Too few planners understand what special operators can do today

Too few planners understand what special operators can do today

U.S. special operations forces have a unique role to play in today’s strategic competition with China and Russia, yet—outside a niche community—understanding of what SOF do is limited, outdated, and under-appreciated. It’s time that changed. For global security challenges that transcend traditional boundaries and cut across theaters and domains, Defense Department planners should look more often to special operations forces.

While most often associated with direct-action missions and counterterrorism, the modern special operator is far more than just a “trigger-puller.” Hailing back to the roots of special operations in the Great War period, special operators are highly skilled at providing intelligence and executing missions below the threshold of conflict that complicate the goals of great power competitors. In World War II, for example, British and American special operators played an outsized role in organizing and training resistance forces in Nazi-occupied France to undermine the German occupation.

It behooves the national security community to update its understanding of the modern-day special operator and to use these highly trained and specialized forces to pursue U.S. goals against near-peer competitors.

Today, U.S. special operations forces have a diverse array of skills, including expertise in fields such as coding, space, and cyber operations. SOF are not only operators—deployed in kinetic, physical battlespaces—they are also, as importantly, enablers—conducting placement and access in spaces where they can collect information and intelligence and enable missions through AI and engineering support. They can operate across the spectrum of competition, executing and supporting U.S. diplomatic, informational, military, and economic efforts to combat adversary threats globally.

Four roles in strategic competition

This versatility and specialized expertise positions U.S. special operations forces as an indispensable player in strategic competition in at least four ways:

First, special operations forces can serve as the supporting arm of U.S. integrated deterrence, which seeks to integrate all tools of national power across domains, geography, and the spectrum of conflict. While special operators are effective at direct action—like seizing, destroying, capturing, or recovering targets—other core competencies—such as information and psychological operations, foreign internal defense, and civil affairs operations—can shape regional environments in which China and Russia are active. Indeed, SOF cross-functional teams are built to combine these capabilities, giving U.S. decisionmakers greater flexibility and options to respond to multi-pronged and multi-domain challenges. They may be of particular use in far-flung, and often less prioritized, parts of the globe, where they can help thwart Russian and Chinese information and irregular warfare.

Second, U.S. special operators are postured around the globe, where they maintain multi-generational relationships with international allies and partners that give them in-depth understandings of local dynamics and players. This can make them effective counters to China and Russia in places where traditional U.S. military or foreign service officers are less present, including Africa, Central Asia, and Latin America. For example, China’s growing influence in the United States’ backyard is concerning; it has invested in 10 space facilities in five Latin American countries, allowing it to expand its space program and surveil U.S. and others’ space assets as they pass over the Southern Hemisphere. U.S. special operations’ allied and partner relationships and its space-cyber-special operations “triad” could allow the United States to operate more strategically in Southern Command’s area of responsibility without unduly shifting Joint Force attention and resources from the Indo-Pacific and Europe.

Third, special operators have their fingers on the pulse of strategic competition. They maintain persistent, not merely episodic, engagement with allies and partners, which gives them a comprehensive understanding of host nations, threats to stability and security in multiple regions, and the second- and third-order effects of operations in local contexts. As such, they are well placed for “operational preparation of the environment,” supporting the broader U.S. military by improving situational awareness, understanding, and operational responsiveness. Special operators are trained to understand cultural dynamics, observe adversary behavior, and advance U.S. interests on the ground in places where the United States lacks even a diplomatic presence. Their presence is light and often covert, enabling them to observe and share intelligence in areas where others cannot operate. This gives U.S. decisionmakers greater flexibility and latitude in where and how they apply presence and achieve strategic effects against competitors. Special operators’ deep local relationships and understanding enable operational preparation of the battlespace, and ensure favorable outcomes even if diplomacy and deterrence fail.

Finally, special operations forces can support the U.S. military’s push toward joint multi-domain operations. Special operators are joint by nature; they work across the Joint Force, with interagency partners, and allies and partners. Other units and planners should draw on their expertise and capabilities during training, planning, and execution.

A good investment

U.S. defense spending can be expected to remain relatively flat even amid hot conflicts in Europe and the Middle East and heightened tensions with China. Ultimately, this will require the U.S. military to do more with less. While budget and recruitment challenges may pressure the military branches to deprioritize special operations billets, it would be a mistake to underinvest in SOF. To the contrary: at a time when the United States must prioritize its global security goals and be selective about where it chooses to be present and engage, the light and relatively affordable nature of special operations forces’ global presence provides great value for money. As Christopher Maier, assistant defense secretary for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in 2022: “representing less than 2 percent of the Defense budget, USSOF provide an outsized role in the national defense strategy.” 

To fully harness U.S. special operations forces’ potential in strategic competition, a shift in mindset is required—not only within the special operator community, but also in the branches of the U.S. military, the Joint Force, and interagency.

 As special operations forces recommend to decision-makers how best to harness their capabilities, they should emphasize not only their direct-action capabilities, but also the indirect SOF competencies—special reconnaissance, unconventional warfare, foreign internal defense, civil affairs operations, military information support operations, and security force assistance—that can be used at different phases of competition and conflict. An enhanced supporting role for special operations forces in strategic competition requires the national security enterprise to embrace a new image of special operators—as valuable enablers not just operators, and as a force to employ to avoid escalation, rather than as the last-resort heavy-hitters when nothing else works. 

Gen. James “Hoss” E. Cartwright, USMC (Ret.) served as eighth vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He serves on the Board of Directors for the Atlantic Council, IP3 Security, and the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Ethics and Rule of Law. He is also a member of the Board of Governors for Wesley Theological Seminary.

Clementine G. Starling is the director of the Atlantic Council’s Forward Defense program and a resident fellow for the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. She recently wrote a report titled “Stealth, Speed, and Adaptability: The Role of Special Operations Forces in Strategic Competition.”

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