Role Reversal: U.S. Special Operations Forces After the Long War

Excerpt:

Although the jihadist threat is far from over, special operations forces have also begun looking toward the type of future enemies they might be ordered to fight. In a September 2014 white paper, the U.S. Army Special Operations Command (USASOC) argued that SOF must now master what it called “counter-unconventional warfare.” This idea grew from the sort of multidimensional aggression that Russia has used in Ukraine and other parts of the former Soviet Union. As the USASOC white paper explains:

Russia currently employs special operations forces, intelligence agents, political provocateurs, and media representatives, as well as transnational criminal elements in eastern and southern Ukraine. Funded by the Kremlin and operating with differing degrees of deniability or even acknowledgement, the Russian government uses “little green men” for classic UW (unconventional warfare) objectives. These objectives include causing chaos and disrupting civil order, while seeking to provoke excessive responses by the state’s security organs-thus delegitimizing the Kiev government. Additionally, Russian elements have organized pro-Russian separatists, filling out their ranks with advisors and fighters. Russia’s UW has also included funding, arming, tactical coordination, and fire support for separatist operations.

Countering this kind of hybrid warfare will depend on cooperation among many U.S. government agencies, but the special operations forces will play a leading role. After all, Russian hybrid war relies heavily on special forces, and there is nothing better than a special operator to thwart an enemy special operator.

Role Reversal: U.S. Special Operations Forces After the Long War

http://www. worldpoliticsreview.com/ articles/15209/role-reversal- u-s-special-operations-forces- after-the-long-war
A U.S. special operations forces soldier leads Iraqi special operations forces while practicing movement techniques, Baqubah, Iraq, April 6, 2011 (photo by Flickr user DVIDSHUB used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license).

By Steven Metz, March 3, 2015, Feature

For many years, U.S. special operations forces (SOF) did important, often invaluable work, but were at the periphery of the U.S. military, simultaneously part of the team yet different. Commanders of conventional units often complained that SOF operating in the same area as their troops did little coordination and seemed to have their own objectives. The actions of special and conventional forces were more in parallel than synchronized. Even in the classrooms of the military’s staff and war colleges, the special operators were easy to spot, connected to their fellow students while somehow distinct.

Then the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and the ensuing conflict with al-Qaida and other transnational jihadists, changed everything. SOF always had a part in the military’s plans for big conventional war, undertaking deep reconnaissance and strikes far behind enemy lines. But their true specialty was dealing in the irregular and unconventional realmsthrough actions like counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, advising friendly forces and supporting guerrillas resisting a government hostile to the United States.

Al-Qaida’s attacks on the U.S. instantly propelled irregular threats and unconventional responses to the forefront of American strategy. This transformed SOF from a supporting player to the star of the show. SOF became the face of the conflict with al-Qaida and kindred extremists. When Gen. Stanley McChrystal, an Army Special Forces officer, was named in 2009 to command the NATO force in Afghanistan-which was composed mostly of conventional forces-it demonstrated the ascendance of special operators, capping their move from the periphery to the core of U.S. military strategy.

Now the question is whether this was a temporary condition that will pass as U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan winds down. Will SOF move out of the limelight and return to its supporting role? For the special operators themselves, the answer is “no.” They believe they will be as invaluable in future U.S. security strategy as they have been over the past 14 years. Yet they also realize that they cannot stand pat, but must quickly adjust to the post-Iraq and post-Afghanistan realities of global security.

Rise of the Special Operations Forces

U.S. special operations forces trace their roots to World War II, growing from the commandos, rangers and other special mission units of the armed services and the direct action units of the Office of Strategic Services. These were elite warriors given the most difficult missions, such as attacks deep behind enemy lines or against the hardest targets, assistance to local resistance fighters, propaganda activities and subversion. As the Office of Strategic Services developed into the Central Intelligence Agency, the U.S. Army created a Special Forces branch-which has been the best-known component of SOF-as a stay-behind guerrilla force and organizer of local resistance following a potential Soviet invasion of Western Europe. It was an important mission, but very much secondary to fighting Soviet armored divisions and aircraft with their American equivalents.

