Resist the Hype: Prevent SOF From Being the Next Victim of Too Much Attention
Politicians, like the general public, are not immune to fads. Whether it be wearing American flag lapel pins and bashing the French, or enthusiastically embracing guided munitions and signals intelligence, U.S. policymakers have repeatedly shown themselves vulnerable to the latest trends in foreign policy and military operations. Such trends usually develop in response to recent shocks or successes. For example, the proliferation of flag pins was a gut reaction to the desire to show patriotism and unity following the attacks of September 11th. Yet, while always well intentioned, these fixations oversimplify the issues they seek to address. The very flag pins that were meant to be symbols of unity quickly turned into targets for mockery and protest, as many Americans rejected the narrow and partisan version of patriotism their wearers demanded. The trends, therefore, correctly recognize that an important shift has taken place but too often fail to accurately understand its true meaning, to great detriment. Today, the latest iteration of this process is occurring with special operations. For a variety of reasons, policymakers are increasingly enamored with special operations forces (SOF) and risk damaging not only the future credibility of the forces but also the national security of the United States as well.
Policymakers’ growing preference for SOF is reflected in recent U.S. military strategy and force planning. Motivated by the withdrawal from Iraq and the drawdown in Afghanistan, starting in 2011 the military began planning for a future where the United States was not fighting two ground wars in Asia. According to the Pentagon, this future would require a smaller, more agile, and more joint force. Writing at the beginning of the 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance, then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta declared, “This country is at a strategic turning point after a decade of war and, therefore, we are shaping a Joint Force for the future that will be smaller and leaner, but will be agile, flexible, ready, and technologically advanced.” Such a force would be able to do more with less in part by adopting many of the characteristics previously unique to SOF.[i] This guidance became the basis for future Pentagon budgets and the 2014 Defense Quadrennial Review, all of which seek to take this vision and turn it into reality. Most notably, the Pentagon has outlined plans to drastically shrink the size of the Army and Marine Corps while growing the size of SOF.[ii] Taken together, these actions represent efforts to not only expand the role of SOF but to make the entire military more SOF-like.
The recent infatuation with SOF is the outcome of several intersecting developments. The first is the impressive performance put in by SOF during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In both theaters, the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) elevated the state of the art in surgical strike capabilities. Under General Stanley McChrystal, the pace of raids in Iraq reached a frenzied pace. As Gayle Tzemach Lemmon notes, “Raids on terrorist homes, weapons depots, and safe houses that had taken days to plan in 2003 required, by 2010, mere minutes. In August 2004, JSOC had overseen 18 night raids in Iraq over the course of a single month. By August 2006, it was 300.”[iii] McChrystal’s successor, Admiral William H. McRaven, continued this success and transferred it to Afghanistan. By the time McChrystal’s counterinsurgency campaign hit its stride, JSOC’s “jackpot rate” in Afghanistan (the percent of raids that got their intended target) had climbed from 35 percent to 80 percent.[iv] When combined with more public successes, such as the May 2011 killing of Bin Laden, SOF cemented its reputation as a key contributor to the operational and strategic goals of the United States.
The second development propelling interest in SOF is the nature of the continued threat facing the United States. While President Obama has rejected the language of the Global War on Terror, he has largely continued the policies and legal arguments put forward by his predecessor.[v] Both political parties have recognized that the fight against violent extremism represents, in the words of Michael Morell, “the great war of our time.”[vi] Given the global, secretive, and diverse nature of the threat, SOF are uniquely suited for taking the lead in the fight. Whether it be assisting allies through Foreign Internal Defense or conducting surgical strikes in denied environments, SOF possess the skills, resources, and relationships to get the job done. Moreover, many prominent scholars believe that the struggle against terrorism represents the future of conflict in general.[vii] Traditional interstate conflict is a relic of the past, and as such, policymakers would be wise to invest in unconventional capabilities.[viii] One defining feature of unconventional conflicts is that they typically demand action be taken covertly due to domestic and international political sensibilities – another requirement that favors the employment of SOF.
Last, fiscal constraints in the United States have pushed policymakers to opt for more cost effective solutions to foreign policy problems. This has further increased the appeal of SOF. As Phillip Lohaus writes, “Because they are viewed as ‘force multipliers,’ it is tempting to regard SOF as an inexpensive solution to national security problems.” The allure of SOF as a cost effective solution is helped by the opacity of its budget. SOCOM leaders typically brandish SOF’s relatively small share of DoD’s overall budget as proof of their return on investment. While this number typically excludes money spent on Overseas Contingency Operations and the support granted to SOCOM by the services, it nonetheless becomes a figure frequently reported in the popular press and quoted on Capitol Hill. The result is that SOF’s true cost is poorly understood, making its use appear even more palatable.
