Small Wars Journal

Challenging the “Problem of Special Operations and USSOF”

Mon, 02/20/2023 - 3:13pm


Challenging the “Problem of Special Operations and USSOF”



By Charlie Black


In America’s Special Operations Problem Colonel R.D. Hooker, PhD former combat leader turned scholar offers a necessarily useful criticism of US Special Operations and SOF.  His real argument relates more to USSOF than special operations. I urge everyone interested in national security, especially those in the special operations community to read it closely. As the Department of Defense shifts its strategy priority to great power competition it is prudent to reflect on over two decades of war. The lack of a dispassionate assessment of the recent Afghanistan withdraw suggests other priorities. Hooker makes some points worthy of consideration to be discussed later. Unfortunately, some of the argument is a misinterpretation of recent historical events, dependent context, and derives generalized conclusions from a relatively small number of incidents or events.  What follows is my response to advance the discussion and debate.


First, the argument that US Special Operations Command is expensive is invalid. SOF perform different missions and capabilities than the conventional forces thus requiring a difference in kind making a “soldier-to-soldier” comparison invalid. The proffered comparison between US resourcing of US Special Operations Command and Poland’s military or any other European country is a false proposition. A more holistic perspective is an assessment of military spending as a percentage of GDP. The US GDP is over $23 Trillion as compared to Poland’s $680 Billion. Until the Ukraine crisis Poland spent ~2% of GDP on defense, whereas the US 3.4% funding of a global nuclear military has remained relatively steady. The 2023 National Defense Authorization Act approved $816.7 Billion of which $12.6 Billion (<1.6%) for US Special Operations including on-gong overseas contingencies.[1]  An interesting comparison is the totality of US military aid to Ukraine in the past two years ($27.5B) which is more than what has been spent to sustain US special operations forces globally in support of every Combatant Command.[2]


The second counter point is more critical than one about resourcing. Hooker states that SOF are optimized for the low end of the conflict spectrum and given the emergence of great power competition less useful. His framing does not accurately characterize the operating environment or threat confronted by US SOF past, present or future whether irregular, hybrid or conventional. Historical, doctrinal, operational authorities, strategic guidance, and operational precedence overwhelmingly discount his assertion.  Moreover, US SOF are playing an increased role in support of Combatant Commanders and intergovernmental partners to advance policy aims that seek to prevent conflict in the first place.[3]  Contemporary conflict escapes the bifurcated framing of war or peace and the associated characterization of traditional high-end war as that between conventional formations. Whether we look to Ukraine, the Nogorno-Karabakh conflict, or Syria we can see that the character of war is evolving rapidly exposing USSOF to continued conflict since the larger drawdown of conventional forces. For example, to closely examine our extended time in Syria, USSOF (and integrated conventional forces) have confronted Russian mercenaries, a convoluted sea of partners, divergent collection of adversaries, expanded use of advanced technologies like EW and drones all framed by high political sensitivity. In comparison to Hooker’s description, one would likely not describe the environment as the “low end of the conflict.” Although considered backwater, out of sight and mind, many of the operating environments and threats expose USSOF to a high degree of violence.


It is important to briefly discuss that special operations and SOF should not be viewed as elite in comparison to conventional forces. USSOF are also not homogenous but are the aggregate of kinds each designed for differences of mission, operating conditions and strategic risk among themselves and the conventional forces. There is limited capacity and a growing demand. They are asked to conduct military operations to achieve dynamic policy aims in politically sensitive and socially unstable areas of the world in support of US interests, usually without conventional forces. Tom Searle offers a practical theory that SO and SOF are everything “outside the box” of conventional regardless of placement on the spectrum of conflict.[4]  They perform tasks in places and conditions that the conventional force is not suited or prepared. If required they can do this alone, but their real value is achieving effects to support strategic aims working with and through others which demands a core competency to nurture relationships. As part of broader defense strategy and geographic campaigns, USSOF are given tasks that require different operating approaches and capabilities than conventional forces.


Third, the premise that the expansion of USSOF has had a detrimental and steep price to conventional force misplaces cause-effect for potential manning and readiness issues.  As evidenced by current recruiting challenges, unfavorable personnel issues have multiplicity of causal factors. Rigorous research would be required to justify the conclusion that growth of SOF diminished the readiness or quality of conventional forces. Contrarily, General Abrams’ 1974 Ranger Charter offers a clear counter argument that SOF (the Rangers) are stealing the best talent. Abrams’ explicit intent was for the Rangers to “lead the way” for the entire US Army. To this day, ranger qualification and service in the regiment serve this end.[5] 


Fourth, Hooker raises operational examples of mistakes, missteps and in some instances accurately identified unethical conduct.  He and others know well that the unchanging nature of war is uncertain which contributes to human error. No force is perfect or insulated from such shortfalls including US Special Operations.  Each instance results in unnecessary loss of life, trust and reputation which necessarily requires close scrutiny and accountability. However terrible these instances, they should not diminish the many other positive and often unknown contributions and unseen sacrifices by USSOF. The inference to a lack of conformity to conventional military grooming or dress standards as synonymous with military discipline is unfounded and insulting. This is the timeless issue of expecting conformity. Perhaps a measure of discipline is strict adherence to a set of mental and physical standards that permits small teams to operate among diverse human terrain, adapt to rapid change, and create novel solutions in dangerous and ambiguous operating environments while far from support? If so, how they dress, or groom is less important.


