Small Wars Journal

Sending Special Operations Forces into the Great-Power Competition

Sun, 08/02/2020 - 5:53pm

Sending Special Operations Forces into the Great-Power Competition

By Tim Nichols

What caused the strategic defeat of US efforts in Syria?  Was it the U.S. special operations forces overseeing the military effort?  Certainly not.  They routed the terrorists from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in every skirmish, they captured Raqqah as planned, and they successfully targeted key terrorist leaders.  No.  The failure to attain strategic objectives in Syria results from the immersion of special operations forces, skilled in counterterrorism, into a different type of adversarial conflict - the emerging great-power competition.  Candidly, it was Russian president Putin who derailed our strategy.  He indemnified Syrian president Assad, deployed Russian forces to increase the complexity of ground operations, and employed information operations to weaken the resolve of US and partner forces.  Through this painful example, our special operations forces received an early taste of the great-power competition.

Great-power competition reflects the recognition that emerging powers like Russia and China have strategic objectives that conflict with the those of the United States.  Mainly, the concept dismisses the false notion that nations are either in conflict or at peace.  Between those realms exist infinite possibilities for “competition” without breaching a threshold for conventional warfare.  In Syria, Putin simply decided that president Assad would remain in power and that Syria would remain a nation under Russian influence.  In the South China Sea, Chinese naval and paramilitary forces are slowly increasing their influence through militarized islands and harassment of vessels and aircraft transiting the international domain.  Complementing these efforts, the Chinese employ diplomacy and their economic prowess to increase their influence in the region.  While none of these examples appears to be particularly troubling in isolation, the combined effect translates to loss of U.S. influence, the undermining of US-backed norms (i.e. freedom of navigation in the South China Sea), and a growing campaign to erode the relationship between the United States and its regional partners.  Thus, our nation finds itself in need of new ways to compete against authoritarian states.

Great discussions have transpired about “what’s next” for the U.S. military and, more specifically, its special operations forces.   At the political level, our national security and defense strategies clearly suggest a pivot towards emerging great-power challengers.  At the operational level, our senior military commanders are stretched between dealing with contemporary challenges of terrorism, instability, and conflict while contemplating doctrinal and resource adjustments necessary to address the growing influence of competitors like Russia and China.  At the tactical level, special operations forces are preparing for their next deployments in familiar ways with familiar training.  Little has changed. 

The discussion has begun within the special operations forces about preparing for the great-power competition, but the topic remains ethereal.  Perhaps this reality exists because special operations forces hold an outsized role in the “forever wars” in which our country remains. 

To that end, the next few years will present an ideal window for special operations leaders to move the ongoing discussions of great-power competition into a clearer reality. They should recognize and adapt to the strategic shift that is underway.  The production of counterterrorism capability, a mainstay of the special operations community for nearly two decades, requires re-evaluation and reduction.  Indeed, a candid analysis of the emerging great-power challenges calls for a more stratified, less homogeneous special operations force.  Future forces should offer a broader array of special capabilities to be employed against authoritarian state adversaries.

Understandably, resources will have to be adjusted, roles and missions will have to be recalibrated, and, most importantly, the training and preparation for future deployments should necessarily change.  To nudge the discussion out of the ether, I offer four foundational ideas that may benchmark the transition.  Afterwards, I offer suggestions as to how special operations capabilities can contribute to great-power competition as well as some of the actions necessary for transition.

