12 June 2019

How will the US Special Operations Forces adapt to the requirements of the modern security environment?

Daniel Ilie

According to the US National Defense Strategy 2018, the US Special Operations Forces (SOF) must be able to compete, deter, and win the competition with an adversary in a security environment characterized by the re-emergence of the long-term strategic competition, rapid technology dispersion, and new concepts of war and competition across the whole spectrum of conflict.

Image source: Mediafax

And, just like any other competitor, without predictable and sustained investments to rebuild readiness and modernize capabilities, America will quickly lose its military advantage and will no longer be able to achieve its defense objectives. All those will lead to the diminishing of its global influence, the erosion of the alliance and partners' co-operation, the reduction of their access to the markets, and, consequently, to the decrease of the Americans’ living standards and prosperity, the strategy says.

Although the document argues that the current strategic competition among states, not terrorism, is the main concern of the US, it seems, however, that at least for the US SOF, the fight against terrorism and against violent extremist organizations (VEO), as defined in the strategy, will remain just as important responsibilities and concerns.

The recent terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka, carried out during the 2019 Catholic Easter celebrations and resulting in 253 dead people, confirm that terrorism caused by ideology and unstable political and economic structures persists despite the President Trump’s lately claimed 100% defeat of the so-called ISIS group’s caliphate. In fact, precisely this Islamic group has assumed the responsibility for the planning, organization, and execution of  the terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka.

That protecting the nation against a terrorist attack remains a long-term task of the US SOF was even confirmed by the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations/Low-Intensity Conflict during this year April hearings before the Subcommittee on Intelligence and Emerging Threats and Capabilities (Committee on Armed Services)/ United States House of Representatives regarding the Review of the Fiscal Year 2020 Budget Request for U.S. Special Operations Forces and Command (USSOCOM).

He said that “SOF are essential to direct action against high-value targets, supporting key allies and partners, and deterring state and non-state actors from acquiring, proliferating, or using weapons of mass destruction. In this regard, Southwest Asia and the Middle East will continue to be the focus of these efforts, but, because these transnational threat networks operate globally, USSOCOM’s worldwide reach will be essential to confronting them.”

In order for these goals to unfold, there is obviously a need for resources and, precisely for this reason, USSOCOM's 2020 request for funding comes with a necessary of $ 13.8 billion. And these staggering amounts (up $ 381 million compared to the 2019 budget) are intended for the proper functioning of a category of elite forces consisting of an impressive number of staff, 73,204 military and civilian, active and reservists (an increase with 2.2% compared to 2019 and a total approximately equal to the number of personnel in the whole Romanian Armed Forces). The 2020 draft budget is mainly divided into two sections, the basic budget and the budget for contingency operations outside the US territory. It provides funds for operations and maintenance, research, development, testing, and evaluation, procurement and infrastructure, a total of almost $ 10 billions being needed only for the operations and maintenance of the forces, to include contingency operations at the global level.


The vision, the mission and the strategic objectives of the USSOCOM modernization

The USSOCOM commander, Gen. Richard Clarke, presented to the same subcommittee the vision, the mission, and the strategic objectives of the force modernization process attempting to substantiate the US SOF 2020 funding request. He said that the US SOF was reforming their current forces and capabilities while developing new approaches to the technologies and tactics needed to plan, execute and evaluate the full range of missions by focusing on three main lines of effort: increased lethality, strengthening alliances and attracting new partners, and reforming the force structure to make it more effective.

And since, in the opinion of the USSOCOM, professional SOF members represent the backbone of the force structure, the headquarters will continue to heavily invest in them to prepare and make them resilient to any kind of challenges.

In this regard, several types of successful investments have been mentioned, such as Preservation of the Force and Family programs aimed at improving behavioural health, human performance and family support, or the Warrior Care Program that contributes to the resilience of the force by coordinating support and care throughout the process of recovering and rehabilitating wounded, injured, or sick, ensuring that 75% of the SOF operators are restored and able to re-establish the posture of their families as soon as possible. In addition, continuous efforts were made to manage the time spent by soldiers on missions in theaters of operations relative to their time spent in the country, together with families, for restoration (mental and physical) and the regeneration of force at a n appropriate level of readiness (deployment-to-dwell - D2D ratio). It is desirable that, with the projected increase in the number of staff foreseen in the 2020 draft budget, the ratio will be at least 1: 2 (1:3 still achievable) in the case of active personnel and 1: 5 in the case of reservists, so that all emerging SOF sustain or support requests of the so-called US Geographic Combatant Commands can be fulfilled.

As the coordinating authority for the C-VEO mission, USSOCOM will integrate Joint Force, Interagency, and partner nations’ activities into a unified effort, the Transregional Synchronization Forum (TRSF) tasked with disruptng the financial support, propaganda, or foreign terrorist networks that support violent extremist organizations. At the same time, the US SOF will continue to develop and refine their capabilities to conduct countering weapons of mass destruction campaigns.