Then Army Special Forces came into their own during the early years of U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia, serving as advisers and trainers for both the South Vietnamese military and local irregular forces fighting the Viet Cong. Known as the “Green Berets” because of their iconic headwear, small teams of Special Forces undertook some of the most dangerous direct action missions as well. The first time that many Americans heard of them was in the 1968 John Wayne movie “Green Berets.” They were joined in Southeast Asia by elite Navy commando units, which later developed into the Sea, Air, Land forces, popularly called SEALs. The Air Force began creating special operations units to undertake especially dangerous missions and support the SOF components of the other services.

After the American withdrawal from Vietnam, special operations forces, like most of the U.S. military, walked away from counterinsurgency and shifted their focus back to conventional warfare. This made sense given the sour taste left by Vietnam and the rising Soviet military threat in Europe. This return to tradition mirrored SOF’s World War II roots, with small, elite military units augmenting the large, conventional forces that ultimately determined whether the war was won or lost. SOF were once again supporting players.

In the 1980s, though, U.S. strategy shifted again. In El Salvador, and later in the Philippines and Colombia, the U.S. once more waded into counterinsurgency. Army Green Berets led the way, serving as some of the most effective trainers and advisers of local security forces. Policymakers liked the ability of SOF to work in small numbers and keep a low profile while producing important results. At about the same time, transnational terrorism burst onto the scene, leading SOF to build counterterrorism capabilities. As during Vietnam, SOF combined direct action capabilities-counterterrorism and support to conventional forces-with indirect missions advising friendly militaries and unconventional forces.

While U.S. special operations forces were supremely skilled at the tactical level, they encountered a series of failures during this time, most notably the botched rescue of the American hostages held by Iran in 1980 and several deadly mishaps during the 1983 invasion of Grenada. The most pressing problem was getting the SOF of the various services working together. To help address this, Congress created the U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) in 1987. This was a joint organization, meaning that it included all of the services. Its primary purpose was to provide trained special operations forces to the regional combatant commands. Having their own four-star level command gave SOF a greater voice in shaping the defense budget and providing a central location for concept and doctrine development.

Along the way, USSOCOM underwent major evolution. Following the 9/11 attacks, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld recognized that al-Qaida and its affiliated organizations were not limited to a single region. This sometimes made it difficult for the regional combatant commands to deal with the enemy. Rumsfeld thus expanded USSOCOM’s mission. It remained a force provider for the regional military commands, but under special conditions, it also commanded counterterrorism strikes.

After 9/11, the special operations forces became a leading element in what U.S. President George W. Bush labeled the “global war on terrorism.” As a 2008 report for the Washington-based Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments noted, SOF’s elite, highly trained military units

have figured prominently in US military operations since 2001 and have become central to the implementation of US national defense strategy with respect to the war against violent Islamic extremism, which is likely to be increasingly fought indirectly and in countries with which the United States is not at war. In the broader war against violent Islamic radicalism, to the extent their constrained capacity allows, SOF are building partner capacity, collecting intelligence, hunting high-value targets, and conducting other counterterrorism operations in multiple countries across several continents.

In a very real sense, the global war on terrorism moved SOF from the periphery to the center of U.S. military strategy, from a supporting actor to a starring role.

This had costs. The intense involvement in global counterterrorism undercut SOF’s longstanding balance between direct and indirect capabilities. Tracking down terrorists and high-value targets, rather than training and advising partner militaries, became the core mission. This was one reason that Navy SEALS, who always focused heavily on direct action missions, assumed such a high-profile role, including what is probably the most famous counterterrorism mission of all: the killing of Osama bin Laden.

SOF did continue some indirect activity. In the opening months of the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, bearded U.S. special operators called in airstrikes and helped strengthen the Northern Alliance that defeated the Taliban regime. As the global war on terrorism progressed, SOF helped strengthen local allies in places as diverse as the Philippines, Yemen and Somalia. But there was little doubt that direct action was the main show.

