Small Wars Journal

SOF in Competition: Establishing the Foundation of Strategy (v1.3)

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SOF in Competition: Establishing the Foundation of Strategy

Joe Miller and Monte Erfourth

The U.S. national security community has shifted its focus to deepening competition among rival actors but has struggled to drive strategic and cultural change.[1]  As a recent RAND study notes, “If the assertion that international politics is entering a new period of strategic competition has been widely accepted, there is no consensus about what this shift means” – particularly for the military. [2]   Against less capable and sophisticated adversaries, the U.S. military has compensated for lack of strategic coherence through material advantages in technology and resources.  As adversaries that are more formidable contest U.S. interests, the Department of Defense has drawn attention to the continuous and infinite competition – a shift that demands change in strategic thinking as well. 

Within current U.S. strategy, a military approach to competition begins with the 2017 National Security Strategy (NSS) and 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS), which lay out U.S. interests and expectations for the Joint Force.  The NSS encourages the broader Joint Force to “consider ways to apply the military instrument differently to enable diplomatic, information, and economic elements of power” while also maintaining its more traditional functions.[3]   On the one hand, these documents direct the Joint Force to build and sustain readiness for large-scale combat and strategic deterrence.  On the other hand, they direct the military to evolve “with the changes in the character of competition,” specifically citing the failure of the Joint Force to “keep pace with emerging threats or technologies.”[4] Adopting a compound approach – one in which conventional and unconventional forces “conduct operations that give full expression to [their] own capabilities” – may allow the Joint Force to balance these obligations, buttressing deterrence and readiness with more unorthodox military applications to compete short of armed conflict.[5]     

While the Joint Force balances current commitments with the necessity for change, USSOCOM must develop a clear understanding of how the special operations forces (SOF) enterprise evolves to meet its array of duties and contributes in competition.[6]   Strategist Colin Gray observed, “Special operations should function in ways tactically distinctive within national policy and military strategy.”[7] SOF’s unique qualities have led the Department of Defense (DoD) to place certain demands on the enterprise which include: organizing, training, and equipping forces; leading the Department’s effort in the fight against violent extremist organizations, providing national crisis response units; leading efforts to counter the spread of weapons of mass destruction; countering threat finance; and messaging and counter-messaging, have all shaped SOF’s identity in recent years and will remain an enduring priority well into the future.  The Command must master and sustain these tasks.

However, as the Command seeks to meet the Department’s obligations and expectations it must also place a like effort in adapting itself to meet tomorrow’s challenges – those driven by highly capable and focused states which seek to displace the current world order by competing without fighting. This is one of the most pressing challenges in the present moment, and for the foreseeable future. We can reasonably expect that rivals will continue to hold the United States and its allies at risk through selective military modernization, designed to defeat our very specific and linear approach to war. As they invest, they have calculated that the US will continue to invest in maintaining its hegemonic superiority while our rivals’ primary focus is pursuing their goals, competing to win short of war.  If we are not vigilant, the war might be lost before it is fought.   

As a result, the concept of competition short of armed conflict has increasingly spread through the SOF enterprise and driven discussion around three questions: 

  • What role might SOF play in competition?
  • How can competition keep us from conflict and protect and advance our interests?
  • How can we assure, in the event of conflict, the U.S. has established the necessary advantage to dominate militarily before conflict is joined? 

In short, SOF can play a complementary role that supports the Joint Force and Interagency by applying its unique capabilities in unorthodox ways to advance and protect American interests.  However, to fully answer these challenging questions, this paper proceeds from a working definition of competition to offer a clear case for SOF in competition, a strategic frame to develop theories of success for SOF applications, and a view of how SOF supports integrated campaigning in competition.  First, a case for special operations in competition draws on existing doctrine to develop a forward-looking perspective on how SOF contributes to a broader national effort.  Strategic framing helps build theories of success for SOF in competition, as well as identify implications for USSOCOM, the Joint Force, and the various SOF partners.  By developing a case for SOF, providing strategic framing, and understanding the consequences for the enterprise, USSOCOM can articulate and shape the role of SOF in competition.  


States create and maintain militaries to protect interests from threats, a reality that may lead militaries to look for threats when no threats are apparent.  When decoupled from interests, a threat-centric strategy can mischaracterize competing actors as categorical adversaries or misidentify local security challenges as threats to U.S. interests.  The U.S. has developed a threat-centric culture, focused on the development of capabilities, defined within individual warfighting cultures.  When paired with the different institutional cultures and interests of the military services, threat-centrism risks the development of capability-driven strategy rather than strategy-driven capabilities.[8]  To be successful in the future, the military must become interest-based to develop options and capabilities designed to create outcomes needed to secure U.S. interests over time.  Interest based operations ensure our actions match our objectives providing a strategic validity to our efforts, while a focus on our strategic and enduring interests ensures a commitment to durable outcomes over time. 

Recent changes in the environment and defense priorities suggest that the military must evolve its strategic thinking.  The U.S. military has allowed threats to dictate its direction in recent years, often failing to relate those threats to national interests.   “The United States is developing a reputation much like Germany had in the twentieth century of being tactically and operationally superb but strategically inept.”[9]  Particularly given the Department’s renewed focus on competition, its development of strategy must likewise adapt to orient on interests rather than threats. 

The military has often framed strategy by “ends, ways, means, and risks” since the publication of COL Arthur Lykke’s work in 1989.[10]   This approach remains a critical tool for the development of concepts and can yield success when applied against appropriate objectives.  However, within the described threat-centric culture, this model allows leaders to set targets without alignment to more strategic outcomes that advance U.S. interests.  Furthermore, this framework algebraically suggests that an increase in means directly correlates with an increase in ends – an interpretation that likely contributes to resource orientation.  Instead, the military should look to strategic framing that, by design, counters this threat-driven and resource-oriented culture.   

