Inside the 'New' Special Operations Forces

By Linda Robinson
  • The most intensive use ever made of SOF, including deployments of unprecedented size, duration and repeat rotation;
  • Missions that span entire countries and multiple areas of operation;
  • Concomitantly extensive demands on SOF command and control;
  • SOF and conventional forces operating on the same battlefields for extended periods.

The intensive employment of SOF since 9/11 is above all because of the way adversaries are choosing to fight today; numerically smaller and less technologically advanced antagonists have traditionally opted for insurgent or guerrilla tactics to undermine a more powerful nation. The special operations forces' core missions include counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, unconventional warfare (in which indigenous fighting forces are used to topple adversaries), and foreign internal defense (improving a country's security, governance, and economic institutions to address the threats it faces). These core missions form the heart of the current U.S. approach to defend its interests and shore up friendly countries around the world, so it is logical that SOF would be called on to an unprecedented degree.

They Volunteered for Afghanistan

That is not to say that anything was planned or foreordained about the use of SOF post 9/11. The decision to send Colonel (now Lieutenant General and commander of U.S. Army Special Operations Command) John Mulholland and his 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne) operators to Afghanistan in the days after the attacks on New York and Washington occurred largely because they volunteered. Another reason was that there was no ready alternative, given the lack of a footprint in the land-locked country or bases in nearby countries from which to launch a conventional U.S. ground operation on short notice. The Clinton administration had already used missile strikes to relatively little effect after the attack on U.S. embassies in Africa, and the direct attack on the United States called for a more concerted response.

The troops led by Mulholland, augmented by CIA operatives and other special operations forces, succeeded in bringing down the Taliban government by partnering with Afghan resistance forces. The hunt for Osama bin Laden continues to this day into the tribal lands of Pakistan. After the initial campaign, 5th Group was redirected to Iraq, and along with 10th Group, Naval Special Warfare, and Air Force special operations, participated in the initial invasion alongside conventional and coalition forces.

Unlike in Operation Desert Storm 12 years earlier, SOF played an integral role in the invasion. 5th Group was the only U.S. ground force in western Iraq, 10th Group was the only ground force in northern Iraq, and Naval Special Warfare spearheaded the entrance into Iraq's Al Faw peninsula and the Iraqi waterways. The Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) flew combat missions, inserting SOF into denied territory and opening the critical air hub at Tallil.

In the years since both of these initial interventions, Army Special Forces, Navy SEALs, and AFSOC, recently joined by the new Marine Corps Special Operations Command (MARSOC), have maintained significant numbers of operators in Afghanistan and Iraq. 2 Some 2,400 SOF operators have been present in Afghanistan, a number that is now expanding, and some 4,000 are deployed to Iraq at any given time. These SOF tours are seven months in duration, and many operators, particularly the noncommissioned and once-junior officers, have now deployed a half-dozen times.

Worldwide Engagement

Special operations forces have maintained their traditional small-unit deployments in some 65 countries primarily to conduct foreign internal defense and civil affairs missions. One of the largest of these missions involves the Philippines, where a thriving partnership between the Philippine government and the U.S. Embassy and SOF has substantially reduced militant separatist and terrorist activity in the far-flung archipelago and adjacent waterways.

Colombia has also been a long-term SOF beneficiary, with major gains against the 40-year-old FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia) insurgency, including a stunning rescue operation undertaken by the Colombia forces to free FARC prisoners, including three Americans. The U.S.-Colombian forces have been engaged in training activities for decades, and more intensively since 9/11 under the terms of Plan Colombia. Finally, the Trans-Sahel Initiative is a nine-country foreign internal defense effort undertaken since 9/11 in the northern swath of Africa that has been a recruiting ground and smuggling route for various extremist groups.

The nature of operations since 9/11 has changed in several key respects. Previously, the most common SOF deployment was a Joint Combined Exchange Training mission, in which a very small SOF element would engage in training exercises with a partner country. The other type of deployment was a contingency operation to execute a mission, most often one of short duration with a small element.

Now, special operations forces routinely carry out missions that span entire countries-in the case of Iraq and Afghanistan-and multiple countries and areas of operation as in the case of the hunt for Osama bin Laden and other leaders of the al Qaeda network. The latter mission has been the primary focus of the national mission force, which has operated under a separate chain of command and control.

