Small Wars Journal

Lines Blurring Between Special Ops, Conventional Forces, Mattis Says

Lines Blurring Between Special Ops, Conventional Forces, Mattis Says

Jim Garamone - DoD News

There is a blurring line that separates conventional operating forces from special operations forces and the defense secretary expects general purpose forces will eventually shoulder missions once the province of their special forces brethren.

Defense Secretary James N. Mattis told Pentagon reporters today that the experiences of war since 9/11 have blurred the lines.

This change will not be enshrined in strategy, he said, but will come about as a result of policy and the growth of general purpose forces’ capabilities.

Growth of General Purpose Force Capabilities

Mattis said he expects more general purpose forces to take on missions in Iraq and Syria. “In the Trans-Sahel [region of Africa], many of the force supporting the French effort are general purpose forces,” the secretary said.

If a mission comes up, the secretary said he’ll determine the parameters of it and pass that to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The chairman will then determine what forces take on that mission. They may be special operations forces or general purpose forces with unique capabilities.

U.S. Military Evolves Through War Experiences

This is an evolution of the U.S. military spurred by the lessons of war, the secretary said.

Mattis said he does not want a force that is dominant in yesterday’s challenges, but irrelevant in today’s. The general purpose force, he added, is going to have to have the capabilities that were once associated only with special operations forces.

The secretary gave the example of remotely piloted vehicles. In 2001, he said, the only people who ran drones were special operations forces.

In 2007, an Army captain on one street was looking at a feed from a drone overhead with strike capabilities from the Navy and Army standing by, the secretary said. In the meantime, a “CIA guy was in his headquarters talking with one of his agents in an Army brigade,” Mattis said. “That is not what an Army brigade did in Desert Storm or the Fulda Gap [in what was then West Germany]. The change happened because war initiated those changes. Those are now common capabilities.”


From our article above:


"Mattis said he expects more general purpose forces to take on missions in Iraq and Syria. “In the Trans-Sahel [region of Africa], many of the force supporting the French effort are general purpose forces,” the secretary said.


If one considers -- that the primary problem facing the U.S./the West today -- is that certain of our opponents are employing a strategy of "political attrition" against us.

(Thus, not a strategy designed to gradually erode the combat power of our armed forces but, rather, a strategy designed to gradually erode our will to pursue our -- expansionary -- "limited" wars/our such "wars of choice;" this, at the expense of other, possibly much more important requirements for our nation. Such a choice/such a trade-off not being present in a -- non-expansionary -- "total" war/a "war for survival?")

Then one comes to understand the effort being made by the U.S./the West today relates primarily to:

a. Finding how to pursue one's -- expansionary -- "limited" wars/one's such "wars of choice;" this,

b. In some exceptionally cheap and economical way.

(The goal here being to use so few resources -- in the prosecution of these such "limited" wars/these such "wars of choice" -- that we can [a] continue to use "guns" to pursue "butter" and yet [b] avoid the "political attrition" trap addressed above.)

It is as to this requirement (a cheaper way to wage our "limited" wars/our "wars of choice"; this, so as to continue to be able to use "guns" to pursue "butter" and yet avoid the "political attrition" trap) that, I believe, has brought our use of special operations forces to the fore.

If, however, due to the insufficiency of our special operations forces for these purposes, we now must, AGAIN, apply our general purpose forces to our such efforts, then have we not fallen BACK into the "political attrition" trap?

Herein, asking the U.S./Western populations -- and the politicians representing same -- to sacrifice "butter" for "guns?" This, in a situation wherein neither the "threat," nor the projected gain from such expansionary efforts, warrant such a diversion of exceptionally limited and finite resources?

