Special-operations forces have been a centerpiece of US military operations for two decades.
As the US focuses on competition with China, those forces will take on a new set of missions.
US leaders should remember that special operators aren't suited for some tasks, one expert says.
For two decades, US policymakers have relied on special-operations forces to tackle the hardest missions.
And for a good reason: US special-operations units have a history of achieving outcomes on the battlefield out of proportion to their relatively small size and budget.
But in an era of strategic competition with China, there are some missions with no special-ops "easy button," according to David Ucko, a professor and expert on irregular warfare.
The limits of SOF
In an article in the journal of the Royal United Services Institute, a British think tank, Ucko argues that as US special-operations forces shift from two decades of mostly low-intensity fighting against terrorist groups and insurgents, US leaders need to focus on using those forces for missions within their competencies.
Ucko writes that strategic competition requires more than violence and preparation for combat — at which commandos excel — and that political warfare is also a key element, making four main arguments about how to get the most out of special-operations forces.
First, the US special-operations community should consolidate its core strengths, particularly irregular warfare, which is "highly relevant" to strategic competition with China.
Second, outside of tasks related to irregular warfare, restraint is warranted because of "inevitable limits on SOF's bandwidth, the trade-offs inherent to adding more to an already full plate, and the nature of the competition, which in most respects remains a non-military phenomenon."
Third, other US agencies also need to take a role in irregular warfare, which Ucko says is "fundamentally about legitimacy, politics and blended lines of effort and so cannot be left to what is, after all, a military force – no matter how special."
Finally, US leaders should clarify what the country is competing over and why to avoid what Ucko describes as "opacity" about objectives that can lead to "a lack of focus and prioritisation."
Irregular warfare is indeed highly relevant to the strategic competition with near-peer adversaries such as China and Russia. It allows the US military to shape the operational environment to its liking before any shots are fired. But irregular warfare includes more than military force and can take a whole-of-nation effort to maximize its effectiveness.
"As SOF establishes its remit in boosting resilience and resistance, it must be careful not to veer into civilian realms where other agencies should lead," Ucko warns.
Indeed, in strategic competition, the departments of State, Justice, and Treasury, and intelligence agencies can often be more effective in certain tasks than the military.
Among the tasks that Ucko says have no "SOF easy button" are addressing local corruption that allows Chinese political infiltration, thwarting Russian efforts to undermine elections, or reviewing suspect foreign investments.
In addition, Ucko argues that special operators are a valuable force that can't be saddled with missions just because they can do them. US military special-operations units already struggle to retain personnel, many of whom have been driven away by frequent deployments.
While foreign internal defense "traditionally meant aiding a friendly government against an insurgency," US special-operations forces now look at it as a way "to boost a country's 'resilience' against foreign-sponsored proxies, modes of disinformation or political infiltration," Ucko writes.
In unconventional warfare, commandos usually sponsor an insurgency against an "illicit or occupying government," but they can also increase the resistance capabilities of countries under attack or at risk of invasion, like Ukraine or Taiwan.
While those two missions are relevant to competition with Russia and China, they are also demanding and will require US special-operations forces to "rebalance" after 20 years of counterinsurgency and focus on a different set of skills, such as language ability and cultural awareness, which has implications for special-ops recruiting and training, Ucko writes.
Different wars, different missions
Special operators can be quite effective in large-scale conventional conflicts if they are employed according to their strengths, and they have proven that time and again.
In North Africa in World War II, British SAS and Commonwealth Long Range Desert Group commandos harassed Axis troops, destroying more of their aircraft on the ground in raids than the Allied air forces could shoot down. SAS and LRDG reconnaissance also enabled the Allies' overall victory during that phase of the war.
US Army Delta Force and British SAS troops earned praise for hunting Scud missiles in the desert during the Gulf war, helping prevent Iraq from expanding that conflict.
More recently, Delta Force and US Army Rangers led the way into Afghanistan, and Delta Force, US Army Green Berets and Psychological Operations soldiers, and the British Special Boat Service teamed up with Kurdish fighters to tie down several Iraqi divisions and prevent them from responding to the US invasion of southern Iraq in 2003.
While that history shows that special operators can shape the course of a large-scale conflict, US leaders should remember that there are still limits on what those troops can do in a major war.
Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate. He is working toward a master's degree in strategy and cybersecurity at Johns Hopkins' School of Advanced International Studies.
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