June 19, 2024
Though much of the focus of U.S. Army Special Operations Forces (ARSOF) since 2001 has been on counter-terrorism and direct action, ARSOF has much to offer in strategic competition. War Room welcomes Devin Kirkwood, Barrett Martin and Michael Tovo as they use the Arctic as example to illustrate the value proposition of ARSOF as it returns to its roots as a small footprint, sustainable force multiplier, able to operate below the threshold of armed conflict in politically sensitive environments, working with and through a partner force or indigenous populations, and reducing strategic risk.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second of a series of three articles coming from the 2022 Kingston Conference on International Security, “International Competition in the High North,” co-sponsored by the Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute in conjunction with three Canadian partners.

To say that SOF spent the last 20 years of the GWOT only focused on CT and DA is reductionist and borders on missing the forest for the trees.

Recent writings advocate refocusing Army Special Operations Force’s (ARSOF) role in large-scale combat operations (LSCO) against near-peer threats. Yet, solely focusing on LSCO dismisses the strategic effects ARSOF can achieve long before armed conflict arises. ARSOF can provide effects by creating complex dilemmas for adversaries in peripheral theaters, such as the Arctic, by using irregular warfare methods they were designed to employ.

The entire Department of Defense (DoD) is reorienting around a concept of ‘integrated deterrence’ to meet the rising threat from the revisionist powers of Russia and China. In support of this, ARSOF began experimenting with new recruiting efforts, parent service integration, and new force structures intended to build new capabilities to address the latest threats. Yet it seems the DoD enterprise doesn’t truly understand the value of SOF across the entire continuum of cooperation, competition, and conflict outside of the Global War on Terror (GWOT). As Sean Mcfate points out in his recent article, “today’s defense community has forgotten that strategic competition is won through irregular warfare.”

Regardless of the operational approach, ARSOF must illuminate its value proposition in integrated deterrence to the Army, the DoD, and the National Command Authority to maintain relevance in strategic competition. Consistent with the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict, Christopher Maier’s thinking, “the solution is education.” Illuminating this value proposition is critical to shedding the misperception that Army SOF is constrained to counterterrorism (CT) and direct action (DA) missions. The most significant value added from ARSOF is its indigenous approach. This enables ARSOF to broaden the options available to decision-makers to wield influence and manage escalation in the competition space while supporting joint force decisive operations in conflict.

The perception of SOF as a counterterrorism or direct-action force is prevalent across all services. But to say that SOF spent the last 20 years of the GWOT only focused on CT and DA is reductionist and borders on missing the forest for the trees. It is often overlooked that SOF did not conduct those operations unilaterally. Even though SOF conducted CT and DA missions, they executed them with local partners as part of a training, enabling, and transitioning process. Even units traditionally accustomed to unilateral work, like the 75th Ranger Regiment, built and trained partner forces to conduct combined combat operations. The knowledge and ability to build, train, and operate with local forces should be a key takeaway, rather than just which core task they were conducting.

Beyond combat integration with allied and partnered nations, ARSOF spends significant time training and developing those forces before combat occurs. This highlights ARSOF’s indirect approach. This approach involves efforts focused on developing infrastructure, improving local security forces’ capacity, and building broad trust and deep relationships with partner forces and segments of the population. This indirect approach is currently on display in Eastern Europe. Much of the Ukrainian Special Operations Force (UKRSOF) success in the Russo-Ukrainian War can be attributed to ARSOF’s engagement strategy throughout the preceding eight years. This strategy of ARSOF engagement to bolster partners as a force multiplier and to crowdsource resistance, is critical for an integrated deterrence strategy and NATO’s comprehensive defense structure. This approach is also effective for buying down commander’s risk in peripheral theaters or supporting operations.

Scott Harr discusses the necessity to focus SOF investments in fewer, more strategically relevant areas instead of a more dispersed approach, characteristic of the past 20 years of the GWOT. One of the SOF imperatives is understanding the operational environment, and regarding Harr’s thesis, it seems reasonable that with limited resources, the U.S. military is required to make challenging decisions about where and how to employ SOF moving forward. Yet density and dispersion should not be mutually exclusive.

