Small Wars Journal

The Future of Special Operations Forces

Thu, 07/12/2012 - 4:58am

Via CFR: In her testimony before the House Committee on Armed Services Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities, Linda Robinson details how U.S. Special Operations Forces can be restructured to better confront emerging challenges.

Here's an excerpt:

Vague and confusing terminology, lack of emphasis on doctrine and operating concepts, and weak outreach to relevant partners in the government have all hampered the development and employment of SOF for maximum strategic or decisive impact. The indirect approach is an unfortunately vague term; in place of direct and indirect, the draft Army doctrinal publication 3-05 uses surgical strike and special warfare. To me the distinguishing feature of the indirect approach (or special warfare) is partnred operations. The partner(s) can range widely from various government forces, to informal groups like tribes or community defense groups, or populations, which civil affairs and other units routinely interact with. The range of activities that SOF can engage in as part of the indirect approach is similarly broad (training, combat advising, intelligence and psychological operations, civil affairs projects) depending on the problem, the goals and the rules of engagement. But the key point is that the activities will always be with or through other entities, so that they are empowered and eventually enabled to enact the solutions on their own. To achieve lasting, decisive impact the activities cannot be episodic and unconnected but must be deliberately planned, linked and sustained via a campaign design that is nested in the larger theater and mission plans and overall U.S. policy Goals.


Col. Maxwell, Your distinction on "partnered" is important because the working relationships of two nations armed forces in places with a large and unstable population that also has anti-government forces and cadres in the community could give rise to further political problems. Even though we can easily criticise political leaders for some decisions, we need to be cognisant of the domestic polity they have to contend with to make the correct decision, communicate it in the least inflammable manner and factor in how they would deal with a backlash.

While this post is about the machinations of SOF working with other nations in a UW human domain, it could all become ugly if these definitions are not politically water-tight.

Dave Maxwell

Thu, 07/12/2012 - 5:47am

I strongly agree with her characterization of vague and confusing terminology. But I do have to take exception to one point that Linda makes regarding the indirect approach – special warfare and her view that what distinguishes something as the indirect approach or special warfare is "partnered operations." What really differentiates Special Warfare is that the forces that conduct it are recruited, organized, trained, educated, equipped and optimized to operate in the Human Domain. That is the essence of special warfare and it is based on the historical legacy of political warfare (which takes place in the Human Domain) that is manifested in today's modern Unconventional Warfare as well as Foreign Internal Defense as the two principle doctrinal activities within Special Warfare.

I would not use the term partnered operations. Yes, SOF will work through and with a wide range of forces but partnered operations adds to the confusion and vagueness of terminology because of how partnered operations have evolved in Iraq and Afghanistan. Of course all military, and in particular ground forces (Army and Marine) have and will conduct partnered operations. But the concepts of partnered operations in some cases have been based on ratios of even 1 to 1 – e.g., one American platoon or company and one host nation platoon or company. Partnered operations are an important capability for the Regular Force but that does not make those operations Special Warfare or necessarily even indirect. I think partnered operations is not something that should be exclusively or even the main focus of indirect operations. It may be one component. But even Special Forces rarely conducts partnered operations and certainly not at the ratio of the Regular Forces. The basic mission of Special Forces is to be able to recruit, organize, train, equip, advise, and assist and in some cases lead an indigenous force – for an SF A team that is based on a battalion size unit as a general planning factor but it can be more or less depending on the situation. That is not a partnered operation as we are seeing such operations executed in Afghanistan by Regular Forces but it is the foundation of political and unconventional warfare and is what makes SF well suited to conduct foreign internal defense as well.