Small Wars Journal

The Cipher Brief SOF Threefer

Tue, 05/09/2017 - 4:38am

Three The Cipher Brief commentaries on the roles, missions, and state of U.S. SOF capabilities.

SOF’s Evolving Role: Warfare “By, With, and Through” Local Forces by Linda Robinson

One consequence of the heavy reliance on U.S. SOF is high deployment rates with little downtime. The demands in the rest of the world are significant: Special operators are also needed to conduct low-visibility operations in Europe in support of partners there, as a complement to conventional deterrence against Russian aggression. In addition, the parlous situation of Afghanistan may require more SOF, whose training and advice have made that country’s commando forces into very effective fighting units. In a turbulent world, hard decisions will be required about where SOF are most needed, and how other countries’ SOF may be able to help.

Don’t Overcommit U.S. Special Operations Forces by Russell D. Howard

U.S. special operations forces are widely considered to be some of the most highly trained and effective military units in the world and, as a result, they have played a critical role in America’s wars. Nowhere is that truer than in the Middle East and North Africa, where the U.S. military has been in prolonged engagements since 2001. U.S. military commitments in the region have gradually decreased since the George W. Bush Administration but President Barack Obama, and now President Donald Trump, have continued to rely heavily on special operations forces.

U.S. Special Operations Forces’ Changing Mission in the Middle East by Fritz Lodge

Special operations forces offer policymakers flexible, effective, and discreet ways to deal with the region’s complex conflicts, but many worry that overreliance on SOF could undermine readiness. How has the role and tempo of operations for SOF in the Middle East changed and what measures, if any, will President Donald Trump take to relieve some of the stress placed on U.S. special operations forces deployed to the region?


Robert C. Jones

Thu, 05/11/2017 - 1:31pm

We continue to ask the indomitable, to do the infeasible, in support of the impossible.

It is sad that war has grown so tolerable, as we have grown too fond of it.

It is well beyond time to stop waging war against peace, and to rebalance our SOF forces to mitigate and disrupt political violence in moderation; and to shift focus on more strategic lines of operation based in populations around the globe and designed to deter our major state challengers and to help build resilience in the populations of our key partners and allies in equal part.

Dave Maxwell

Tue, 05/09/2017 - 7:50am

Comment on the 3d article (Lodge) listed above.


QUOTE There are signs that the Trump Administration is beginning to shift some of the SOF mission in the Middle East to conventional troops. The White House has stopped disclosing troop deployments, but in March, the Pentagon sent roughly 400 Marines to Syria and 300 paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division to Mosul, as well as new artillery and air fire support assets. Nevertheless, unless the Administration decides to either commit a large number of conventional troops or abandon the recent gains made against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, SOF will continue to be the indispensable force for Trump’s military goals in the region. END QUOTE

​Perhaps we should keep in mind what are special operations and consider applying the definition. If you do not need the following then conventional forces should be quite appropriate.

QUOTE Operations requiring unique modes of employment, tactical techniques, equipment and training often conducted in hostile, denied, or politically sensitive environments and characterized by one or more of the following: time sensitive, clandestine, low visibility, conducted with and/or through indigenous forces, requiring regional expertise, and/or a high degree of risk. Also called SO. (JP 1-02.) END QUOTE

​We should also keep in mind what LTG Sam Wilson said in the excerpt below. And the key point for all campaign planners is use the right force for the right mission.​

QUOTE 11. Special Operations Forces have a limited number of DIRECT roles:
Special Operations Forces are trained for specific missions. They are the most highly trained and proficient forces that the US possess but they are not the answer for every small contingency mission that comes along. Many conventional forces are more proficient at conventional type missions than the SOF. Even more specialized units exist and they should not be used outside their primary mission. Just because a select force is in being, does not automatically mean that it is the BEST to use. Politics will play in this decision, the HIGH RISK/HIGH GAIN nature of the specific operation may cause the political leaders to make this choice, even if better alternatives are available, i.e., such as have SEAL TEAM SIX do a routine beach recon. END QUOTE

Comment on the 1st Article (Robinson) listed above.

