Small Wars Journal

The Use of US Special Operation Forces in Great Power Competition: Imposing Costs on Chinese Gray Zone Operations

Mon, 12/07/2020 - 5:29pm


The Use of US Special Operation Forces in Great Power Competition:

Imposing Costs on Chinese Gray Zone Operations


 by Kaley Scholl


Executive Summary


The United States is preparing for great power competition against near-peer adversaries by preparing for a major war with China and Russia. However, this is a fundamental misreading of the challenges the US actually faces in this multipolar security environment.[1] Adversaries recognize they cannot compete against the US in conventional warfare. Instead, they are increasingly employing the use of gray zone operations, or those tactics that fall beneath the threshold of armed conflict, to increase their influence and impose costs on the US.


The US Department of Defense’s (DOD) US Special Operations Forces (SOF) are an agile force uniquely positioned around the world and capable of using their irregular warfare asymmetric advantages to counter Chinese gray zone activities. As counterterrorism operations in the Middle East are winding down, the DOD should leverage SOF’s successes in irregular warfare to rebalance the mission sets to meet the full range of new and emerging security challenges in support of great power competition.[2] The Nigerian vignette and the two case studies below are provided to consider the real-world, systematic application of SOF in great power competition against China. While Russia is not explicitly included in this analysis, the vignette and case studies exemplify SOF’s toolkit to compete against a myriad of near-peer gray zone operations.

While preparing for the high-end fight against China is essential to maintain deterrence, policymakers at US Special Operations Command and the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations/Low Intensity Conflict should employ SOF in contested environments in which Chinese gray zone operations are eroding the US’s legitimacy and challenging the liberal rules-based world order. Any DOD strategy for great power competition must be coordinated and aligned with a national, whole-of-government political warfare strategy to combat the growing belligerence of near-peer adversaries.


Introduction: The Need to Pivot to Near-Peer Competition

Since September 11, 2001, the United States has been heavily invested in the counterterrorism operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. This focus has largely distracted the US from the changing nature of geopolitical competition and growing influence of near-peer competitors, namely China and Russia. As a result, the US no longer enjoys the strategic overmatch it encountered after the Cold War, and now faces a multipolar security environment defined by inter-state competition or “great power competition” rather than terrorism.[3]While the US retains superiority on conventional warfare, its adversaries have found ways to indirectly compete against the US in the gray zone (activities of competition and confrontation using non-traditional statecraft that fall below the threshold of armed conflict).[4],[5] One result has been the US losing global influence; nation-state adversaries have eroded relationships the US has historically enjoyed with regional powers and partners, all the while undermining the US-backed rules-based liberal world order.[6]


Revisionist and rogue regimes are actively using tools of irregular warfare (IW) across all instruments of national power (diplomatic, information, military, economic, political) to impose costs on the US and gain influence around the world.[7] These Chinese gray zone operations have threatened US access and placement in key regions where this competition is taking place. China is competing short of armed conflict by using predatory economic practices, propaganda, political subversion, proxies, and the threat of escalating competition to change the narrative.[8] In short, China is using all means at its nation’s command, short of war, to achieve its national objectives.[9] The US is losing this war because these gray operations fall outside traditional US defense strengths. National security policymakers should respond to irregular competition by employing a national strategy using a variety of irregular, indirect behaviors to build and erode legitimacy.[10]


As gray zone operations increase and evolve, the US must use lessons learned from the Cold War and ensure whole-of-government solutions are developed that incorporate the unique capabilities of our agencies and departments.[11]  Presupposing a national, whole-of-government strategy, DOD plays an important, albeit supporting role, in great power competition. To compete in active and ongoing Chinese gray zone operations, the DOD should systematically employ its SOF, which are an agile force with a small footprint uniquely positioned in over 100 countries capable of operating in all domains with allied and partner forces.[12] The SOF community works “by, with, (and) through” foreign security elements in pursuit of US interests, investing in willing and capable partners to promote US influence and align political objectives with these efforts.[13] With SOF’s unique training to operate in multi-domain and contested security environments, unclassified vignettes have highlighted SOF’s successes  in combatting adversarial gray zone operations. 


At the operational level, military commanders have been stretched thin between using SOF for ongoing counterterrorism (CT) and stability operations, while also strategizing the doctrinal and resource adjustments needed to address the growing influence of inter-state conflict. The narrow CT mission set of the past 20 years has atrophied core activities of the SOF skills and capabilities. US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) must pivot away from the kinetic CT operations used in our Middle East wars and focus the SOF “forces of tomorrow” on an alignment to achieve US political outcomes, reinforce doctrinal mission sets of influence and legitimacy, and rebalance the core activities of the SOF community.[14] The two following case studies leverage current SOF operations against Chinese gray zone activities to provide an analysis of how to systematically and holistically employ SOF in theaters of gray zone competition.


