Restructuring Special Operations Forces for Emerging Threats

By Tucker, David; Lamb, Christopher J. | Strategic Forum, January 2006 | Go to article overview

Restructuring Special Operations Forces for Emerging Threats


Tucker, David, Lamb, Christopher J., Strategic Forum


Key Points

Special Operations Forces (SOF) already make major contributions to national defense. However, the Department of Defense should adjust SOF operations, organization, and national-level command and control to deal more effectively with terrorism and related forms of political violence. Almost 20 years after the Special Operations Command was created, it is clear that to make strategic contributions to defeating current and emerging threats,

SOF direct and indirect action capabilities should be organized in separate commands. SOF's so-called indirect action activities--typically performed by Special Forces, psychological operations, and civil affairs when they work by, with, and through the forces and people of host countries, such as the Philippines, Afghanistan, or Iraq--are critical for reshaping the sociopolitical environment in which terrorists and insurgents thrive. A separate command will ensure resources and priority missions for indirect action capabilities that currently are underemphasized. The new command's indirect capabilities should be augmented by improved abilities to understand and influence traditional social networks.

SOF direct action capabilities that support or bring force to bear directly against the enemy are proficient but require national-level decisionmaking reforms. Better command and control mechanisms, including the Defense Department and national-level horizontal integration teams with their own resources, are necessary if direct action capabilities are to reach their full potential.

Special Operations Forces (SOF) are vital for combating terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. SOF prominence in these missions has only grown since September 11, 2001, when the Nation realized its unprecedented power did not shield it from devastating unconventional attacks. While SOF are consumed by their operations in the war on terror, national leaders need to acknowledge neither Washington nor U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) is organized for optimal use of SOF.

To substantiate this claim, it is necessary to distinguish the two major approaches by which SOF accomplishes tasks. One facilitates or actually brings force to bear directly against the enemy. Examples include destroying a key installation (direct action), reconnoitering the installation before the attack (special reconnaissance), and deceiving the enemy so an attack could be carried out (a subset of information operations). The other approach works indirectly by, with, and through other military forces or civilians to achieve U.S. objectives. Examples include providing training and advice to help other countries defeat insurgents (foreign internal defense) or to reconstitute institutions and infrastructure (civil affairs).

These two broad approaches may be mutually supportive, producing a greater effect together than separately. Also, not all core SOF tasks fall neatly within one approach. Unconventional warfare, an indirect approach, might include direct engagement of enemy forces by U.S. personnel. Psychological operations can achieve effects by working directly on the motivation of enemy forces or indirectly on the willingness of the population to support them. Nevertheless, the distinction between the direct and indirect approaches helps clarify how SOF should be used both now and in the future. This essay argues that current and emerging forms of political violence not only make the two SOF approaches more important than ever, but also require their use in organizations transformed to handle such threats better.

Political Violence

An enormous spectrum of activity is covered by political violence, from election brawls to interstate warfare. Between these extremes, and of particular importance to the United States, is violence conducted or sponsored by nonstate actors. Transnational terrorism is an example of such violence, as is insurgency. …

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