February 24, 2022


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Emerging from the shadows in the aftermath of 9/11 through the campaign that toppled the Taliban, special operations forces became the favored tool for military and civilian leaders alike. This newfound prominence brought United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) more funding and a broader set of missions, and it fed special operators, regardless of parent service, into the fight in Iraq and Afghanistan. After twenty years of conflict, the various special operations components—from the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines—look remarkably similar in many ways. More than twenty years after entering the public consciousness, the end of operations in Afghanistan provides USSOCOM with an opportunity to reshape the joint special operations force for future conflict.

Under the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), USSOCOM must articulate an operating concept that supports the Joint Warfighting Concept—the Department of Defense’s overarching vision for what requirements each service needs to provide. To articulate an effective operating concept, leaders in USSOCOM must do three things: First, they must overcome a deep sense of nostalgia for the lavish support and prime billing that special operations forces received during the preceding two decades of war. Second, they must resist the urge of special operations component commanders to subordinate their operating concepts to those of their parent services. Lastly, they must exercise the will to contract, not expand, the special operations force’s mission set.

Surveying the Joint Landscape

The US military services each establish operating concepts that guide the long-term direction of the force. These capstone concepts anticipate the character of future conflict, creating a benchmark against which to measure changes in doctrine, training, equipment, and organization. These changes are informed by the anticipated future requirements of the force employers—the geographic combatant commanders in charge of overseeing military operations within specific regions.

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in a role that former Chairman Gen. Joe Dunford described as “global force integrator,” has loosely refereed this process in recent years through the development of a capstone concept for joint operations. However, the draft Joint Warfighting Concept is a significant departure from the past, insofar as it will be the first overarching operating concept that seeks to more deliberately define the missions that each service will have to perform, channeling collective efforts to build capability and capacity for future conflict.

USSOCOM is not a military service or department, but a unified combatant command with service-like responsibilities. Special operations forces are employed under the control of theater special operations commands—led by generals or admirals from the ranks of the special operators—not under the immediate control of land, air, or maritime component commanders. Since special operations forces are a joint asset, it makes sense that USSOCOM would have a responsibility for articulating the logic of the overall contribution to the joint force. This concept must shape where the special operations components divest and how they prioritize their focus geographically.

Global War on Terror Nostalgia

The wars in the Middle East led to an unprecedented expansion of the role of special operations. Special operators became the main effort in counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations. Better trained, better equipped, and more agile than conventional forces, special operators were ideally suited to take the fight to an elusive enemy. Such prominence won USSOCOM lavish resources. Responding to an increase in demand for their services, every service expanded the ranks of its special operators, with the Marine Corps going so far as to create an entirely new special operations component.

The GWOT experience sets a false expectation for the future of special operations. Individual special operations components should expect their budgets, and their overall end strength, to continue to shrink in the coming years. Any new operating concept must embrace this reality.

The prominence of the special operators may shrink, as well. With American military focus shifting toward the Indo-Pacific, a theater of definitively naval character, the prominence, influence, and support afforded the Navy must grow, as well. This does not mean that special operations forces have a marginal role in this theater, only that the priority of their efforts must be secondary, or at least supporting, to that of the maritime component.

The Army, Navy, and Marine special operations components performed almost identical missions during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This bred redundancy and created expectations for the employment of every special operations service component in any conflict. The character of a future war might be limited in scope and exclusively maritime, playing to the strengths of the Navy’s special operators. Alternatively, it could be a proxy war based upon support to an insurgency that caters to the strength of the Army’s special operators.

Beware the Service Silos

With a transition away from a focus on counterterrorism, USSOCOM’s four service components are all moving closer to their parent services. This paradoxically makes it more difficult for USSOCOM to support the joint force. After directing USSOCOM to develop an operating concept that nests with the Joint Warfighting Concept, the 2022 NDAA also directs the command to explain “the manner in which the joint operating concept relates to and integrates into the operating concepts of the Armed Forces.” This may be interpreted by the special operations commands as a directive for individual special operations components to integrate their operating concept with those of their parent services. This would be an abdication of USSOCOM’s service-like responsibilities. The more difficult, but more responsible, approach is to untether the special operations service components’ operating concepts from those of their parent services and create a joint operating concept that supports the joint force—both nesting under the Joint Warfighting Concept and integrating with the service concepts.

American special operations are inherently joint, and any capstone concept should force the creation of varying degrees of jointness. Army special operators, for instance, should not have to participate in every single iteration of the Army’s combat training centers, the major training venues for Army conventional forces. Instead, they should seek consistent roles in Navy, Marine, and Air Force service exercises. Regionally aligned special operations forces ought to seek out opportunities for integration that best match their likely operating environment. This means that forces aligned to the Pacific seek more work with the Navy and Marines, while special operations units oriented toward Europe and the Middle East deepen partnerships with the Army and Air Force. Defining a joint special operations concept for employment will help to break down the cultural divide between special operators from one service and conventional forces from another.

Though leaders at USSOCOM appear to have little appetite for advocating for the creation of a separate service, they would do well to minimize the operational alignment of special operations components to their parent services. Marine special operators, for instance, should view themselves as special operations forces first, and Marines second, reflecting the likelihood of employment alongside or in support of any of the services.

