12 June 2019

How will American Special Forces adapt to modern security environment’s needs from 2020 on?

Daniel Ilie

According to 2018’s US National Defence Strategy, American Special Operations Forces (SOF) should be able to compete, deter and win in the competition with an enemy, developed in environments featured by the long-term strategic competition re-emergence, quick enlargement of technologies, as well as the new warfare and competition concepts on conflict’s entire spectrum.

Image source: Mediafax

According to this strategy, if America will not make major and predictable investments to remake the operational capacity and capabilities’ modernization, it will rapidly lose the military advantage it has and will not make it to reach its defence objectives. This will lead to its global influence decrease, cohesion’s erosion between allies and partners, it will reduce the access to markets and, implicitly, to population and prosperity’s living level decrease.

Although the document claims that US’s main concern is, currently, states’ strategic competition, and not terrorism, it seems that for the American Special Operations Forces, terrorism combat and violent extremist organizations (VEO), as featured in the strategy, will remain equally important.

Sri Lanka’s recent terrorist attacks, executed during the 2019 catholic Eastern holidays, which have ended with 253 deaths, are confirming, if someone was still in doubt, that ideological terrorism and unstable political and economic structures continue to exist despite the 100% defeat of ISIS group’s so-called caliphate, recently claimed by President Trump. In fact, this exact group has recently claimed the planning, organization and execution of Sri Lanka’s terrorist attacks.  

Protecting the nation against a terrorist attack remains American SOF’s long-term task and it was confirmed by the Principal Deputy for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflicts of Defence’s Secretary himself, during the April audiences in front of the Intelligence and Emerging Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee/ Committee on Armed Forces of US Representatives House, related to Special Operations Command’s (SOCOM) funding request for 2020.

He stated 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.”

For such things to be done, they need resources, hereof the 2020 USSOCOM funding request is worth of $13, 8 billion. These staggering amounts ($381 million more comparing to 2019’s budget) are dedicated to the well-functioning of an elite force, composed of 73.204 militaries and civils, activist and reservists, an impressive number (2,2% more than 2019, equal to Romania’s army total number of personnel). The 2020 budget project is divided in two sections, a basic budget and the budget for contingency operations outside the US, and foresees funds for operation and maintenance, research, development, testing and evaluation, infrastructure procurement. A $10 billion amount would go on structure’s maintenance and operation, including on global contingency operations.

USSOCOM’s modernization vision, mission and strategic objectives

The new USSOCOM commander, general (US) Richard Clarke, has presented, in front of the same subcommittee, the vision, mission and strategic objectives of the modernization process planned for the structure he leads, aiming at giving firm arguments for American Special Operation Forces’ 2020 funding request. He stated that the American SOF are retraining their current forces and capabilities concurrently with the development of new technologies and tactics approaches, necessary for planning, execution and evaluation of the whole specific missions spectrum, focusing on three main effort lines: greater lethality, strengthening the alliances and making new partners, as well as force structures’ reformation and efficiency.

Because the American commission thinks that professionalized SOF members are the foundation of a force structure, it will continue to make important investments to prepare and make them more resilient to any kind of threats.

 There were mentioned some types of successful investments to that end, like the Preservation of the Force and Family programs, which are aiming at improving the behavioral health, the human performance and family support, or Warrior Care Program that contributes at force’s resilience through coordinating the support and maintenance on the entire recuperation and rehabilitation process of injured, accidental people or sufferers. They are ensuring the 75% fight capacity recovery for the SOF operators, as well as the quick reestablishment of their families’ carriage. Furthermore, there were highlighted the continuous time management efforts made when militaries are in operation theatres missions and when at home, with their families, of physical and mental and force recovery at a deployment-to-dwell level (D2D). They want the ratio to be 1:2 for the active militaries and 1:5 for reservists, if the personnel’s number will increase as foreseen in the 2020 budget project, so that they can respond to all the emergent demands of SOF capabilities support for the so-called US Geographic Fight Commissions. As coordinator authority of VEO combat missions, USSOCOM will integrate joint, inter-institutional and partner nations Force’s activities in a common effort called Transregional Synchronization Forum-TRSF. Its mission is to destroy the financial, propaganda or foreign terrorists’ fighters support system that are helping violent extremist organizations. Concurrently, the Americans will continue to develop and improve their execution capabilities of combat activities for mass destructions weapons proliferation.

Among USSOCOM’s future priorities stays also the complete operationalization, until 2025, of a transregional support capability with Military Information Support Operations-MISO, able to approach the global intelligence space’s risks and opportunities. This structure will provide the fight commissions an improved evaluation capabilities, distribution of information on enemy’s influence activities, transmission of messages promoted by informational operations, as well as coordination of MISO through internet, on a global level.

