Small Wars Journal

Special Operations - An Army Core Competency

Mon, 05/26/2014 - 12:06am

Special Operations - An Army Core Competency by Lt. Gen. Charles T. Cleveland and Lt. Col. Stuart L. Farris, Army Magazine

Due to the 2012 defense strategic guidance’s emphasis on “small-footprint approaches,” perhaps now more than ever, special operations offer talents and skills that are increasingly relevant in modern conflict. As such, they must be recognized as an Army core competency.

Read on.



Thu, 06/19/2014 - 4:29pm

I am not quite sure it is a "problem" with SOF that Big Army has. It is a way of thinking. SOF tends to be results focused and Big Army is process focused. Combined this with poor use of both conventional manuver & SOF forces. Combined with Big Army's risk aversion, stifleing fear of "what if something happened" and lack of trust in the abilities, capabilities and skills of its junior leadership (both officer & NCO). SOF tend to push down responsibility and utilize experiance. Meaning they will listen. Big Army tends to run on what higher thinks about abilities. SOF adds capabilities, Big Army doesn't and will pass the buck to SOF. SOF is also capabile of passing the buck as seen by the focus of SF on Direct Action etc, instead of conducting FID.

No one has been able to explain to me why SF was conducting DA and conventional forces were tasked with training. I totally got using SOF for high value, but most of what tier 2 SOF was doing was hitting objectives, that conventional infantry could have just as easily taken care of.

Additionally neither group is on the same sheet of music in terms of language. SOF has terms for terms we already had.

Take all of this into account and and you see the following:
1. Poor employment of SOF & Conventional Forces. We did not make the most out of either one.
2. Senior Leadership were risk averse and passed on missions within their capability, or were directed to.
3. Lack of a coherent strategy.

Bill C.

Mon, 05/26/2014 - 11:48pm

"These are certainly necessary Army core competencies, as they accurately describe capabilities and functions required by a preponderance of Army forces, yet we have learned they remain insufficient to adequately address the full range of existing threats. They do not sufficiently account for the increasingly relevant competencies that special operations forces bring to bear in modern conflict. This includes the critical ability of working to prevent conflict — or, perhaps more practically, working by, with and through regional allies, partners and host-nation forces toward what could be described as managing conflict. In other words, special operations play a key role in helping to keep conflict and violence within the limits of political tolerance — at a manageable level—negating, or proving an alternative to, the perceived need for large-scale, long-term and costly military interventions. One only needs to look to the contemporary examples of Army special operations’ contributions in the Philippines, Colombia, Yemen, North Africa and El Salvador to recognize and understand the value of this ability."

Re: Threats. Should we see the problems -- such as those found in the Philippines, Colombia, Yemen, North Africa and El Salvador -- within the context of " real and serious threats" -- to the national security of the United States?

Probably not?

Thus, while the two current "core competencies" may, indeed, be needed to deal with real and serious threats, the task of "preventing conflict" and/or "managing conflict" -- in places where no such grave threat to US national security is likely to spring forth from -- these such tasks, conducted by our special and/or other forces, would seem to fall into some lesser category of importance.

My argument here viewed another way:

If one believes that the United States is likely -- minus preemptive efforts and for grave national security reasons -- to have to engage in large-scale, long-term and costly military interventions in such places as the Philippines, Colombia, Yemen, North Africa and El Salvador (why?), then the argument made by the authors would appear to be on solid ground.

If, however, one does not believe that such interventions are likely, then these arguments -- in light of this knowledge -- may need to be re-thought.

(An alternative idea -- one that is not based on "threats" per se: The argument made by the authors might be considered feasible if the primary purpose and use of the US Army -- now and in the future -- came to be to deal with, almost exclusively, problems other than those which had the potential to rise to the level of grave threats to the national security of the United States. Example: Conflicts more akin to MG [USMC] Smedley Butler's "banana wars.")

Robert C. Jones

Wed, 05/28/2014 - 12:07pm

In reply to by Move Forward

Move Forward,

The short answer to your initial question is that SF/SOF absolutely participates in what the US Army currently defines as combined arms maneuver and wide-area security. But if you notice, both of those core competencies are centered on "the enemy." What if there is no "enemy"?

ARSOF conducts special operations in conjunction with conventional forces conducting conventional operations in the context of both of the Army's core competency areas - and as the authors point out, do so much better today than we did 12 years ago.

Think it is very important to recognize that not all conflict is "war" (and therefore not all "enemies" are eliminated as threats to civil society and the pursuit of national interests by the same Ways or Means); and that what we in the US military persist in calling "Phase 0" is simply thought of as "peace" by most everybody else. Big Army is built for war more than conflict, and certainly for war more than peace.

The ARSOF component of the US Army, however, is uniquely selected, trained, organized and equipped for helping host nations deal with conflict in appropriate ways (or in leveraging conflict to coerce non-hosting nations who act in ways to threaten our vital national interests). This can be done in a very low-footprint way, as called for in the Defense Strategic Guidance - and more often than not is done by-with-through the security forces of a host in a manner that is not seen as an affront to national sovereignty, and that is perceived as lending to (rather than taking from) the legitimacy of that host nation. Or, when working to coerce, is done by leveraging the insurgent energy within some oppressed segment of some other nation's population.

The conventional army is, more than any other service, designed primarily for war and war fighting. Designed for war, but clumsy at conflict and peace. The Marines, on the other hand, are designed for conflict and peace, but pretty damn good at war. ARSOF is the element of the Army that is most like the Marines in that regard. Designed for conflict and peace, but pretty damn good at war. By recognizing the limitations of forces one can also maximize their strengths. When we all attempt to become the flavor of the day, we all become worse for the effort. (SOF, for example, has all drifted too far into CT related missions over the past dozen years and will be a more effective force as it returns to becoming a more balanced force in the years ahead).