While the rest of the DoD rushes to establish its role in a specific vein of counter-China or other LSCO-related threats, SOF needs to evaluate the areas where it can achieve the most significant operational or strategic gain for the smallest investment. This evaluation may manifest itself in areas where conventional forces lack bandwidth or expertise and open opportunities for SOF. One of ARSOF’s intrinsic values is its ability to act as a force multiplier. In large-scale campaigns, this is done through small investments of SOF personnel who support the conventional main effort. This ability to act as a force multiplier was as true of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in WWII as it was with Special Forces operations at the outset of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Additionally, the sheer scope and scale of the threat may preclude SOF from favoring density over dispersion. Spreading SOF capability in disparate regions may be required to increase the number of dilemmas our adversaries face. Creating multiple dilemmas for our adversaries will ensure that when they decide to initiate crisis or conflict, SOF has already prepared the environment for the Joint Force to compete and win.

The skills that SOF learned through an indigenous approach to CT and DA in the Middle East, coupled with a renewed emphasis on Unconventional Warfare, would be well suited for Arctic operations. 

The best way to exemplify these points and the value proposition of SOF in strategic competition is by applying them to a current DoD National Security challenge. One of those current National Security challenges is the Arctic. The Arctic has received little military attention throughout the GWOT era and is continuing to emerge as a priority grey zone as a peripheral theater in which the U.S., Russia, and China are actively competing. As an area of geo-strategic importance sitting at the confluence of three different Geographic Combatant Commands, with a complex mix of authorities and permissions, it seems tailor-made for a force that specializes in navigating political sensitivities and conducting complex problem-solving at the expeditionary edge.

All the military services and the DoD recently released Arctic-specific strategies, and the U.S. Army recently activated (or reflagged) an Arctic Division. Yet, it is likely more cost-effective to leverage existing experts in Arctic warfare in the form of our Scandinavian allies, with ARSOF acting as integrators rather than to deploy a U.S. Arctic Division to the high north of Europe- especially as this will be a peripheral theater across the phases of competition, crisis, and conflict.

The skills that SOF learned through an indigenous approach to CT and DA in the Middle East, coupled with a renewed emphasis on Unconventional Warfare, leaves SOF well suited for Arctic operations. The foundation of SOF acting as a force multiplier through indigenous and local populations in politically sensitive environments remains consistent. The challenge in applying this in the Arctic is that the individual and collective skills (manning, training, equipping) needed to survive in an Arctic environment deteriorated within the U.S. military, including SOF. SOF must educate and advocate to strategic level decision makers that they are not starting from scratch in terms of operating in these types of sensitive environments, but in fact, they were built for these environments and can provide an immense value and return on investment.

Some national defense documents are beginning to recognize the utility of SOF in the Arctic, such as pages 260-261 of the FY23 NDAA, though this is not consistent. The DoD’s 2019 Arctic Strategy recognizes SOF’s ability to provide the DoD with a capability to compete below the level of armed conflict in the Arctic, but there is no mention of ARSOF in the Army’s 2021 Arctic Strategy, and neither SOCOM nor USASOC have strategies for the Arctic. A good place for the SOF enterprise to start is to articulate how it can directly contribute to the 2022 National Strategy for the Arctic Region’s number 1 pillar, “Security: Develop Capabilities for Expanded Arctic Activity.”

Another potential emerging Arctic opportunity for SOF in the era of strategic competition and integrated deterrence is in the homeland defense realm, specifically in Alaska. ARSOF, as the nation’s premier practitioners of hybrid and asymmetric warfare, are well positioned to assist in defending the homeland against external threats. Due to the lack of certain permissions and authorities, SOF would play less of a direct role and more of an integrator/supporting role. Not too dissimilar from some of the concepts mentioned by Scott Harr concerning ‘enabling’ and ‘supporting’ becoming the task instead of the purpose. Yet there is no SOF doctrine for homeland defense (or Arctic operations), the 2022 National Defense Strategies‘ number one priority.