Background: SOFs Superiority in a Multi-Polar Security Environment


Political Warfare

Political warfare is the use of political means to compel an opponent to do one’s will.[15] As Chairman Dunford of the Joint Chiefs of Staff admitted, “We’re already behind in adapting to the changed character of war today in so many ways.”[16] The US national strategy towards great power competition must acknowledge that the binary peace/war distinction is erroneous, and instead approach conflict as a continuum, or a range of different modes of conflict with increasing levels of violence, from measures short of armed conflict (gray zone) through conventional warfare (figure 1).[17] By failing to capture the true breadth of its adversaries’ strategies and the narratives they have deployed, the US has missed out as a source of legitimacy with key audiences, ceding influence and reach to China and its ability to counter hegemonic narratives of their adversaries. The US has failed to recognize and engage optimally with the realities of great power competition and its ability to sustain incentives for partner nations and its right to lead, resulting in China and Russia dividing the rules-based international order.[18]


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Source: National Defense University


China’s Political Warfare Strategy


China’s geopolitical aim is to exercise predominant influence over the defining ideas, rules, and institutions of world politics, competing with the US to shape the foundational global system through political warfare.[19] As Thomas Mahnken points out, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) seeks to use “overt and covert means to influence, coerce, intimidate, divide and subvert rival countries in order to force their compliance or collapse” and has a “deep attachment to revisionist strategies that overturn domestic and international norms.”[20] China focuses on long-term positional advantages, sustaining a campaign with exceptional patience and persistence, resulting in competing countries to acquiesce and accept the “new facts” as normal, such as in the South China Sea.[21] The realist Hans Morgenthau recognized the advantages of employing indirect power, noting that cultural imperialism over the minds of men is a more subtle and effective conquest to change relations between nations than the conquest of land.[22]  The CCP leadership uses a “combined arms” approach by employing a wide range of civilian, paramilitary, and military instruments, some of which the US does not have in its active inventory. Analysts from the People’s Liberation Army have argued that future wars will be the “three non warfares: non conflict (fei jierong), non linear (fei xianshi), and non symmetric (fei duicheng)” to attack its opponents’ weaknesses.[23] The CCP is playing out this political warfare strategy with gray zone operations like Belt and Road Initiative projects, the proliferation of Chinese surveillance technology with 5G, infiltrating international institutions like the United Nations, and providing partner nations with medical equipment during the COVID-19 pandemic.[24] Without recognizing the diverse conflict types in US strategy and doctrine, the DOD will likely remain in a state of costly and reactive adaptation when called to address various threats.[25]


The Role of SOF


The recently published Irregular Warfare Annex, an addendum to the 2018 National Defense Strategy, calls on the DOD to increase SOF’s emphasis on unconventional warfare capabilities to support irregular warfare in pre-conflict and conflict phases against China and Russia.[26], [27] The Joint Concept for Integrated Campaigning recognizes the myriad ways that the threat of violence can and should be used in a number of competitive realms to strike a balance between the typical operational doctrines and unstructured opportunism of an adversaries’ gray zone operations.[28] By utilizing SOF’s unique access and ten Core Activities including Foreign Internal Defense, Information Operations, Civil Affairs Operations, and Security Force Assistance, SOF can develop resilience in indigenous populations and use its IW asymmetric advantages to counter Chinese in the gray zone.[29] Lessons learned from being over-extended during the Global War on Terror can assist with prioritizing SOF resourcing levels to the theaters. In addition, the National Defense Strategy efforts towards great power competition prioritize the Indo Pacific, justifying the utilization of the priority of SOF resourcing levels towards the Indo Pacific Combatant Command (INDOPACOM).[30] The increased bandwidth afforded by SOF’s decreased focus on CT will ensure the DOD is better positioned to compete in the gray zone alongside inter-agency assets and redirect to steady-state activities against near-peer opponents.[31]


Vignette: Lessons from Nigeria


There are numerous examples that corroborate the argument that SOF can be systematically applied to combat gray zone operations in theaters of competition.  The Nigeria vignette provided by the US Army First Special Forces Command- Airborne’s “A Vision For 2021 and Beyond, illuminates an example of SOF imposing costs on China and its ability to gain partner influence in a contested environment.