Preparing Special Operations Forces for Big Changes

The jump from counterinsurgency/counterterrorism to great-power competition should not be viewed as a modest alteration of current focus; instead, it denotes a rupture.  To remain relevant, dormant special operations capabilities need revitalization, new capabilities await, and doctrinal adjustments should be considered.  Here are the first adjustments:

First, special operations forces should relinquish “thought leadership” in the great-power competition.  During two decades of counterterrorism, special operations guided the nation’s response to 9/11, employed the resources, and delivered tactical results.  Clearly, the Global War on Terror was anchored on kinetic action, and special operators spearheaded these efforts.  Additionally, they championed intelligence fusion, a counterterrorist targeting cycle, interagency task forces, partner-force operations, and precision tactical strike capabilities.  Diplomatic and economic efforts were deprioritized in favor of aggressive tactical action; the proof lies in the budget and the exploding size of the U.S. Special Operations Command.  On 9/11, special operations forces number approximately 33,000; today they number well over 70,000.  Additionally, over the last few years, the special operations budget has steadily increased by over a billion dollars per year.  The nation relied on special operations forces to lead the way.  Progress was measured in body counts, the capture/kill of high value targets, and the capture of terrain. These measurable results became veritable catnip to senior officers and politicians, and special operations forces delivered them daily.  Tactics became strategy, and senior political and military leaders were content with such an approach.  It is not within the scope of this essay to deconstruct the flaws in this approach, but the primacy of special operations during this era is inarguable.

That cannot be the case for the great-power competition because military action is, at best, a peripheral aspect in posturing against near peer challengers.  This, in fact, will be the hardest paradigmatic adjustment to make.  In great-power competition, special operations forces should not have a central role in strategic design.  Instead, the U.S. leaders will ultimately look to models of diplomacy (alliance building, soft power, and economic security), deterrence (nuclear forces, global posturing, and conventional alliances), and influence (covert action and strategic communications) to seek advantage and protect vulnerabilities against nation state challengers.  There will be many opportunities for peripheral contributions to these emerging challenges, but special operations forces will certainly and appropriately find themselves relegated to a supporting role.  Admitting this will be a hard pill for military leaders to swallow, but the prognosis and remedy are clear. 

Next, special operations leaders ought to openly and publicly acknowledge the end of “unipolar military doctrine.”   After the collapse of the Soviet Union, US military doctrine--anchored on the assurances of air, ground, and maritime superiority—framed the use of military force in future conflicts in a linear, phased manner.  Conflicts would begin with activities like “shaping operations” and end with “stabilization operations” and, ideally, the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces.  Essentially, the “go, win, return” doctrine that derived from and was indemnified by the U.S.’s period of unmatched primacy has concluded.  Great-power competition offers more opportunities for struggle with fewer opportunities for decisive endings; it presents challenges that defy the aforementioned model because our competitors actively seek opportunities to alter the status quo in their favor.  Importantly, challenges of this nature rarely end with a winner and loser; instead, they are more likely to manifest in the increase or decrease of U.S. influence.  So, special operations forces, in their training and in their organizational culture, should embrace and adopt the “competition” mindset.  To the credit of the Joint Staff, their recent publication, Competition Continuum (Joint Doctrine Note 1-19, June 2019) succinctly conveys the necessity for this change.  This concept deserves to be a central tenet in the conversion of the special operations formation for the great-power competition.

Third, special operations leaders should abandon the ill-defined and problematic idea of special operations forces as a deterrent capability.  This concept belies a misunderstanding of deterrence theory and a misunderstanding of key tenets of special operations employment.  Terms like “unorthodox deterrence” convey flawed operational concepts that are both a distraction and likely to fail, if tested.  Deterrence is most effective when the target understands the exact consequence of a desired behavior, is able to weigh the consequence against the desired outcome and chooses whether to act based on a rational understanding of perceived cost/benefit.  Special operations efforts to conceal operations, to achieve moments of relative superiority through surprise, and to enjoy compounded impacts relative to the size of the force are important qualities, but they are not suitable qualities for deterrence.  Instead, special operations leaders should embrace the punitive capability and the intentional uncertainty associated with special operations as they reflect an important offering in the great-power competition, but they should not be construed, taught, or trained as deterrence.

Finally, leaders should drive to aggressively address the most palpable and disconcerting impacts on their formation resulting from two decades of land-based counterterrorism efforts: capability overlap, excess capacity, and the establishment of intractable, counterproductive micro-economies that inhibit change.  Candidly, leaders at the policy and flag officer level should expect to encounter heavy resistance to these changes.