All SOF operations have undergone profound improvements in technique and technology. The man-hunting network has expanded to include new partners and new methods that have increased its agility and reach. In the area of technical surveillance, the use of unmanned aerial vehicles has increased dramatically since 2003. Forces carried an experimental prototype of the Pointer, a suitcase-size UAV, into combat in the Iraq invasion. Now a plethora of much smaller and armed UAVs and other sensors exist, and few units, whether special or conventional, venture into battle without them to provide real-time feed.

Mentoring in Iraq

These large-scale, sustained missions have made possible persistent engagement and intensive mentoring on a scale that has forged a qualitatively different type of partnership. The most notable example is the Iraqi special operations forces (ISOF), which began as the 36th Iraqi Civil Defense Corps. Comprised of Kurdish, Shia, and Sunni Arab fighters, it evolved into the 36th Commandos and is today a component of the Iraqi special operations brigade, led by the 36th's original commander, General Fadl Barwari, a Kurd. The ISOF now has grown to include regionally-based battalions as well as the centrally based core units, the Commandos and the Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Force.

Because of the unit's longevity, its sustained support, and intensive mentoring by SOF, ISOF is the single most competent unit in the Iraqi security forces today. On my own trips to Iraq, I witnessed Army Special Forces and SEAL operators training and living with these troops, who matured as the unit took over its mission planning and intelligence preparation. In addition to Iraqi forces, SOF have used this model to mentor numerous emergency response units and special weapons and tactics (SWAT)-style units, beginning with the Hillah SWAT, which has played a pivotal role in numerous engagements, as well as scout and reconnaissance platoons in regular Iraqi army brigades.

This model of intensive mentoring has also been followed in Afghanistan with the creation, training, and advising of Commando Kandaks, in Colombia with the creation of a special operations brigade, and in the Philippines with the intensive partnering through the Joint Special Operations Task Force. In Iraq and Afghanistan, this includes SOF combat advisers conducting field operations alongside the host-nation SOF.

Accompanying trainees on operations provides the advisers with the ability to assess the unit's progress firsthand and cement the partnership under fire. Nothing demonstrates the SOF commitment more than rolling into Shia-militia-controlled Baghdad neighborhoods in the dead of night to carry out an ISOF-designed raid. Repeated daily or weekly over several years produces competence and trust.

Positive Results

The ISOF had a critical impact on the diminution of the violence in 2007-08, particularly in targeting the Shia extremist militias, including those armed and trained by Iran. They were also responsible for the successful targeting and capture of many Sunni high-, mid-, and low-value targets. The most important impact, however, is the formation of a professional unit of Shia, Sunni, and Kurds, which provides a model for further nonpartisan institutional development of the armed forces. Continued partnership is desirable to aid Iraq's transition.

In Colombia and the Philippines, the persistent engagement has paid off in concrete gains and models for future institutional development, as well as enhanced diplomatic relations between the two countries. The emphasis in the Philippines mission on assisting local development and governance has been particularly important in a country where U.S. forces were asked to depart the long-time bases Clark and Subic Bay in the 1990s because of nationalist sentiment and a perception that the U.S. presence did not benefit the country.

As a corollary of these country-wide deployments and operations, SOF has now gained the experience of commanding and controlling its forces at a level not seen since the Vietnam War. The commanding colonels of 5th and 10th Groups have repeatedly swapped command of the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-Arabian Peninsula in Iraq, and the commanding colonels of 3rd and 7th Groups have alternated as commander of the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-Afghanistan. Colonel Chris Conner, commander of 5th Special Forces Group, is currently completing his fourth tour.

These officers shouldered enormous responsibilities in leading brigade-plus-size forces scattered throughout Iraq and in several provinces of Afghanistan, in territories much larger than those overseen by their conventional division commanders. They also maintained a close linkage with the joint force command elements overseeing all military operations in those countries. Naval Special Warfare's organization was not sufficient to form the core of a CJSOTF, but it has been an integral part of every deployment, and even the SF Group headquarters require significant augmentation to manage the command and control and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) requirements of the mission.

Lessons from Command

These years of intensive combat under difficult and evolving conditions have provided unparalleled command experience for a large number of SOF officers. They have also yielded significant lessons, some of which are already being addressed. So that the CJSOTF can focus on the daily fight, a one-star SF general officer, Brigadier General Edward Reeder, has deployed to Afghanistan as commander of a forward headquarters of the Central Command's Special Operations Command.