During their third tour in Nigeria, an Army Civil Affairs Team from the 91st Civil Affairs Battalion noticed a billboard with Chinese characters accompanying a photo of the southern Port of Harcourt and sent a photo to their cross-functional team, Special Forces Operational Detachment-Alpha (3rd Special Forces Group) and a Psychological Operations Detachment (7th Psychological Operations Battalion). The cross functional team recognized the significance of this Chinese activity, integrating information warfare and intelligence teams from Fort Bragg to illuminate the threat, uncovering a Chinese conglomerate active in Nigeria who announced a deep-water port being constructed in one month as part of China’s BRI initiative. The information warfare team created an influence campaign to discredit Chinese activities and impede the Chinese from purchasing land by igniting long-standing friction between Nigerian workers and Chinese corporations, sparking protests around Chinese businesses in Abuja. Within two weeks, the Chinese construction company lost 60% of its required labor pool for the port expansion. The SOF team worked with the US Embassy, USAID, and local NGOs to establish a job fair near protest areas to provide disaffected Nigerian workers.


In addition, the Nigerian security forces in conjunction with SOF discovered an illegal weapons cache traced back to a subsidiary of the construction company. The port construction blueprints were obtained by the Nigerian security team and sent to Defense Intelligence Agency for analysis, who discovered the planned concrete footings were specific to support surface-to-air and shore-to-ship missiles. Armed with this analysis, the US Ambassador explained to their Nigerian counterparts that the port would become a strategic target and potential war zone between great powers; the Nigerians seized the Chinese-purchased land and halted the port construction. SOF’s forward presence provided advanced warning of Chinese nefarious activities and, partnering with the US Embassy team, thwarted these activities.[32]




Having illustrated what SOF can accomplish, I present two case studies to highlight the potential for strategically using SOF to impose costs on China in contested environments. The Nigerian vignette highlights how SOF can perform these activities within the parameters and objectives outlined in the Integrated Country Strategy of the US Embassy, which has the lead in all bilateral relationships and dictates key interagency goals in each country, thereby setting the tone for conditions under which SOF can be employed to counter gray zone operations.[33]


Case Study 1: Cambodia


China has worked for the past two decades to cultivate closer ties with Cambodia, backing Prime Minister Hun Sen’s 33 year authoritarian hold on power as he cracks down on political opposition. In 2017, Cambodia scrapped a long-running US military aid program called Angkor Sentinel and scaled up training with the PLA.[34] Between September 5-10, 2020, the Cambodian government demolished a US-built facility on Ream Naval Base, further deteriorating the bilateral relationship.[35] There are two important elements that complicate China’s relationship with Cambodia. First, FireEye, a cyber security firm that tracks cyber threats, has reported that the Chinese espionage group TEMP Periscope targeted Cambodian electoral system infrastructure ahead of the July 2018 elections to gain visibility into Cambodian election and government operations.[36] Second, the town of Sihanoukville is now dominated by Chinese workers and developers to support these Chinese-funded projects, which include casinos catering towards exclusively Chinese tourists. Locals worry their territory is being given away to China, including Koh Kong Province and its 40,000 coastal hectares.[37] Prime Minister Hun Sen has violated Cambodian law by giving 20% of the Cambodian coastline to Chinese-owned companies, compromising the sovereignty of Cambodia by ceding territorial integrity to the Chinese.[38] In addition, with thousands of Chinese moving into Cambodian provinces,  Chinese voters are capable of swaying provincial election; a 2016 legal change allows foreigners with Cambodian identification cards to vote despite not speaking Khmer.[39]


Imposing Costs on China in Cambodia


The Department of State’s Integrated Country Strategy for Cambodia notes that in order for the US to remain influential in Cambodia, it must become a viable option and partner for the next generation by investing in Cambodian security leaders and continuing to support the reduction of explosive remnants of war as a humanitarian priority.[40] SOF can leverage their training in explosive ordnance to participate in the Humanitarian Mine Action Program. Partnering with the US Embassy team and the State Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement, SOF teams are placed with indigenous populations for demining and explosive ordnance disposal.[41] This places SOF with the host nation population for influence, for preparing the environment for risk assessment, and for serving as the human interface element to feed assessment of ground conditions back to policymakers.[42] SOF’s authorities for operational preparation of the environment can assess local resistance efforts that may develop as Cambodians learn of Chinese activities. SOF’s Civil Affairs and Military Information Support Operations teams, whom provide expertise in human network analysis, can identify key influencers and brokers for mobilization especially within elite institutions. The Information Operations’ strategic messaging and framing expertise can amplify local resentment of Chinese presence to build awareness to the wider society, and use framing methods like identifying the source of the problem to a structural issue emanating from the regime.[43] Positioning SOF within Cambodia and embedding SOF within the US Embassy would increase US influence against an increasingly illiberal China by imposing costs on Chinese gray zone operations, and increasing competition by applying resources to Cambodian civil society activities. The SOF team would enhance the objective of becoming the partner of choice for the next generation of Cambodian leaders.[44]