Framing Strategic Thinking

Founded on the idea that the U.S. can initiate and exploit a change in a complex strategic environment to create the advantage necessary to advance U.S. interests and influence, this proposed structure for strategic thinking suggests that:

  • Physical, cognitive, or virtual variables in the environment have persistent but malleable relationships – favorable, neutral, or unfavorable – with U.S. interests;[11]   
  • Through observation and the development of concepts for change, the U.S. can alter the relationships between particular variables and interests in specific environments;
  • The U.S. can apply resources to implement ideas, as well as identify and enable opportunities for collaboration with partners, to change the relationships between variables and interests; and
  • In conclusion, by applying concepts and resources against variables that relate to interests, the U.S. can change an environment to protect and promote those interests. 

This framing suggests that to achieve a more favorable environment for U.S. interests, leaders must identify variables within the current environment that present threats or opportunities to advance U.S. interests, develop concepts for change directed at these variables, and identify applications of resources towards those concepts.[12]   Three assumptions inform the key concept within this proposed framing of interest-driven change.  First, the environment is complex and continuously changing, which demands that leaders continually assess the shifting relationships among variables and U.S. interests.  Second, based on a full appreciation of that environment, leaders can develop reasonable concepts to shape change in a manner that produces more favorable conditions in the environment.  Third, in addition to change driven by systemic patterns and external actors, any interaction with the environment will provoke more change, further demanding that the application of this strategic framing support not only the initial development of strategy but also continuous evaluation and refinement.

Concepts for Change

Concepts for change address identified variables to influence more favorable conditions for interests.  Rather than orienting precisely on a threat, ideas focus on interest-oriented changes, offering a broader range of more cost- or risk-sensitive options.  When considering how to create change, leaders should explore a variety of vectors that include targeting the primary threat activity, third-party behavior, the physical, virtual, and cognitive terrain itself, and U.S. policy – any change that might address the challenge.  To develop these concepts for SOF, the enterprise must cultivate and leverage its understanding and relationships with populations, key actors, and local instruments of power.  Time also represents a critical factor in concept development, as variables change at different rates and actors often operate on different timelines than the U.S.  Consequently, concepts may seek to advance change in the present, refrain from disrupting change underway, or allow conditions to develop for future exploitation. 

Application of Resources

As the U.S. seeks to implement concepts for change, the various instruments of national power, as well as those of like-minded partners, come into play.  For SOF in particular, the application of resources includes a wide range of stakeholders available to influence change in the environment.  Internally, SOF currently conducts operations under authorities from the Secretary of Defense, with diverse competencies to affect the physical, virtual, and cognitive domains, supported by a robust Joint Force logistics and operations backbone.  Externally, SOF operates in support of other authorities across the U.S. government and boasts a robust network of foreign allies and partners, as well as surrogate forces.  While leaders may only be able to direct those forces under its operational control, they must inclusively consider who in the strategic environment may benefit from change and how these potential collaborators might go about affecting the change.  Just as the military has mastered combined and joint operations in war through supported and supporting command relationships, so too must it realize the full potential of similar complementary and coordinated relationships during competition.

Strategic Framing: A Review

This proposal for strategic framing calls attention to five essential points.  First, any concept for the application of the military instrument is based on interests and oriented to change in the environment, rather than driven by threats and adapted to seek change in resources.  Second, it emphasizes inclusivity to enable holistic strategic decisions; leaders must consider all stakeholders – both internal to the SOF enterprise and external – that have ability, interest, suitability, and position to affect the desired change.  Third, with variables in constant flux in a complex environment, it demands adaptability to ensure that new solutions fit problems, rather than challenges made to fit solutions.  Fourth, although pacing threats motivate the Joint Force to build readiness in periods of relative peace, this structure mitigates the risk of conflating the capabilities and intentions of peer-like rivals.[13]  Finally, as competition demands that leaders reconsider how “means and ways” are applied, this framing provides tools to leverage all available resources through innovative concepts of change that adjust the environment to protect and promote U.S. interests at acceptable risk and cost. 


While the Joint Force must maintain strategic deterrence and continue to prepare for high-end conventional conflict, it must simultaneously leverage orthodox and unorthodox applications of power through a compound approach to achieve outcomes in competition short of war.  Historically, cases abound where by diplomatic, economic, and social forces undermine militarily superior forces.[14]   These cautionary lessons suggest that winning military battles but losing the war often manifests from decisive non-military effects, generated by leveraging asymmetries between systems and strategies rather than forces.  Simply put, the ultimate victors employed asymmetric strategies that “[transformed] an adversary’s perceived strength into a vulnerability, often by revealing one’s own perceived vulnerability as a strength.”[15]   While asymmetric approaches are typically associated with weaker parties seeking to mitigate an adversary’s advantage, the U.S. should seek its own asymmetric strategies that comprehensively undermine a rival’s strengths. 

The methods of action and conditions during execution define Special operations.  Special operations require unique methods of employment defined by tactical techniques, equipment, training, and are often conducted with and through indigenous forces, leveraging personal relationships and regional expertise. Special operations occur under conditions that are often time-sensitive, clandestine, require low visibility, and involve a high degree of risk (political, mission, or force); they take place in hostile, denied, or politically sensitive environments.   Special operations are not often war winning but when combined with the many and varied capabilities of our interagency partners and the other globally oriented combatant commands – space, cyber, strike and transportation – they provide a range of options that offer the Joint Force significant advantages in competition and conflict. 