(Note: I have obviously taken an "imperial" view of this situation, much as Andrew Mack seems to have done in his, much consulted by me here, "Why Big Nations Lose Small Wars: The Politics of Asymmetrical Conflict."… Herein, Mack seeming to suggest, much like C.E. Callwell before him, that "small wars" -- between Big Nations and Smaller Entities -- these can generally only be understood in "imperial," "limited" and, thus, "wars of choice" terms?…)

Robert C. Jones

Wed, 01/03/2018 - 3:51pm

"Operations requiring unique modes of employment, tactical techniques, equipment and training, often conducted in hostile, denied, or politically sensitive environments and characterized by one or more of the following: time sensitive, clandestine, low visibility, conducted with and/or through indigenous forces, requiring regional expertise, and/or a high degree of risk." JP3-05

The definition of what makes a "Special Operation" is as good as any definition in joint doctrine. Better than most.

So, by definition, three things should be clear: Conventional Forces are misused when asked to conduct a special operation, and most operations conducted by SOF are not special operations. But Special Operations Units and personnel are supposed to be able to conduct special operations when tasked.

None of the SOF core missions are inherently "special operations."

In general, could what we are talking about here be best understood in terms of irregular warfare, for example, as follows:


CHAPTER ONE Introduction:


... The ancient Sun Tzu is more relevant today; although battles should be won, “winning 100 victories in 100 battles is not the acme of skill; defeating the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.” There is more than one way to compel an enemy. ...



1-19. JP 1-02 defines IW as “a violent struggle among state and nonstate actors for legitimacy and influence over the relevant populations. IW favors indirect and asymmetric approaches, though it may employ the full range of military and other capacities in order to erode an adversary’s power, influence, and will.” IW is inherently a protracted conflict that will test the resolve of the United States and its partners. Adversaries will pursue IW strategies, employing a hybrid of irregular, disruptive, traditional, and catastrophic capabilities to undermine and erode the influence and will of the United States and its strategic partners. Meeting these challenges and combating this approach will require the concerted efforts of all instruments of U.S. national power.
1-20. IW is about people, not platforms. IW does not depend on military prowess alone. It also relies on the understanding of such social dynamics as tribal politics, social networks, religious influences, and cultural mores. Although IW is a violent struggle, not all participating irregulars or irregular forces are necessarily armed. People, more so than weaponry, platforms, and advanced technology, will be the key to success in IW. Successful IW relies on building relationships and partnerships at the local level. It takes patient, persistent, and culturally savvy people within the joint force to execute IW.
1-21. Waging protracted IW depends on building global capability and capacity. IW will not be won by the United States alone but rather through combined efforts with multinational partners. Combined IW will require the joint force to establish a long-term sustained presence in numerous countries to build partner capability and capacity. This capability and capacity extends U.S. operational reach, multiplies forces available, and provides increased options for defeating adversaries. The constituent activities of IW are:

- Insurgency.
- UW.
- Terrorism.
- CT.
- FID.
- Stability, security, transition, and reconstruction (SSTR) operations.
- Strategic communication (SC).
- Civil-military operations (CMO).
- Information operations (IO).
- Intelligence and counterintelligence (CI) activities.
- Transnational criminal activities, including narco-trafficking, illicit arms dealing, and illegal financial transactions that support or sustain IW.
- Law enforcement activities focused on countering irregular adversaries.
1-22. The above list of operations and activities can be conducted within IW; however, they are not new and most are addressed in current joint and Service doctrine. What is new is their application within the IW conceptual construct. The list of activities considered together is also useful in characterizing how IW is distinct from conventional warfare and its emphasis on major combat operations (MCO). Particularly noteworthy is that UW (including support for insurgencies), CT, FID, PSYOP, and CMO/CAO are ARSOF core tasks; thus, ARSOF are well-suited to be major practitioners of IW.



SOF Imperatives and SOF Truths are as applicable to GPF now as they are to SOF.

Where and who are Army Special Forces' Bank, McClure, Volckmann, Yarborough...?

Bill M.