In sum, for the reasons mentioned above, SOF are enjoying a moment in the sun. While some of the attention and praise is certainly warranted, policymakers risk embracing SOF too fervently and to great detriment. We’ve seen such mistakes before. After the interventions of the 1990s, many policymakers and military leaders believed the era of large-scale ground combat was over. In his book The Accidental Guerilla, David Kilcullen recounts a lecture he received in early 2001 as a student at the Australian Defense College from a retired American general. The general spent two hours explaining how the air campaigns in Bosnia and Kosovo, the stabilization missions in East Timor and Sierra Leon, and the humanitarian mission in Somalia had proven the obsolescence of ground warfare. He urged the students to focus on the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA), promising them that technological advancement was the key to future success.[ix] This prediction, of course, proved disastrously wrong. The RMA-inspired offensive in Afghanistan just a few months later proved capable of ousting the Taliban, but was ultimately unable to bring lasting peace to the country or strategic victory for the United States. Likewise, the war in Iraq demonstrated the continued necessity of ground forces in 21st century combat. Having bet heavily on one vision of the future, the United States paid a high cost when events turned out otherwise.
Today, the United States risks making a similar mistake by overemphasizing SOF. Investing too much in SOF, transitioning conventional forces to SOF-lite, and using SOF when other methods would be more appropriate all threaten to atrophy other skillsets within the armed forces, produce suboptimal results for U.S. goals, and eventually undermine the reputation of SOF itself, as they will inevitably fail to meet the unrealistic expectations others have set for them. Again, the disappointment of previous trends is illustrative. Following the failure of the RMA-inspired military in Iraq and Afghanistan, many leaders went from praising high-tech weapons such as the F-22 to criticizing them for failing to contribute to the nation’s two ground wars. In an era of cost cutting, the F-22 then became an easy target despite its future relevance in deterring potential peer competitors. In other words, overemphasizing one capability means that when a correction comes it can be equally hasty, overzealous, and unwise, producing outcomes that leave lasting legacies. There is no reason to believe SOF would be immune from such an end result. But even more important, the instinct to immediately reach for SOF in times of crisis will eventually distort how policymakers prioritize and view threats, with potentially disastrous consequences.[x] It is imperative, therefore, that the current trend of focusing on SOF be tempered by a cautious understanding of its risks and greater restraint.
This is easier said than done. To begin with, it’s the job of policymakers and military leaders to plan for the future – a task that by necessity means making hard choices, some of which will certainly be wrong. Second, policymakers lack a coherent understanding of SOF and what they can and cannot do. In particular, the past decade of counterterrorism raids has resulted in too much emphasis being placed on the surgical strike capabilities of SOF at the expense of their equally important special warfare skills. Likewise, as indicated by the debate over how to combat the Islamic State, there is a growing belief that all that’s needed to solve pressing foreign policy problems are a few of America’s elite special warriors.[xi] Last, the lack of a comprehensive theory of Special Operations means there’s no agreed-upon vision for how SOF should be used to achieve the nation’s objectives. This fact reflects the wide-ranging nature of SOF activities and the need for ingenuity in executing special operations. However, the downside to this flexibility is that SOF are vulnerable to the hopes, plans, and designs of leaders whose ambitions outpace their abilities.
Given these limitations, and the developments discussed above, it’s no surprise that American policymakers have become infatuated with SOF. Policymakers’ fascination with SOF is the result of not only their susceptibility to the latest fashion in foreign policy but also the overall strengths and weaknesses of SOF and the current domestic and international political environment for the United States. To balance these forces, policymakers need to be better informed about what SOF can and cannot accomplish as well as educated about the checkered history of past efforts at predicting the future of warfare. In addition, greater effort should be made to develop a comprehensive theory of special operations. There are already a few great minds working on this, such as Joe Celeski, and the potential inclusion of a directive to the Department of Defense to develop a strategy for countering unconventional warfare in the FY 2016 National Defense Authorization Act is a good step in the right direction. However, absent a broader understanding of SOF’s place in American military strategy and foreign policy, it will be difficult to resist overusing or underusing special forces in line with whatever future trends demand. Which is why the most important action policymakers can take to avoid the pitfalls and risks of becoming infatuated with SOF is to remember the basics of strategic decision-making. According to Colin Gray, “for strategy…the equivalent of E=mc2, is ends, ways, means, and (with caveats) assumptions. If a strategist’s narrative performs well on this formula, he has indeed cracked the code that enables – though it cannot guarantee – strategic success.”[xii] Much of the risk associated with developing and using the nation’s special operations capabilities can be avoided as long as policymakers remember that ends, ways, and means only achieve their significance together. SOF have no intrinsic value unto themselves; their ability to kill terrorist leaders, help protect allied states from subversion, and engage in support to political warfare only matters as far as those actions are in the overall interest of the United States.