Currently, great power competitors are making gains in areas such as information warfare, economic competition, political influence, and advancing military goals through non-military means in multiple domains (e.g., space, cyber).  While conventional deterrence is necessary, adversaries are finding ways around these Cold War-era models of hard power.  Special operations contribute to, and amplify, the actions of the Joint Force as they always have, through application of unique capabilities applied in unorthodox ways in unusual contexts. Examples include working within and among populations to develop operational capabilities and amplify perceptions; providing support interagency efforts; and assisting in influence operations to complement the joint force. Specifically, SOF can best support global efforts to compete by:

  • Supporting the development of favorable foreign relations utilizing access and placement to create influence in support of National objectives;
  • Providing military or defense advantage over any foreign nation, group of nations, organizations, or actors to deter, preclude or preempt them from resorting to the use of military force;
  • Enabling a global defense posture capable of successfully resisting hostile or destructive action, overt or covert, and aid in enhancing opportunities;
  • Supporting and enabling other authorities globally to create leverage and advantage;
  • Operating below actors’ “red lines” to avoid unwanted large-scale violence or create U.S. disadvantage; and
  • Developing access and options that allow the Joint Force to rapidly and decisively transition to conflict, should it be required.

This approach builds on doctrine and proposed theories to describe special operations in competition through the ways they contribute to U.S. interests and influence, as well as concepts and resources to achieve them.[16]    

These concepts have several implications for the SOF enterprise and how it interacts within a broader national effort.  The next step to bring this case for SOF in competition to life is codifying the case and strategic framing in USSOCOM guidance.  In its role as the institutional leader of the SOF enterprise, the command can provide Geographic Combatant Commands and assigned Theater Special Operations Commands (TSOC) with decision rules for employment of SOF in competition based on prioritized interested-derived objectives.  The command should also develop clearer guidance for Service Components, set limitations derived from risk, legal, and ethical considerations, and provide insights derived from return on investment analysis.  USSOCOM should also establish resource allocation and force employment processes that best supports a global competition strategy the coordination and integration efforts.  In addition, USSOCOM should distill from national policy and strategy how SOF can support the hierarchy of U.S. interests – "vital," "extremely important," "important," and "less important or secondary interests.”  The diverse capabilities and cultures across TSOCs and Service Components will remain an asset to the SOF enterprise, but USSOCOM guidance that establishes a unifying sense of purpose among these different identities would likely prove to be a valuable contribution.

Alongside the development of guidance for the enterprise, USSOCOM must reconsider how to structure command and control to implement integrated campaigning for SOF in competition.  In integrated campaigning in competition, SOF must coordinate across geographic boundaries with other SOF elements, as well as across organizational boundaries with the Joint Force and interagency partners.  Some of this infrastructure exists at present, either in name only or tailored to specific mission sets, such as against violent extremist organizations.  This latter effort leverages a trans-regional synchronization process, which provides a vehicle for the global alignment of SOF against a particular array of threats.  Perhaps the SOF enterprise might apply this model to other problem sets to enable that global alignment.  Against actors that demonstrate both the capability and intent to operate globally in ways that challenge U.S. interests, the need to build and empower such a coordination vehicle is increasingly pressing.

Through integrated campaigning, SOF can contribute to the Joint Force within a compound approach both by supporting conventional forces in executing their core warfighting competencies and by doing what the conventional forces cannot.[17]  As the Joint Force continues to deter ascendant rivals and force adversaries to operate short of war, SOF can leverage its access, placement, capabilities, and networks of relationships both to ensure that the Joint Force maintains its advantage and to advance U.S. interests in competition.  In competition, SOF can provide leaders with better escalation-sensitive options that operate around actors’ “red lines.”  SOF offers the Joint Force a dynamic range of capabilities for unorthodox activities to advance U.S. interests, mainly through its competencies in illuminating, understanding, and exploiting relationships among actors and populations in the strategic environment.  In addition to prolific precision strike capabilities, SOF can contribute more as a part of the Joint Force through counter-threat finance, messaging and counter-messaging, and other population-based solutions, which may become more prominent functions in competition after serving primarily as enablers in a counterterrorism context. 

As U.S. partners seek to advance the country’s interests and multinational partners collaborate toward shared interests, SOF can cultivate a better understanding of how the enterprise might support these partners’ efforts.  Concerning interagency partners, SOF should strive to communicate its capabilities more effectively to mitigate potential friction in two broad areas.  First, SOF may prioritize its role in advancing U.S. interests differently than its partners, based on mandate, competencies, and culture.  Second, SOF should provide education and training to interagency partners to foster improved understanding. [18]  A better understanding of SOF capabilities and priorities within the interagency community may enable a more effective division of labor that leverages organizational advantages within a comprehensive national effort.  In general, SOF will maintain close relationships with the Central Intelligence Agency, Department of State, and U.S. Agency for International Development, which operates globally in similar environments as SOF elements.  For specific missions, SOF will work more closely with relevant interagency specialists.[19]  In competition, SOF may seek to deepen relationships with other partners, such as the Departments of Justice, Treasury, and Commerce, as functions previously viewed as enabling efforts to become more prevalent.  Ultimately, a deeper understanding between partners should help to identify relative strengths and expose opportunities for mutual support.

SOF should also better align efforts with allies and partners to pursue shared interests.  The U.S. has constructed broad coalitions in support of its engagements abroad, but often coalition priorities fail to reflect the interests of allies and partners.  SOF should proactively build a dialogue with its allies and partners to understand their interests, recognize where their interests align with those of the U.S., and explore opportunities for collaboration in planning and execution. [20]

When done correctly, competition should achieve U.S. policy objectives while avoiding conflict. However, in great-power competition, the Joint Force must be prepared to act in the event of strategic miscalculation or premeditated hostility that triggers high-end conflict.  In peace, SOF can lay a foundation of support through global access and placement and specialized skills to support the Joint Force in conflict.  Through illumination, area access and denial, sabotage, support to populations, partner collaboration, precision strike, special reconnaissance, and a host of other capabilities SOF can create an advantage that supports the larger conventional force should a major conflict be joined.  In peace and war, the SOF enterprise is the utility force of choice to advance and protect U.S. interests, whether through hard or soft power. 


