow comfortable with the old ways and complacent in the face of new threats, those nations do not long endure. And in the 21st century, we do not have the luxury of deciding which challenges to prepare for and which to ignore. We must overcome the full spectrum of threats – the conventional and unconventional; the nation-state and the terrorists network; the spread of deadly technologies ad the spread of hateful ideologies; 18th century-style piracy and 21st century cyber threats.”
Both Presidents describe similar threats for their times and each includes elements of unconventional warfare. This is a timeless activity that evolves over time. As one simple example today undergrounds and auxiliaries (these exist in some form even if the resistance organizations do not use this terminology) make extensive use of modern communications for recruitment, political mobilization and activities, psychological warfare, and for planning and coordinating operations. Although some call UW an anachronism because their view is limited to World War II style resistance operations, a thorough study will reveal that UW is widely practiced in various forms today and has adapted to modern conditions, and thus the U.S. must be prepared to both practice it and counter it in accordance with its strategic interests. It is imperative that the U.S. military and strategists and policy makers have a deep understanding of unconventional warfare and the requirement to counter it in the coming years.
Surgical Strike and Special Warfare
Although Title 10 of the U.S. Code in Section 167 lists the ten special operations activities in so far as they pertain to the conduct of special operations, all Special Operations can be described in two broad categories, Surgical Strike and Special Warfare. These two categories should be useful to policy makers and strategists because these terms can broadly characterize “the yin and yang” of special operations which has variously been described has direct and indirect approaches or hard and soft power. As yin and yang imply, SOF is most effective when there is the proper balance among its capabilities but that balance constantly shifts as conditions change. Most importantly, the capabilities are not mutually exclusive but instead are mutually supporting and reinforcing when they are integrated to support national policies, an integrated strategy and comprehensive campaign plans.
Surgical strike as defined in ADRP 3-05, Army Special Operations is “the execution of activities in a precise manner that employ special operations in hostile, denied, or politically sensitive environments to seize, destroy, capture, exploit, recover or damage designated targets, or influence adversaries and threats.” The Title 10 missions that fall within this category are counter terrorism, direct action, special reconnaissance (including all the advanced surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities developed to support SOF since 9-11). Although not designated in Title 10, counter proliferation of weapons of mass destruction would require support from the surgical capabilities resident in SOF. The U.S. has developed a surgical strike capability that is the envy of the world. It has a capability to find, fix, finish, exploit and analyze (F3EA) that has captured and killed numerous high value targets as well as disrupted and destroyed networks and cells conducting or threatening to conduct operations against U.S. interests.
Special warfare as defined in ADRP 3-05 3-05 Army Special Operations is “the execution of activities that involve a combination of lethal and nonlethal actions taken by a specially trained and educated force that has a deep understanding of cultures and foreign language, proficiency in small-unit tactics, and the ability to build and fight alongside indigenous combat formations in a permissive, uncertain, or hostile environment.”
The Title 10 activities that fall under special warfare include unconventional warfare, foreign internal defense, civil affairs and military information support operations (formerly psychological operations). There are three other activities listed in Title and these include humanitarian assistance, theater search and rescue, and such other special activities designated by the President or Secretary of Defense.
Special Warfare has been the traditional mission of the majority of U.S. SOF. It can be seen in the traditional names of the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School, Special Warfare magazine that dates from the 1960’s and the Navy’s Naval Special Warfare Command. In the 1962 edition of the Special Warfare Magazine special warfare consisted of three distinct and overarching missions: Unconventional Warfare, Psychological Warfare, and Counterinsurgency. A similar construct is useful today with the recognition that surgical strike is a mission of co-equal importance to special warfare.
Some today argue that the use of “warfare” in the name is counter-productive due to perceived (and I would suggest unwarranted) sensitivities with other U.S. government agencies. Some offer judgments that Ambassadors do not want military personnel coming to their country team announcing that they are there to conduct special warfare. We should keep in mind that the credibility of SOF lies first and foremost with its combat prowess across the joint SOF force and the ability of every SOF operator to fight and win across the spectrum of conflict. There should never be an apology for the fact that SOF operators are fighters first who possess special skills and training that allow them to conduct the myriad missions of special warfare and surgical strike. SOF should never run from its reputation and failing to recognize both its roots and its capabilities by jettisoning special warfare would compound the mistake that was made by eliminating psychological operations for military information support operations.