War of any character demands the integration of national capabilities. The change in policy over time combined with inadequate integration across our government is one of many causal factors in the failure to achieve desired strategic outcomes in the past twenty years. The military is one instrument of policy, especially in irregular wars. Hooker is right to conclude that commandos and raids do not win wars, but they do make disproportionate contributions.  SOF was directed to disrupt terror networks and proved themselves effective for that purpose, not to achieve campaign ends or war victory. It is important to remind ourselves that Geographic Combatant Commanders are vested with full command authority over all military forces including SOF. As such, they are the final arbiter of special operations missions, command relationships, and priorities to achieve campaign objectives including major efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.  In as much as many think otherwise, SOF do not operate independent from the Combatant Command and are as integrated as the COCOM directs.  To be clear, I agree that there are many mistakes and lessons to be learned from two decades of conflict by all involved. I am eager for yet skeptical such reflection will occur. However, placing blame on one entity is poorly evidenced.


Lastly, I want to highlight my agreements. Hooker is accurate in arguing that the USSOCOM HQ and to some degree USASOC are excessive. USSOCOM is a unique military organization combining roles and responsibilities of Combatant Commander (10 U.S. Code § Sect 164) and those shared by uniformed services (10 U.S. Code § Sect 167). However, a detailed HQ-to-Task assessment might reveal a misalignment of structure between § Sect 164 and 167 responsibilities. Much of the growth expressed by Hooker was fueled by USSOCOM’s Combatant Command task to lead the Department’s planning and synchronization of the Global War on Terror campaign. As a consequence, much of the HQ structure does not reflect the more important core functions of prioritizing requirements, producing strategy, and supporting concepts, doctrine, and training. In my experience there is much room for efficiency and getting lean without losing effectiveness.


For sure USSOCOM must, and it seems this is the direction General Fenton, recast the force for the 21st century.[6] Overall, my research supports transformation and integration of structures more than simple cuts. I advocate a position of better integration with JIIM-C partners to provide value across the conflict continuum, especially in competition below the level of armed conflict. Recasting SOCOM is not an easy task given the path dependencies of the past decades. Real change will require the development of new operating concepts that delimit the role of special operations in support of statecraft and as part of an integrated joint force. These concepts must be exposed to rigorous internal debate and external critique. SOCOM must create and evaluate new force generation models, supporting force structures, and approaches to mission command to make yet created concepts reality.


All indications suggest reflection and possible change is underway at the components and HQ level. Beyond Hooker’s accurate statement that bureaucracy exists to sustain the status quo, USSOF also confront the structuring power of recency bias to self-replicate the experiences that brought success. Unfortunately, the signals of change on the global periphery foreshadow an emergent world very different from today that will produce different and new demands on USSOF.



[1] James M. Inhofe National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2023. United States Senate Committee on Armed Forces. Accessed Feb 20, 2023.


[2] Anthony Blinken, Secretary of State. Press Statement Jan 19, 2023. “Significant New U.S. Military Aid to Ukraine.”


[4] Tom Searle, Outside the Box: A New General Theory of Special Operations, JSOU Report 17-4 (Tampa, Florida: Joint Special Operations University Press, 2017).

[5] US Army Ranger Charter.

[6] Lieutenant General Bryan P. Fenton, USA.  Senate Armed Services Committee
Advance Policy Questions for Lieutenant General Bryan P. Fenton, USA Nominee for Commander, United States Special Operations Command.

About the Author(s)

Charlie Black is the Managing Partner of Xundis Global, an advisory firm that helps partners successfully navigate complexity and change.  He is a retired Marine Corps Infantry and Special Operations Officer, who draws on over thirty-five years of diverse executive to tactical level experiences across the Intergovernmental, Defense, Commercial, and Academic ecosystems. His research endeavors include integrated statecraft, social resilience, human security and the future of special operations.


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Mon, 02/27/2023 - 11:32pm

This was a fascinating article. I hope you will continue to provide valuable content to the community. I'd like to expose you to a new game genre I've discovered. A retro games is one that has classic gameplay and can be played in your spare time.