Mon, 01/08/2018 - 4:34pm

In reply to by J Harlan

Certainly disappointing to hear about the Bn Cdr's comments. Once upon a time I used to say we have our 10% of underperformers, but with the rapid growth of SF, it is probably more like 20% now. I'm not surprised by your observations of the French, I saw the same thing in parts of Africa. I have never witnessed Turkish capacity building efforts, but your report if favorable. Maybe instead of staring at our belly buttons to identify best practices for security force assistance, we should widen our aperture and examine the best practices of our partners. Arrogance tends to limit progress.

J Harlan

Sun, 01/07/2018 - 4:43pm

In reply to by Bill M.

I once asked the CO of a SF bn to explain training I had seen. I didn't understand why the final shooting event for his Afghans consisted of three troops firing on a single paper target simultaneously at 25 m. He said my confusion was caused by presuming that he was supposed to provide "good training". I've seen nothing to indicate he was having me on. All US gov efforts I've seen (except a CIA one) appear to be aimed at "good enough not good".

The best military efforts I've observed were Turkish and French. The French example was telling as it was simultaneous with a USSF effort on the same base. It was night and day from a training, discipline, cultural relations, performance and morale point of view. The French were vastly superior. The French unit core was mountain artillery. Maybe my sample size is too small but I've seen nothing to indicate that being "special" automatically makes one a better trainer of foreign troops.

Bill M.

Sat, 01/06/2018 - 6:12pm

In reply to by J Harlan


I have repeatedly stated we have a quality advantage in Iraq and Afghanistan because we train hand selected soldiers for the most part, which results in units that develop a culture of excellence. The conventional forces didn't enjoy that advantage. However, US Special Forces has a long history of training partner nation conventional forces and other security forces, and they tend to do this better than U.S. conventional forces based on: a long history of doing so, having a culture that embraces working with partners, capacity building patience, and a willingness to establish bonds with their counterparts. Can conventional forces do the same? Of course, if you hand pick the right people from the conventional forces to do it. I have seen too many conventional force failures due to assigning kids to this mission that don't have the aptitude for it. For example, junior NCOs calling their counterparts stupid because they don't speak English. Officers getting frustrated because their counterparts don't mimic the U.S. way of doing things (failure to adapt), etc. This is not an attack on all conventional force capacity building efforts, there have been great successes dating back to WWII through the Vietnam War. I'm struggling to find success stories in Iraq and Afghanistan, but I'm sure there are successes. Regarding the big picture, FID is not only a Joint Force mission, but also select interagency partners, especially the State Department. Often these other agencies are the decisive effort in FID. If a GCC defaults to SOF to manage FID, then the GCC doesn't understand FID.

I strongly concur with your point about CS and CSS, and SOF doesn't do this well. Fortunately, DoD is undergoing significant Security Force Assistance (SFA) process reform that is long overdue, and there is a recognition of the need, and now a mandate to focus on Defense Institution Building, which ultimately results in building capacity that the partner nation can and will sustain with its own institutions.

I strongly disagree with your next point, SOF frequently teaches skills to indigenous personnel that are beyond the skill sets in the USMC or Army rifle platoons. Rifle platoons don't train for hostage rescue as one example. Additionally, in the unconventional warfare realm, we may train indigenous non-military personnel in subversion and sabotage skills that rifle platoons do not have. Kids joining the infantry for three years do not, and should not, come close to learning the wide range of skills that are resident in SOF. However, infantry platoons, companies, and battalions can create effects on the battle field that SOF can't. We all have our roles to play.

J Harlan

Fri, 01/05/2018 - 9:23pm

In reply to by Bill M.

If you have SOF train units the locals have handpicked as their SOF the surprise would be if they were not better than run of the mill local units. That dosn't mean US SOF are that much better than conventional units as FID.
If you get the 1st through 8th picks in the draft every year you'll look good whatever you do.

Whether this desire to form it's own SOF leads local armies to suffer from "selection-destruction" cycle is another question. Why you'd want a potentially good squad leader to be employed as a SAW gunner in a SOF unit isn't clear,

In the big picture FID should be a conventional army task with little SOF involvement. You should be building armies not rifle platoons. It's the CS and CSS that make an army more than a bunch of armed bands. The idea that SOF can teach skills to locals that are unknown or above conventional forces is absurd. Something is very wrong if an A Team is successfully passing on skills beyond a USMC rifle platoon.