With a clearer understanding of competition and the role of SOF within that context, USSOCOM can begin to shape its approach to the strategic environment.  To support the advancement of U.S. interests, USSOCOM should provide guidance and prioritization for the global application of SOF to capitalize on opportunities that provide an advantage, promote favorable foreign relations positions to create influence, enable global defense posture, support diplomatic and intelligence actions globally, and help manage escalation.  Bringing this case into practice requires evolving how SOF thinks strategically about the complex global environment, focusing on interests and the risk inherent in not protecting those interests rather than resolving threats.  USSOCOM can drive a dialog among the Joint Force, interagency, and multinational partners on the appropriate application of SOF capabilities shaped around shared interests to drive unified, integrated action across the globe.

We began this essay with three questions.  Given the discussion, we believe they can be answered simply as follows:

What role might SOF play in competition?

SOF’s primary role in competition is developing the access and placement to support and enable our partners in creating the influence required to support the creation of favorable foreign relations in support of national interests.  The greater SOF enterprise of globally distributed people, capabilities, and international partnerships represents the means to  understand emerging local, regional, transregional threats and identify where opportunities exist for advancing U.S. objectives.  Persistent global engagement allows the SOF enterprise to cultivate long-term partner nation relationships and nuanced understanding of complex environments. This engagement provides the capabilities needed to influence outcomes in a campaign and especially during the competition short of overt war. Using its presence and influence, SOF is uniquely positioned, across the globe to thoughtfully combine intelligence, information, space and cyber operations to affect an opponent’s decision making, influence diverse audiences, and unmask false narratives. Furthermore, SOF can coordinate operations, activities, and actions in the information environment with those across the other operational domains and, as a matter of routine, fuse “cognitive” and lethal effects to obtain favorable outcomes.  The SOF enterprise can inform more comprehensive understanding of adversary global operating systems and develop options that exploit vulnerabilities in those systems.  Especially when paired with capabilities in the cyber and space domains, special operations allow the Joint Force to gain positional, political, or informational advantage in competition and enable a rapid transition to combat operations should the need arise.

How can competition protect and advance our interests while keeping us from conflict? 

We defined competition in terms of influence, leverage, and advantage.  We build and use influence to develop the global posture and military advantage required to deter, preclude, or preempt any foreign nation, group of nations, organizations, or actors from resorting to the use of military force.   In a compound approach with enabled partners, SOF and conventional forces help the U.S. to compete with a suite of options designed to deter, preclude, or preempt unwanted behavior.  Within the context of the Joint Force, SOF can complement traditional deterrence by utilizing partners to build indigenous capability and assisting in force employment to protect and advance shared interests.  Within the context of the Interagency, SOF can leverage access and placement to exploit or hold at risk rival political objectives through unconventional and unorthodox methods (both overt and clandestine), creating the time, space, or influence required for effective diplomacy.  These options exploit opportunities to advance U.S. interests while maintaining an acceptable level of political stability without escalation to a costly conflict.

For SOF specifically, conditions in competition require that forces operate below an opponent’s “red lines” to avoid unwanted large-scale violence while pursuing U.S. advantage.  In crisis, SOF can generate decision space for leaders to build and refine options.  SOF can prepare to “hold at risk” the political objectives of an adversary by applying unconventional and unorthodox methods, as well as seek “off ramps” to prevent escalation into larger conflict. The precision and discretion of SOF ensures minimal risk of strategic miscalculation.  Special operations can create unexpected dilemmas for a competitor, allowing commanders to maintain the initiative, control the tempo of operations, and manage escalation in a competitive campaign. 

How can we assure, in the event of conflict, the U.S. has established the necessary advantage to dominate militarily at the outset of the conflict?  

During competition, SOF develops access and options that allow the Joint Force to rapidly and decisively transition to conflict, should it be required.  In times of war, SOF enables the Joint Force to execute decisive operations, through special operations tailored to disrupt opposing systems and allowing the conventional force to deliver overwhelming combat power across the depth and breadth of an opponent’s attack surface.  These operations also have the potential to impose operational dilemmas across the opponent’s area of operations and larger set of strategic interests.  Done well, these dilemmas can create friction and induce strategic miscalculation, further eroding the opponent’s capability to operate and resist.   To create the access and capabilities needed to enable the Joint Force, special operations require preparation and persistent presence during competition, as well as a keen sense for emergent opportunities presented by both the environment and opponents. 

If USSOCOM is to provide value to America’s competitive position, change must come for the institution, its current strategy, and culture of the organization.  Structural changes should enable more dynamic and distributed decision-making.  Strategic changes should reflect the empowerment of the SOF enterprise to advance U.S. interests in the context of a comprehensive national effort to compete using all elements of national power.  Finally, special operations culture should embrace its innovative and disruptive heritage, leading the Joint Force into the future through experimentation, adaptation, and innovation.  Change is rarely easy, but failure to adapt to the increasingly competitive security environment would likely bear an even higher cost: America’s ability to safeguard and advance its interests in a dynamic and dangerous world.

End Notes

[1] This concept is first introduced in Harnessing David and Goliath: Orthodoxy, Asymmetry, and Competition: To promote shared understanding, U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) has proposed the following definition of competition: the interaction among actors in pursuit of the influence, leverage, and advantage necessary to secure their respective interests.  Competition is continuous, without the finite and clear end states that often characterize military plans and campaigns.   As actors pursue influence, leverage, and advantage to secure their interests, cooperation, competition, and conflict all reflect the degree of friction among their efforts.   Success in competition is measured as an ongoing evaluation of one’s freedom of action relative to competitors, a dynamic challenge that constantly evolves with geopolitical and technological developments.   “To build a compound approach to competition short of armed conflict, the Joint Force should leverage orthodox and unorthodox applications of force toward a position of advantage.   Whereas compound warfare describes the integration of conventional and unconventional forces, however, this compound approach focuses less on forces themselves than on the manner in which they are employed.  Orthodox military applications are well defined by doctrine and use defined frameworks, through which forces evaluate and address issues in the strategic environment.  Unorthodox military applications, however, draw on doctrine where applicable and develop frameworks to fit emergent issues rather than rely on defined methodology.  A compound approach to competition complements orthodox and unorthodox functions to more effectively exploit asymmetries to advance U.S. interests.”  For more: Miller, Joe, Monte Erfourth, Jeremiah Monk, and Ryan Oliver, Harnessing David and Goliath: Orthodoxy, Asymmetry, and Competition.  Small Wars Journal, 2019.

