U.S. Special Operations Prepares for the “5th Modern Age” of Special Operations

  • US special operators focus on great power competition after 20 years of counterterrorism.
  • Special operations chiefs told lawmakers in April that in a new era, they would focus on an old skill: supporting conventional forces.

During a Senate hearing in late April, U.S. special operations chiefs provided insight into how the U.S. special operations community is preparing to meet future challenges.

Close-to-peer adversaries — primarily China, but also Russia — are the primary threats to U.S. national security, and the U.S. military, including U.S. Special Operations Command, is adapting accordingly. result.

When asked how the shift from counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations to great power competition affects their planning and investment decisions, commanders highlighted the shift to support operations.

Leaders of the U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command and Navy Special Operations Command in particular have described a desire for special operations component commands to more closely support their parent branch – the Air Force and the Navy, respectively.

“I think the service components of SOF are most effective when we are closest to our parent services,” said Lt. Gen. James Slife, chief of U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command.

Air Force airmen practice with snowmobiles in Arctic Alaska

Airmen from the US Air Force Tactical Air Control Group during an exercise at Point Barrow, Alaska, January 13, 2022.

US Air Force/Staff Sgt. Zade Vadnais


The AFSOC boss went on to say it was helpful to ‘enable our wider service’ and help it ‘to be effective’.

“So I think for AFSOC there is a lot of work to be done in the area of ​​integrated air defense as well as in the area of ​​anti-space mission,” Slife added.

US Navy Rear Admiral Hugh Howard III, Commander New South Wales, said his Navy SEALs and Navy Special Warfare Combatant-Craft crews returned to support the Big Navy and extend the “chain of destruction”.

Howard acknowledged that over the past 20 years NSW has lost ground “in the distinctive things that only we can do, and we are acting urgently to do the essential things that only we can do in the field. maritime”.

For 20 years of fighting terrorists and insurgents in the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere, US Special Operations Forces have taken the lead, with US Army conventional forces in support.

Comments from special ops leaders indicate a return to the role these special operators have played throughout their history: supporting their conventional brethren.

Cyber, space and SOF

Cyber ​​Special Operations Airmen Communications Network

Airmen from the 919th Special Operations Communications Squadron set up a communications network at Duke Field in Florida on November 1, 2021.

US Air Force/Michelle Gigante


Special operations leaders are also looking to the future, and in particular to the cyber and space domains, which are increasingly important in facilitating operations in other domains and as domains of warfare. fully fledged.

U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Gen. James Glynn, commander of Marine Special Warfare Command, noted his command’s “review” of its cyber and space capabilities and “integration with operations in the future to reduce this gray area”, referring to the space where threatening activities other than war often take place.

Today, almost all special operations units, including Joint Special Operations Command Tier 1 special mission units, have some internal cyber capability.

Special operations units also focus on the information realm and on developing and influencing target audiences.

“I cannot imagine a future where this will not increase in importance, affecting target audiences, general populations, governments, armies, morale and eroding their overall effectiveness,” said Lt. Gen. U.S. Army Jonathan Braga, Commander of U.S. Army Special Operations Command. , says Information Operations.

More direct action, less training abroad

K-9 Marine Special Operations Fast Rope MV-22

A Marine with Marine Corps Forces Special Warfare Command quickly fires from an MV-22B Osprey at Camp Pendleton, Feb. 4, 2016.

US Marine Corps/Cpl. Tyler S. Dietrich


The renewed focus on close adversaries means special operations forces will have to reassess their missions and priorities.

In shifting from counter-terrorism to great-power competition, the focus “must shift from detecting, identifying, and targeting small underground terrorist networks to the ability to initially provide deterrence through a broad and formidable range of partnerships with our military alliances, not just in the Pacific but around the world,” retired Marine Raider Major Fred Galvin told Insider.

Galvin is the author of “A Few Bad Men”, a non-fiction account of the first combat deployment of Marine Special Operations in Afghanistan and how they overcame attacks from all sides.

Army green berets breach a building

U.S. Army Green Berets enter a building during direct action operations training at Camp Hansen in Okinawa, May 2021.

US Army/Staff Sgt. Anthony Bryant


“SOCOM has a big job in shaping every phase of future combat by imposing costs on our competitors during crisis and conflict phases,” Galvin said.

A “primary” difference in how U.S. Special Operations Forces will conduct crisis and conflict operations during great power competition will be the “reliance and coordination of these forces with conventional and allied forces on the conducting separate small-scale unilateral operations” as they did during the war on terror, Galvin added.

Galvin also said a major change will be the reduced focus on foreign home defense or the training of foreign partners.

While U.S. special operators will continue to train partner forces and help foreign militaries increase their capabilities, quasi-peer competition likely means these operators will conduct “more direct engagements versus the preponderance of advisory missions and of assistance that have taken place over the past 20 years,” Galvin said.

Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a veteran of the Hellenic Army (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ) and a graduate of Johns Hopkins University.

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