As the DoD progresses with its efforts in building domain awareness and capabilities in the Arctic, it must be inclusive of understanding and employing SOF appropriately. More specifically, proper employment in the land domain is critical to effectively competing in the region. The land domain is where human and geographic considerations present immense challenges for large conventional forces. These challenges are what make ARSOF the force of choice in the Arctic. Not only should SOF have a seat at the table within the Pentagon and the national strategy writ large, but they should also have a seat within the Arctic community. For example, SOF could liaise with the new Ted Stevens Center for Arctic Security Studies and the newly formed DoD Arctic Strategy and Global Resilience Office. A formalized relationship with Arctic organizations would enable SOF to better integrate into current and future strategy and maintain an ongoing relationship within the pillars of government and military. It would also ensure ARSOF’s capabilities and equities are accurately represented and understood.

In the current setting of strategic competition, ARSOF’s role starts in the competition space, competing for influence, developing partners, and preparing the environment in case of crisis or conflict. In conflict, ARSOF’s most significant contribution to the Joint Force will likely be creating dilemmas outside the main theater of conflict, like the Arctic. At the highest level, ARSOF must be connected to strategy development, and at the tactical level, must have the skills, equipment, and institutional knowledge to operate in all environments.

MAJs Devin Kirkwood, Barrett Martin and Michael Tovo are Army Special Forces officers from the 10th Special Forces Group graduating from the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA. They focused their capstone work on strategy and ARSOF’s capabilities in the Arctic as part of the Applied Design for Innovation curriculum in the Defense Analysis Department. They have combat experience in Afghanistan and operational experience in Europe and the Arctic, including the European High North and Alaska.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army War College, the U.S. Army, or the Department of Defense.

Photo Description: A U.S. Army 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) Soldier provides cover fire during a live fire training scenario in Rovaniemi, Finland on Mar. 16, 2018. Northern Griffin is a multinational training exercise hosted by Finnish Special Operations Forces to provide Finland and partner nation SOF the opportunity to train and evaluate capabilities in arctic conditions.

Photo Credit: Sgt. Kent Redmond, U.S. Army


  1. From our article above:

    “Recent writings advocate refocusing Army Special Operations Force’s (ARSOF) role in large-scale combat operations (LSCO) against near-peer threats. Yet, solely focusing on LSCO dismisses the strategic effects ARSOF can achieve long before armed conflict arises. ARSOF can provide effects by creating complex dilemmas for adversaries in peripheral theaters, such as the Arctic, by using irregular warfare methods they were designed to employ.”

    As to the item presented immediately above, consider these thoughts as to what ARSOF, etc., might need to be focusing on today; this, re: (a) great power competition/conflict (etc.) and (b) how and why the U.S. and our allies and partners might use irregular warfare in the service of same. Here goes:

    If the principal goal of irregular warfare is, for example, to create and leverage influence over key population groups; this, so as to obtain strategic effect, then the first thing that we would seem to need to do is to determine, writ large, (a) what is the strategic effect that we seek to achieve throughout the world and, writ large, (b) what are the key population groups that we might/must utilize — to achieve this such strategic effect. For example:

    a. In the Old Cold War of yesterday, the strategic effect (writ large) that we sought to achieve, this was the containment and roll back of the Soviets/the communists and revolutionary communism. As to this such desired strategic effect, the key population groups (writ large) — that would best serve our such interests back then — these were the more-conservative/the more-traditional elements of the world’s populations — i.e., the natural enemies of revolutionary change. Whereas:

    b. In the New/Reverse Cold War of today, the strategic effect (writ large) that we seek to achieve, this is the advancement of market-democracy more throughout the world. As to this such desired strategic effect, the key population groups (writ large) — that would best serve our such interests today — these are the more-liberal/the more-progressive elements of the world’s populations — to wit: the natural allies of revolutionary change.