Had the global war on terrorism lasted only two years, leaders would have witnessed a reversion to pre-9/11 unit-specific capabilities at the conflict’s conclusion.  Instead, special operations forces writ large have formally and informally adopted counterterrorism roles beyond their doctrinal missions and distant from their unique offerings, and these roles have solidified through tailored funding and years of repetition.  Additionally, special operations units have permanently added peripheral capabilities (intelligence, communications, mobility, support, etc.) in a permanent fashion to reduce reliance on adjacent or external units.  As the aforementioned “thought leaders” in the counterterror wars, special operations forces levied requests for growth in people, resources, and capabilities and enjoyed unmatched approval.  This inclination will prove costly at the tactical level as leaders may find it increasingly difficult to just “manage” their unwieldy conglomerates—ultimately dulling the blade they hoped to sharpen. 

Does this expansion and consequential overlap of capabilities make every special operator good at everything?  Unlikely!  Well, units designed for unilateral operations are conducting partner operations.  Units designed for partner operations are doing unilateral operations.  Navy SEALs have de-emphasized maritime operations in favor of frequent land-based deployments.  Recent research highlights a deep-seated identity crisis in the Green Berets over what their mission is and should be.  Ultimately, the generation of excess capacity in one mission area creates shortfalls in others.  Acknowledging the time and resources needed to make a special operations professional, renewed efforts to recruit, select, and train individuals for a broader array of mission areas should begin immediately.  The great-power competition requires this adjustment.

An excess of special operations capability in certain mission areas notably creates ambiguity as to “who” should do “what.”  The recent SOCOM Comprehensive Review observed that “leaders developed within training and deployment environments focused solely on [counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and direct action] core activities – more specifically, unilateral and foreign partnered raids and execution of the find, fix, finish, exploit, and analyze (F3EA) targeting cycle.”  The negative result of creating excess capacity in this narrow mission area was “perpetuating a force structure that focuses on [counterinsurgency and counterterrorism] while not developing special operations forces and special operations forces leaders for the full spectrum of special operations forces core activities and component specific skills and capabilities.”  With great-power competition emerging as a looming challenge, the excess capacity of special operations forces in the wrong mission areas demands leadership attention.  While there are a number of important albeit overly gentle recommendations in the Comprehensive Review, decisive change and the realignment of capabilities remain distant concepts.  Chad Pillai offered similar suggestions in a previous article on the transition of  special operations forces—emphasizing the need for rigorous prioritization.

The capabilities overlap and excess capability create another impediment to rapid transition to the coming great-power competition.  Namely, twenty years of generous funding established a vast array of counter-terrorist-focused micro-economies that now depend on the status quo for perpetuation.  Contracts abound, new buildings and training areas have been completed, and the size of the special operations forces supporting establishment (civil service and contractors) has blossomed.  At its essence this reflects Eisenhower’s concerns of a “military industrial complex,” just localized in the special operations formation.  To realistically change the direction of special operations forces and prepare them for great-power competition, the journey begins with the micro-economies.  Bureaucracies exists to perpetuate the status quo (capability overlap and excess capacity), and change foreshadows economic and structural disruption.  Senior leaders should understand and acknowledge that overinvestment in counterterrorist capability is a sunk cost.  Subsequently, they should acquiesce to the removal of training, deployments, and equipment that perpetuate these overages. 

The New Special Operations Menu - in Clear Language

As discussions ensue as to the role of special operations in the great-power competition, it would seem appropriate to boil down likely contributions into simple, clear statements that policymakers and appropriators can comprehend.  There are generally four main themes that characterize such contributions: getting information, working with others, crisis response, and the strategic raid. 