Strategists and Policy Makers well versed in UW
As I have written previously I do not believe UW belongs exclusively to Special Forces despite the fact that Special Forces remains the only force in DOD that is organized, trained, educated, equipped and optimized to work through and with an underground, auxiliary, or guerrilla force in a denied area. Yes, the tactical mission belongs to Special Forces and is shared with its interagency partners but the U.S. campaign belongs to Theater Special Operations Commands serving the Geographic Combatant Commands. The strategic mission of UW belongs to policy makers and strategists at the national level. As is true with all our military forces, SOF possess outstanding tactical capabilities but we need to continue to develop our campaign capabilities at the theater level and our policymaking and strategy development expertise for UW at the national level. There are three modest actions that should be considered to improve UW campaign plan and strategy development.
The first step is to re-establish the Special Operations Research Office (SORO) that operated in the 1960’s and was located within American University. SORO was the intellectual center of special operations providing scholarly works to help understand revolutions and insurgencies, the legal aspects of unconventional warfare and the human factors in undergrounds. Expertise in the so-called “human terrain” resided in SORO and the organization not only provided academic support to special operations but also to the rest of the military in the form of area and cultural studies.
SORO published a casebook of 23 revolutions and insurgencies that laid the foundation for the study and practice of unconventional warfare. Recently the U.S. Army Special Operations Command commissioned Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory to update the original studies and add 23 new case studies from the modern era. Rather than establishing National Capital Region headquarters which has generated much controversy within Congress, the U.S. Special Operations Command should consider re-establishing SORO to provide national level policy makers and strategists the intellectual support necessary to develop and implement UW and counter-UW strategies.
The second and third steps are even more modest. The graduate schools that policy makers attend should incorporate courses on UW and counter-UW to ensure the development of future strategists and policy makers who can understand the value of UW and counter-UW and are able to be as proficient in this area as they are with the other instruments of national power.
Finally, professional military education (PME) must educate non-SOF personnel in UW and counter-UW as a matter of routine and not a one-off. To do this SOF and non-SOF personnel should be fully integrated in PME institutions.
Special Warfare is Long Duration
While surgical strike can be characterized by rapid progression from alert to planning and movement to actions on the objective and then exploit analyze and move to the next target, truly successful operations can be best built on a foundation of effective special warfare. This requires special operations and intelligence personnel in potential conflicts areas developing relationships and situational understanding in order to facilitate both peacetime conventional and special operations, support to war plans and other special operations that may include surgical strike. While the discussions of the Global SOF Network has generated much push back within congress and at the Geographic Combatant Commands, there may be other ways and means to conduct persistent engagement with the illusive light footprint.
There are five historical SOF organizations that may be more acceptable that the GSN. There organizations existed in the 1960’s through the 1980’s and one continues to exist today.
The 8th Special Action Force (SAF)) in Panama and the Special Action Force Asia (SAFASIA) in Okinawa were both organized based on the 1963 U.S. Army Counterinsurgency Forces with a Special Forces Group as the centerpiece. However, they were actually excellent examples of what the 2012 U.S. Army Capstone Concept describes as conventional and special operations forces interdependence. These historical organizations integrated the unique capabilities resident in conventional and special operations forces to provide a force that was easily task organized for specific long duration small footprint operations, that included rotary wing aviation, medical, engineer, intelligence, civil affairs, psychological operations and logistics companies and an infantry building all assigned to a special forces group. This doctrine could provide a possible framework for a theater organization that would be able to support the GCCs with special warfare capabilities to support theater campaign plans.
The 46th Special Forces Company in Thailand was a small permanently deployed organization that could conduct a range of training and advisory operations in support of UW or counter-UW missions. It also provided an operational base to support operations by rotating forces that could exploit the expertise and long-term relationships of the permanently assigned personnel.
DET-A in Berlin was one of the premier unconventional warfare and intelligence organizations with the mission to prepare for operations behind the lines in Warsaw Pact countries during the Cold War. This very small organization possessed capabilities and expertise that allowed it to accomplish missions that could be conducted by no other force in DOD.