    Bottom Line Thought — Based on the Above:

    In the Old Cold War of yesterday — when the strategic effect that the U.S./the West sought to achieve (with the help of ARSOF back then?) was the containment and roll back of the Soviets/the communist and communism — (a) the U.S./the West sought to work more “by, with and through” the world’s more-conservative/more-traditional populations groups; this, (from the quoted item from our article that I provide above) to (b) “create complex dilemmas” for the Soviets/the communists “long before conflict arose:”

    “Without the Pope, no Solidarity. Without Solidarity, no Gorbachev. Without Gorbachev, no fall of Communism. In fact, Gorbachev himself gave the Kremlin’s long-term enemy this due, ‘It would have been impossible without the Pope.’ ” (See the Public Broadcasting System [PBS] “Frontline” article “John Paul II and the Fall of Communism” by Jane Barnes and Hellen Whitney.)

    In the New/Reverse Cold War of today, however — when the strategic effect that the U.S./the West seeks to achieve (with the help of ARSOF?) is the advancement of market-democracy more throughout the world — (a) the U.S./the West must work more “by, with and through” the world’s more-liberal/more-progressive populations groups; this, to (b) “create complex dilemmas” for our contemporary adversaries “long before conflict arises:”

    “The Achilles’ heel of our authoritarian adversaries is their inherent fear of their own people; the United States must capitalize on this fear. … An American way of irregular war will reflect who we are as a people, our diversity, our moral code, our undying belief in freedom and liberty. It must be both defensive and offensive. Developing it will take time, require support from the American people through their Congress, and is guaranteed to disrupt the status quo and draw criticism. It will take leadership, dedication, and courage. It is my hope that this study encourages, informs, and animates those with responsibility to protect the nation to act. Our adversaries have moved to dominate in the space below the threshold of war. It will be a strategy built around an American way of irregular war that defeats them.” (See the Rand paper “The American Way of Irregular War: An Analytical Memoir; therein, see the “Conclusion” of the “Summary” Chapter, at Page xxiii.)

    “Advocates of UW first recognize that, among a population of self-determination seekers, human interest in liberty trumps loyalty to a self-serving dictatorship, that those who aspire to freedom can succeed in deposing corrupt or authoritarian rulers, and that unfortunate population groups can and often do seek alternatives to a life of fear, oppression, and injustice. Second, advocates believe that there is a valid role for the U.S. Government in encouraging and empowering these freedom seekers when doing so helps to secure U.S. national security interests.” (See the National Defense University Press paper “Unconventional Warfare in the Gray Zone” by authors Joseph L. Votel, Charles T. Cleveland, Charles T. Connett, and Will Irwin; therein, see the major section entitled “Doctrine.”)

    Thus, as to matters relating to the Artic (etc., etc., etc.) today, these — also — must proceed/must be addressed more along the “irregular warfare must be employed so to serve our contemporary strategic interests” lines — that I have attempted to describe immediately above?

  2. Two quoted items from our article above:

    “… today’s defense community has forgotten that strategic competition is won through irregular warfare.” (See the second paragraph of this article.)

    “The most significant value added from ARSOF is its indigenous approach.” (See the third paragraph of this article.)


    Indigenous people, one might suggest, are held together by — and thus will fight and die for — their unique traditional social values, beliefs and institutions.

    Thus if one is seeking to achieve “revolutionary change” throughout the world — as the Soviets/the communists (re: communism) did in the Old Cold War of yesterday — and as the U.S./the West (re: market-democracy) has done in the New/Reverse Cold War of today — then you are likely to find these such indigenous folks as your — real or potential — sworn enemy.

    In circumstances such as these, if an opponent represents themselves as the champion of tradition social values, beliefs and institutions — as the U.S./the West might have done in the Old Cold War of yesterday — and as Russia has done in the New/Reverse Cold War of today — then this could be a serious problem.