American SOF will continue the inter-departmental and inter-institutional approaches to combat threats in areas like combating mass-destruction weapons proliferation or asymmetrical threats related to the use of small-dimension commercial drones by state and non-state actors (like VEO).

Moreover, based on the budget project’s provisions for 2020, US’s SOF will continue to use the security assistance programs provided by the US Government (for example, “The creation of execution capacities for the stability and counterterrorism operations”, or the “SOF support in terrorism combat operations”), across cooperation in security, as a key tool in the consolidation of relations, attraction of new partners and reinforcement of alliances, allowing them to face the common interest challenges and threats.

I was mentioning, in an article at the beginning of this year, called “SOF go shopping”, that SOF from Romania’s Army (RA) had and continues to have American security assistance across projects like “Global Train and Equip Projects”, developed through US European Command (EUCOM). Furthermore, some of the US programs of partnership relations consolidation with allies through multinational training, ROU SOF had the opportunity to train along the American SOF on Romania’s territory, in Bacau, April 2019, getting to know, for the first time ever, the insertion air platforms with inclined rotor, having the possibility to take off vertically, like “tilt rotor CV-22 Osprey”.

Gen. Clarke has also highlighted that the Special Operations American Commission has created positions occupied by Special Operations Liaison Officers (SOLO) coming from 24 partner states, who have developed their SOF capabilities and have contributed to the “global war against terrorism” (Romania is part of those partner nations), meanwhile the Americans have such liaison officers in 21 partner states (in Romania also) having the role to develop a global system to have a common approach in terms of threats, develop response options and even technologies, tactics and equipment to get an advantage in front of the enemies.

In a globalized world, wherein the 4.0 industry changes security risks, vulnerabilities and threats’ character and it is influencing the power balance on a regional and global level, the American SOF also experiences new challenges related to all actors easy access to the ultimate proliferation technologies, that could be used for malicious purposes.  Hereof, as the USSOCOM commander says, the American SOF will develop capabilities that will support and ensure a competitive advantage during conflicts’ entire spectrum. As for such initiatives, I have wrote, in a previous article, that USSOCOM has created, in 2018, a Chief Data Officer position, responsible with managing data, the elaboration of policies in data and information field, as well as the AI promotion and “machine learning” process in the entire commission.

Gen. Clarke also said that USSOCOM will consolidate a data engineering laboratory and will operationalize a development operations environment (DevOps), that will ease the collaboration of world’s talents so that they can provide technical solutions for American SOF, allowing their own human resource to consume and improve data through methods that are crossing the basic human cognitive capacities. Then, there will be the transition towards data services based on cloud storage/computing solutions, for their own data to be treated as critical strategic assets.

USSOCOM will also create a SOF Experimentation Forces- EXFOR that will test the concepts developed in “SOF’s conception of future operations” together with technologies and equipment developed on their own.

Having enlarged competences and also a recent legislation reform on public procurement that allows specialists to hasten the acquisition and endowment process of the force structures with necessary technologies and equipment, USSOCOM uses the 2020 budget for technologies that will improve militaries’ survival level, who are executing missions in prohibited environments, across strategic competitions with similar state actors (for example, intelligent munition, protection systems against guns’ systems, jamming systems of the radio frequency spectrum etc.).

Instead of conclusions

Many specialists are claiming that the following warfare will be one wherein military operations will be planned and executed in 5 operational fields/ environments (terrestrial, aerial, naval, space and, lately, cyber-space), wherein one will need to have, though a joint and integrated approach, a maneuver execution capacity in all these operational environments in order to get the competitive approach.

Current analyses seem to suggest the idea of a conventional conflict determined by the re-emergence of strategic competition between states to have similar power, although less likely to see a feasible formal objective for it to happen in the near future. What we are currently seeing, are, in fact, interest conflicts in the power, influence, resources, opening markets competition, some of them are regional, others civic, or hybrid, some are involving expeditionary operations, military assistance missions, terrorism fight or confrontations between groups that are military supported by certain state or non-state actors.

Indeed, with such a complex context, featured by quick and important evolutions and changes, all SOF must take the necessary measures to adapt and modernize the force structure in order to be able to answer to the future security challenges. US SOF do not make an exception from that, although they are the spearhead in terms of adaptability to society’s quick technological evolutions.

Because threats and actions coming from the so-called “grey-zone”, which is between the peace and war and crisis condition, will continue to be used to reach strategic objectives that have minimum risks and no involvement of opened conflicts, and cross-border ideological terrorism remains topical, American SOF would better conserve and use their abilities and experience in terrorist systems’ combat and military assistance provision, gained during years of missions in operations theatres, even if they will go through an important modernization process and adaptation of force to new security challenges related to strategic competition.

Translated by Andreea Soare