Small Wars Journal

Special Operations For the 21st Century: Starting Over

Special Operations For the 21st Century: Starting Over by Lt. Col. James Jay Carafano, U.S. Army retired, Army Magazine

The Obama administration has an affinity for the employment of special operations forces. Increased emphasis on this particular sliver of military power is almost without precedence in the modern era, and it is not good. The penchant to view special operations forces as an “easy button,” a ready substitute for conventional military forces, is utterly wrongheaded. Further, the current structure of special operations forces is an evolutionary dead end, and it is ill-suited to meet the strategic demands for American military power in the 21st century.

Our political and military leaders ought to go back to the origins of special warfare and learn what needs to be done to keep the “special” in special operations. The military needs a more expansive, holistic approach to designing and employing special operations forces in the future. Moreover, U.S. defense planners must stop thinking that austerity budgets are compatible with sustaining the kinds of special operations forces the U.S. will need in the future…

Read on.


I fail to see where the author supported his argument that future administrations are going to overly use SOF in lieu of conventional forces. It would have been helpful if he provided some examples of where SOF is being used in lieu of conventional forces to see if his argument had merit. SOF leadership certainly doesn't think SOF will replace the need for conventional forces. In my opinion, SOF is being used appropriately, but it is also stretched thin. Nonetheless, at least in this part of the 21st Century, many of the security challenges we're managing fall into SOF's lane of expertise.

The author makes references to solving problems, which seems to imply that small footprint SOF deployments will not solve the problem. First it depends on the problem we're trying to solve, and second recent history indicates that all to often, neither SOF nor conventional forces can solve the underlying issues that drives conflict in many locations of the world. The best we can do is mitigate the threat it poses to the U.S.. For that SOF is often the best economy of force option. However, SOF can't do their job without conventional force support in most cases. SOF also doesn't make the false claims that the legacy air advocates make about being able to win wars by themselves. SOF is not only integrated with the Joint Force, but with the interagency, and foreign partners. Depending on the mission, SOF can be in either a supporting or supported role. Either way, it won't accomplish the mission on its own in most cases.

The author discusses the failure of covert operations, especially when previous administrations overly relied on them. While that argument has some merit, it misses the mark since most SOF operations are not covert. At most they are low visibility operations, and the reason for that, more often than not, is to protect the host that we're supporting. On the other hand, smaller scale covert operations certainly have a place in statecraft, and we shouldn't shy away from them if they are appropriate. Not every covert operation is a repeat of the Bay of Pigs.

I agree with him that budget reductions will hurt the force. Seems odd we're reducing the military budget in a time of great uncertainty, where we have forces deployed globally doing more than peacetime engagement.

He claims SOF will become less adaptable because it is overly employed, yet SOF has innovated considerably during the past decade of war based on real combat requirements, instead of anticipated requirements for a future war. That seems to be the American way, we tend to adapt during the fight better than others.

Using SOF to conduct operations that are special operations is appropriate, and last time I looked our conventional forces were not in garrison, so they're certainly being used, perhaps excessively? If there is coherent argument in the article I missed it. If he is simply stating we need to retain adequate conventional forces I agree. That doesn't mean we're overly relying on SOF.