    “In his annual appeal to the Federal Assembly in December 2013, Putin formulated this ‘independent path’ ideology by contrasting Russia’s ‘traditional values’ with the liberal values of the West. He said: ‘We know that there are more and more people in the world who support our position on defending traditional values that have made up the spiritual and moral foundation of civilization in every nation for thousands of years: the values of traditional families, real human life, including religious life, not just material existence but also spirituality, the values of humanism and global diversity.’ He proclaimed that Russia would defend and advance these traditional values in order to ‘prevent movement backward and downward, into chaotic darkness and a return to a primitive state.’

    (See the Wilson Center publication “Kennan Cable No. 53” and, therein, the article “Russia’s Traditional Values and Domestic Violence,” by Olimpiada Usanova, dated 1 June 2020.)

    In circumstances such as these, while you might not be able to utilize these indigenous people (with whom your country has a conflicting agenda), your opponent might find them very useful indeed?

    1. As relates to the matters that I present immediately above, consider the following from the article “Indigenous Peoples of the Russian North and Cold War Ideology,” by Dennis Bartels and Alice L. Bartel, in the Canadian Journal “Anthropologica,” Vol. 48, No. 2 (2006); therein, see Page 274:

      Northern Peoples After the Cold War:

      Although we were aware in 1989 of some of the negative aspects of Soviet policy toward Northern Peoples, we feared that the introduction of the “free market” would prove to be much worse than anything that had happened to them during the Soviet period with the exception of the Great Patriotic War. …

      Unfortunately, our fears regarding the negative impact of the “free market” on Northerners were realized. For example, according to a 1996 document released by the Russian Federation of Indigenous Peoples of the North and Far East:

      ‘Our native lands are being annexed and barbarically destroyed by rapacious petroleum and natural gas, coal, gold and non-ferrous mining interests without any for of just compensation … The transition to a market economy is characterized by a total breakdown of traditional economic activity and way of life, an uncontrolled growth of unemployment, impoverishment, life-threatening levels of crime and alcoholism.’ ”


      a. If Putin has played his cards right here (as it appears that he has — see my comment immediately above) and has (rightfully?) blamed all the current woes being experienced by indigenous (and other) peoples throughout the world on the U.S./the West’s “achieve revolutionary change (more along market-democracy lines) transformative agenda,

      b. Then, in circumstances such as these, these indigenous (and other) people would seem to be Putin’s — not the U.S./the West’s — to utilize/to work more “by, with and through?”

  3. In viewing the Artic (etc., etc., etc.) through the aperture of the New/Reverse Cold War of today, as I attempt to do above, one comes to understand that it is not so much Russia and China, today, that threaten the U.S./the West, as it is the U.S./the West’s own attempt to achieve “revolutionary change” both at home and abroad post-the Old Cold War — in our case today, the name of such things as capitalism, markets and trade.

    Herein, this such “revolutionary change” agenda threatens “indigenous” (the term is used very loosely here) people everywhere — who cling to their (now outdated and obstructing, from a capitalism, markets and trade point of view) traditional social values, beliefs and institutions.

    This would seem to make it very difficult indeed — in the New/Reverse Cold War of today — for the U.S/Western special and other forces to (a) work more “by, with and through” indigenous peoples — in what would ultimately seem to be (b) a mission to undermine and eliminate these indigenous peoples (hindering) traditional social values, beliefs and institutions:

    “Capitalism is the most successful wealth-creating economic system that the world has ever known; no other system, as the distinguished economist Joseph Schumpeter pointed out, has benefited ‘the common people’ as much. Capitalism, he observed, creates wealth through advancing continuously to every higher levels of productivity and technological sophistication; this process requires that the ‘old’ be destroyed before the ‘new’ can take over. … This process of ‘creative destruction,’ to use Schumpeter’s term, produces many winners but also many losers, at least in the short term, and poses a serious threat to traditional social values, beliefs, and institutions.” (From the book “The Challenge of the Global Capitalism: The World Economy in the 21st Century,” by Robert Gilpin, see the Introduction.)

    Russia and China? Simply taking advantage of this such problem of the U.S./the West’s “revolutionary change” agenda; this, by calling out themselves — and authoritarianism — as the champions of/as the savior of such things as traditional values, beliefs and institutions?

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