In 2020, the US Army Special Operations Command (USASOC), in partnership with Army Futures Command, published a pamphlet that described the role of Army special operations within the US Army’s broader operating concept—multi-domain operations. This was an important and necessary step toward articulating the role of Army special operators in future conflict. However, USSOCOM must articulate an operating concept that supports multiple service concepts. For instance, it is highly likely that a future war in Asia would see the maritime services—both the Navy and Marine Corps—in the lead. While the Army would probably have an eventual role in such a conflict, this role would likely come later. However, given the regional alignment of USASOC and the fact that the command is larger than all of the other special operations components combined, Army special operators will have a significant role in the conflict, likely well before the Army’s conventional forces.

Willful Contraction

USSOCOM must exercise the will to resist mission creep. Empowered with purpose and with clear divisions of labor, the special operations components can develop the capabilities required for future competition and conflict.

Army Special Forces traces its lineage to the Office of Strategic Services, the World War II forerunner to the Central Intelligence Agency, which focused on operations with guerrillas behind Axis lines. In keeping with this lineage, Special Forces ought to focus on its principal missions of foreign internal defense and unconventional warfare. So-called direct action—pinpoint attacks against the adversary—are sometimes secondary missions within foreign internal defense and unconventional warfare. By being regionally focused, Special Forces add value through their ability to accomplish missions with and through partner forces. Anything that smells of unilateral action should be jettisoned. As independent missions on land, direct action should be the prerogative of the 75th Ranger Regiment and other elements that exclusively focus on precise, unilateral attacks.

Special operations civil affairs and psychological operations soldiers are assigned as members of the Army special operations component. Both the Army and Marine Corps have reserve component civil affairs units and the Marines have psychological operations elements, but these conventional forces lack the capabilities of special operations civil affairs or psychological operations. Like Special Forces, these civil affairs and psychological operations soldiers are regionally aligned, but work alongside special operators from across the joint force. The role of these specialists in the operating concept must be suitably broad to allow them to leverage their regional expertise and ability to operate autonomously, providing information-related capabilities that enable freedom of maneuver to special operations forces in both competition and conflict.

Naval Special Warfare’s return to the sea has already begun. Unlike its Army counterpart, for whom war with and through a local partner force was always the primary mission, naval special operations forces have never been as partner-focused as their Army counterparts and were historically far more focused on direct action and reconnaissance against targets at sea and along the littorals. This is a sensible mandate and leaders should seek to limit the employment of naval special operators in anything that is not a clearly maritime environment.

Air Force special operations have a variety of generally platform-centric missions that, by and large, directly support the tactical actions of the other special operations components as a primary objective. In a recent interview, the commander of US Air Force Special Operations Command talked about a need to serve as both the Air Force contingent of USSOCOM and the special operations contingent within the Air Force. Ensuring a connection to the parent service is laudable, especially if component leaders believe that this has frayed in recent years, but the component’s core purpose is to serve as part of the special operations force.

Marine Special Operations Command faces the toughest battle. Of the four special operations components, the Marines are the newest and lack the sort of natural, distinct mandate of the land, sea, and air special operations components. But necessity is the mother of invention and Marine special operators, embracing the Marine Corps’s fixation on existential threats to the broader service, are likely to define a mission set that is both inventive and functionally distinctive. As a component strategist recently proposed, Marine special operations forces might focus on the capability to conduct reconnaissance in littoral areas, supporting the imposition of sea control or sea denial.

The Hazards of Specialization

The “special” in special operations forces refers to a group of servicemembers who are specially selected, specially trained, specially equipped, specially organized, and—most critically—specially employed. Though conventional forces, the vast majority of the military, are sometimes referred to as general purpose forces, over nearly twenty years of counterterrorism-focused operations, the special operators were often called to perform missions for a general purpose, while conventional forces became more specialized. Because special operations forces are scalable and inexpensive, relative to conventional forces, to deploy and to employ, these forces became the primary tool for any mission, anywhere. If anything this contrast has sharpened in recent years, as conventional forces such as the Army’s sought a greater emphasis on large-scale combat operations. This creates a situation where conventional forces are only meaningfully employed on a “break glass in case of war” basis while special operations forces, who already possess an almost pathological inability to refuse opportunities for employment, conduct operations that simply do not warrant their involvement. This should be reversed, to an extent, a sentiment shared by at least one former secretary of defense.

It’s true—USSOCOM embracing greater degrees of specialization by its components does limit the overall flexibility of special operators to respond to any and every crisis. Reducing the number of core special operations missions for each component may also decrease USSOCOM’s overall budget. However, this greater specialization enables special operations forces to increase their capability to accomplish the missions that the command sees as most important—those that most directly support the overall objectives of the joint force.

The Future

If USSOCOM can jettison some cultural norms and expectations from two decades of war in the Middle East, embrace its service-like responsibilities, and be judicious about the missions that it takes on, the command can craft an operating concept that supports the joint force. By providing purpose and realistic constraints to the special operations forces, USSOCOM will empower the components to build the right capabilities that can guide special operations force design for the next decade.

Gordon Richmond is a US Army Special Forces officer assigned to the 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne) and the deputy director of fellows at the Irregular Warfare Initiative.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.

Image credit: Spec. Patrik Orcutt