This manhunt campaign needed an institution to design it. According to Dana Priest and William Arkin of The Washington Post, the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), which was created in the 1980s as a small counterterrorism organization, took on this role, planning SOF operations to eliminate al-Qaida operatives and other extremists in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Under then-Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, JSOC played a vital part in crushing the 2003-2010 insurgency in Iraq.

Priest and Arkin claimed that the Defense Department gave JSOC “a bigger role in nonmilitary assignments as well, including tracing the flow of money from international banks to finance terrorist networks.” They added, “It also has become deeply involved in ‘psychological operations,’ which it renamed ‘military information operations’ to sound less intimidating.” Later, as the American public soured on the use of large numbers of conventional forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, SOF, which could produce big effects with small numbers, became more and more appealing to policymakers. They were politically usable in a way that large formations of conventional forces were not.

The Reorientation

At the height of U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, special operations forces were so busy that they had little time to think about the future security environment and their place in it. While SOF still face intense demands from defense policymakers, they are now better able to wrestle with broad strategic issues than at any time since 9/11.

One of the issues that most concerns the leaders and architects of SOF is rebalancing its direct action and indirect capabilities-manhunting and advising partner forces. As defense expert Linda Robinson explained in a study that she authored on the future of special operations forces for the Council on Foreign Relations, indirect actions include training and advising local militaries and irregular forces, assisting humanitarian agencies and directly engaging local populations. Army Special Forces are adept at this because of their wide range of military skills, linguistic training and understanding of foreign cultures. They are particularly valuable in politically sensitive settings. Because SOF operate in small teams, they draw less attention than a large military presence would. This means they can be used in places and ways that conventional units could not.

While understanding the need to restore the balance between direct and indirect activities, the leaders of the SOF also recognize that they will need to be effective in a wider range of places than during the height of the global war on terrorism. As Robinson wrote, “Due to the end of the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan and the weakening of the core al-Qaeda organization, unilateral counterterrorism missions may evolve from high-tempo missions in a few countries to far fewer but more geographically diffuse operations conducted against those who represent dire and imminent threats to U.S. interests.”

Although the jihadist threat is far from over, special operations forces have also begun looking toward the type of future enemies they might be ordered to fight. In a September 2014 white paper, the U.S. Army Special Operations Command (USASOC) argued that SOF must now master what it called “counter-unconventional warfare.” This idea grew from the sort of multidimensional aggression that Russia has used in Ukraine and other parts of the former Soviet Union. As the USASOC white paper explains:

Russia currently employs special operations forces, intelligence agents, political provocateurs, and media representatives, as well as transnational criminal elements in eastern and southern Ukraine. Funded by the Kremlin and operating with differing degrees of deniability or even acknowledgement, the Russian government uses “little green men” for classic UW (unconventional warfare) objectives. These objectives include causing chaos and disrupting civil order, while seeking to provoke excessive responses by the state’s security organs-thus delegitimizing the Kiev government. Additionally, Russian elements have organized pro-Russian separatists, filling out their ranks with advisors and fighters. Russia’s UW has also included funding, arming, tactical coordination, and fire support for separatist operations.

Countering this kind of hybrid warfare will depend on cooperation among many U.S. government agencies, but the special operations forces will play a leading role. After all, Russian hybrid war relies heavily on special forces, and there is nothing better than a special operator to thwart an enemy special operator.

One thing that makes hybrid warfare so difficult is that by the time the U.S. decides to act, lines up allies and partners and develops a plan, the aggressor is already entrenched in both a political and physical sense. The aggressor, in other words, has the initiative. To address this problem, SOF advocate for redefining what it means for the U.S. military to “win.”Winning, they argue, should mean identifying and engaging vulnerable nations before they face hybrid aggression, and helping them harden their military, political, psychological and economic defenses. Rather than putting out fires, as the U.S. did after 9/11, SOF want to help build firewalls around the world.

USSOCOM also encourages the entire U.S. military and Department of Defense to adopt a concept called the “human domain” of war. USSOCOM defines this as “the totality of the physical, cultural, and social environments that influence human behavior to the extent that success of any military strategy, operation, or tactical action depends on the application of unique capabilities that are designed to fight and win population-centric conflicts.”