Case Study 2: Myanmar


China is Myanmar’s largest trading partner and foreign investor, with multiple infrastructure projects either completed or underway. China has been a key partner through Myanmar’s political transitions and periods of international isolation. China has capitalized on the leverage obtained during these periods of Western isolation, including most recently during the Rohingya crisis triggered by militants attacking state security outposts, resulting in 700,000 Rohingya fleeing the violence to neighboring Bangladesh.[45], [46]  However, there is an important element to the Chinese-Burmese relationship that highlights fissures the US can leverage. According to a news report published in Myanmar, Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun, the spokesman for the Myanmar military, stated a “foreign country” was behind the militant Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, citing modern technologies used to attack the military in Rakhine State.[47] There are three major benefits to China from arming Burmese insurgency groups. First, genuine peace poses a risk to China’s strategic position in Myanmar. The continued friction between the government and border populations provides China a major source of influence over Myanmar. This leverage can prevent unwelcome US influence in the country, while peace would weaken China's influence over the ethnic nationalities along the border. Second, the Rohingya crisis has strained relations with the West, and China has shielded Myanmar from actions at the UN Security Council. China can use this leverage to win support for BRI projects such as the Kyaukophyu Port and a Special Economic Zone in Rakhine State. Third, private Chinese actors can continue to benefit from the security situation along the border and act with corrupt military officials and the insurgent groups to conduct illicit cross-border trade.[48]


Imposing Costs on China in Myanmar


The Department of State’s Integrated Country Strategy for Myanmar calls on US diplomats to invest across the spectrum of society to identify and cultivate the next generation of leaders. This includes the pursuit of constructive engagement with Myanmar’s military and police services to help bolster its capacity to respond to transnational threats and regional security concerns.[49] While the US has targeted visa restrictions and financial sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act on perpetrators of atrocities in Myanmar, the US continues to pursue an engagement strategy to recognize the positive steps taken on political and economic reforms, government transparency, civil society, and promoting international engagement.[50] China’s use of proxies obfuscates the actual role of the official state apparatus in the support of proxy forces, ultimately benefitting from the degraded regional stability.[51] For the past 20 years, SOF has been conducting counter- Violent Extremist Organizations (VEO) operations in the Middle East and Eastern Europe. Therefore, SOF can partner with Myanmar’s security forces to support counter-VEO operations, which entail embedding SOF with the Myanmar forces to train and operate counter-VEO missions. These missions would increase influence and stifle the operational space the VEOs and China enjoy, all the while developing and exploiting these insurgent networks.[52] SOF can likewise use its longstanding partnerships with the US Drug Enforcement Agency and the Department of State’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INCLE) to combat transnational crime and narcotics, with similar efforts taken in Colombia, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq.[53] By operating with the DEA and Myanmar forces in counter-narcotic operations, SOF can attain strategic placement within the local population, build influence and relationships with the armed forces, and ultimately cut off a funding stream to the northern insurgent organizations. Likewise, the interagency aspect to partnering with DEA expands SOF’s access to mission sets that may otherwise be limited to a strictly military tool. Most importantly, SOF can work towards stabilizing the security situation by using human and signals intelligence to illuminate the broader political project of China, the political use of terrorism.[54]




While Nigeria represents one application of SOF against China, it cannot be replicated mechanically in theaters without adjusting for nuances of international relations and in particular, a country’s bilateral relationship and variations in the local political context. If the US adopted a whole-of-government approach to great power competition similar to its approach to the Soviet Union during the Cold War, the DOD and SOF could perform important supporting roles with interagency partners. In addition, while the case studies focus on South East Asia, the Nigeria vignette shows applicability in other regions. For example, since China is importing its own labor to Cambodia and threatening job security alongside sovereignty, the US Embassy can support local labor and job creation by providing alternative opportunities for Cambodians. Therefore, the unclassified and classified vignettes can offer policymakers a broad swathe of available tools to apply SOF towards Chinese and Russian gray zone operations in all regions.

In addition, human rights abuses in Myanmar have been ongoing concerns to US leadership. To avoid an adverse reaction from Congress, DOD would need to brief Congress in advance regarding the advantages of limited SOF operations. In December 2018 the US Congress passed Public Law 115-409, the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act of 2018, which prohibits funding to Myanmar for international military education and training, and foreign military financing program from fiscal year (FY) 2019-2023.[55]  All US service members including the SOF community must abide by the Leahy Amendment, which prohibits assistance to any foreign security force where there’s credible evidence of gross violation of human rights.[56]  The proposed SOF operations of counter-VEO and counter-narcotic missions fall outside the restrictions Congress imposed on training and education.[57] In addition, SOF’s contact with both the local indigenous population and Burmese security forces can provide early warning for the international community. 