[2] Mazarr, Michael J., Jonathan Blake, Abigail Casey, Tim McDonald, Stephanie Pezard, and Michael Spirtas. Understanding the Emerging Era of International Competition: Theoretical and Historical Perspectives. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2018.  Hhtps://

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Huber, Thomas M. Compound Warfare: That Fatal Knot. U.S. Army Command and General Staff College Press, 2002.  Accessed January 9, 2019.

[6] In this paper, the SOF enterprise refers to U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) and its subordinate Theater Special Operations Commands (TSOCs) and Service Components. 

[7] Gray, Colin S. Explorations in Strategy. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 1996. p 156.

[8] This phenomenon is described throughout Carl Builder’s body of work, most notably in his seminal piece, Masks of War: American Military Styles of Strategy and Analysis. (RAND Corporation, 1989).

[9] Dr. Tom Searle and Dr. Richard Rubright each propose theories of special operations.  Rubright suggests: “Special operations are extraordinary operations to achieve a specific effect.” For more: Rubright, Richard. A Unified Theory for Special Operations. Joint Special Operations University, Report 17-1. 2017.  Searle suggests: “Special operations are all military operations that are not purely conventional operations.”  For more: Searle, Outside the Box: A New General Theory of Special Operations.

[10] Lykke, Arthur F. Defining Military Strategy. Military Review, Vol. LXIX, No. 5.  May 1989.

[11] SOF Future Operating Concept XX “Redefining the ‘X’.”

[12] Note:  In logic, a proposition is a statement that can be proven either true or false.  It consists of independent variables, or premises, and dependent variables, or conclusions.  A union, represented by a U, is the set of all elements in the collection of premises.  An intersection, represented by an ∩, is the set that contains all elements of the joined premises that also belong to both elements but to no other elements.  Structurally, a proposition consists of a series of related premises that lead to a conclusion.  Each premise must stand on its own in soundness of logic and as an independent variable. Its relationship to the other independent variables is either partial or complete, but all premises must align to combine and culminate in the conclusion.   The proposed framework rests on the proposition:  Environment0 Concepts for Change Application of Resources à Environment1.  This framework for special operations in competition describing and validating its premises and conclusion, as well as the relationships between each. 

[13] From a U.S. perspective, a threat is determined by its capability and intent to cause harm to U.S. interests.

[14] In the Second Punic War (221-201 BCE), Rome advanced a Fabian Strategy to avoid pitched battle with Hannibal’s impressive Carthaginian Army and instead undermine its logistics and partnerships indirectly, ultimately resulting in the subjugation of Carthage as a client state of Rome.   In the Algerian War (1954-1962), an inferior Algerian military force built advantage through diplomatic and informational channels, draining a militarily advantaged France of political will and international support.  Egypt’s military entered the Yom Kippur War (06-25 October 1973) against a superior Israeli force to build diplomatic advantage for negotiations; although Egypt suffered military defeat, its engagement ultimately contributed to its objective of restoring the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt.  

[15] Breen, Michael, and Joshua A. Geltzer. "Asymmetric Strategies as Strategies of the Strong."  Parameters, Spring  2011, pp. 41-55.

[16] Dr. Tom Searle and Dr. Richard Rubright each propose theories of special operations.  Rubright suggests: “Special operations are extraordinary operations to achieve a specific effect.” For more: Rubright, Richard. A Unified Theory for Special Operations. Joint Special Operations University, Report 17-1. 2017.  Searle suggests: “Special operations are all military operations that are not purely conventional operations.”  For more: Searle, Outside the Box: A New General Theory of Special Operations.

[17] The Joint Concept for Integrated Campaigning defines integrated campaigning as “Joint Force and interorganizational partner efforts to enable the achievement and maintenance of policy aims by integrating military activities and aligning non-military activities of sufficient scope, scale, simultaneity, and duration across multiple domains.” The JCIC provides this definition and further explanation of integrated campaigning in competition.

[18] This assertion is based on conversations and interactions with counterparts within adjacent organizations.

[19] Examples include Department of Energy and Defense Threat Reduction Agency when looking at countering of weapons of mass destruction; countering threat finance, with the Department of Treasury; messaging and counter-messaging, the Department of State, particularly the Global Engagement Center.

[20] The SOF Collaboration and Alignment Forum (SCAF) provides a venue for U.S. SOF to identify areas of mutual interest with allies and partners and better distribute resources.  Continuing to build on this initiative will offer SOF opportunities to empower partners.

The views expressed in this article are the personal views of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the military Services, U.S. Special Operations Command, or the DoD.


About the Author(s)

Colonel Monte Erfourth is a strategist within U.S. Special Operations Command's J5 (Strategy, Policy, and Plans).
Mr. Joseph Miller is the Director of the J5 (Strategy, Policy, and Plans) at U.S. Special Operations Command.



Thu, 06/27/2019 - 5:13am

The author wrote:

“The United States is developing a reputation much like Germany had in the twentieth century of being tactically and operationally superb but strategically inept.”[9] 

IMHO I believe we are deluded if we believe we are tactically and operationally supreme and it is this delusion that explains our own military failures ( as well as the failure of the German Army of WW2) and not the absence of a winning strategic overview. The author is correct when he suggests we (like the Germans) are convinced of our tactical and operational  supremacy, but how valid is that belief? IMO we fail to appreciate the profound difference between the net effect of a tactical encounter  and the tactical encounter itself. Simply put,  if the lasting effect of the tactical action does not further the interests of the United States,  the  tactic is as weak as it is wrong. Needless to say, if a we choose to fight a war executing weak tactics that undermine the interests of the United States,  the operational effect and the strategic consequence for the United States are a foregone conlusion.

