America’s elite special operations forces are getting new marching orders as the Pentagon moves away from its post-9/11 focus on radical terrorist groups and trains its eye on big-power rivals such as China and Russia.
In a major shift of mission, officials at U.S. Special Operations Command are drafting new guidance to reorient its cadre of top-tier military units to fight the expanding armies and navies of what U.S. strategists call “near-peer” powers.
Under the guidance, which is still pending approval by command chief Gen. Raymond A. Thomas III, U.S. special operations fighters will be taking a larger role in cyberwarfare, information and “influence” — digital age propaganda — operations, sources say, as well as training allies in the new skills.
“It is fair to say you will see a rebranding of special operations forces,” Andrew Knaggs, deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations and combating terrorism, said earlier this month. “Our problems will not be addressed through conventional deterrence alone.”
Since 9/11, U.S. special operations forces have been at the forefront of the U.S.-led global war on terror, from leading the fight against the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan in 2001 to taking the fight to the Islamic State’s “caliphate” in Syria in 2014. But the new Pentagon National Defense Strategy, fashioned in large part by former Defense Secretary James N. Mattis, is ushering in a shift away from the fight against nonstate radical terrorist groups to traditional big power rivals.
Under the new strategy, Europe and Asia once again become the “priority theaters” for U.S. forces. The Middle East will become a theater to be managed, not a region of consuming focus.
Whether that shift is an opportunity or an attempt to clip the special operations forces’ wings is a matter of sharp debate in military circles. The combined special operations forces, including separate arms of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines, grew from 45,000 in 2001 to an estimated 70,000 today, and some critics say the expansions in size and mission have not been healthy.
Special ops forces have suffered some notable black eyes in recent years, including reports of rampant drug abuse in the ranks, a much-criticized October 2017 mission in Niger that left four Americans dead after an ambush, and murder charges against two Navy SEALs in the death of a Special Forces soldier in Mali.
“There is a distinct feeling that the SOCOM folks are getting grossly overreached and overused,” a retired special operations officer told Yahoo News this fall. “There are real human costs to that.”
A Congressional Research Service survey of special ops issues noted that mandated reviews in the fiscal year 2019 National Defense Authorization Act signed by President Trump in August reflect congressional concern about the status of the special operations commands and their missions.
There is “growing congressional concern with misconduct, ethics, and professionalism; roles and responsibilities for [special operations forces; and the] ability to counter future threats across the spectrum of conflict,” the report said.
Owen West, head of the Pentagon’s special operations and low-intensity conflict directorate, pushed back against critics at a House oversight hearing on Feb. 14.
“I am proud to report to you that our SOF is neither overstretched nor breaking, but very healthy and eager to defend the nation against increasingly adaptive foes,” Mr. West told the House Armed Services Committee.
But the mission shift has already resulted in some reductions to traditional special-operations-led counterterrorism missions around the globe.
Mr. Trump announced late last year that the 2,000 mostly special ops personnel in Syria would be coming home as the Islamic State caliphate collapses, although the White House said Thursday that a residual force of at least 200 American troops will remain in the country.
The top officer with U.S. Africa Command announced Wednesday a 10 percent reduction in forces over the next three years. Nearly 300 American special operations troops will be pulled permanently from the continent from June 2020 to January 2022, command chief Gen. Thomas D. Waldhauser told the Military Times.
“We’re probably never going to get any more … so we’ve got to stop whining and you just got to get on with it,” he told reporters at the recent Munich Security Conference.
Changing face of war
Pentagon and special operations command officials say the mission to fight extremist groups will remain a part of the special ops mandate but that the command-level directives will place a larger premium on nontraditional skills in cyber and information operations.
“The nature of war does not change, but the character of war has changed radically in the last 15 years,” Mr. West told House lawmakers. “Dealing with [allies], problems that need to be agilely solved in a cheap manner, you are really talking about SOF.”
The biggest advantage special operations units provide in the new strategic environment is during “competition short of conflict,” or a Cold War-style deterring of an adversarial nation, Gen. Thomas said. That gray area between a hot and cold war “is arguably the most important phase of deterrence.”
But shifting gears from the clandestine direct-action operations, or “kill/capture” missions venerated in Hollywood and American popular culture in the post-9/11 era, to more subtle missions has already been in the works.
Col. Patrick M. Duggan, who was in Army Special Forces, floated the idea in 2015 of hybrid special operations teams that could conduct cyberwarfare operations and carry out traditional military missions.
Mr. Duggan, a former battalion commander with the 3rd Special Forces Group and now cybersecurity director for the National Security Council, suggested the creation of “cyber unconventional warfare pilot teams.” The teams would be modeled on a typical U.S. Army Special Forces Operational Detachment-Alpha, or “A-Team,” consisting of 12 to 15 operators.
The teams would first use social media sites, discussion forums and other means of online communications to target insurgent leaders, disseminate misinformation and recruit proxy fighters and intelligence assets — all before stepping foot in harm’s way. The teams would then deploy on the ground to coordinate with the support group they have cultivated online and execute their mission.
“Cloaked in dual-purpose technology, indigenous equipment and mobilized networks, these teams would digitally initiate and then physically execute their assigned [unconventional warfare] operations from beginning to end,” Mr. Duggan wrote in the 2015 paper for the National Defense University.
Gen. Thomas noted a wide range of skills that special ops personnel must master.
“We are increasing our investments in a wide spectrum of emerging technologies, [including] artificial intelligence/machine learning, automated systems, advanced robotics, augmented reality, biomedical monitoring, and advanced armor and munitions development, to name a few,” he told lawmakers this month.
Ironically, the revised mission mirrors the approach of countries that the Pentagon has identified as prime adversaries.
Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and Quds Force reportedly used similar online and cybertactics to identify and take out leaders of the failed Green Revolution to overthrow then-Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009.
Russian special operations teams employed mercenary hackers and cyberwarfare specialists to wage war online against Ukraine, softening the ground for Russian-backed paramilitary forces to successfully annex Crimea from Ukraine and move it under Moscow’s control in 2014.