Policy Recommendations


As counterterrorism operations in the Middle East are winding down, the DOD should leverage SOF’s successes in irregular warfare to rebalance missions to meet the full range of new and emerging security challenges and support a comprehensive campaign in great power competition.[58] The below recommendations are provided to allow policymakers to leverage SOF as a proven and effective force in great power competition to achieve US political objectives against China.


Policymakers need to create and implement a new conceptual framework utilizing SOF as part of an overall strategy for combatting great power adversaries.

The DOD and USSOCOM must prepare a strategy to combat Chinese gray zone operations in contested environments, which feeds into a broader strategy to operationalize great power competition. This new framework accepts that victory does not belong to the strongest army but the best practitioner of the operational art of the strategy, a paradigm shift for the national security establishment.[59] This includes broadening the US definition of competition and conflict beyond the binary peace and war dichotomy and diversifying our policy toolkit for multiple response options before reaching the point of escalation of force. This strategy must also integrate unconventional warfare into the DOD doctrine for both SOF and conventional forces. While preparation for a conventional war against a great power serves as a deterrence strategy, the DOD and broader national security establishment should leverage its SOF assets in support of US political warfare strategies for influence and legitimacy to maintain the global status quo.


While Department of State is the lead on bilateral relationships, the DOD can assist in pursuing complementary diplomacy with partners and allies by expanding the Combatting Terrorism and Irregular Warfare Fellowship Program (CTIWFP).

The FY21 House Appropriations Report provides an increase of $63.7 million for International Security Cooperation Programs; the DOD should prioritize and expand the CTIWFP which serves as an instrument of influence by reinforcing US values and establishing military to military relationships which will prove indispensable in the long-term. As Ross Babbage notes, China pursues campaigns of political warfare designed to divide, undermine, and incapacitate opponents over an extended period of time.[60] Congress established the Combatting Terrorism and Irregular Warfare Fellowship Program in 2018 to provide education and training of foreign military officers, ministers of defense, or security officials for the purposes of combatting terrorism and/or irregular warfare.[61]  Policymakers in ASD SOLIC should look at the successes of the International Military Education and Training program during the Cold War to inform a more robust investment in partner foreign military officers using the CTIWFP.


US Special Operations Command and Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations/ Low Intensity Conflict should implement a heat map to identify overlapping areas of great power competition to coordinate the Joint Forces.

DOD leaders must think beyond the stovepiped global geographic Combatant Command map to identify overlapping areas of great power competition. For example, Chinese gray zone activities in the Indo Pacific Command bisect gray zone activities in the Central Command. A more holistic approach to combatting adversarial gray zone operations means implementing a heat map of where great power competition is taking place, which would allow the combatant commands and USSOCOM to prioritize regions where there are overlapping areas competition, allowing synchronization in Joint Force operations. In addition to a heat map approach to overlapping theaters of competition, the Secretary of Defense should consider an independent Project Solarium-like commission to bring together academic advisors and service members to rethink the combatant command configuration.


Special Operations Forces are not the silver bullet solution: policymakers must use the Joint Force, including conventional forces, as one among several tools to be utilized in great power competition.

The services must consider how to utilize conventional forces for great power competition in order for the Joint Forces to meet the asymmetric challenges of adversaries. Just as great power competition requires a whole of government approach, the entire conventional force must contribute to these non-combat efforts with skills already in its ranks, such as for civil affairs operations, information operations, cyber, humanitarian assistance, and intelligence. The Commandant Planning Guidance document issued by General Berger in 2019 lays out a new vision for the Marine Corps. Ultimately, Gen. Berger is calling for a change to both large platforms and operations in support of great power competition against China. In addition, the Marines implemented the Marine Expeditionary Force Information Group, bringing cyber, information warfare, and electronic warfare to the conventional forces which will support information warfare in gray zone operations.[62] Some applications of conventional forces include small-scale bilateral exercises or port calls that develop relationships with the host nation’s security forces without the negative effects to locals of large scale exercises or a carrier group pulling into port. The other services must follow suit with the example of Marine Expeditionary Information Group and rethink how to apply conventional forces to great power competition.


SOF recruitment must reprioritize new skills such as language proficiency, cyber, intelligence, engineering, and cultural studies as US Special Operations Command rebalances its forces away from the counterinsurgency and counterterrorism skill sets utilized in Iraq and Afghanistan.

With the drawdown of counterterrorism operations, missions in support of great power competition gray zone operations will fall below the level of the direct-action armed conflict that defined SOF for the past 20 years. USSOCOM must prioritize recruitment focused around language skills, engineering, cyber, intelligence, and cultural skills as the SOF forces are rebalanced to support of great power competition.


