Special Operations are Deterrence Operations:
How United States Special Operations Forces should be used in Strategic Competition
By Tom Hammerle and Mike Pultusker
After twenty years of Global War on Terrorism operations, the question of how to effectively employ United States Special Operations Forces (SOF) now, and for the next twenty years in support of national defense priorities has come to the forefront for policy-makers and military leadership. What is SOF’s value proposition in an era of strategic competition? How can SOF continue to shape the environment and remain an important tool in the American strategists’ toolbox?
Among the first Americans in Afghanistan after al-Qaeda attacked the United States on 9/11, SOF has continued to be at the vanguard of efforts to counter violent extremism. The relentless pace of SOF operations in a continuous Find, Fix, Finish, Exploit, Analyze (F3EA) targeting cycle continued for two decades of uninterrupted deployment. In that time, the American national defense community’s understanding of VEO behavior, assessment of risk to the homeland, and advancements in technology have matured so that countering violent extremism is no-longer a deployment-centric task.
President Biden’s 2022 National Defense Strategy clearly articulates a continuation of the Trump Administration-initiated migration from the Counterinsurgency (COIN) and Counterterrorism (CT), SOF’s current or at least most recent value proposition, to Strategic Competition against China and Russia. After what the 2018 National Defense Strategy called a “period of strategic atrophy,” it is time to relook at how SOF can effectively contribute to national security priorities. While some SOF are specifically designed to deploy into uncertain environments and circumstances to generate certainty and create options for strategic decision makers, all SOF units contribute to these missions by supporting across cyber, space, information, logistics, technological, financial, and other unconventional competition domains. As the United States looks toward a future with more operations and activities occurring below the level of armed conflict, and more competition in the gray space; Special Operations must be included in the deterrence conversation because SOF will reduce risk or strategic surprise, provide opportunities to create and exploit advantage, deliver decision space.
Deterrence – Instilling doubt or fear of consequences
The Joint Chiefs of Staff is clear in its description of deterrence in the 2006 Deterrence Operations Joint Operating Concept as “operations [conducted to] convince adversaries not to take actions that threaten U.S. vital interests by means of decisive influence over their decision-making. Decisive influence is achieved by credibly threatening to deny benefits and/or impose costs, while encouraging restraint by convincing the actor that restraint will result in an acceptable outcome.” Simply, deterrence is credibly communicating the capability and willingness to influence adversarial decision makers.
Historically, and under the current 2006 definition, SOF has not been seen as a deterrence force in part because deterrence and nuclear deterrence are often used interchangeably. Deterring nuclear attack and deterrence as a concept are somewhat conflated in the American perspective because the United States Armed Forces must work to deter existential threats while they must only compete against adversaries in non-existential threat spaces. Due to unique political and geographic realities, historically the only true existential threat to the United States in the missile age has been from nuclear war – or an attack in the space or cyber domains with catastrophic effects. While terrorism emerged as a very serious concern, it is clear now that Violent Extremist Organizations (VEO) are extremely unlikely to be able to seriously disrupt or degrade the U.S. position in the world, nor are these groups likely to gain that capability in next 20 years.
Without a constant counter VEO effort, SOF elements now have the mission space to provide their expertise against the deterrence problem. With that in mind, SOF’s role for the next twenty years should be in support of an integrated deterrence plan that spans whole of military and whole of government. Through SOF’s unique size, capabilities, and clout, SOF can have an outsized role in ensuring the United States’ and its Strategic Competitors stay engaged below the level of Large-Scale Combat Operations (LSCO), off of an uncontrolled escalation ladder, and below the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons.
Effective deterrence requires capabilities, credibility, and communication. Traditionally, U.S.’ capability has referred to the nuclear triad, while credibility has referred to a capacity to use nuclear weapons (including first strike), and communication has referred to the ability to effectively transmit intent. Looking at these requirements for deterrence, it is obvious that SOF can and should play an integral role in each requirement.
Capability - Impose Cost and Deny Benefit
In a Clausewitzian view, deterrence depends on a rational understanding of the value of the object. A would-be aggressor state must be able to weigh the predicted benefit of an attack against the cost that will be incurred. An aggressor can be deterred from attacking if the target state is considered to be capable of mounting a defense strong enough to ensure negative gains or has an ability to conduct a counter-attack that is comprehensive enough to deny the benefit of obtaining the object or impose prohibitive cost. Throughout the Cold War, the United States conducted deterrence through capability; by developing and maintaining a ready nuclear arsenal. The USSR, and all other aggressor states, knew that an attack on the U.S. or those nations which were secured through extended deterrence (i.e. the nuclear umbrella) could mean certain overwhelming nuclear counter-attack.
