THE ONCE AND FUTURE NEED FOR SOF IN THE GREAT POWER COMPETITION

June 28, 2023

Congress Must Protect and Expand Special Operations

As the U.S. competes globally in the Great Power Competition (GPC) with China and Russia, Special Operation Forces (SOF) remain the highest return on investment in the entire U.S. military by helping to win the struggle even before direct conflict begins. Sadly, there are crippling SOF manpower cuts being proposed for the FY24 and FY25 defense budgets. Put simply, this move to reduce the investment in SOF must be stopped by Congress. In fact, SOF budgets and rosters should be increased. The history of SOF proves this point.

In 1962 President Kennedy signed the memorandum authorizing the use of the Green Beret for U.S. Special Forces, a recognition of the value of special operations in the execution of the Cold War. Kennedy called special operations the “Subterranean War” and viewed the capability as critical to winning the power competition with the Soviet Union and China. The Cold War effort to stand up to communist expansion by the Soviet Union and China required building military partnerships globally, expanding counterinsurgency capabilities, and developing “Unconventional Warfare” (UW) skills to prevent a major military conflict. Kennedy recognized the importance of robust U.S. engagement with all elements of national power and stood up the U.S. Peace Corps during the same period.

President Reagan doubled down on expanding the nation’s SOF capabilities by establishing the U.S. Special Operations Command in 1987, and most importantly, giving it Military Service-like responsibilities that included its own budget. This move recognized the substantial contribution by SOF to U.S. Cold War efforts, but also set SOF on a path to achieving the exquisite precision strike capabilities that were honed in the Global War on Terror (GWOT).

After the attacks of 9/11, SOF began a classic UW campaign in Afghanistan which quickly led to the fall of the Taliban government. President Bush immediately began to increase the size of the force as SOF efforts shifted to a focus of “finding, fixing, and finishing” terrorist organizations across the globe. Throughout the GWOT, SOF employed both their counterterrorism (CT) and long-term relationship building and training skills, although the CT successes were always more visible.

President Bush’s decision to increase SOF operators was important, but actual numbers were relatively minor because you cannot build SOF capability rapidly. SOF recruits are generally older, more experienced Service members, and it takes additional years to assess and train them. This means that once the SOF operator “muscle” is cut from the DoD body, it will take years to replace. Accordingly, even as sequestration became the law of the land, President Obama protected USSOCOM from mandated budget reductions recognizing the importance of protecting the investments in SOF.

And this is where we find ourselves now: a refocused national security strategy toward China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea. We aim to prevent a major conflict while in strategic competition with China and Russia with an emphasis on partnerships and leveraging all elements of national power. SOF was built specifically for this purpose. SOF creates dilemmas for adversaries by building capacity and capability among partners, providing access and intelligence, and deterring major armed conflict in Great Power Competition. Today, this is called “Irregular Warfare” executed in the Competition phase (pre-major theater warfare) in an effort to prevent war.

As an example, the decade of SOF activities with Ukrainian forces prior to the 2022 invasion by Russia has paid incredible dividends. The tremendous success by Ukrainian forces has been largely impacted by that relationship. This provides a clear example of using small, low-cost touchpoints with partners to build SOF capabilities to deter potential adversaries. Syria is another case that demonstrates the impact that an inexpensive SOF presence can have as a small SOF task force has been able to deter Russian (and Turkish) territorial aggression.

Stunningly, with today’s shift to Great Power Competition, there are some looking to reduce SOF resources and manpower – even though the National Defense Strategy charges SOF with maintaining its fight against terrorism while simultaneously shifting to Cold War activities as a deterrence campaign against China and Russia. Combatant commanders are requesting more SOF to do both mission sets, not less. There are major shortfalls in psychological operations, civil affairs, maritime mobility, and warfare capability. The global engagement of SOF to meet the outreach of China in Africa, South America, and the Indo-Pacific region has never been more critical. Meanwhile, the GWoT still remains.

Despite historically high DoD budgets, SOF has been taking reductions in actual program dollars. Reviewing the FY2024 President Budget submission, SOF’s top line, at $13.9B (less than 1.7% of the DoD total budget) has remained “flat.” This is despite inflation that has resulted in a 14% reduction in buying power since 2019. It would take an FY2024 top line of about $16B just to protect the buying power USSOCOM had in 2019. With the expanded expectations put on SOF to hold the line on terrorist groups worldwide, while simultaneously increasing SOF roles in GPC, it would take an incremental increase in USSOCOM budgets over the 5-year Future Year Defense Program to about $20B!

Given the multifaceted and critical role of SOF, the following steps are most important to accomplish in this year’s National Defense Reauthorization Act:

  • Protect – not cut – the investment made to build a SOF capability that is critical to preventing major conflict in GPC;
  • Empower USSOCOM with the statutory right to disapprove any military end strength cuts suggested by the Service Branches and force a Secretary of Defense decision; and
  • Require a study on the appropriate SOF end strength and modern SOF requirements with a goal of funding SOF at levels above 3% of the defense budget.

Continuing to cut this small piece of the Defense pie isn’t going to buy more aircraft carriers or advanced fighters, but it may have irreparable effects on the nation’s ability to prevent a major conflict in the future. America must win the never ending “Subterranean War” to prevent the next World War.


Lt. Gen. Thomas Trask, U.S. Air Force, ret., is the former vice commander of U.S. Special Operations Command. Phil Anderson is the President of the Ukraine Freedom Alliance.