Specific congressional authorities are needed for US Special Operations Command to effectively use SOF in great power competition.

  • Congress should raise the Section 1202 funds (FY18 National Defense Authorization Act, Public Law 115-91), Authority for Support of Special Operations for Irregular Warfare, above the $10 million ceiling to account for expanded mission sets in support of great power competition.
  • Congress should appropriate USSOCOM with humanitarian assistance funds for training foreign forces instead of the current construct whereby SOF relies on the Defense Security Cooperation Agency for humanitarian relief and foreign forces training funds. This would greatly expand the current toolkit SOF can use to counter gray zone operations.
  • Congress should give additional consideration to realigning security cooperation funds by providing DSCA with the funds for capacity building mission and the ASD SOLIC funds for training foreign forces on counterterrorism, irregular warfare, and military-to-military engagements. A steady appropriations stream in support of humanitarian assistance and training projects would allow for consistent planning with partners and allies.
  • Title 10 US Code 127e, Support Special Operations to Combat Terrorism should be modified to allow the unused funds ($100M per fiscal year) to roll over or be reprogrammed to support SOF mission sets for great power competition. Currently, Congress appropriates $100 million annually for 127e operations. ASD SOLIC, in coordination with the Undersecretary of Defense (Comptroller), should draft a legislative proposal for each authority they request from Congress and prepare a program brief for the House and Senate Appropriations Committees Staff Directors on the legislative provisions needed in support of great power competition.


Initiate a Strategic Level Information Coordination Center for Developing and Coordinating US Response to Near-Peer Influence Campaigns.

The FY21 House Appropriations Committee Report recognizes the importance of Military Information Support Operations (MISO) as the SOF shifts from information operations against violent extremist organizations to information operations against China and Russia.[63] The Department of State’s Global Engagement Center is an interagency initiative which is directed to lead, synchronize, integrate and coordinate efforts of the federal government to understand, expose and counter foreign state and non-state propaganda that seeks to influence or undermine US policies and security.[64]

However, connective tissue is needed between SOF’s MISO operations and the actions of Foreign Service Officers at embassies around the world. To fuse efforts, a strategic level Information Coordination Center should be established to coordinate all US government information operations and should likewise include the Central Intelligence Agency, US Special Operations Command, National Security Agency, National Geospatial Agency, US Agency for International Development.


President-elect Biden’s Secretary of Defense should elevate ASD SOLIC to an Undersecretary of Defense, strengthening civilian oversight of USSOCOM.

  • Section 922 of the FY17 National Defense Authorization Act (P.L. 114-328) mandated the DOD transition the ASD SOLIC to an Undersecretary of Defense, reporting directly to the Secretary and Undersecretary of Defense. Currently, the military command of USSOCOM reports to the Secretary of Defense whereas the ASD SOLIC reports to the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, negating the intent for civilian oversight of military commands. On November 18, 2020, Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller designated ASD SOLIC a Principal Staff Assistant to report directly to him and removing SOLIC from the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy construct. This does not go far enough. The next Secretary of Defense under the incoming Biden administration should fulfil the intent of Congress to elevate SOLIC to an undersecretary position to strengthen civilian oversight of USSOCOM with its expanded roles and responsibilities over the manning, training, and equipping of SOF.
  • To that end, the incoming Biden administration must prioritize the appointment and Senate confirmation of the next ASD SOLIC to drive the needed paradigm shift and provide consistent civilian oversight. The last Senate-confirmed ASD SOLIC departed the DOD on June 22, 2019 and five Acting ASD’s have been in the position since.
  • Elevating the SOLIC office and prioritizing a Senate-confirmed undersecretary restores confidence, leadership, and guidance in SOF’s role in the joint forces. In addition, this executive-level oversight will ensure civilian influence over the military culture, direct budget authorities, and shape the future SOF force to counter near-peer adversaries.



The US is at an inflection point: if it fails to acknowledge and counter asymmetric gray zone operations against its adversaries, the cost to regain its advantage and global military superiority will be greatly increased. Conventional war against nuclear powers is forever obsolete, and failure to adjust to asymmetric challenges forfeits the USS’s ability to proactively control the competition space. Kicking down doors will be too politically risky in great power competition. Therefore, the DOD must be introspective and ensure that the forces of tomorrow will be right-sized with appropriate doctrinal mission sets to compete against near-peer adversaries. The Nigeria vignette offers policymakers a low cost, interagency solution to countering Chinese gray zone operations. To ensure that the US is adapting to the changing nature of war, the DOD should leverage its SOF in conjunction with an interagency political warfare strategy to impose costs and control the narrative through influence and legitimacy.

