Since 2001, SOF has been the right counterterrorism tool for the job of combatting, dismantling, and defeating terrorist organizations who threaten U.S., allied, and partner interests around the world.
It is not enough to simply choose the right tool for the job. Success also depends on choosing the right approach. This is as true for home improvement projects as it is for national security. Emerging U.S. national security strategy features a new concept, “integrated deterrence,” which demands all national security stakeholders’ analysis and attention. Among other things, integrated deterrence will involve leveraging allies and partners towards shared security concerns to maintain the current rules-based order. For U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) to address emerging national security challenges with continued excellence, it must adapt its approach to meet the new objectives and requirements integrated deterrence demands. For any who may dispute integrated deterrence’s merits, this means shrinking SOF’s global dispersion, but increasing its density, in areas (with the allies and partners) that are critical to great power competition. Not adapting to great power competition’s changing security requirements and to integrated deterrence will misalign SOF resources and forgo opportunities to leverage its exquisite capabilities on behalf of U.S. interests.
Since 2001, SOF has been the right counterterrorism tool for the job of combatting, dismantling, and defeating terrorist organizations who threaten U.S., allied, and partner interests around the world. The Global War on Terrorism’s (GWOT) national strategy rightly dispersed SOF throughout over seventy percent of the world to achieve success. Such dispersion not only made strategic sense supporting a national security strategy that was by definition “global,” but also represented a key driver of SOF operational agility — responding to terrorist threats capable of cropping up anywhere on the planet. However, the national defense priority shift from global terrorism to great power competition involves much more geographically and geopolitically bounded threats which will require SOF to define and prioritize its operations and effects differently. Against a specifically defined threat profile largely corresponding to nation-state capabilities for great power competition, the dispersion approach that served SOF so well in the GWOT may become a liability in an environment demanding an integrated deterrence approach.
As an imminent and emerging national strategy concept, integrated deterrence entails at least two imperatives that warrant SOF consideration and attention. First, it necessitates deliberate choices, investing in allies and partners to leverage multilateral approaches to security. Rather than trying to be everywhere, SOF needs to analyze and choose the strategic allies and partners necessary to “grow partnerships” in only the most likely and most dangerous geographic areas connected to great power competition. In other words, SOF needs to emphasize density over dispersion. This is an approach well-understood by American politicians who routinely tailor their campaigns to address strategically valuable states as opposed to dispersing their efforts to cover numerically more states. Density trumps dispersion because the political effects of winning, for example, Texas, are not the same as winning Wyoming, Alaska, and Montana. Similarly, SOF needs to concentrate (not disperse) its efforts in those areas that create the best effects for integrated deterrence and great power competition. Deploying to seventy percent of the world, while perfectly appropriate and supremely effective for waging a global war on terror, is almost certainly inefficient for great power competition. SOF must densify its forces in the emerging environment to make efficient and effective contributions supporting national strategy.
Denser SOF investments in selected allies and partners’ territories bears out a second SOF imperative for integrated deterrence; namely, that SOF must begin to define operations and effects differently. Integrated deterrence specifically asks allies and partners to leverage more of their capabilities towards shared security challenges which threaten the rules-based order. Asking allies and partners to take on larger roles means emphasizing security cooperation and partner force capacity building efforts. For SOF formations long accustomed to being the “doers” in military operations, SOF must now measure effects in terms of how they enable, influence, and support strategically selected partner nations. The action verbs of SOF mission statements should change from “conduct,” and “execute,” to ones such as “facilitate,” “assist,” and “enable.” That is, facilitating and supporting selected allies and partners under integrated deterrence becomes a task – not a purpose. This is not to suggest that SOF should wholly cede its “doer” role in national security operations. Reframing SOF perspectives on operations and effects to support integrated deterrence is not about limiting SOF freedom of action or capability. Rather, it means emphasizing allied and partnered integration for geographic effects over integration for geographic coverage. In the emerging environment, such an approach creates the most desirable effects for supporting a national strategy focused on great power competition.
Denser SOF investments to support integrated deterrence with selected allies and partners naturally assume risk, as SOF global dispersion contracts. However, the underlying (and arguably animating) principle behind integrated deterrence is trust in the interagency as a unified team. The interagency already exists abroad in U.S. embassies, designed explicitly for dispersion. As SOF prioritizes density over dispersion, it must rely on the interagency’ s capabilities and global dispersion to mitigate the risk of SOF not being everywhere it used to be. Since the GWOT, like SOF, the interagency is a much evolved and capable entity regarding national security. As such, it is a worthy vessel for SOF trust, because it fields a quality team, with the personnel, capabilities, and coordination processes to enable SOF’s smart contraction of its global footprint, in exchange for denser forces supporting integrated deterrence. Mitigating risk to accomplish national security objectives is a hallmark of SOF’s ethos that has been a powerful and proven backer of SOF credibility addressing some of the nation’s most difficult security missions around the world.
