Small Wars Journal

The Future of U.S. Special Operations Forces

The Future of U.S. Special Operations Forces by Linda Robinson, Council on Foreign Relations.


U.S. special operations forces are doing more things in more places than ever before. They are now active in some seventy countries and, since 2001, have seen their combined budget nearly quintuple—a trend that seems likely to continue. As the United States seeks ways to tackle a range of security threats worldwide, shore up the resilience of its friends and allies against terrorist and criminal networks, and minimize need for large-scale military interventions, the importance of special operations forces will grow.

Yet, writes Linda Robinson in this Council Special Report, the strategic vision for special operations forces has not kept pace with the growing demands for their skills. Most people—and, indeed, many policymakers—associate the special operations forces with secret nighttime raids like the one that targeted Osama bin Laden: tactical operations against a particular individual or group. The abilities of special operations forces, however, extend much further, into military training, information operations, civilian affairs, and more. As the United States shifts its focus from war fighting to building and supporting its partners, Robinson argues, it will become critical to better define these strategic capabilities and ensure that special operations forces have the staffing and funding to succeed. Robinson further calls on the Pentagon to remove bureaucratic and operational obstacles to cooperation among the special operations forces of each service, and between special and conventional forces. She also recommends that all special operations forces commands work to develop a pipeline of talented, motivated officers with expertise in these issues, and that the role of civilian leadership in budget and operational oversight be reinforced.

The Future of U.S. Special Operations Forces is a timely report on the future of what may become the military's most important troops. It offers a broad set of recommendations covering institutional, operational, and intellectual reforms that could improve the versatility and effectiveness of the special operations forces. As the Pentagon seeks new ways to exert American power in an era of lower budgets and higher aversion to wars on the scale of Iraq and Afghanistan, this report argues that expanding the role of special operations forces can—and should—be high on the agenda.


Bill M.

Mon, 04/15/2013 - 12:31am

This was an excellent paper, but unfortunately it accentuates the division between the SOF tribes by advocating the indirect approach over the direct approach. I am hopeful that one day we'll move beyond the indirect/direct and special warfare/surgical strike divisions, which for the most part are misleading. Having been in or associated with SOF for over 30 years I agree that we're still in the process of defining who we are and what we do despite the broad description of Special Operations missions and activities in Title 10 and various doctrinal manuals. That certainly doesn't limit our utility at the tactical and operational level, but it does seem to limit our potential utility at the strategic level. I don't think describing SOF as having direct and indirect approaches provides helpful guidance to the Geographic Combatant Commanders or civilian policy makers, since General Purpose Forces use the same approaches. There is something else there that is much more important that needs to be illuminated to see SOF employed to its full potential, but beyond the scope of this response.

One idea in the paper that I think should be challenged is calling the indirect approach decisive and listing both Columbia and the Philippines as success stories. I don't think we can support the claim that the indirect approach as described in the article and elsewhere has ever been decisive. I'm not sure there is a decisive action or approach to many security challenges, such as Islamic motivated terrorism or the illicit trade of narcotics. I think a case can be made that with a relatively small footprint we enabling the host nation security forces to suppress the threat to a manageable level where it no longer threatens our national security interests. Unfortunately the nature of suppression is it requires persistent effort to keep the threat suppressed, and the only affordable way to sustain such operations is by enabling our partners, and for these irregular, networked threats SOF is uniquely organized and trained to do this.

What isn't discussed in the paper or at SOCOM nearly enough is shaping the environment in a way that makes it undesirable or too hostile for these threat groups to operate in. In my opinion training host nation security forces to do manhunting or combat operations is still a direct approach, just because we have one degree of separation from these activities doesn't mean the strategy approach is direct. The true indirect isn't focused "directly" on the adversary, but the environment (social, political, economic, general security, etc.). The direct approach whether we do it unilaterally or through, by and with partners if done intelligently (first do no harm) may create space for a true indirect approach; however, you seldom hear this discussed in the ever evolving SOCOM vision, because our force has over the past decade become counterterrorism centric.

Sadly we're to the point now where some SOF field grade officers naively believe and state that SOF only does CT, and that creates perceptions that are not helpful when SOF is attempting to become increasingly strategically relevant. America is dealing with a lot challenges that in some cases have nothing to do with terrorism, and in others they have a nexus with terrorism, but the point is special operations can be both a tactical tool for the GCC commander and a unique strategic approach to responding to a wide range of security issues that include, but are not limited to terrorism. Special Warfare is appropriate describtion when we're at war, but what do we call it when we're at peace attempting to prevent war?

Linda is definitely right that SOF should "be a fount of innovative ideas for addressing unconventional and emerging threats," but that requires educating our force to see beyond CT and manhunting. I have no doubt we already have the intellectual capital in the force, they just need guidance from the leaders in the force to expand their thinking on the utility of SOF to pursue U.S. strategic objectives.

Unfortunately right after she tells us we need to be more innovative, she suggests the "new" model for SOF would follow the approach in Columbia and the Philippines. As she well knows these are not new models, and while effective models for specific situations, but they're not the appropriate model for all current and emerging security challenges such as the proliferation of WMD, or stabilizing an area that has suffered ethnic violence, or a host of other challenges not mention the possibility of going to war with another state. We don't need a model, we need greater adaptability and agility based on increasing uncertainty. There will seldom be a best response, but a combination of responses, a blend it if you will. SOF provides a unique hybrid capability where both the direct and indirect are critical components.

As for recommendations, I would add assigning SOF flag and general officers as GCC commanders and deputy commanders so they can help direct the proper integration of SOF into the GCC strategy.

The argument that direct is funded greater than indirect is first hard to prove and second it can irrelevant. Direct action often requires expensive enablers, and the fact of the matter is a U.S. unilateral SOF mission is often a no fail mission for obvious reasons. If we're doing the indirect approach we're enablers and ultimately if it fails the failure still belongs to those we're assisting, while our national credibility and prestige are tied to the success or failure of a unilateral SOF mission. There are of course funding shortfalls for the indirect approach, but lets not advocate returning to the days where were incapable of rescuing our hostages in Iran.

I definitely agree we have failed to develop clear and pathbreaking doctrine for the strategic employment of SOF. A lot of so called doctrine looks more like a vision statement than doctrine.

Above all lets not forget the full utility of SOF, it isn't limited to FID in Columbia and the Philippines, or direct action in Iraq and Afghanistan. Looking back through time to WWII, the Norwegian commando raid on Germany's heavy water plant was regarded by many as the most successful sabotage operation of WWII, and contributed to preventing Germany from getting the bomb. The OSS/SOF preparation of the battlefield in France, their successful operations in Burma, and China, etc. SOF encompasses all of this and more.


Mon, 04/08/2013 - 9:34pm

In reply to by jstults

Thanks for the link!