Small Wars Journal

Check Out This New Wish List for U.S. Special Ops

Tue, 04/29/2014 - 8:25am

Check Out This New Wish List for U.S. Special Ops by Mark Thompson, Time Magazine

The U.S. military’s commandos are among the best in the world. But they can always get better. That means faster, lighter, deadlier, cheaper. So that’s why U.S. Special Operations Command issued a formal request for “Advancement of Technologies in Equipment for Use by U.S. Special Operations Forces” on Monday.

“USSOCOM is interested in receiving white papers from all responsible sources from industry, academia, individuals, and Government laboratories capable of providing the design, construction, and testing of SOF related technologies,” Special Ops headquarters in Tampa, Fla., says.

Many of the wished-for technologies simply improve on existing gear. But others seem like blue-sky fantasies…

Read on.


From my perspective, this wish list only adds to the technological overmatch we already have against our near-peer adversaries. While it is great to continuously push the envelope of technological advancement, it is hardly the most important component of keeping US SOF as a dominant force capable of shaping the environment on a strategic scale.

Additional O&M funding would be a great start to push more forces into theatre and gain better understanding of the environments they will be working in. Along with that, more funding for civilian education and inteagency collaboration would be invaluable. SOF often finds themselves operating under COM authority in countries around the world. Therefore, it is crucial to build operators who understand not just the DOD, but the other masters that they will invariably work for once Afghanistan finally shuts down. Moving from a VSP in Afghanistan to an Embassy in SE Asia can be a particualarly tricky move for a young "operator" who is more accustomed to direct action than attending the ever so politically nuanced civ-mil working groups that take place in U.S. Embassies globally.

Bottom line, education and immersion will be the keys to future SOF Dominance. Sure, there will still need to be "shooters" who have the most efficient means of dispatching the enemy. However, the other 75% of SOF needs to be dual hatted warrior diplomats who are adept shapers and mitigators in the grey area between diplomacy, defense, and development. This comes only from experience and education, not new weapons and optics.

Outlaw 09

Wed, 04/30/2014 - 5:04pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

The core reason for the successful UW and sometimes not so successful UW operations for SF in the 50/60/70s and up to the final very successful Det A deployment was because SF did not "belong" to the Army but in fact to an "OSS" organization.

It gave us both the missions and the confidence to do what was necessary in those missions and when we felt that the mission was "off" meaning something we should not be involved in the ability to voice that opinion and if needed modify the mission to match SF values---VN taught SF that it had both a voice and an opinion and teams understood they could use both. There was a reason SF was an inherent/critical part of every country team.

We viewed all our missions to be contributing to peace even in Beirut when everyone seemed to be shooting at us from all directions and even if carrying an ADM.…

Robert C. Jones

Wed, 04/30/2014 - 3:03pm

In reply to by Dave Maxwell

Dave, (and this is not to change your position, rather to clarify mine for those who read these things)

I understand and appreciate your position, and also that it aligns closely with the official position of USASOC. In my dealings in the Joint, interagency and general civilian communities I find that it tends to create angst, confusion, and dogged resistance among those who care at all. Have not met any who say "ah, yes, that makes perfect sense." I realize that it works well within the Army and for facilitating conversations between the conventional force and SOF; I simply believe that it is better we be uncomfortable internally if that is what it takes to be more effective externally.

The military does not fear peace, but it struggles with it mightily. This is doubly true for the Army (particularly the American Army). We are blessed in America with a strategic situation that most nations can only dream of, where one has little need to maintain much of a standing army in peace. But instead of counting our blessings we insist on labeling peace as war (as we have for the past 12 years); or peace as "phase 0" to some future war; or everyday peacetime operations as some form of irregular or special warfare. Why can't peace simply be peace, regardless of how messy or dangerous it may be for some elements of our force in various times and places? We can recognize, as we ultimately did in El Salvador, when it changes from special operations to special warfare - but that does not mean we must label a single soldier doing language emersion training in the south of France as warfare too.

SOF, particularly Army SOF, has a very large and important mission in peace. These are still special operations, but they are peaceful pursuits for peaceful purpose. They are necessary to prevent war and to prepare for war, but they are not war, nor are they warfare. I do not find it disingenuous to call the simply special operations. Rather I find it unnecessary bravado, leading to unnecessary friction and confusion, to call them warfare.

