The Quiet Professionals: The Future of U.S. Special Operations Forces

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Written by Whitney Grespin, Contributing Editor

Considering the drawdown from two major ground engagements that have lasted the U.S. military (USMIL) over a decade and the related budgetary pressures on resource allocation, the nature of USMIL activities in the years ahead has already begun to reveal itself. As the U.S. continues to shift from high-visibility, heavy presence interventions to more refined capacity enhancement initiatives and surgical direct action missions, the military will need to rely less on brawn and more on craft. Fortunately, the USMIL has been carefully cultivating Special Operations Forces (SOF) for decades that are perfectly suited to counter the challenges that lay ahead.

What does SOF mean?

First, it is important to clarify the terminology surrounding these unique assets. The elements that make up the broader Special Operations Forces themselves are not standardized, as there is no single entity, branch, or unit that the term “SOF” refers to. Rather, the term SOF overarches the different special operations capabilities of each military branch.

When many individuals and media reports refer to “Special Forces”, they often think that they are referring to the overarching USMIL SOF personnel and their specialized capabilities. However, the name “Special Forces” (SF) refers only to one element of the Army’s Special Operations Command, an element is more popularly referred to as the Green Berets; SOF references a much wider pool of talent and capability across the services.

Each branch has representation under the SOF umbrella, as well as the elite collaborative Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) headquartered in Fort Bragg, NC. JSOC draws the cream of the crop from all of these special operations entities to ensure interoperability across the services for highly specialized missions and efforts. All of these elements fall under the command of SOCOM (Special Operations Command), which was established on April 17, 1987 out of MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida to unify coordination.

Designations within these specialized organizations break down further into “white” and “black” activities. White units are those whose missions are highly sensitive but not exclusively clandestine, while as one Sergeant Major with over two decades’ of special ops experience put it, “Black SOF, well, nobody’s supposed to know they’re anywhere doing anything.”

How SOF is Different

After decades of development, criticism, growing pains, and myriad silent successes that the general population will likely never hear about, SOF’s value has been proven repeatedly (and more publicly) since 9/11 than ever before. As one veteran commented, “[SOF are] less than 5 percent of the people, and less than 5 percent of the budget, but they did 60-70 percent of the work in Afghanistan.” While some may disagree with this assessment, it is undeniable that SOF’s specialized skill sets have proven to be appropriate tools in the asymmetric and counterinsurgent warfare styles of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Jim Bourie, former U.S. Army Green Beret and strategy consultant with Toffler Associates, explained, “The toppling of the Taliban by a handful of SFODAs [Special Forces Operational Detachment-Alpha, or the basic element/team of SF operations] partnered with the Northern Alliance sent shockwaves through the conventional military. Now [significant engagements] could be won with 50 men and airpower.” This changed policy makers’ minds about the strategic value of SOF forces, and encouraged increased integration of SOF use in broader operational planning.

John Christian, VP of the Special Operations Business Unit at K2 Solutions, Inc. and a 30 year Army/SOF veteran, explained SOF’s appeal in these less conventional war fighting environments: “The inherent creativity, flexibility, and adaptability within these elements make them fundamentally different than conventional forces. It is this level of creativity, flexibility, and adaptability of the personnel required for the missions assigned to SOF elements [that] make SOF fundamentally different.”

The reorientation of U.S. Government policy away from conventional troop engagement and towards capacity-building programs in post- and low-intensity conflict environments via increased foreign security assistance schemes is a trend that has already begun, and is likely to only continue to grow in the years ahead. As interventions strive to achieve greater impact with lighter footprints, this shift away from having large numbers of boots on the ground will instead lean heavily on the specialized skill sets of SOF service members.

In stark contrast to Hollywood’s portrayal of the young, rash, and arrogant cowboy-types who supposedly populate our nation’s SOF ranks are the true statistics that represent our nation’s most trained assets. According to a 2013 SOCOM demographic overview, the typical Special Operator is married and has at least two kids, has 8 years’ experience in the General Purpose Force, and is an average of 29 years old for an enlisted serviceman, or 34 years old if serving as an officer. This operator has attended multiple advanced tactical schools, is well educated, and is likely to hold a college degree.

“There are inherent challenges associated with the public perception of SOF and the Operator. The most often conjured image is one of an individual forged for Direct Action and the Strategic Raid—a chiseled character versed in the various tools of violence, but little more,” explained Dave Whitmire, CEO/President of K2 and decorated combat veteran with 28 years of Special Operations experience, “In reality, the SOF Operator is much more, and as the Force evolves you will see the reemergence of the ‘operator-statesman’ who is capable of the rapid transition from armed combat to issuing medicine to local inhabitants in need of care.” This cultivated, mature disposition is an important determinant of the tone of the missions which SOF personnel are tasked with undertaking.

Forward Planning

As SOCOM (Special Operations Command) head Admiral Bill McRaven wrote in a Commander’s Foreword distributed at NDIA’s 2013 Special Operations Forces Industry Conference, “There is now a broad bipartisan consensus that costly, long-term contingencies are only a last resort. Instead, our Nation decided to pursue innovative, low-cost, and small-footprint approaches to secure national interests and the shared interests of strategic partners.”

A Special Operations Forces Operating Concept published in May of this year outlined SOF’s central operating plan. To fulfill the central idea of the concept of operations, SOF will conduct core activities with a focused, balanced approach through small-footprint distributed operations to understand and influence relevant populations. SOCOM will optimize the assets of the Global SOF Network to provide strategic options for leadership in support of USG efforts to enhance stability, prevent conflicts, and, when necessary, fight and defeat adversaries. Looking forward, SOF has identified the following key elements as being necessary for successful execution of the concept operations:

  • 1) Understanding the Human Domain,
  • 2) Understanding and influencing the narrative,
  • 3) Promoting consistent engagement through small-footprint, distributed operations,
  • 4) Building sustainable partner capacity and interoperability,
  • 5) Managing the SOF network, and
  • 6) Building resiliency into the Force and families.

It is useful to think of SOF as the hard edge to soft power; their skills are the yin to the yang, and their activities regularly demonstrate that troops cannot be there solely to train and teach, or only to pursue kinetic solutions. Although the training and cultivation of an exemplary SOF serviceman is not inexpensive, these investments in human capital pay substantial returns and mitigate many problems that would otherwise incur more comprehensive costs, both in terms of money and opportunity. There is an established list of five “SOF Truths” that have guided force development in decades past, and which will continue to do so in the future. These guiding certainties are:

  • 1. Humans are more important than hardware,
  • 2. Quality is better than quantity,
  • 3. SOF cannot be mass produced,
  • 4. Competent SOF cannot be created after emergencies occur, and
  • 5. Most Special Operations require non-SOF support.

At the core, SOF operates under the belief that humans are more important than the equipment they use, and there is a distinct emphasis on quality over quantity of individuals trained and deployed. John Christian continued, “This belief drives the fundamental approach to assessing, selecting, and training personnel, and resulting in emplacing mission-ready personnel trained to use a broad range of skillsets and equipped with the right hardware to achieve the mission.”

Given refined expectations for mission essential capabilities and reoriented priorities for the years ahead, the future of SOF is likely to look less like Act of Valor and more like Rudyard Kipling’s Kim. Building on the last ten years of advisory missions and precise kinetic interventions, SOF will look to draw upon the contributions of highly skilled individual or small team operators in less permissive environments as well as enhanced technical reconnaissance and intervention capabilities.