The views expressed in this report are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government. Authors of Johns Hopkins University publications enjoy full academic freedom, provided they do not disclose classified information, jeopardize operations security, or misrepresent official U.S. policy. Such academic freedom empowers them to offer new and sometimes controversial perspectives in the interest of furthering debate on key issues.

[1] Anthony Cordesman and  Grace Hwang, “US Competition with China and Russia: The Crisis-Driven Need to Change US Strategy”, Center for Strategic & International Studies, August 14, 2020, .

[2] Kevin Bilms and Doug Livermore, “Resource-Sustainable Counterterrorism in an Era of Great Power Competition”, Small Wars Journal, October 20, 2020,

[3] National Defense Strategy 2018

[4] Lauren Courchaine, Alexus Grynkewich, Brian Courchaine, “Structuring for Competition: Rethinking the Area of Responsibility Concept for Great Power Competition”, Forum Magazine, FQ 98, Third Quarter 2020.

[5] General Joseph L. Votel, statement before the House Armed Services Committee Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities, March 18, 2015; Captain Philip Kapusta, U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) white paper, “Defining Gray Zone Challenges,” April 2015.

[6] Tim Nichols, “Sending Special Operations Forces into the Great Power Competition”, Small Wars Journal, August 02, 2020, .

[8] David Maxwell, “China’s Political Warfare Strategy Takes a Hit from Coronavirus”, The Washington Examiner, February 27, 2020, .

[9] George F. Kennan, 'The Inauguration of Organized Political Warfare' [Redacted Version],” April 30, 1948, History and Public Policy Program Digital Archive, .

[10] David Ucko “Nobody Puts IW in an Annex: Time to Embrace Irregular Warfare as a Strategic Priority”, Modern War Institute at West Point, October 14, 2020, .

[11] Elizabeth Troeder, “A Whole of Government Approach to Gray Zone Warfare”, US Army War College, May 2019, .

[12] Chad Pillai, “Shifting Fires: Optimizing Special Operations for Today and Tomorrow’s Fight”, War on the Rocks, October 19, 2018, .

[13] Tim Nichols, “Sending Special Operations Forces into the Great Power Competition”, Small Wars Journal, August 02, 2020, .

[14] Tim Nichols, “Sending Special Operations Forces into the Great Power Competition”, Small Wars Journal, August 02, 2020, .

[15] Paul Smith, Jr, On Political Will, Washington DC: National Defense University Press, 1991: p 3. 

[16] General Joseph Dunford remarks at National Defense University Graduation Ceremony,  Ft. McNair DC, June 10, 2016.

[17] Frank Hoffman, “Examining Complex Forms of Conflict: Gray Zone and Hybrid Challenges, PRISM vol. 7 no. 4, November 8, 2018.

[18] David Ucko “Nobody Puts IW in an Annex: Time to Embrace IW as Strategic Priority”, Modern War Institute, October 14, 2020.

[19] Michael J Mazaar “The Essence of Strategic Competition With China”, PRISM 9, no. 1

[20] David Maxwell, “China’s Political Warfare Strategy Takes Hit from Coronavirus”, Washington Examiner, February 27, 2020

[21] Ross Babbage, “Stealing a March: Chinese Hybrid Warfare in the Indo Pacific”, Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, July 24, 2019.

[22] Hans Morgenthau, Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace, Brief Edition (New York: McGraw Hill, 1993), 72.

[23] Dean Cheng, “Winning Without Fighting: Chinese Legal Warfare,” Washington DC: Heritage Foundation, Backgrounder No.2692, May 21, 2012

[24] David Maxwell, “China’s Political Warfare Strategy Takes a Hit from Coronavirus”, The Washington Examiner, February 27, 2020,

[25] Jan K. Gleiman, “The American Counterculture of War: Supporting Foreign Insurgencies and the American Discourse of War,” Special Operations Journal, Vol. 1, no. 1 (2015), 19–36.

[27] Chris Miller and Doug Livermore, “Special Forces Needs to go Back to Basics to Win Against China and Russia”, Task and Purpose, October 19, 2020,

[28] Phillip Lohaus “A New Blueprint for Competing Below the Threshold: The Joint Concept for Integrated Campaigning”, War on the Rocks, May 23, 2018, .

[30] Interview conducted October 15, 2020, Pentagon, Arlington VA (unclassified).

[31] Kevin Bilms and Douglas Livermore, “Resource-Sustainable Counterterrorism in an Era of Great Power Competition”, Small Wars Journal, October 20, 2020, .

[32] US Army First Special Forces Command- Airborne, A Vision For 2021 and Beyond, 2020, .