The headquarters will provide more linkage into the overall U.S.-NATO command and enhance the contribution that SOF can make to the overall campaign. This practice follows the precedent set by the national mission force, which created deputy commands for general and flag officers to deploy forward to oversee its persistent man-hunting operations. The other missing piece has been the unity of command among the theater SOF and the national mission force. At times the host nation, partner forces, and the general population have been confused by the multiplicity of chains of command, and movement toward unity of command is overdue.

Since 9/11, SOF has been extensively intertwined on the battlefield with conventional forces. This experience is largely limited to Iraq and Afghanistan where U.S. conventional forces have been deployed in large numbers, but it is a paradigm-changing experience for the tens of thousands of U.S. military members who have served in one or both of these countries. Previously, the activities of special operations forces were largely secret, and most conventional forces would serve entire careers without encountering a SOF operator.

Beginning in the earliest days of the Iraq invasion, and the arrival of the 10th Mountain Division in Afghanistan, conventional forces have encountered bearded operators driving Toyota pickups or living on bases with indigenous forces. The different mode of dress and transportation were only two outward manifestations of very distinct modes of operation, which gave rise to difficult learning experiences for both. I personally witnessed the SOF ritual of establishing relations and seeking logistical support from the conventional division, whose commander many times wanted to constrain the SOF element that he perceived as interfering in his area of operations.

Operating Side by Side

While doctrine calls for special operations forces to carve out their own operating area (a JSOA) to deconflict with other forces, this was neither possible nor desirable in the case of Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead, the two forces have been compelled to learn how to get along and communicate and operate side by side, often in concert.

A joint publication (JP 3-33) on SOF-General Purpose Force (GPF) interoperability has been written to codify some of the most important rules of the road, and the ongoing learning experience continues to yield new insights and practices. Differences of rank and unit size and the concept of "battlespace owner" still impede collaboration among some units, but the new model that has grown up is one of mutually supporting relationships.

What that means is command and control will be exercised by the unit whose mission has priority at that moment, and that relationship can evolve several times a night, on busy nights. Pre-deployment exercises and familiarization with units that will be in the same area of operations is always the preferred mode of achieving optimum collaboration on the battlefield, but that has often not been possible given the high operational tempo of the military in recent years.

A particular challenge for SOF-GPF interoperability is the provision of logistical support, force protection, and ISR for the smaller SOF units who will stay behind in Iraq as the conventional forces draw down. The brigade combat teams naturally resist giving up these units that they will need should they be called on to deploy to Afghanistan or elsewhere.

Most conventional commanders have come to prize the contributions made by SOF on the battlefield. SOF produces more human intelligence than any other element, by virtue of the wide networks it builds in the population. Similarly, special operations forces have captured a very large share of high-, mid- and low-value targets. Of greatest long-term benefit are the successes they have achieved working with foreign forces.

The consequences of this unprecedented level and nature of SOF operations since 2001 are numerous, many of which have yet to be studied in depth. Three observations are immediately apparent:

  • SOF expansion is warranted and will in all likelihood continue;
  • SOF practices and innovations have influenced all U.S. operations;
  • SOF leadership exists in greater depth than ever before.

Special Operations Expansion

The demands for SOF in Afghanistan, Iraq until at least 2012, and elsewhere around the world suggest that the forces will not lack for future employment. Congress has mandated the expansion of U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) personnel to a total of 46,223 (including civilians) by 2013. SOF expansion has been embraced by both political parties through two administrations, but the reality is that the growth rate is limited by the pool of qualified applicants.

Since two thirds to three quarters of those who try out do not make it through the arduous selection process, a growth rate of 3 to 5 percent annually is the maximum deemed feasible by USSOCOM. U.S. Special Forces, the largest single component of special operations forces, are to slated to grow to 14,137, and Naval Special Warfare is aiming for a 30 percent increase, or an additional 2,000 SEALs and Special Warfare Combat Crewmen. The largest percentage increase being attempted is in the Army Special Forces active-duty Civil Affairs, which are in great demand and have the highest operational tempo. Civil Affairs is slated to double to 884 and Psychological Operations troops will nearly double to 1,134. The Ranger Regiment will add 933 troops.