In Eastern Europe, Eastern Asia, and throughout the Middle-East SOF elements are developing partnered armed forces’ organic combat capability and instilling an ability to work with the U.S. Armed Forces. Through SOF core activities like Foreign Internal Defense (FID) partnerships in the form of Joint Combined Exchange Training (JCET), Counter-Narcotics Training (CNT), Small Unit Exchange (SUE), and other related events, militaries aligned with the United States are deterring aggression from their neighbors by building a defense force, able to mount a defense strong enough to ensure negative gains. JCETs, CNTs, SUEs, are all part of larger partnerships that include foreign military sales and aid programs ranging from small arms to fighter jets and all the U.S.-based training required to support the new capabilities tactically, operationally, and logistically.
Beyond the SOF and conventional capabilities gained through FID programs, SOF are also preparing countries most vulnerable to being overrun to conduct Unconventional Warfare from within occupied territory. Most of this type of preparation is classified, for good reason, but building resistance networks further provides a capability that can impose cost to an aggressor. Isoroku Yamamoto, the Japanese mastermind of the attack on Pearl Harbor, is often (mistakenly) said to have defended his plan to destroy U.S. warships in the Pacific in part by saying that a true attack on the U.S. mainland would be impossible because “behind every blade of grass will be a rifle.” The pre-nuclear age deterrence concept is as valid today as it was then. When it comes to attacking the U.S. and its allies, “We want an adversary to think that behind every rock is an IED and up in every tree is a sniper. That if you were willing to attack this country, you're going to be fighting all the way through. – this means that the cost is too high, militarily but also domestically and internationally,” as General Richard Clarke recently described the concept. SOF has been honing its ability to impose cost or increase a foreign capability using a small footprint since its inception and will continue to do so.
The United States intelligence and defense community readily applies capability in the deterrence discussion to nuclear weapons and delivery systems, it is now time to update the narrative. The United States must bring SOF, and its force-generating capability into the picture when discussing strategic competition. SOF has the correct suite of skills for “encouraging restraint by convincing the actor that restraint will result in an acceptable outcome”, as stated in the 2006 Deterrence Operations Joint Operating Concept
Credibility - Escalation Overmatch
In addition to capability, deterrence requires that would-be aggressor states understand that targeted states and their allies’ defenses are credible. Any incursion against a state with a capable and credible defense network would have a low probability of success. As the Joint Operating Concept mentions, “Decisive influence is achieved by credibly threatening to deny benefits and/or impose costs.” Since the days of the Office of Strategic Services, SOF has been an unrivaled means of imposing cost.
Today, global SOF operations conducted unilaterally and with partner forces re-enforce the American commitment to deterring aggression. Constant overt, low-visibility, and discrete operations throughout the GWOT and continuing today conducted by Direct Action Raid Force elements are testament to a credible, ready force which can impose cost.
Beyond surgical strike, scenario-based war-games and exercises that feature large scale combat operations on land, sea, and air are public showcases of integration between conventional forces and SOF. American and U.S.–led international exercises are designed to train combat and combat support elements alike to conduct operations escalating from steady state operations to full LSCO and Nuclear Warfare missions. Typically beginning with a small or SOF specific problem and working up to conventional forces and eventually strategic forces, these events are designed to force different echelons of international combat power to work together through an escalation ladder. These events also serve to train leaders and decision makers at the national and international level when and how to appropriate force. JCETs, CNTs, SUEs, are routinely conducted as part of larger war games – demonstrating SOF’s ability to readily transition from routine international training events into combat operations in the form of FID, Counter-Insurgency, or Security Force Assistance missions. SOF’s consistent forward presence will further cultivate and enrich relationships through repeated interactions.
Security Force Assistance (SFA) operations further add to credibility of partnered and allied deterrence operations in a unique way. SFA missions allow less-capable or less-developed military forces to aid in the defense of a friendly nation beyond what would be organically possible. SFA missions integrate SOF forces among foreign partner forces units to train and then deploy as a part of that foreign force to a third country. For example, in the face of a Russian incursion in Eastern Europe, a smaller lesser-equipped Baltic or Balkan nation could deploy its forces to the afflicted region with SOF attached; maintaining constant access to U.S. assets, funding, intelligence, and mentorship as a fully integrated member of an allied fighting force.
Adding to SOF’s credibility as a deterrent force, a suite of additional skills reduces the ‘avenues of approach’ available to an adversary. Civil Affairs, Military Information Support Operations, Foreign Humanitarian Assistance, and Counterproliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction are all core SOF activities that credibly frustrate aggression. Much of the post-GWOT interstate competition has taken place in a gray zone of denial and deception activity and information dominance. Within these core activities, SOF has an outsized impact, with a more limited logistics package and working by, with, and through partner and allies to accomplish U.S. objectives.