A bold claim in the fourth paragraph excerpted below. When I consider the three changes Linda Robinson observes and outlines I wonder if not the actual indicator of success will be how the forces operate when there are no longer US advisors and no more US fire support. While we may achieve short term objectives using 'through, with, and by" (as COL Mark Boyatt originally coined the phrase in 1995 to apply to Special Forces operations) we have to acknowledge that we may be created dependencies that will end up impacting the deployment tempo with which everyone is concerned. If we cannot disengage US advisors and support will we have been successful?


QUOTE During seven weeks visiting Iraq, Syria, and neighboring countries this year, I observed three major changes in how the campaign accounts for its increasing momentum. First, the number of advisers and supporting forces has now reached a level that can provide meaningful support to the variety of indigenous forces fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria. That number is hovering around 10,000, including forces deployed in-country on temporary duty. Special operations forces are advising a variety of partners, including the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service (CTS), tribal forces and Iraqi Kurds. In Syria, they are assisting Kurdish groups, particularly the YPG (Popular Protection Units), and a variety of Arab forces. As in Afghanistan, U.S. SOF count on major support from their closest SOF partners in Britain, Australia, and Canada, as well as the Danes, Norwegians, and French. While SOF are at the forefront of the tactical-level advising, U.S. and coalition conventional forces have been training forces at five main bases and advising at the headquarters level.

The second major change has been in how these advisers are used. The special operations forces have become progressively more dispersed and now accompany the indigenous forces to a secure location near the front lines.
The third major change has been the steady increase in fire support, a critical enabler in both Iraq and Syria. This change has occurred gradually over the past year.
If they succeed in ousting ISIS from Mosul and Raqqa in the coming months, this new way of combining forces and using SOF to direct a ground war, could become a model for conducting low- to mid-level combat. Conventional forces would still be relied upon heavily to conduct major wars, such as a North Korean, Chinese or Russian contingency. But this “by, with, and through” model could become a standard option in the U.S. military playbook. The fight for Mosul is far from over, and the last part will be extremely difficult as troops try to fight among 400,000 civilians trapped in western Mosul without harming them. Similarly, Raqqa will pose a stiff challenge for the anti-ISIS forces, as ISIS has dug trenches, bunkers, and tunnels, and laced the city with mines. END QUOTE

Comment on the 2d article (Howard) listed above:


QUOTE TCB: How would you advise President Donald Trump to utilize SOF?

RH: I would tell him that these guys are a national treasure. In my day it cost an average of $1 million to train a Special Forces soldier, now it probably costs closer to $1.5 million, and you don’t waste that asset. You use them judiciously when you really need them.

The big question is what’s going to happen with North Korea? That’s the big question for SOF. If you’re going to secure nuclear devices, who’s going to do it? If you’re going to take down the most heavily guarded installations in North Korea, who’s going to do it? It will be special operations forces.

If I were the commander of all special operations forces, that would be what keeps me up at night. END QUOTE

I would have to add there are many more SOF requirements for Korea than just the nuclear problem though I understand why USSOCOM is so focused on it after the mission was transferred from STRATCOM. US SOF can be a huge force multiplier working with ROK SOF and other international SOF that will be committed. We should not forget about all the disciplines of SOF to include psychological operations forces conducting information and influence activities as well as civil affairs. All US SOF can play a major through, with, and by role advising and assisting their ROK counterparts who will provide the bulk of SOF on the ground in the north. And we should not forget that the two most important people dealing with the WMD threat may be SGT Kim and SGT Smith leading squads from conventional units on the ground who uncover WMD sites and will have to make an on the spot decision as to either halting the current mission to secure the suspected WMD site until it can be turned over to other forces or reporting on and bypassing the suspected site and continuing the mission to achieve the objectives they have been given. They of course need that guidance before they embark on their mission. There are not enough SOF in the entire US inventory to be employed against all the suspected WMD sites when hostilities or regime collapse occurs.