As the German Army (similarily the Japanese Army across China and SE Asia) moved deeper and deeper into Russia their tactics of annihilation began to inflict thousands of negative tactical effects across a vast Theatre of Operations. Certainly the German force of arms left tens of millions of enemy combatant and civilian dead, captured (and soon dead) or fleeing for their lives. All of this was inflicted upon a wretched population that after decades of Stalin-inspired murder and were likely to consider any anti-Stalin force a mercy. Instead the  native population began to harden towards the negative cumulative effects of the German Army’s tactics. 

If any force executes tactics that have a net negative effect at the tactical level (either during or after the fighting has moved on) then surely it stands to reason it is tactically weak. I fail to grasp how a negative net outcome felt by the survivors indicates a tactical strength wielded by the perpetrator. If you attack Hill 937 and kill perhaps a thousand enemy troops but abandon the battlefield to the enemy amidst widespread anger and resentment by the native population as well as our own ( that continues to this very day) then it stands to reason within any military campaign the cumulative operational and strategic effects inflicted by numerous similar tactical encounters are a direct result of  tactical ineptitude. After all nobody was on Hill 937 because all the bullets, shells and bombs going off in every direction was some cool shit that couldn’t be missed.  

Both then and now our tactical weakness is compounded by the fact the enemy leadership (whether it be Stalin, Ho, ISI, Taliban, Fruitcake or the Mad Mullahs) are/were more than willing to sacrifice 100 dead for every one of our KIA every day of the week - for ever.

There is a direct link between the humble tactic and the strategic outcome.  If your tactics in the main leave a positive effect among the natives (who always exist at the tactical level) across an Operational Area the net cumulative Operational effect will be positive.  A positive Operational effect facilitates the possibility of a positive strategic outcome. Needless to say a positive strategic outcome delivers a positive effect for your employer – the United States taxpayer.

On the other hand  if hundreds or perhaps thousands of  tactical encounters on a daily basis  result in a net negative effect among the natives,  then a negative Operational consequence is a foregone conclusion. No matter how much Thucydides, Clausewitz, Su Tzu, RMA mickey-mouse, Democracy in Box, strategic hamlets, fresh water wells blah, blah, blah you throw at the shit-storm; if your Operational consequence is a negative then you have screwed the strategic pooch and in doing that you’ve screwed the United States.

The Courageous Restraint  doctrine reflected the realization that going into a shit-hole village in the dead of night and annihilating/capturing all the genuine assholes (who the natives probably considered genuine assholes as well) was never going to have a lasting net positive effect at the tactical level. Unfortunately the Courageous Restraint wallahs,   who tasked folks with the mission,  armed them with an  array of  weaponry/equipment/training  that was designed to annihilate anyone/anything that threatened their well-being whilst carrying out the objectives of Courageous Restraint.

The hammer and the nail analogy comes to the fore and as such the net tactical effect felt by the targeted asshole, the rest of the predominately innocent populace and those ordered to restrain themselves should have surprised nobody.

Whether it be an M9, A4, M67, SAW, Ma Deuce, Abrams, CAS whatever – all of these tactical weapons/platforms have evolved from the last war of annihilation we were involved in. It is no coincidence that was the last war we won. During WW2 If you received fire from a window from a pretty house in  a nice little friendly village  in say France, Belgium, Libya, Tunis, Italy, New Guinea, Okinawa wherever, you applied all of our tactical firepower and annihilated the nice friendly house, neighbourhood, village, town, city until the threat ceased – regardless of who or what was wiped out. As a bonus everyone at home thought you were a hero for doing it as well.

If in targeting a ‘ball-bearing factory’ in leafy residential neighbourhood of Hamburg or Tokyo with a thousand heavy bombers burned to death thousands of women and children on a daily basis you were also considered a hero – the Golden Generation.

The critical reason why the  same weapon platforms that served us so well in WW2 fail us today is that in WW2 we annihilated any resultant negative tactical after-effect by killing anyone ( both combatant and non-combatant) who bore the slightest ill-will to our path to total victory. Our liberal democracy means we can’t do that now and the enemy leadership know it. Unfortunately for us those who equip and train us do not.

In my experience our opponent’s military leadership are more intelligent than our own. In every country wherein a small elite wishes us harm the military offers one of the sole means towards political power and/or personal enrichment. In the West the military offers considerably less so and as a rule, in the East as in the West, the brains follow the money. Happily for us history and Robert Strange McNamara tells us the smartest guy in the room (in McNamara’s  case perhaps the whole country) does not necessarily make you the best military leader. Unhappily for us any shortcomings of a military nature and a fraction of our military spending does not make the unread, poor but more intelligent person stupid.  And like the man said there is only one way a smart person will fight us.

IMHO when it comes COIN and UW we have to recognize our obsession with RMA Mickey Mouse renders us tactically and operationally weaklings. Like the German Army of WW2 we appear to be  blinded by annihilation  gun-porn and as such we fail to recognize the negative net effect it has at the tactical level. The negative effects are so overwhelming that strategic failure is hardwired into any effort - no matter how well-intended. The fact that our sandal-wearing enemy combatants ( who each cost a few hundred of dollars a year to keep in the field)  have fought us to a standstill should carve in stone how chronic our delusion is.

Certainly we should spend most of our money to best defeat any Chinese Armada that suddenly appears off the west coast but in the meantime our own people, along with tens of thousands of our friends,  are being killed and tens of  millions of their fellow countrymen are beaten down into wretched povety.

