Small Wars Journal

A Precarious Balance: Preserving the Right Mix of Conventional and Special Operations Forces

Mon, 09/15/2014 - 7:30am

A Precarious Balance: Preserving the Right Mix of Conventional and Special Operations Forces by Phillip Lohaus, American Enterprise Institute Policy Study

American special operations forces (SOF) are in the midst of a golden age. From references in pop culture to commendations from the White House, praise for America's quiet professionals has become anything but quiet.

Such adoration is well-deserved, but underlying SOF's newfound popularity, questions remain as to how they should be employed in the future. When should they lead conventional forces, and when should they act in a supporting role? How might we apply the counterinsurgency lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan to a conventional conflict? Above all, should SOF retain all of their current responsibilities, or should the tip of the metaphorical spear be sharpened to allow SOF to focus on the tactics and techniques that only they can bring to the battlefield?

Many crises are best addressed with the innovation and discreetness of SOF, but others require the mass that only conventional forces bring to bear. More often than not, successful military campaigns involve some mixture of both conventional and special operations forces, but tensions between the two have impeded successful cooperation in the past…

Read on.


I very much like COL Jones characterization (bottom of the page) of the current era as "this age of self-determination."

Standing against this, however, is our enduring determination to cause other states, societies and populations to order, organize and orient their lives more along modern western lines only. This specific ordering, etc., being considered necessary so that our business and other enterprises might achieve optimal access to, and optimal utilization of, the human and other resources contained within these outlying states and societies. It is to this specific end (achieving optimal access to and utilization of the human and other resources within these outlying states and societies) that our foreign policy is directed.

Thus, our foreign policy is not directed toward achieving "peace" but, rather, "transformation."

Instability today -- as it was in the past -- being seen as simply the "cost" of doing this transformation business.

(The "self-determination" folks, for their part, working hard to convince us that the cost of doing this transformation business is much greater than we are actually willing -- or able -- to bear.)

The proper mix of conventional and special operations forces, accordingly, to be determined within this "clash" paradigm -- between (1) the self-determination folks and (2) we "must westernize" folks?

Robert C. Jones

Tue, 09/16/2014 - 11:50am

In reply to by Wolverine57


I think it is much more about our need to understand problems better for what they are, rather than what we want them to be, or as problematic, to think of them in terms convenient to the solution set we wish to employ.

There is no question, that when one needs a hammer, one better have a hammer. Equally, when one needs a watchmaker's screwdriver, one better have one as well. And know how to employ each, either alone or in concert. We do not want to have enter the next conflict with the wrong mix of tools simply because some were used more than others in the last conflict.

But we do love our hammers in the US military. Big conventional hammers, and small SOF hammers. We banged away at Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan with the enthusiastic abandon of a demolition crew. All three would have probably been better addressed if we had approached them like a watchmaker, seeking to understand the problem and fine-tune a watch that is not keeping good time.

Like Clausewitz said - one needs to know what kind of war they are in (and when it may not actually be a war at all, at least not for us as an intervening party).


Mon, 09/15/2014 - 10:36pm

The Constitution: "Provide for the Common Defense". The oath we take is to uphold and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic.
I believe this is ultimately the realm of conventional forces with nukes in defense of the country. Get real. The use of Special Operations Forces needs then to be secondary to the conventional. Special Operations Forces do not fare well against Tanks, Infantry, Artillery, Attack Helicopters, and massed combined arms forces. Special Operations Forces do no fare well against Air Forces, missiles, and Naval Gunfire. I was on two A Teams in Vietnam. We could locate VC Main Force / NVA Units. It took more firepower than we had to eliminate them. Or, we were the instrument directing that conventional firepower.

Bill C.

Tue, 09/16/2014 - 1:10pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

Moved to the top of the page.

Robert C. Jones

Mon, 09/15/2014 - 12:40pm

I always wonder about the intent/purpose of articles such as this. I mean, what is the actual problem the author is attempting to get after?

If it is about the need to restore balance within US SOF across the ride range of unique capabilities that are resident throughout the SOF enterprise, then I agree completely. We have become weighted over the past 13 years toward a fairly narrow regional and operational area of focus.

If it is about the numerical or fiscal balance between SOF and Conventional forces, I am not sure how to address that. SOF is a fraction of the numbers/cost (for obvious reasons) of conventional forces. As we downsize the total force for peace (yes, we are, and largely have been a nation at peace for quite some time) in the emergent strategic environment, it stands to reason that aspects of the force with a larger peacetime mission will retain more personnel strength and budget than those elements of the force that are more primarily designed for warfighting. So in that rebalance, SOF will show some small % of growth in comparison to the total force.

The question we need to ask here, is what type of force to we need in this age of self-determination - when nations are challenging conditions of sovereignty forced upon them by others that they now feel relatively powerful enough to act upon, and where populations feel empowered to challenge conditions of legitimacy and sovereignty they do not agree with but have been forced to endure as well. These are dynamic times. Peace will be remain a dangerous business, and deterrence and prevention of conflict will become increasingly important and dynamic to achieve.

If the question is about the balance of the employment of the force, this is not a question for SOF at all, but rather one for Civilian policy makers and military planners/decision makers. The military goes where it is told to go, and to accomplish missions it is told to accomplish.

I suspect the larger problem is not one of the US using too much SOF in relation to conventional forces; but rather one of using too much military in relation to other elements of national power and influence to attempt to make a foreign policy increasingly out of step with the realities of the world around us to work. We need to elevate and reframe the question to ask who we are and want to be as a nation in the world as it actually exists, and how we best do that across all of the many aspects of national power.