Getting Information

If we acknowledge that the great-power competition will involve a continuous struggle between competent, nation-state adversaries—manifesting in distinctly fluid results, then the requirement for streams of information flowing from the “contact layer” to the policy maker will profoundly increase.  Special operators can aid policymakers in better understanding the environment in competition areas so that they, the national leaders, can more accurately evaluate policy options.  Peripheral observations like the attitudes of foreign forces or the decrease in local favor towards the government complement other collection efforts being managed by the Intelligence Community (IC).  Special operations forces gather this type of information as a byproduct of their overseas presence.  In other situations, special operators remain prepared to conduct unilateral reconnaissance against facilities, people, or events to add to the understanding of policymakers. 

Importantly, special operations leaders should embrace intelligence differently than during the predominant counterterrorist era.  Much of the collection today links to subsequent military action.  Today’s professionals discuss “targeting cycles” and “sensor-shooter optimization” as the central vein of their intelligence efforts.  The great-power competition, however, excites an appetite for intelligence that, while not actionable in the aforementioned manner, contributes crucially to understanding our adversaries.  In short, the current approach makes special operators more the consumers of intelligence they generate.  In the great-power competition, special operators will collect intelligence—either through direct tasks or through incidental, proximity-based observations—that feeds a different, strategic customer.   

This is not to say that special operations intelligence efforts should supplant the ongoing work by the Intelligence Community; instead, they will need to retool to better contribute to the strategic intelligence picture.  Observation and reporting skills are integral to the operator culture, so this adaptation shouldn’t be difficult.  The more challenging issue will be the refinement of tasking and reporting channels that better connect the requirements and outputs to the Intelligence Community.  There’s quite a bit of unharvested potential in special operations information gathering capability, and the great-power competition will require more of it albeit in a different manner.

The sprouting of intelligence commands within the special operations formation—tasked to collect, analyze, and organize targeting information for operator use—will need a critical re-evaluation as they enter the great-power competition.  The results of such an evaluation should help leaders align structure and priorities against emerging threats instead of receding counterterror priorities.  Finally, in the coming era, counterintelligence and operations security will undergird much of the information gathering efforts.  Nation-state adversaries have repeatedly demonstrated their effectiveness in penetrating and reporting on US activities overseas, and special operators, like the Intelligence Community, should redouble efforts to contend with this extant threat.

Working with Others

The available lexicon describing US forces working with foreign state and non-state entities continues to grow.  Such phrases as “advise and assist” or “by, with, and through” or “building partner capacity” validate a continuing need for US military forces to interact with foreign military elements in pursuit of US interests.  At the highest level, we enjoy alliances.  Special operations forces train with professional, government forces from allied nations; they share lessons and innovation; and they stand ready to join them in combat if the alliance is threatened.  After two decades of fighting next to one another in various coalitions, these relationships are strong and resilient.  In the great-power competition, competent, proven special operations elements from allied nations will form the foundation for any other type of military operation.  Clearly this an area for additional investment.

Coalition relationships are built on a narrower footing.  The special operations coalitions in Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrate innate complexity due to the profound disparities in capabilities, authorities, and the specific national interests undergirding each participant.  While a series of efforts to “right size” various elements is underway, this conceptual construct will likely transfer into the great-power competition.  The struggle for influence in partner and non-allied nations will form a vital component of competition, so special operations forces should pursue additional capabilities in this subset of working with partner nations.  Efforts will need to be more efficient (in terms of cost and manpower) and do a better job at remaining aligned to the intended US political objectives because the relationship is, by nature, temporal. 

Finally, select special operations elements may connect with non-state and irregular forces.  There are numerous examples (Northern Alliance, Syrian Democratic Forces) where special operators entered into partnerships when the interests of the US and the non-state entity were aligned.  As Jeff Goodson argues, this function is also likely to carry over into the great-power competition, and the United States will need special operators to spearhead such efforts.  Despite the propensity for the US to lean toward this manner of partnership, it is, by nature, transactional.  In that light, special operations forces will need additional training and skills to carefully work with non-state partners and adhere to the 2018 NDAA definition of “activities in support of predetermined United States policy and military objectives conducted by, with, and through regular forces, irregular forces, groups, and individuals participating in competition between state and non-state actors short of traditional armed conflict.”  To assist non-aligned, non-state, or irregular forces that are engaged in a competition—a competition that aligns with US interests—will require a redoubled training regimen for our special operations professionals. As the US competes for influence in the great-power competition, this specific capability may entail their greatest and most used contribution.