As with capability, credibility often mistakenly only refers to the willingness to employ nuclear weapons in the deterrence discussion. A maturing discussion of deterrence should include allied and partner nation credibility below the level of armed conflict. While exercises and similar training events often portray direct conflict, their consistent presence are truly actions below the level of armed conflict. They increase allied and partner nation credibility to deter others from attack while simultaneously improving the United States’ credibility globally, often without the saber-rattling of nuclear weapons.
Communication - Encourage Restraint
Communication is essential in deterrence operations between adversaries because only a clear understanding of capabilities and consequences can encourage restraint. Communication is required to convince adversaries not to take actions that threaten U.S. vital interests.
Traditionally, the use of declared red lines, private backchannel discussions, and signed arms control agreements have been used to be as clear as possible about the use of force – even if a level of gamesmanship limits confidence and utility levels of these efforts. On a deeper level, the use of messaging – public statements designed to communicate capability and credibility directly – and signaling – observable action intended to communicate specifics credibly – are equally significant.
Communication is also critical to maintaining mutual defense partnerships. The U.S. must continuously prove its commitment to the use force, up to and including the use of nuclear weapons, to affirm friendly international relationships. As former U.S. Ambassador to NATO, Ivo Daalder recently wrote about, “most people have forgotten that the primary proliferation concern 50 years ago wasn’t about Pakistan, North Korea, or Iran but about U.S. allies such as Germany and Japan… [Counter-Proliferation required an] explicit guarantee from the United States that its nuclear forces would defend their security if needed.” Forward defense relationships must remain an essential feature of U.S. National Security Strategy.
The overt forward deployment of SOF working with allies and partner forces in combat and on training missions communicates commitment on a very high level and affords access to information that would otherwise be obscured. A continued forward SOF presence limits the threat posed by a strategic competitor by ensuring that would-be aggressor states consider de-escalation. Partnership commitment is clearly communicated to allies and adversaries alike.
While forward deployed, SOF can conduct Special Reconnaissance and related intelligence activities to keep the United States and its allies informed. In an era defined by a gray zone activities, denial and deception operations, and pursuit of information dominance, positioning forces to gather ground truth is invaluable. This information can be used in messaging and signaling efforts to achieve decisive influence over other states’ decision-making. For example, where China may take action planned to be low-visibility in an attempt to gain positional advantage and a fait complete legal justification, appropriately positioned, equipped, and trained SOF and Partner Forces can observe and report – affording the decision space and information overmatch to take disruptive action.
The American intelligence community and its global network of international partnerships is the best in the world at finding, tracking, and measuring things, but is less capable of fully understanding capabilities without context. Trained service members and intelligence officers on the ground are essential for assessing intangibles like moral, command and control, and unit readiness. As the world is witnessing in Ukraine currently, the technical asymmetric advantages of the Russian military have not manifested into a successful campaign. This somewhat surprising development should be attributed to an overestimation of Russian capability and credibility, and a corresponding underestimation of those same attributes in the Ukrainian resistance.
Effective deterrence depends on the state being deterred understanding that it is being deterred. Deterrence through communication using SOF can encourage restraint through a variety of means. SOF’s specific position and relationships allow for credible communication to bargain, compel, deter, and assure other states. Having a SOF element in country allows for another pathway to communicate the intent of the United States. In this vein, SOF can message the leaders of other militaries that are not easily replicated through conventional military leadership and diplomatic channels. Furthermore, SOF’s mere presence is a message and signal to any adversarial nation communicating the capability and credibility of the United States. Adversaries and allies alike understand that by positioning some of its most elite units, the United States has committed at a very high level. Beyond communication, if a strategic competitor used conventional forces, or decided to cross the threshold for nuclear use, small SOF elements are trained to respond to unanticipated aggression and the immediate effects of a tactical nuclear strike.
Since the Soviet Union detonated Joe-1, its first nuclear weapon, and the People’s Republic of China completed Project 596 to become the third nuclear state, deterrence has oft been simplified to – the only thing stopping an adversary nation with a nuclear weapon is an ally with a nuclear weapon. That model may not be accurate anymore, and no longer needs to be the case.
Deterrence in U.S. policy has traditionally meant nuclear deterrence. It is clear that the deterrence discussion needs to mature beyond the nuclear triad, and SOF has repeatedly shown that a small, competent, and capable force can have an outsized impact. The United States should not leave many of its best and most experienced elements in cyber, space, information, logistics, technological, financial, and direct action on the sideline in this high-stakes era of Strategic Competition. As the drum of rotational deployments to counter terrorism beats more slowly, it is time to re-think how SOF can use its unique attributes to work in the deterrence space to keep our allies assured and our adversaries at bay.
* The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Department of Defense, U.S. Army, United States Strategic Command, or United States Special Operations Command. *