Bottom line is I think this is a positive move forward for the US Army, and therefor for the US as a whole. Time for us all to "move forward."



Bill M.

Mon, 05/26/2014 - 3:30pm

In reply to by Move Forward

First, I think the first paragraph quoted below should be printed and posted somewhere where we can frequently review these truths.

"The American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are stark reminders of several timeless military lessons. One is that war is characterized by chance, friction and uncertainty. Another is that war is a human endeavor, a battle of wills fought between thinking, highly adaptive opponents. A third is that superior firepower, technology and tactics are ultimately no substitute for superior strategy. Finally, war is much easier to begin than it is to end."

I want to provide you a more detailed answer, but I need to think about this for awhile first. I can understand why the commander of USASOC would focus on the Army aspect of special operations, but, and I think he would agree, this really needs to get addressed at the joint level.

Internally to SOF we are debating the strategic logic of SOF, and Army SOF's contribution to that discourse to date has been surgical strike and special warfare as broad special operations operational approaches with strategic application. Most SOF operators outside of Army SOF non-concur with this description, but have yet to offer an alternative viable strategic narrative. Some believe SOF doesn't need a strategic narrative, and they be ultimately be right. I think the answer is both, we need a narrative, but we'll always do other things based on our skill sets. We used to call these other things collateral activities.

The real issue is that SOF are still often an afterthought during higher level joint planning sessions. Worse, and this is partly due to SOCOM messaging, SOF is often viewed simply as a counterterrorist force instead of a force with a wide range of special capabilities and attributes that can contribute to much more than counterterrorism. In my experience working at the joint level, I would love to see special operations recognized as a joint war fighting function(not just war fighting, but our vocabulary is limited by our doctrine) for the purpose of ensuring SOF is better integrated in joint plans from the start. That requires non-SOF planners to be educated on what SOF can and can't do, and the various ways they can be employed to achieve, or contribute to achieving national security objectives throughout all phases: peace, conflict, and war. At the same time we shouldn't shy away from saying a mission isn't appropriate for SOF.

This appears to be the purpose of identifying SOF as a core competency in this article. "First, it will serve to ensure that special operations
activities and capabilities are further integrated and codified in Army doctrine, professional military education, combat training center exercises and war games."

I agree that SOF does wide area security and combined arms maneuver, but we also do much more that isn't captured well. I used to be one of those guys at the team level frustrated with why we weren't being employed more effectively in accordance with our capabilities. It is more apparent now that I'm at the joint level where I witness daily the general lack of knowledge among joint planners on how to employ SOF. This results in SOF being an afterthought all too often, when they should often be the first ones in shaping the environment for the joint force. In some cases they can mitigate the requirement for joint force to deploy.

Outlaw 09

Mon, 05/26/2014 - 2:57pm

In reply to by Move Forward

MF---why does it appear that regular Army has such a hard time in accepting SF---by the way the MC just jumped into the game during Iraq with what really is Force Recon renamed MARSOC---and the AF SOF has been around since VN so nothing new there and the Seals have been around a really long time as have the Rangers again both from VN days.

I have seen big Army have a really hard time with SOF especially US Army SF since VN days and the days after VN when big Army attempted to destroy US Army SF.

MF--at say the height of VN which was 1969/1970 US Army SF numbered in country no more that 3500 personnel and was running a causality rate of over 50% killed or wounded and the 5th SFGA was and still is the highest decorated Army unit-- personnel wise.

What is far more important---through the CIDG program whih is now the VSO/ALP program SF had under arms and was leading a total of over 80 BNs of CIDG personnel on intel collection raids/operations and disruption ops across the entire SVN.

Supporting the CIDG program were the Corp Mobile Strike Forces and the National Strike Forces which totaled 4 REGTs many of which were Ranger trained and Airborne trained.

MF--here is the key event---SF transitioned all CIDG and Mobile Strike Teams to formal SVN regular Ranger BNs control.

In addition there were a number of Special Projects ranging from Delta, to the Roadrunner, to Hatchet Teams to the USAMACV Studies and Observation Groups (MACV-SOG) which provided by 1970 over 90% of ALL "hard intel" to the Force.

By the way a large number of MIA from VN were SOG personnel.

This did not include the SF PsyWar BNs which conducted some of the most effective Line Crosser ops never seen again since VN.

SF provided together with the three letter guys team advisors to the RF/PF Regional Forces and SVN National Police.

And it does not include the USAF SF guys who flew the small FAC aircraft for the SF/SOG Teams and the USAF C130 Specter and Skyhook teams that provided major cross border support to the special projects and SF CIDG camps.

Yes you are right SF can in fact conduct regular Army missions (CAM/WAS)actually sometimes more effectively and have done so in the past and can do so in the future.

MF---my question--- just why does the Army have heartburn when some say GPF cannot do the above work because they cannot because they are not trained for it nor have the mentality for it---it simply is not part and parcel of their past and current culture.

Maybe regular Army should study their own current culture first before even getting into a SOF debate.

Move Forward

Mon, 05/26/2014 - 12:13pm

Why can't SF/SOF conduct combined arms maneuver and wide area security? Actions in "Lions of Kandahar" and another book about the assault on Shok Valley, Operation Red Wings, the reinforcement actions during latter stages of Operation Strong Eagle, other night raids, and the raid on Osama bin Laden using Army special ops helicopters all sound like variations of combined arms maneuver. Village Stability Operations/Afghan Local Police sounds like wide area security for isolated areas not requiring a fulltime larger national ANSF presence.

SF/SOF performs all the warfighting functions just like other combat arms branches. What is so unique about SF/SOF to justify a core competency? Other services also have SF/SOF so why is it just an Army core competency? Marines also perform combined arms maneuver and wide area security.