Wed, 01/03/2018 - 6:49am

In reply to by Bill M.

Bill M,

Agree that many SOF missions are not SOF-only ones, and conventional forces have a role to play. I think a great example of that is the village stability program whereby regular infantry platoons augmented (thickened?) ODAs at VSO platforms. In fact, I think that may be a concept worth continuing.

Also agree that conventional forces (general purpose forces, or GPF) have had mixed results regarding FID/ SFA. That said, it was my observation that SOF/ SF success in that area had as much to do with the amounts of money (and assets/toys) available to them as it did with the training/ experience of the advisors. If a ETT/ MTT out of FT Riley had the kind of money, equipment, and air support that an ODA in Afghanistan / Iraq had, that might increase their success rate a bit.

Would it make sense to put more GPF against missions like direct action & hostage rescue (those of limited duration) and have SOF focus more of FID, CT, UW, SR, etc...missions that involve a longer timeframe & more nuanced methods (like whole-of-gov't approach) for achieving objectives...?

Bill M.

Wed, 01/03/2018 - 3:39am

In reply to by Morgan


If you read the applicable Title 10 section (10 U.S.C.&167), it states, "For purposes of this section, special operations activities include each of the following insofar as it relates to special operations."

The point is many SOF core activities, like FID for example, are not simply a SOF mission. Conventional forces has always participated in FID and other activities listed.

Unfortunately, the conventional force record for training partner forces is mixed. Part of the reason that many of the troops they trained have been ineffective, is the quality of the recruits they receive to begin with. However, if SOF trained them I could almost guarantee you the outcome would be better.

Why is it that Iraqi SOF and Afghan Commandos are carrying the brunt of the fight in those countries today? Before we simply start employing conventional forces to conduct this mission, we should examine why SOF has been so much more effective in this mission area. Then honestly determine if young soldiers and Marines can truly replicate this success, without themselves becoming immersed in our SOF culture that in my view makes the all the difference in the outcomes of the training.

You suggest only using SOF in locations that are politically sensitive, but in my experience most areas where the U.S. military conducts COIN, CT, and FID are politically sensitive. As for the Marines adapting, all things are possible, but assuming that select Marines (other than Raiders who are SOF) could be hand picked to serve as advisors, what will the impact be on our most junior service? The argument in the past is that the Marines are a young force, and pulling their NCOs away from USMC combat units to support training missions would have a detrimental impact on mission readiness.

I would like to see conventional forces take on more of these missions, and for SOF to downsize slightly, but I don't think this will prove to a realistic way forward. It can become one if they conduct left seat, right seat rides for extended periods, but if they simply replace SOF some critical elements that equate to relative success will be lost.

USSOCOM lists 12 core activities ( that they execute. If Mr. Mattis is correct (and I believe he is), and conventional forces continue to take on more missions/ activities that once fell exclusively under SOF, then should we look at reducing not only the number of SOF we have as well as their core activities (activities to be refined & laser-focused on only those that must be conducted in politically sensitive environments)? Would this also translate into a eventual reduction in conventional forces as well in favor of increasing & refining their capabilities through increased use of artificial intelligence/ drone systems & expanded joint training?

FWIW, I would look at reorganizing the Marine Corps into a smaller but more SOF-oriented force. The Marines are forward-deployed everywhere & can quickly respond, have their own ground, air, & sea elements (with much help from the Navy), Marine elements already task organize as “special operations capable” so expanding & enhancing those capabilities shouldn’t be too difficult; MARSOC has established the “Raider” units which have missions similar to US Army Special Forces and Navy SEALs (just make them “Marine SEALs”)…in short, the Marines seem tailor-made for reorganization into a more streamlined (but still sizeable) conventional force that can rapidly adapt to take on more SOF-like activities.