Stealth, speed, and adaptability: The role of special operations forces in strategic competition

May 15, 2024
By Clementine G. Starling and Alyxandra Marine

Today, the US Joint Force grapples with an array of security challenges that transcend traditional boundaries and cut across theaters and domains. US competitors—China and Russia—conduct military, information, economic, cyber, and diplomatic activities across the globe, from the Indo-Pacific and Europe to Africa, Latin America, Central Asia, and the Arctic. Managing strategic competition necessitates the United States taking proactive measures to counter malign activities and advance US strategic objectives across multiple theaters and domains.

US Special Operations Forces (USSOF) possess distinct abilities and expertise that can greatly aid in addressing the complexities of strategic competition, yet these assets are often overlooked or misunderstood. USSOF is too often seen as the direct-action, finishing force of the Global War on Terror era. Yet, the special operator of 2024 is not just the physically imposing “trigger puller,” but also the young man or woman who is an expert at coding. USSOF has a unique position that allows it to elevate the Joint Force’s capacity to navigate the entire spectrum of competition. Its activities prior to conflict, such as operational preparation of the environment (OPE), can shape the strategic environment with US competitors. This report contends that, when leveraged effectively, USSOF has the potential to play a pivotal role in promoting US global interests, particularly in addressing vulnerabilities across the competition continuum.

To fully harness USSOF’s role in strategic competition, the authors of this report propose recommendations to United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict (ASD(SO/LIC)), the Joint Force, the Department of Defense (DOD), and policymakers within the defense ecosystem. The recommendations are aimed at enhancing USSOF’s capabilities that already have utility in strategic competition, while shifting USSOF’s mindset toward this role. By implementing these measures, USSOF can better support the US interagency and promote US global interests in strategic competition. The recommendations are summarized below.

First, USSOF must adapt its mindset to play a larger role in strategic competition, expanding its non-kinetic activities and irregular-warfare concepts to counter the sophisticated capabilities of near-peer US adversaries like China and Russia. To do this, USSOF must balance its traditional tasks like countering violent extremist organizations (VEO) and weapons of mass destruction (WMD) operations, which will remain critical, with new challenges posed by strategic competitors. The latter necessitates the global synchronization of Joint Force planning to fully leverage USSOF’s capabilities across seven geographic combatant commands. Effective communication between ASD(SO/LIC) and USSOCOM is essential for articulating SOF’s strategic role across the DOD enterprise, but USSOF must be empowered by the Joint Force to proactively support competition below the threshold of conflict.

Second, USSOF’s capacity to synchronize the efforts of interagency partners, allied and partner militaries, and the Joint Force serves as a linchpin in addressing the complexities of strategic competition. There is nevertheless a gap in understanding regarding USSOF’s pre-conflict role among decision-makers. Many of USSOF’s activities can be leveraged more strategically to shape the competition environment, such as its aptitudes in special reconnaissance, foreign internal defense, civil-affairs operations, military information-support operations, unconventional warfare, security-force assistance, and foreign humanitarian assistance. By recognizing USSOF’s integral role in the competition continuum and integrating it more effectively into strategic planning, the DOD can leverage USSOF’s capabilities to their fullest extent, ensuring a proactive and comprehensive approach to strategic competition.

Third, USSOF can adapt its strengths to new challenges by enhancing capabilities in cyber, space, and undersea warfare, bolstering civil-affairs expertise for extreme environments like the Arctic, and investing in technological advancements like artificial intelligence (AI) to achieve cognitive overmatch in complex operating environments. Empowering USSOF to succeed in 2024 and beyond will require USSOF and the broader DOD enterprise to recognize that the special operator of the future includes a diverse cadre of cyber operators, culturally immersed experts, specialists in space, AI, engineering, or physics support operations, and gender-diverse teams.

Fourth, USSOF must find ways to measure its success in an unclassified setting by internally defining clear mission objectives for strategic competition and establishing tracking mechanisms to assess progress. Articulating success through deliberate campaigns to disrupt adversaries’ strategies can help communicate USSOF’s contributions and impact while safeguarding classified information.

Fifth, enhancing integration between USSOF and the US military services necessitates a better understanding of USSOF’s current capabilities and roles, improved communication, and synchronized global campaign planning to leverage USSOF’s strategic advantages effectively across multiple combatant commands and interagency partners. Clarifying USSOF’s presence and activities in regions pre-conflict, and facilitating collaboration between commands, can enhance intelligence sharing and support strategic-competition efforts.

Sixth, it is critical to leverage USSOF’s agility in identifying innovations from nontraditional defense-industrial partners. USSOF is a leader in identifying, testing, fielding, and evolving new, cutting-edge technologies that have utility across the Joint Force, DOD, and the Intelligence Community (IC). Enhancing USSOF and defense-industrial base relations involves improving collaboration between USSOF and leading-edge defense industries. Initiatives like SOFWERX and recommendations from the Atlantic Council’s Commission on Innovation Adoption can facilitate this collaboration, ensuring a culture of operational experimentation and incentivizing private-sector engagement to support USSOF’s mission success. Appropriately resourced, USSOF can continue to advance innovation adoption for the Joint Force at a time when doing so is essential for strategic competition.

Finally, USSOF must maintain effective cooperation with its allied counterparts while communicating its current and future plans, particularly regarding areas of focus, investments, and adaptations. The US interagency and DOD can learn from the experiences and models put forward by allies—such as the United Kingdom, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and Norway—that have highly integrated special operations into their plans to compete with strategic challengers like Russia and China. In so doing, the United States should continue to recognize the importance of prioritizing special-forces capabilities, investing in small, specialized teams, and aligning with allies on shared priorities to facilitate multilateral operations.

These recommendations not only ensure USSOF’s relevance and effectiveness, but also reinforce its pivotal role in safeguarding US interests and promoting global stability. The US interagency and DOD should invest in USSOF’s many strengths for strategic competition. In so doing, USSOF will stand ready to navigate the complexities of the modern conflict and to serve as a formidable force in advancing US strategic objectives on the global stage.

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