Among the future priorities of USSOCOM is the full operationalization of a trans-regional Military Information Support Operations (MISO) capability by 2025, able to address the opportunities and the risks of the information space at a global level. This structure will support the combatant commands with improved messaging and assessment capabilities, shared situational awareness of adversary influence activities, and coordinated internet-based MISO globally.

US SOF will pursue inter-departmental and inter-institutional approaches to address threats in areas such as countering the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction or asymmetric threats related to the use of small-scale commercial drones by state or non-state actors (such as VEO).

Furthermore, based on the provisions of the FY 2020 USSOCOM draft budget, the US SOF will continue to use the US Government's Security Assistance Programs (eg "Build Counterterrorism and Stability Operations Capacity of Foreign Military Forces" or “Support of Special Operations to Combat Terrorism”), in the framework of the security cooperation, as a key instrument in the effort to strengthen relations, attract new partners and strengthen alliances, enabling them to cope with threats and challenges of common interest.

I wrote at the beginning of this year in an article titled "SOF go shopping" that the Romanian (ROU) SOF has been benefitting from the US security assistance through the "Global Train and Equip Projects" run by the US European Command (EUCOM). In addition, part of the US programs to strengthen their partnership relations with allies through multinational training, the ROU SOF had the opportunity to prepare together with the US SOF on Romanian soil in Bacău, in April 2019, becoming acquainted, for the first time, with the "CV-22 Osprey" tilt rotor, with vertical take-off capabilities, air insertion platforms.

Gen. Clarke has even pointed out that Special Operations Liaison Officer (SOLO) positions have been set up to the US Special Operations Command level for 24 partner countries that have developed credible SOF capabilities and contributed to "the Global War on Terrorism” [Romania is among these partner nations], while the Americans, in their turn, maintain such liaison officers to 21 partner countries [including Romania], which play a leading role in developing a network that creates a common understanding of threats, develops response options and even technology, tactics and equipment to gain competitive advantage over adversaries.

In a globalized world where industry 4.0 tends to change the nature of security risks, vulnerabilities, and threats and influence the balance of power at the regional and global levels, even the US SOF face new challenges related to the easy access of all actors to/ and the proliferation of cutting-edge technologies that can also be used for malicious purposes. Because of this, USSOCOM commander says, US SOF will develop capabilities to support themselves and provide them with competitive advantage across the full spectrum of conflict. In connection with such initiatives, I wrote in a previous article that USSOCOM has set up in 2018 a Chief Data Officer responsible for data management, data and information policy development, and the promotion of artificial intelligence and "machine learning" processes for the entire command.

Gen. Clarke also mentioned that USSOCOM was consolidating a data engineering lab and operationalizing a Development Operations (DevOps) environment that enables world-class talent to collaborate and deliver technical solutions for the US SOF enterprise and, therefore, allows their own human resource to consume and process data in ways that go beyond basic human cognitive abilities. The transition to data services based on cloud storage/ computing will follow, and their own data will be treated as critical strategic assets.

USSOCOM will also set up a kind of a joint SOF Experimentation Force (EXFOR), a wargames, exercises, and experimentation center that will test concepts developed in the SOF Future Operating Concept alongside technology and equipment developed from their own innovation efforts. 

With extended competences and enjoying the recent reform of public acquisition legislation that empowers specialists to accelerate the procurement and equipping the force processes with the necessary equipment and technologies, USSOCOM will make significant investments from the FY 2020 budget in technology in order to improve the survivability of SOF soldiers in denied environments in strategic competition with near peer state actors (eg intelligent munitions, protective systems such as next-generation radio frequency countermeasures that are critical to aircraft survivability etc.).


Instead of conclusions

Many specialists argue that the future war will be one in which military operations will be planned and executed in five operational domains (land, air, sea, space, and, more recently, cyber space), whereby, through a joint and integrated approach, you need to be able to maneuver in all of these operational domains to gain a competitive advantage.

Current analyses seem to suggest the possibility of conventional conflicts triggered by the re-emergence of the near-peer strategic competition, although it is hard to envisage a reasonably feasible objective that they should occur in the near future. What we have actually witnessed lately are conflicts of interest in the competition for power, influence, resources, markets, some of them are regional, some of them civil, others have a hybrid nature, they involve expeditionary operations, military assistance missions, combating terrorism, or confrontations between proxies supported by certain state or non-state actors.

It makes sense that in such a complex context characterized by rapid and important developments and changes, the SOF from everywhere should take the necessary measures to adapt and modernize their force in order to be able to respond to future security challenges. US SOF not only make no exception, but they should also be the tip of the spear when it comes to the rapid technological developments of the society.

And since the threats and actions in the so-called "Gray Zone" at the seams of peace, crisis, and war will continue to be used to achieve strategic goals with minimal risks without triggering open conflicts and while the ideological trans-regional terrorism threat remains a current concern, it would be valuable if the US SOF, even if they undergo a major process of modernization and adaptation of the force to the new security challenges related to strategic competition, preserved and exploited their skills and experience in countering terrorist networks or insurgencies or in providing military assistance, accumulated over long years of missions planned and conducted in theaters of operations.