Advice from SOF on the Use of SOF for the Next Administration - Center for Naval Analyses
On October 14, 2016, CNA convened a half-day meeting of experts to discuss the use of special operations forces (SOF) by the next administration. Our speakers consisted of a former Assistant Secretary of Defense and six former SOF Commanders whose rank at retirement ranged from one to four stars. Our audience of approximately 50 attendees consisted largely of active duty SOF and their civilian equivalents. The conversation was held under the Chatham House Rule of non-attribution. The overarching themes of that discussion included the following:
• The sanctity of SOF. SOF are a limited resource that are most effective when given clear policies and permissive rules of engagement (ROE), when employed and supported in accordance with the “SOF Truths,” and when allowed to have a strong voice in the decisions and policies governing their employment. Our attendees recommended that policymakers and conventional military commanders should:
o Educate themselves—and seek SOF input—on the relative strengths and weaknesses of SOF, and when they should and should not be used.
o Set policy and ROE, and trust that SOF will accomplish the mission, given their flexibility, adaptability, and record of success.
o Recognize that SOF are fully committed and continuing at the present pace of deployments risks burning out the force. Preservation of the force requires growth or relieving SOF of some of its currently assigned missions.
• Preparation of the policy environment. In strategic policy and resource discussions, SOF are often reliant on non-SOF experts to represent their capabilities and interests. Our attendees recommended that SOF leaders should:
o Proactively engage influential civilians inside and outside of government in order to educate them on SOF capabilities, limitations, and requirements.
o Seek a more active voice when the use of SOF is considered as a policy option, for example by placing a flag or general officer on the National Security Council Staff.
o Clearly articulate the SOF narrative. For public audiences, this should include who SOF are, what they do, and why—while not revealing methods. For policy audiences, this should include a framework for how to think about SOF using past successes as examples.
• Balancing the future force. Countering terrorism will initially be a priority for the next administration and SOF will play a central role in this mission. But the U.S. is also facing increasing threats from China and Russia, among others. For SOF to play a role in shaping near-peer adversaries that is commensurate with their core competencies, some rebalancing of the force is required. Our attendees recommended that policymakers and SOF leaders should: o Recognize the role that SOF can—and should—play in shaping the environment around rising and resurgent near-peer adversaries. Give SOF greater space, authorities, and resources to act clandestinely in this role.
o Re-examine the balance between surgical strike and special warfare capabilities, personnel, and resources.
o Increase the diversity of the force via greater recruitment of minorities and women, and place an emphasis on their development, mentorship, and retention. Also increase emphasis on language and micro-regional studies.
o Develop SOF’s operational level capabilities, by codifying lessons from the Special Operations Joint Task Forces, resourcing USSOCOM to source and sustain them, and developing planners for SOF-centric campaigns.
• SOF as a source of innovation. SOF have pioneered numerous technologies and tactics that have benefitted the conventional military. The reasons behind SOF’s ability to innovate include a willingness to rapidly experiment and foster freedom of thought—these should be imitated and reinforced. Our attendees recommended that policymakers and military leaders should: o Shift the military service schoolhouses away from teaching mostly conventional war doctrine and “what to think,” to a balance of conventional and unconventional approaches and an emphasis on “how to think.”
o Adjust military service manpower policies to enable non-traditional career paths, new ways of developing leaders, and lateral transfers into service.
o Create a robust intellectual hub at USSOCOM to foster, develop, and transition new technologies and tactics to SOF and the conventional force.
The next administration will face a multitude of challenges and SOF will continue to play a central role in many of them. The recommendations above will help ensure SOF are as successful for the next administration as they have been for the last one.