Report: Special Operations Forces Want to Do More Than Just Counterterrorism

By Vivienne Machi
A U.S. Army Special Forces soldier assigned to Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-Afghanistan

Photo: Army

Special operations forces and their capabilities could provide a boost in an expanding global competition between the United States and nations such as Russia and China, according to a recent report. 

Seeing situations play out, such as China's militarization of the South China Sea or Russia's 2014 annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea, has sparked a "vigorous conversation inside the SOF community" about how they can contribute to those types of national challenges, said Jonathan Schroden, director of the special operations program at CNA, an Arlington, Virginia-based think tank.

"They see that as, one, important to the nation … but they also see this special capability that they have and how that could be useful," he said. "They're frustrated … that SOF has been sort of pigeon-holed into the counterterrorism role, and primarily viewed as a capability to address counterterrorism issues that the nation faces, as opposed to having a broader view that SOF can and should also be playing a role in the nation's efforts to try and counter state actors."

The CNA report, entitled "The Role of Special Operations Forces in Global Competition," which was produced in less than nine months, was motivated by a number of conversations with special operators over several years, he added.

The United States must change its focus from constantly preparing for a future war, to winning conflicts that are taking place in the present, said the paper. "While the United States prepares for future open conflict, adversaries act purposely today to prevent the environment from ever entering that future conflict," the report said.

Although conventional forces have the ability to perform some of those types of missions, "SOF are trained, are equipped and have the authorities to perform the missions," it continued. "The United States should aggressively explore the detailed actions that SOF can execute through a counteractive approach in the regions that matter for global competition taking place today."

There is debate inside of the SOF community now as to whether or not the U.S. military should grow the special operations forces to address this need, or merely spread some of their capabilities and training to the broader forces, Schroden said.

"One camp says, 'No, you can't grow them any further without lowering standards and diluting the quality,' and so really the answer is to shuffle some of what SOF are doing off on the conventional forces," he said. "And then there's a different camp that says … 'We could actually continue to grow if we just invested more money into recruiting.'"

If the U.S. government continues to ask special operators to focus on counterterrorism efforts — which seems likely as President Donald Trump has called for a renewed focus on fighting terrorism worldwide — and if operators do begin to take on a sizable role in the country's global competition with state actors, "I don't see how you can do all that without growing the size of our special operations forces further," Schroden noted.

There is an immediate need for SOF to take on this new role, but a shortage of operators to do so, he said.

The use of operators in Iraq and Syria is unlikely to slow in the near future, and should additional troops be deployed to Afghanistan, they would likely include special operations forces, he noted. Defense Secretary James Mattis said during a trip to Afghanistan on April 24 that he would soon provide recommendations on whether to send more troops to the country.

"There's not a lot of room to reduce footprints in other areas where SOF are heavily deployed, like Africa," Schroden added. "So I would say SOF is already pretty well tapped out."

Getting money in the budget for additional operators could prove a challenge, as the Defense Department is already calling for financial relief after years of belt-tightening and operating under continuing resolutions while pushing for major modernization efforts. But the new administration could be persuaded to prioritize SOF funding, he said.

"One thing that's probably safe to bet on is that as the new folks in the White House learn more about SOF, they are likely to become enamored with them as has happened with the prior three administrations," he added. But roadblocks from Congress and ongoing sequestration could still prevent the money from being approved, he noted.

In the meantime, some traditionally SOF activities are being spread among conventional forces to provide relief to operators. The Army recently announced the creation of six standing security force assistance brigade units to be established at Fort Benning, Georgia, beginning in October.

Approximately 500 senior officers and noncommissioned officers will train and advise foreign security forces, according to the Army. "The new units are designed to enhance the readiness of the Army by reducing demand for existing [brigade combat teams] to conduct security force assistance operations, thereby preserving BCT readiness for full spectrum contingency operations," the release said. 

Topics: Counterterrorism, Defense Department, International, Combating Terrorism