Crisis Response

International crises will continue to challenge U.S. interests during the era of great-power competition.  During the forever wars, crisis response revolved around counterterrorist targets, emergent threats, or fleeting opportunities to advance US interests.  Fortunately, special operations culture reinforces the characteristics necessary in crisis response scenarios: empowered individuals, flattened decision-making structures, truncated response times, strategic mobility, and mature tactical skills.  While not all special operations units should bear a crisis response mandate, those that do should continue to refine and improve their ability to respond quickly into uncertain situations in order to promote US political objectives through the employment of military capabilities.  Crisis response will remain a national mainstay in the future, and leaders will need to update and resource relevant capabilities.

The Strategic Raid

In 2012, Secretary of Defense Panetta openly confronted the threat of Anti-Access/Area Denial efforts posed by emerging great-power challengers.  Accordingly, he directed the military to “invest as required to ensure its ability to operate effectively in anti-access and area denial environments.”  While Anti-Access/Area Denial presents challenges for all elements of the military, there is a particularly important role for special operations forces: the strategic raid.  Unlike crisis response, the strategic raid involves a deliberate, planned effort to access a target, conduct a tactical military action against the target, and then depart.  Such raids may include high-risk infiltration (Son Tay 1970, Iran Hostage Rescue 1980, Abbottabad 2011), a moment of relative military superiority amidst a much larger opposition, and a planned withdrawal.  While not all special operations units should bear the responsibility for strategic raids, and while the strategic raid, due to issues of political risk, will likely occur less frequently in the coming era, the capability should reside within the special operations formation.  The great-power competition will introduce new challenges in the areas of counterintelligence, cyber detection, and layered defense, so the evolution of strategic raid forces in the Anti-Access/Area Denial environment will require substantial resource and training investments.

Those opposing this simple prescription for sending special operations forces into the great-power competition argue that there are vastly more offerings for policy makers and that current capabilities are so advanced that they remain central to the awaiting challenges.  This perspective reflects where special operations is today rather than where they should be for tomorrow. Today, they are optimized for the rotational counterterrorism fight.  Today, the formation is replete with individuals selected, assessed, habituated, and trained for the forever wars.  Tomorrow will require enhanced and distinct selection pathways, right-sizing to omit excess capacity, reinforcement of and resourcing for doctrinal mission sets, the reduction of mission overlap, and vastly different training protocols.

Looking Ahead

While US counterterror efforts in the forever wars are demonstrably ebbing, they have not stopped.  Integral to the aforementioned transition lies the acknowledgement that some portion of special operations should not transition and instead continue to manage the counterterror effort.  Terror networks will need to be detected and countered.   Partners will require continued assistance, and threatened Americans require vigilant, responsive protection.  Suppression of the terrorism blight can be accomplished with shrinking numbers, efficiencies can be realized, and ever more units can be pulled from counterterrorist rotations.  The special operations mindset of “everyone gets a counterterrorism combat tour” can come to a halt, and elements can begin to revitalize core competencies for the aforementioned great-power challenges.  Additionally, the right-sized special operations contribution to the counterterror effort--aligning tactical efforts to reasonable, achievable political outcomes—enables the rest of the US government to transition more quickly.  Moving from discussion to action requires special operations leaders to acknowledge the misalignment, the structural pitfalls, and the disparities between counterterrorist capacity and great-power competition capacity.  Our nation faces emerging challenges of a different ilk, and our special operators should prepare to meet them.

About the Author(s)

Tim Nichols is a Visiting Professor of the Practice and the Executive Director of the Counterterrorism and Public Policy Fellowship Program in the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University.  His research and teaching interests include: intelligence policy, counterterrorism policy, great-power competition, and the US national security apparatus.



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