For critics, relying on allies and partners instead of building and maintaining unilateral lethal forces represents a reduction in “hard power” capabilities that some see as essential for deterring 21st century conflict.
Even as integrated deterrence appears set to frame U.S. national security strategy going forward, some have rightly questioned its merits. For critics, relying on allies and partners instead of building and maintaining unilateral lethal forces represents a reduction in “hard power” capabilities that some see as essential for deterring 21st century conflict. Based on the perceived failure of deterrence in Ukraine, they may be right. That is, many view U.S. and NATO efforts to deter aggression by supporting and investing in nation-state partners as insufficient. Such people argue that building lethal capabilities is the only way to truly deter threats. However, even given conceptual issues and debates with integrated deterrence, a SOF approach densifying its forces around the globe makes sense. As joint warfighting formations, SOF elements provide both the credible combat forces that critics say integrated deterrence lacks as well as the force multiplying capabilities required for coalition-building that supporters of integrated deterrence demand. Bluntly, dense SOF formations make sense in the current environment because they support strategic concepts (integrated deterrence) and/or strategic approaches (great power competition) simultaneously.
Pointing out the need for strategic resource decisions to evolve SOF for integrated deterrence does not imply that such discussions and resource analysis are not already occurring within and amongst SOF leaders. The outlay of SOF personnel each year fluctuates as leaders rightly and diligently weigh requirements against shifting priorities, world events, and the expected return on investment for SOF operations abroad. However, largescale shifts in national strategy (such as the introduction of “integrated deterrence” as a framing approach to security) alter existing SOF resource discussions and prioritization. Here, an analogy to the Army’s newly minted Commander Assessment Program is useful. Legacy selection processes for Army commanders use official evaluations to generate an initial prioritized list of qualified officers. The Commanders Assessment Program subjects such officers to a new and diverse set of screening criteria that churns out a different prioritized list of qualified officers, reflecting the additional inputs. Thus, the Program does not nullify existing processes but rather, it adds depth and precision to them.
Similarly, “integrated deterrence” concepts should not invalidate existing SOF resource prioritization methods. They should, however, inform them, to generate new approaches and additional priorities, based on SOF imperatives for integrated deterrence discussed above. SOF should identify only the most capable allies and partners in only those areas where great power competition is fiercest and focus efforts and commit resources in those places. In the emerging operational environment, SOF approaches to national security that do not result in denser force outlays risk a potential misalignment between SOF approaches and national strategy. Misalignment will lead to missed opportunities for SOF to leverage its exquisite capabilities against national priorities.
Every powerful corporation understands that favorable conditions allow for the liberal allocation of resources to support emerging, enhancing, and experimental initiatives in addition to the critical tasks required to maintain market dominance. During lean years, when competition tightens, corporations adapt by making strategic resource decisions to preserve their advantages. In many ways, the GWOT era benefited SOF formations. It supported a liberal dispersion of forces around the globe. Today’s conditions differ: nation-state competition has tightened and great power challenges could affect the rules-based order in generational ways. In this environment, force dispersion may no longer enable success or efficiency. Instead, SOF needs to strategically pick its team of allies and partners based on where great power competition is likely to be fiercest and choose which countries to leverage for the most capabilities, power, and influence to effect deterrence. Such choices will make SOF denser in the areas that matter most to national security. SOF density reflects the right approach, from the right tool, to support U.S. national strategy. The right tool, used the right way, breeds success.
Scott J. Harr is an Army Special Forces Officer with over five years of overseas deployments around the world; he is a Ph.D. Candidate in foreign policy currently working in the U.S. Embassy in Saudi Arabia. He holds an undergraduate degree in Arabic Language Studies from West Point and a master’s degree in Middle Eastern Affairs from Liberty University and is a distinguished graduate from the Army Command and General Staff College, Ft Leavenworth, Kansas. A trained Arabic and Farsi speaker with over ten years in special operations, his work has been featured in The Diplomat, RealClearDefense, The Strategy Bridge, Modern War Institute, Military Review, The National Interest, and Joint Force Quarterly among other national security focused venues. The views stated here are solely those of the author and do not represent those of DoD or any official U.S. government entity.
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: U.S. Army Special Forces operators prepare to conduct rapid infiltration and exfiltration of a U.S. Air Force CV-22 Osprey during exercise Fiction Urchin near Vinnytsia, Ukraine, Sept. 21, 2020. The 352d Special Operations Wing, Royal Air Force Mildenhall, England, deployed to Ukraine to demonstrate commitment to the Black Sea region, support the Ukraine Special Operations Forces capability and increase recruitment efforts through various training engagements.
Photo Credit: U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Mackenzie Mendez