Dave Maxwell

Wed, 04/30/2014 - 10:27am

In reply to by Robert C. Jones


I concur on many points and will do my best to educate some future policy makers and strategists in my course this summer on UW and SOF for policy makers and strategists.

I do disagree with your comments about warfare. The fact is SOF is a military force and warfare is the heart of it and we should not shy away from that. It is the ability to conduct warfare effectively that provides SOF its bona fides. I think trying to de-emphasize it will be as effective as change the name of Psychological Operations to Military Information Support Operations. We should stop trying to fool people. Warfare is the business of SOF.

Take SOF out of the military and putting it somewhere else also does not seem like a good option. Whatever agency would absorb it would still have to sustain the capability. If an agency needs a capability then it should develop it or request support from DOD/SOCOM. But even when working for another agency no one should be under any illusion that SOF exists to fight wars and conduct combat operations and because of SOF training it can also support a wide spectrum of requirements both combat and non-combat.

Robert C. Jones

Wed, 04/30/2014 - 7:53am

In reply to by Dave Maxwell


In general I share your overarching concern.

We remain overly focused on the mission of disrupting and punishing those individuals and organizations currently seeking to coerce the US into updating our foreign policy (what we perceive our vital interests to be, the Ways and Means we choose to pursue those interests in the emergent strategic environment); rather than the capabilities we need to actually have the eyes, ears and relationships necessary to make those adjustments of our own accord prior to provoking such disruptive, and violent responses against us.

However, as I look at this short wish-list of technologies, my assessment is that most are as well suited to UW and counter UW operations to conduct "Special Warfare" as they are to Direct Action operations to conduct "Surgical Strike."

But you are correct in your perception that 12 years of operational inertia in a particular direction (driven by 12 years of policy inertia in that same direction) create a force that we will not break free of soon. So long as we measure our success in neat objective terms of tactical actions taken and tactical effects achieved - while ignoring the larger strategic decline all around the regions where those actions are being executed - we will remain on this inertial course.

SOCOM needs much better policy support from those who advise our senior civilian policy/political leadership than we have gotten from the "experts" of the past 12 years if we want to see substantive change in the decisions that the Admirals and the Generals are making to currently give that customer what it expects and demands of SOF. I think Forest Gump had a famous quote that applies quite well to our current course (and it isn't the one about chocolates).

Personally I wish that our nation could fully grasp that we are not, and have not, been "a nation at war." We are a nation at peace who has launched our military out to wage armed conflict against those individuals and organizations who dare to protest the lag in our foreign policies ability to catch up with the world that we actually live and pursue our national interests within. Our greatest challenges have been where we have attempted to conduct and enforce social engineering by removing governments where we think we can, and replacing them with what we perceive will be better for us. Those liberals who promote social engineering are every bit as dangerous to the future security of the United States as those who promote the view that we are beset upon by some sort of zombie apocalypse of brain-washed ideologs.

I also wish that SOF did not feel compelled to bundle 70-85% of our peacetime special operations activities under an overarching umbrella of "warfare." I like the utility of the historic Special Warfare construct, but equally recognize that what we are breaking out as "surgical strike" is the most special and most warfare-like aspect of what we do; and that much of what we call Special Warfare is not warfare at all. It seems we are doing our best to ensure that those policy makers and the experts who advise them remain in a state of confusion about the nature of the problems we face in the current strategic environment, and the best ways to employ SOF to mitigate the same.

It will take bold change to break these forces of inertia. In fact, it may well be time to take much of SOF out of the military, and much of the military out of SOF. After all, much of what challenges us are policy issues rather than military issues; and under the current legal structure of SOF those are issues we can not openly discuss or directly engage. We can only snipe at the symptoms. A revitalization of something more like the OSS may well be in order, but that is a discussion for another day.


Dave Maxwell

Tue, 04/29/2014 - 12:49pm

My wish list would include sufficient O&M funding and authorities for sustained long term deployment to both train for and conduct special warfare.

"Special Warfare 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."

Most of the equipment in the article will support the lethal aspects of special warfare but the priority for USSOCOM, as evidenced by this wish list, seems to remain on surgical strike.

"Surgical Strike 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."