The key to meeting these quantitative goals without sacrificing the all-important quality of SOF is to retain those veteran operators on which the force rests. Numerous retention incentives have already been instituted and need to be maintained to counteract the hardships of repeat deployments. The current maturity of Special Forces has already declined from an average age of 34.8 to 31.2.

Maturity is especially critical in units that will be deployed far from any parent unit and responsible for operating several echelons above its nominal rank. The leadership and mentoring skills of SOF senior noncommissioned officers are the foundation on which the force rests. It is impossible to succeed in building foreign partnerships without the experience and knowledge base that career-long regional specialists possess.

Recent SOF innovations and practices have influenced U.S. operations over the past eight years in several ways. Future operations are likely to involve more blended operations as leaders realize the synergy that can be gained by combining elements of conventional, special operations and interagency units. That does not mean individual specialties or core competencies will cease to exist, but rather the effects can be maximized by employing these elements in concert.

As younger officers are promoted, they take with them into command positions what they have witnessed firsthand on their combat tours: doctrine and hierarchy can be an impediment to efficiency and unity of effort. They have also established relationships that will allow them to transcend parochial or institutional divisions.

Some of the effects that are already permeating operations and will continue to do so are the progressive flattening of organizations, at least in the commands led by farsighted leaders. Authority to decide and act as well as control of assets such as intelligence and surveillance have been pushed down to lower echelons because fighting a network requires network-like agility. It also requires interagency partners with skills and knowledge that do not reside within the military.

' Intelligence Drives Operations'

A new mantra adopted by both conventional and special operations forces is that "intelligence drives operations." This has already caused a revolution in the fusion of operations and intelligence at the tactical level. Furthermore, there is a growing awareness of the need for intelligence focused not only on the enemy but on the country's or region's population and for a much broader role for intelligence to inform policy, strategy, and campaign design.

Another effect is the growing recognition that the endgame of U.S. involvement depends on the capacity and capability of the host-nation's forces and government, regardless of the nature of the conflict. Therefore, it is critical that U.S. forces improve their ability to mentor and advise foreign forces. Foreign internal defense has long been a SOF core competency, and only the Special Forces as a unit are required to learn foreign languages.

Yet the preparation for and conduct of conventional and special operations forces training and advisory missions have been largely divorced from one another. The synergy to be gained from training and deploying these advisory units together, at least when the mission is large-scale foreign internal defense, counterinsurgency, or stability operations, has only recently been embraced by some leaders. There is still a need for a workable model or models.

Finally, the future of SOF, now that it has produced an unprecedented number of general and flag officers, is a question mark that affects the future of the U.S. military itself. There are natural and important differences among special operations forces and so-called general purpose forces. But in the end, a battle-tested leader who has commanded large combat units across country-wide areas of operation should be considered a military commander and not just a SOF commander. The theater special operations commands, now led by SOF general and flag officers, were intended to be deployable operational commands. But with rare exception, they have not been used in this fashion.

SOF expertise and insight is critically needed at all levels of war. The recent nomination of Lieutenant General Stanley McChrystal to serve as the commander of the four-star command in Afghanistan marks the first time in eight years that a SOF general or flag officer is in charge of the fight. The military now has a range of superbly qualified leaders in its SOF ranks, and it should consider them when selecting for future commands outside the SOF-specific posts. 3 In an era in which the need for whole-of-government synergy has become a mantra, this would represent an important step toward "whole-of-military" synergy.


1. "A Balanced Approach to Irregular Warfare," by ADM Eric T. Olson, Journal of International Security Affairs, Spring 2009, Number 16, p. 1.

2. MARSOC was formed in 2006 with a manpower target of 2,500.

3. General Norton A. Schwartz, a former commanding general of the Air Force Special Operations Command, is currently Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force.

Ms. Robinson is the author of Tell Me How This Ends: General David Petraeus and the Search for a Way Out of Iraq (Public Affairs, 2008) and Masters of Chaos: The Secret History of the U.S. Special Forces (Public Affairs, 2004).

Ms. Robinson is the author of Tell Me How This Ends: General David Petraeus and the Search for a Way Out of Iraq (Public Affairs, 2008) and Masters of Chaos: The Secret History of the U.S. Special Forces (Public Affairs, 2004).

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