Our ridiculous obsession with enemy propaganda that a belief in a supernatural being, and not our own tactical weakness, is responsible for our military’s failure compounds all of this -  but that’s a whole different argument.









As we contemplate "SOF in Competition: Establishing the Foundation of Strategy," let us take a moment to consider what the "conflict environment," and what "great power competition" and "competition strategy," may actually look like today. 

In this regard, the following -- which includes a comparison to earlier times -- may prove useful: 

(This article can also be found -- if you have a subscription -- as a Foreign Affairs "Snapshot:" )  

As can be seen from the above:

a.  "The competition," that our opponents are planning to win, this will take place, from their perspective, 

b.  Primarily off of the military "battlefield." 

From my referenced/linked article above:

"The strategy of the United States’ leading rival—China—is therefore to advance its interests primarily through economic, geopolitical, and informational means. Military power certainly backs up some of China’s ambitions, such as in the South China Sea and in its belligerent posture toward Taiwan. But China’s activities today pale in comparison with earlier forms of great-power military aggression, which often involved existential threats to homelands—Germany’s fleet threatening the United Kingdom’s survival before World War I, Napoleonic France invading its neighbors, and the like. Whatever China’s objectives are today, they will not be served by a direct attack on other great powers."

This being the case: 

a.  What would be the role of SOF be; this:

b.  In a great power competition that takes place primarily in the economic, geopolitical and informational realm/arena?

I enjoyed this insightful thought piece and roughly estimating,  I agree with 85% plus of it. While I have a strong disagreement with the logic of USSOCOM determining how SOF should be employed globally, I'll save that debate for another day, but in my view, the Global Combatant Commands (GCCs) have demonstrated a better grasp of strategy than any of the functional and service commands. The reason is each of these functional and service commands competes to illustrate how its tactical approach will win the war. The only think joint and interagency after their proposed concept is developed. As Colin Gray repeatedly points out, the American way of war is astrategic, ahistorical, acultural, and apolitical. Fortunately, this article goes a long way in proposing a process that addresses our strategic planning shortfalls. 

Many of our shortfalls stem from our bureaucratic processes. Most would agree it would be far better stay in the hypercompetition condition than engage in high intensity conventional or nuclear-armed conflict, yet the defense department's resourcing processes are solely focused on resourcing war plans, not competition.  There is no incentive for functional and service commands to transform (doctrine, manning, and resources) to compete short of armed conflict in the gray zone in addition to the necessary task of setting conditions to prevail in armed combat.  Since function follows structure and processes, if we want to make the dramatic change required to compete effectively, we must make dramatic changes in our structures and processes. Failure to do so will prohibit the necessary actions to advance our interests short of armed conflict. 

USSOCOM has advocated for design thinking to inform strategy for years, and in my opinion, we do it now, but we do it a step in a process instead of continuously. We don't reframe and evolve our policy and strategy as the strategic environment changes quickly enough. The authors propose author's three critical assumptions, which fall short. Their second assumption is somewhat flawed and overly tactical. It promotes the idea of developing reasonable CONOPs that we believe will promote desired change. First, CONOPs are tactical random acts of touching that the force has become adicted to during the war on terror. They are not a strategy, and if we do not learn how to plan again at the strategic and operational level again in a way that aligns our actions over time to achieve a desired condition, then we will never compete effectively with an actor like China that is executing a well thought out hundred-year strategy.

We must develop theories of change and then assess continually at the strategic and operational levels. We build strategy upon assumptions. For example, our assumption for China for years was if we brought them into the WTO and cooperated with them, they would liberalize and become a valued partner in the international system. It was a reasonable assumption at the time, but it ultimately proved incorrect. This led to China gaining a position of advantage that we facilitated, and current trend lines are not in our favor. As the authors point out, we must continuously monitor the environment to validate our assumptions (and theory of change) and to note changes (opportunities and challenges) to advance our interests. Do we have adequate structure and processes in place to accurately assess the environment based on multiple data feeds and expert input in a timely manner?  This is a big rock shortfall that we must fix if design thinking and the proposed strategy process in this article is ever going to work. 

The authors go too far on their interest based strategy when they propose ignoring threats. Of course, the strategy should focus on advancing our interests, but one vital interest is protecting the homeland and our citizens. We must identify the "threats" to this vital interest and develop the means and ways to deter or neutralize it.  Furthermore, and much more difficult, is the requirement to recognize and understand the slowly evolving threats to our other vital interests. One of the characteristics of gray zone conflicts is ambiguity, the adversary advances his interests incrementally in a way that it eventually threatens our prosperity, the rules-based international order that generally aligns with our interest, and promoting certain values.  Some may disagree with the value argument, but history has demonstrated a world with more authoritarian governments that violate international norms and oppress human rights is a much more unstable world that will significantly increase the risk of major armed conflict.  In sum, threats must be part of the interest-based approach.

Bill C.

Fri, 06/07/2019 - 12:30pm

In current Small Wars "Journal" articles, we have conflicting suggestions/different ideas as to how to move forward/how to proceed:  

SUGGESTION NO. 1, from our article above, which emphasizes the importance of focusing on "national interests:"

"Interest-Based Special Operations in Competition: 

U.S. military applications must orient on interests to ensure strategic validity and durability.   States create and maintain militaries to protect interests from threats, a reality that may lead militaries to look for threats when no threats are apparent.  When decoupled from interests, a threat-centric strategy can mischaracterize competing actors as categorical adversaries or misidentify local security challenges as threats to U.S. interests.  The U.S. has developed a threat-centric culture, focused on the development of capabilities, defined within individual warfighting cultures.  When paired with the different institutional cultures and interests of the military services, threat-centrism risks the development of capability-driven strategy rather than strategy-driven capabilities.  To be successful in the future, the military must become interest-based to develop options and capabilities designed to create outcomes needed to secure U.S. interests over time.