[i] For example, in the 2011 National Military Strategy, the future Joint Force is describe as being able to: “improve their ability to surge on short notice, deploy agile command and control systems, and be increasingly interoperable with other U.S. government agencies. Forces will operate with an aptitude for precise and discriminate action and increasingly possess security force assistance expertise. Joint Forces must become more expeditionary in nature and will require a smaller logistical footprint in part by reducing large fuel and energy demands. Additionally, Joint Forces must train and exercise in degraded air, sea, cyber, and space environments. The Joint Force must ensure access, freedom of maneuver, and the ability to project power globally through all domains.” Likewise, in his Fiscal Year 2015 Budget Preview, then-Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel declared: “Our recommendations favor a smaller and more capable force – putting a premium on rapidly deployable, self-sustaining platforms that can defeat more technologically advanced adversaries...Our recommendations seek to protect capabilities uniquely suited to the most likely missions of the future, most notably special operations forces used for counterterrorism and crisis response.” U.S. Department of Defense, “The National Military Strategy of the United States of America,” February 8, 2011, accessed June 26, 2015, http://www.defense.gov/pubs/2011-National-Military-Strategy.pdf; Chuck Hagel, “FY15 Budget Preview,” February 24, 2014, accessed June 26, 2015, http://www.defense.gov/Speeches/Speech.aspx?SpeechID=1831
[ii] The Army and Marine Corps are to shrink from 520,000 and 190,000 troops to 440,000 and 182,000 troops respectively, while SOF is to grow by nearly 4,000 personnel to a total of approximately 70,000, more than double its size pre-9/11.
[iii] Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, Ashley’s War (New York: Harper, 2015), 15.
[iv] Bob Woodward, Obama’s Wars (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010), 315.
[v] A few days after 9/11, President Bush declared a national emergency, which helped establish the legal basis for much of the War on Terror. Bush renewed this declaration every year he was in office, a practice Obama has continued. Likewise, the Obama administration is arguing for the continued indefinite detention of detainees from Afghanistan at Guantanamo Bay, despite having declared in late 2014 that the American “combat mission in Afghanistan is ending.” This argument relies on the notion of the war in Afghanistan being just one part of the broader War on Terror, which is far from over. Gregory Korte, “Special report: America’s perpetual state of emergency,” USA Today, October 23, 2014, accessed June 27, 2015, http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2014/10/22/president-obama-states-of-emergency/16851775/; Eric Tucker, “Afghan war over? Then set us free, Guantanamo detainees say,” Yahoo News, June 17, 2015, accessed June 27, 2015, http://news.yahoo.com/obamas-remarks-afghanistan-prompt-guantanamo-challenges-155738373--politics.html
[vi] See Morell’s book by the same name: http://thegreatwarofourtime.com/
[vii] Some examples: Rupert Smith, The Utility of Force (New York: Vintage Books, 2008); David Kilcullen, Out of the Mountains (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013); Shannon D. Beebe and Mary Kaldor, The Ultimate Weapon in No Weapon (New York: PublicAffairs, 2010).
[viii] Lotta Themnér and Peter Wallensteen, "Armed Conflict, 1946-2013." Journal of Peace Research 51, no.4 (2014). This source is better known as the Uppsala Conflict Database, whose charts and data can be found here: http://www.pcr.uu.se/research/ucdp/charts_and_graphs/
[ix] David Kilcullen, The Accidental Guerrilla (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 1-5.
[x] To continue with the example of the 1990’s RMA, writing in the winter of 2001, Josef Joffe criticized the Clinton administration for letting the allure of precision munitions dictate strategic ends. In particular Joffe argues that the administration’s obsession with limiting casualties to both U.S. forces and noncombatants on the ground resulted in a flawed foreign policy, what he calls “hegemony on the cheap.” The overarching problem with this foreign policy was that “means were not tailored to the end; the end was tailored to the means,” with precision munitions playing a central role in this strategic calculus. Josef Joffe, “Clinton’s World: Purpose, Policy, and Weltanschauung,” The Washington Quarterly 24, no. 1(Winter 2001): 141-154. Michael Noonan, “The Seductiveness of Special Ops?” War on the Rocks, March 3, 2015, accessed June 28, 2015, http://warontherocks.com/2015/03/the-seductiveness-of-special-ops/?singlepage=1
[xi] For example, Senator Johnny Isakson remarked in September 2014: “Special Forces are how we took out Osama bin Laden. I would not be reluctant to use them.” Robert Costa and Ed O’Keefe, “GOP senators call for Special Forces in Iraq and Syria, as Obama officials plan Hill briefings,” Washington Post, September 8, 2014, accessed June 28, 2015, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-politics/wp/2014/09/08/gop-senators-call-for-u-s-special-forces-in-iraq-and-syria/
[xii] Colin S. Gray, “Concept Failure?: COIN, Counterinsurgency, and Strategic Theory,” Prism 3, no. 3 (June 2012): 20.