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Research Report

A Precarious Balance: Preserving the Right Mix of Conventional and Special Operations Forces

Phillip Lohaus
Copyright Date: Sep. 8, 2014
Pages: 87
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Table of Contents

  1. (pp. 1-2)

    Special operations forces (SOF) have in recent years entered a golden age of popularity. Not only were they shielded from many of the effects of sequestration and other cuts endured by the major services, but the number of civilian and military personnel allocated to US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) has increased since FY 2012.² The president’s 2012 strategic guidance to the Defense Department specifically calls for “selective additional investments” to maintain and enhance the counterterrorism and irregular warfare capabilities of the US armed forces. Many of those investments have been placed into special operations forces.³ Although the rest of the...

  2. (pp. 3-30)

    Unconventional warfare is not a new concept in American war fighting. From the American Revolution to the Barbary Wars, from the Boxer Rebellion to incursions into Russia during World War I, American forces have taken part in unconventional warfare since the dawn of the republic.⁷ During the Seven Years’ War in the mid-1700s, colonial forces recognized the utility of organizing irregulars into distinct units, as exemplified by Major Robert Rogers’s formation of the Army Rangers.⁸ But as the American military became more centralized through the 18th and 19th centuries, specialized units frequently came under the jurisdiction of conventional commanders.⁹


  3. (pp. 31-43)

    The attacks of September 11, 2001, increased the demand for the capabilities of American special operations forces more than any prior event in the history of the US military. The fact that the 9/11 attacks were acts of terrorism meant that special operations forces, because of their counterterrorism mandate, would play a central part in any potential US response. The sweeping and unprecedented expansion to USSOCOM’s powers and authorities in the aftermath of 9/11 would provide far-reaching opportunities for special operations forces to lead American military efforts in Afghanistan and elsewhere.82

    Following the 9/11 attacks, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld...

  4. (pp. 44-47)

    Two main factors have historically driven the relationship between conventional and special operations forces: competition for resources and a lack of mutual understanding. As cooperation between SOF and conventional forces has increased, the impact of these inherent tensions has decreased. SOF have also proven their unique value in countering terrorism. As a result, understanding between SOF and conventional forces has improved considerably since WWII, as has the amount of resources available for SOF.

    Today, special operations are arguably more valued than at any point in US history. Building off of SOF successes in Iraq and Afghanistan, Admiral William McRaven, before...

  5. (pp. 48-58)

    Taking into account the lessons of history, and despite the complex current budget environment, the leaders of USSOCOM and conventional forces should take three steps to build the optimal balance between their forces in the future: (1) clearly delineating the respective roles of SOF and conventional forces; (2) promoting flexibility and coordination while also protecting skills that take careers, not days or months, to build; and (3) transferring much of the responsibility for irregular warfare to the conventional force. Without pursuing these reforms, the military risks needing to relearn the lessons of previous conflicts in a future one.

    Joint Doctrine...

  6. (pp. 59-60)

    Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom provided many opportunities for conventional forces and SOF to work together toward common objectives and to gain improved understanding of the distinct advantages of working in tandem or of when the use of a particular force might be preferable to the use of the other in different contingencies. But these operations did not mark the first time that these lessons were learned. America’s experience on the battlefield since WWII shows that SOF are often on the leading edge of operational development.

    The raid at Son Tay, for example, set an operational precedent for America’s...