Special Operations in competition should cultivate and leverage influence to advance U.S. interests.

For the SOF enterprise precisely, an interest-oriented case for SOF in competition can 'help the special operations community understand itself better and explain itself more clearly to those outside the community.'  Operating at the intersection of military, diplomatic, and intelligence activities, SOF will likely focus more on supporting other authorities than taking action that is exclusively military, as risk and reward take on new dimensions in competition.  Helping stakeholders both within and outside of the SOF enterprise better understand the role of SOF in competition can help to ensure that its resources are used to maximum effect as the U.S. contends with rivals of comparable ability, funding, and will.  Fundamentally, special operations in competition, in close coordination with interagency partners, should cultivate and leverage influence to advance U.S. interests." 

SUGGESTION NO. 2, from the current Small Wars "Journal" article entitled "Rethinking US Grand Strategy," which suggests that (a) "national interests" is the wrong focus and that (b) "changing existing relationships with other states" this is the proper way to proceed:

"Such an approach means there are some differences to that taken elsewhere. The most obvious is that national interests do not drive the grand strategies examined.  National interest is a contested term mainly due to its vagueness and imprecision. Any societal group or individual can claim any objective is in the national interest.  Moreover knowing when the national interest has been achieved is difficult, as they are mostly open-ended, aspirational statements.  ‘National interest’ is also somewhat astrategic. The term by definition encompasses only one nation whereas strategy involves at least a bi-lateral relationship between ‘us’ and ‘them’. If strategy intrinsically involves interacting with others, deriving strategies with reference to only a single state is inherently problematic.

While ends can be explained more fully by avoiding ‘national interest’, grand strategy is inherently about ways.  While many ways are possible, the paper uses the fundamental ways of changing an existing relationship with another state into something better: stopping them doing something, working with them or trying to change their minds.  Incorporating international relations theoretical thinking leads to three broad grand strategy types.

Denial grand strategies are constructed around the notion that superior power determines outcomes; you can stop others achieving their objectives by being more powerful than them. Engagement grand strategies make use of groups in the other state that have interests and desires that you share, or at least that are useful to you. Reform grand strategies endeavor to change the ideas people hold."

Bottom Line Thought -- Based on the Above: 

I suggest that two additional matters need to be considered and addressed before we go further; these being:

My Suggestion No. 1.  A more specific and detailed explanation of "the kind of war" (or if you prefer "the kind of competition") "that we are embarked upon" today. 

Example No. One:

Great power competition, in which "shared beliefs and common values, such as we had from the Treaty of Westphalia to the Napoleonic Wars, and from the latter to the First World War, imposed effective limitations upon ends and means of struggles for power" -- or --

Great power competition, in which nations "oppose each other as standard bearers of ethical systems, each of them of national origin, and each of them claiming and aspiring to provide a supranational framework of moral standards which all other nations ought to accept and within which their foreign policies ought to operate."

(From Hans Morgenthau's "Politics Among Nation: The Struggle for Power and Peace:" 3rd Edition, New York, Knopf 1960, Page 256.)

(You can, of course, nominate and explain some other "kind of war"/"kind of great power competition" should you wish to.)   

Example No. Two: 

"The United States and the Soviet Union face each other not only as two great powers which in the traditional ways compete for advantage. They also face each other as the fountainheads of two hostile and incompatible ideologies, systems of government and ways of life, each trying to expand the reach of its respective political values and institutions and to prevent the expansion of the other. Thus the cold war has not only been a conflict between two world powers but also a contest between two secular religions. And like the religious wars of the seventeenth century, the war between communism and democracy does not respect national boundaries. It finds enemies and allies in all countries, opposing the one and supporting the other regardless of the niceties of international law. Here is the dynamic force which has led the two superpowers to intervene all over the globe, sometimes surreptitiously, sometimes openly, sometimes with the accepted methods of diplomatic pressure and propaganda, sometimes with the frowned-upon instruments of covert subversion and open force."

(From Hans Morgenthau's 1967 "To Intervene or Not to Intervene.")

My Suggestion No 2.  A necessary understanding that the U.S./the West cir. 2017 -- and much as with the Soviets/the communists cir. 1990 -- has now formally surrendered/has now formally been defeated; this, as relates to our expansionist and transformative designs for the Rest of the World.

In this regard consider, first, the (1993) expansionist and transformative "mission statement" by then-National Security Advisor Anthony Lake below.  And, then, in relation to same, the (2017) formal "defeat"/formal "surrender" statements by Prime Minister Theresa May and President Donald Trump that follow thereafter:

*  National Security Advisor Anthony Lake (in 1993) from his "From Containment to Enlargement:"

"Throughout the Cold War, we contained a global threat to market democracies; now we should seek to enlarge their reach, particularly in places of special significance to us.

The successor to a doctrine of containment must be a strategy of enlargement -- enlargement of the world's free community of market democracies.

During the Cold War, even children understood America's security mission; as they looked at those maps on their schoolroom walls, they knew we were trying to contain the creeping expansion of that big, red blob. Today, at great risk of oversimplification, we might visualize our security mission as promoting the enlargement of the 'blue areas' of market democracies." 

*  Prime Minister Theresa May (in 2017): 

“It is in our interests – those of Britain and America together – to stand strong together to defend our values, our interests and the very ideas in which we believe,” she said.

"This cannot mean a return to the failed policies of the past. The days of Britain and America intervening in sovereign countries in an attempt to remake the world in our own image are over.”

*  President Donald Trump (likewise in 2017):

"We do not expect diverse countries to share the same cultures, traditions, or even systems of government, but we do expect all nations to uphold these two core sovereign duties: to respect the interests of their own people and the rights of every other sovereign nation.”

“Strong sovereign nations let diverse countries with different values, different cultures, and different dreams not just coexist, but work side by side on the basis of mutual respect.”