Finally, Special Forces Detachment Korea (SFD-K and now known as SF DET 39) was established in 1958 and remains assigned to the Korean theater today. This small detachment consisting of less than 20 senior Special Forces non-commissioned officers and one officer is charged with advising and assisting Korean Special Forces brigades and ensuring interoperability between U.S. and Korean forces. While the main effort is focused on supporting the Korean theater war plan, this unit has also been responsible for assisting Korean Special Forces prepare for operations in East Timor, Iraq, and Afghanistan. It also assisted in training the Korean navy SEALs in preparation for the very successful counter-piracy operations conducted in the vicinity of the Horn of Africa.
There is one more non-SOF historical organization that should be considered for revival. That is the Joint U.S. Military Advisory and Assistant Group (JUSMAAG). Today there are numerous security cooperation organizations working for the Chief of Mission on the country teams. These are focused on supporting Title 22 security cooperation activities. However, transitioning existing organizations to a JUSMAAG structure would provide the Chiefs of Mission with an operational headquarters that would be able to plan, conduct, and command advisory assistance operations and provide a command and control headquarters for the various SOF organizations outlined above as well as other military organizations deploying to the host nation to conduct theater missions.
There is also a training organization that should be considered for conventional and special operation forces. The Joint Staff’s Decade of War Report recommended the Military Assistance and Training Advisor course originally taught by Special Forces at the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare and School (formerly the Institute for Military Assistance) during the Vietnam War be re-established in order to train both conventional and special operations NCOs and Officers and increase the interoperability during operations requiring these critical advisory and assistance skills.
The common characteristic of all these organizations is that no two are identical. Each was developed based on a thorough understanding of the local conditions as well as a determination of the best way to support achieving strategic objectives in a fiscally constrained environment. The other common trait of these organizations is the critical importance of non-commissioned officers. NCOs were executing operations that for whatever reason must now must be executed by officers. As an example, Each Korean SF Brigade commander has a senior US special forces NCO as an advisor. Most other situations would require an officer based on today’s military culture. .
Rather than establish a GSN with temporary rotating forces, USSOCOM should consider re-establishing modern examples of the above historical organizations to achieve today’s strategic objectives. These types of organizations could overcome many of the personnel management friction and allow for long-term continuous presence of the right people so they can build relationships and develop the local knowledge to facilitate operations in support of the Chief of Mission, the theater commander or national authorities as required.
SOF in Hybrid Conflict and Conventional Warfare
While the 21st Century has been characterized by unconventional warfare with terrorism as the critical and visible tactic, there is still the possibility of large-scale state on state conflict. SOF will play an important supporting role in these years of conflict supporting both unconventional warfare before and during major combat operations as well as countering UW during the stability operations phase. SOF is particularly well suited to conduct operations against hybrid threats. While a war with either Iran or North Korea will be focused on major combat operations and conventional warfare or even nuclear warfare, defeated enemy forces will rapidly transition to asymmetrical or hybrid threats for which U.S. SOF must be prepared to address.
The future of U.S. SOF should rest on its historical foundation while adapting traditional missions for the conditions and character of conflict of the 21st Century. Unconventional warfare could very well be the dominant form of warfare. While the U.S. may not choose to conduct UW often, it is imperative that the U.S. has the capability to counter it. U.S. SOF by virtue of its training, organization and experience is well suited to make a major contribution to the U.S. efforts to counter UW.
However, to be effective U.S. SOF must achieve the proper balance between its surgical strike and special warfare missions and ensure they are mutually supporting and reinforcing. U.S. SOF must consider establishing new organizations based on historical examples rather than create new concepts that may not gain acceptance. Such structure and organizations permanently assigned to critical overseas locations in conjunction with a revived JMAAG concept would provide the small footprint long duration presence that would enable the full range of special warfare activities while always being in place to support surgical strike as required. Lastly, the only way that U.S. SOF will be able to adapt for the future is to have policy makers and strategists with the knowledge of and appreciation for UW and counter UW operations. A revived SORO would assist in developing such expertise among policy makers as well as support PME to educate conventional military leaders as well.
Like the military as a whole, U.S. SOF must determine its way ahead and how best to support achievement of U.S. strategic objectives. To find the way ahead USSOCOM should look to its successful past and consider reviving organizations and concepts properly adapted for the 21st Century operating environment.