This apparently simple idea has profound implications. As Lt. Charles Cleveland, commander of the U.S. Army Special Operations Command, phrased it, the U.S. already has “exquisite capabilities to kill people” but needs “exquisite capabilities to manipulate them.” Killing, in other words, is not enough in the kinds of conflicts the U.S. is likely to engage in-the U.S. military must find ways to generate desired psychological effects, such as shifting a population’s loyalty to a partner government, as well. That requires both precision and an astute understanding of human perception, particularly in diverse cultures, something that SOF bring to the table. But despite the logic of this argument, USSOCOM has had a difficult time selling it to the rest of the U.S. military.

The Future of SOF

Writing in the U.S. Army journal Military Review, Lt. Col. Phillip Reynolds observed about special operations forces, “They will always be needed for conventional types of conflict, but irregular warfare needs other types of organizations and tools. United States Special Operations Command assets are better suited to the persistent, low-intensity conflicts likely to characterize operations in the near future.” Defense officials recognize this. While most of the U.S. military is grappling with deep budget cuts and force reductions, USSOCOM’s budget and personnel number have remained relatively flat. Even so, it represents only about 1.8 percent of the Department of Defense budget.

Despite all of this, SOF face major hurdles. Coming out of Iraq and Afghanistan, its most immediate challenge has been sustaining the readiness of its forces. The intense operational pace of the past 14 years has caused much of SOF to postpone needed training and education. It has also taken a major human toll. Special operations forces are even more worn out than the rest of the U.S. military and, as generals like to put it, need to “reset.”

At the same time, USSOCOM continues to push the U.S. military’s intellectual and conceptual boundaries. Just as a small team of SOF is one of the most flexible and adaptable tactical organizations in the U.S. military-or any military-USSOCOM is one of the most strategically innovative elements in the Department of Defense. Its advocacy for the human domain and other ways of assuring psychological precision shows that.

Still, questions remain. For instance, is USSOCOM looking far enough into the future? Will Russian-style hybrid warfare really be the primary threat the U.S. faces over the next decade and beyond? If so, USSOCOM’s notion of counter-unconventional warfare is on the mark and may provide a template for the entire U.S. military. But what if Russian hybrid warfare turns out to be simply the final gasp of a desperate and fading regime, and the future U.S. military must defend against some very different type of threat?

Ultimately, though, the biggest challenge to USSOCOM’s vision of its own future may not lie within the organization, but with the broader contours of American strategy. This vision is based on the assumption that indirect efforts, such as strengthening and supporting partners, are more efficient than fighting adversaries-particularly adversaries that have instigated a conflict and seized the initiative. El Salvador, Colombia and the Philippines are most often touted as the examples that prove this. But those nations shared some vital characteristics: They had functioning government and security forces that only needed limited help, and they subscribed to the Western notions of legitimacy, security and good governance. All the U.S. had to do was prod them along.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, the small-footprint, indirect, preventative, focused approach that USSOCOM favors would not have been enough. The U.S. was not helping functional security forces improve, but creating security forces from scratch. This is a much bigger and more difficult task, and may be impossible for small SOF teams, no matter how skilled they are.

Therein lies the rub. If the major security challenge for the U.S. in coming decades continues to be eliminating terrorists and helping functioning partner security forces, then USSOCOM will retain its starring role in U.S. security strategy. Its current reorientation is probably on track. And if the U.S. defense budget and military continue to shrink, special operations forces will continue to give American policymakers a relatively inexpensive and politically palatable way of shaping the global security environment.

But if the future holds something dramatically different, perhaps the risk of large-scale conflict with China or the nightmare of nuclear warfare, USSOCOM may again leave the limelight, passing from the center of U.S. military strategy back to its periphery.

Steven Metz is director of research at the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute and the author of “Iraq and the Evolution of American Strategy.” His weekly WPR column, Strategic Horizons, appears every Friday. You can follow him on Twitter @steven_metz. All ideas in this essay are strictly his own and do not represent the official position of the U.S. Army or U.S. Army War College.

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