[33] Interview Conducted October 8, 2020 Pentagon, Arlington VA, unclassified.

[34] Reuters Staff, “Cambodia Suspends Annual Military Drill with United States”, January 16, 2017,

[35] Center for Strategic International Studies Maritime Transparency Initiative, “Changes Underway at Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base”, October 2, 2020,

[36] Scott Henderson, Steve Miller, Dan Perez, Marcin Siedlarz, Ben Wilson, Ben Read,  “Chinese Espionage Group TEMP Periscope Targets Cambodia Ahead of July 2018 Elections, FireEye, July 11, 2018,

[37] Neou Vannaarin, “Cambodia Adrift”, VAO Khmer, July 20, 2018,

[38] Charles Edel, “Cambodia’s Troubling Tilt Toward China, and What it Means for Washington’s Indo-Pacific Strategy”, Foreign Affairs Magazine, August 17, 2018,

[39] Khmer Times Staff Writer, “Battle Over Foreigners Begins”, Khmer Times, August 22, 2016,

[40] Integrated Country Strategy Cambodia, US Department of State, August 2, 2018,

[41] Defense Security Cooperation Agency, Humanitarian Mine Action Program,

[43] MAJ Robert McBride and MAJ Thomas Doherty, “Nonviolent Resistance and Expanding the Unconventional Warfare Toolkit”, in SOF Paradigm in Great Power Competition, Strategic Multilayer Assessment: National Defense University, October 17, 2020, .

[44] Charles Edel, “Cambodia’s Troubling Tilt Toward China, and What it Means for Washington’s Indo-Pacific Strategy”, Foreign Affairs Magazine, August 17, 2018,

[45] Ruosui Zhang, “Chinese Investment in Myanmar: Beyond Myitsone Dam”, The Diplomat, July 22, 2020,

[46] Council on Foreign Relations’ Global Conflict Tracker, “Rohingya Crisis in Myanmar”, October 9, 2020,

[47] Dipanjan Roy Chaudhury, “Myanmar Alleges ‘One Foreign Country’ Arming Insurgent Groups on its Territory”, The Economic Times, January 29, 2020,

[48] US Institute of Peace China Myanmar Senior Study Group, “China’s Role in Myanmar’s Internal Conflicts”, US Institute of Peace, September 14, 2018,

[49] Integrated Country Strategy Myanmar, US Department of State, August 30, 2018, .

[50] Department of State Bilateral Relations Fact Sheet, “US Relations with Burma”, Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, January 21, 2020, .

[51] Scott Harr, “Disciplined Lethality: Expanding Competition with Iran in an Age of Nation-State Rivalries”, JFQ 97, Second Quarter 2020.

[52] US National Guard, “National Defense Strategy Implementation Guidance”, .

[53] Susan Epstein and Liana Rosen, “US Security Assistance and Security Cooperation Programs: Overview of Funding Trends”, Congressional Research Service, February 1, 2018,

[54] David Ucko and Thomas Marks, “Violence in Context: Mapping the Strategies and Operational Art of Irregular Warfare”, Contemporary Security Policy vol. 39, issue 2 February 8, 2018,

[55] Michael Martin, “US Relations with Burma: Key Issues in 2019”, Congressional Research Service, May 8, 2019,

[56] Nina Serafino, June Beittel, Lauren Blanchard, Liana Rose, “‘Leahy Law’ Human Rights Provisions and Security Assistance: Issue Overview”, Congressional Research Service, January 29, 2014,

[57] Department of State Bilateral Relations Fact Sheet, “US Relations with Burma”, Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, January 21, 2020, .

[58] Kevin Bilms and Doug Livermore, “Resource-Sustainable Counterterrorism in an Era of Great Power Competition”, Small Wars Journal, October 20, 2020,

[59] David Ucko and Thomas Marks, “Violence in Context: Mapping the Strategies and Operational Art of Irregular Warfare”, Contemporary Security Policy vol. 39, issue 2 February 8, 2018,

[60] Ross Babbage, “Stealing a March: Chinese Hybrid Warfare in the Indo Pacific”, Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, July 24, 2019.

[61] Title 10 United States Code 345, Regional Defense Combatting Terrorism and Irregular Warfare Fellowship Program, .

[62] Katherine Owens, “Marine Information Group Created to Bring Cyber, Information Warfare Support to Frontlines”, Defense Systems, July 05, 2017, .

[63] House of Representatives, Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, Fiscal Year 2021 Draft Report, .

About the Author(s)

Kaley Scholl is a recent graduate of the John's Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies' Masters of Global Policy program. She currently works in Congressional Affairs for the Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development and Acquisitions. She holds a bachelor's in cultural anthropology and a master's in education from the University of California, Santa Cruz. 



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