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Special Forces in the 21st Century

As the US defense establishment has been grappling with the conceptual and operational implications of our changing national security environment, one question we are interested in is: what should be the role of special operations forces (SOF) in conflict and competition in the emerging age? More specifically, what should be Army Special Forces’ role in an era of great power competition, gray zone operations, and hybrid warfare?

The world has changed, something painfully clear this far into 2020. On the global stage we are contesting with adversaries who are aggressively reshaping the geopolitical map yet share our desire to avoid a traditional military fight. State competitors like China and Russia innovated in their pursuit of strategic goals, significantly altering our operating environment. Meanwhile, a variety of nonstate actors continue to adopt and adapt new technologies and techniques to pursue their own ends and, in the process, further shift our daily operational reality. Collectively, this presents us with several challenges:

  • The US has lost assured access: more spaces around the world have become contested and denied. For example, China has militarized the South China Sea, denying others assured access through the region. As adversaries such as China improve their force projection capabilities and their relationships with foreign governments, more spaces around the globe will become contested and denied. The bottom line: we cannot operate against actors like China and Russia (or their proxies) the way we have against VEOs situated in locales of limited governance.

  • Much competition and conflict has gone invisible (digital): cyber activities to steal, infiltrate, and disrupt have become standard practice among actors of all types and sizes. Within the information realm, long-term narrative contests as well as specific influence and disinformation campaigns against our public are also daily reality. Technological, there is a growing contest to enhance militaries with AI and robotics, as well as efforts to command the technical standards and platforms of the next generation of technologies. For militaries, this in part marks the dawn of all domain operations.

  • There are no sanctuaries anymore: in contrast to our traditional conception of overseas operations, there are no longer any true sanctuaries for US military forces. State competitors have been enhancing their kinetic threats to us through ballistic and hypersonic weapons, which threaten most US overseas bases as well as the continental US. Thanks to our digital, always-on lives, we are vulnerable to surveillance, virtual attacks, or even remote radicalization, putting us within “reach” of actors anywhere in the world. All of this is likely to get worse as more cities and countries adopt pervasive societal surveillance systems, and as capabilities such as space based ISR becomes a commodity that all can access.

  • Adversaries are gaining leverage and influence at our expense: for example, China has been developing economic and political relationships with many governments across the world for decades now. They have initiated ambitious geostrategic programs to establish access and influence around the world even as the US has withdrawn from leadership and alliance building in defense of liberal and open norms. Additionally, the US has seen a decreasing effectiveness in its traditional non-military levers such as economic sanctions.

On the face of it, a future of “gray zone” campaigns and hybrid warfare would seem to be tailored made for special operations. Yet, it remains unclear exactly how special operations will need to evolve to best support US foreign policy and national security strategy. For Special Forces in particular, there is considerable discussion right now over what should be Special Forces’ focus. In an era of digitized great power competition, should that be foreign internal defense? Unconventional warfare? How much should they move away from direct action and counter-terrorism missions? How much will any of these choices resemble the missions from WWII or the Cold War that have left such an imprint on the SOF community as well as on popular expectations for special operations?

As we explore this in greater depth, the kinds of questions to be answered include:

  • What capabilities will be required for SOF’s evolving role in gray zone and all domain operations? Where might SOF’s traditional value as a force multiplier and generator of nonlinear effects best be applied?

  • How will the needs of partner forces change? What will 21st Century contests with modern adversaries look like, and what will partners need from the US?

  • What new skillsets will Special Forces need that it does not already possess? To meet these capabilities and needs, what new and novel skillsets will Special Forces need to develop and select for in the future?

Moving forward, part of this discussion needs to be the question of what we want things to look like. This is not simply an exercise in trying to guess what the future operating environment will look like, betting on that singular notion, and then trying to build something for that. This is also an exercise in being strategically innovative in shaping ourselves and in shaping the future environment we want to operate in.

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