July 18, 2024
For the last 20+ years U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) have been deployed around the globe, operating in as much as 70% of the world's countries. And in pursuit of the national objectives of the Global War on Terror it was an effective strategy. War Room welcomes Scott Harr to examine how SOF must change its deployment strategy in light of the West's move back to great power competition. With greater emphasis on allies and partners within "integrated deterrence," Harr argues that SOF posture must move from the present model of global dispersion towards one of strategic density.

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

5 thoughts on “DENSITY NOT DISPERSION: EVOLVING SOF FOR INTEGRATED DETERRENCE

  1. As a starting place for a discussion of the topic above (and many others?), might we consider the following question and answer:

    Q: What common factor provides us with the best understanding as to why the Soviets/the communists in the Old Cold War of yesterday — and the U.S./the West in the New/Reverse Cold War of today — why these such entities might find themselves/ourselves in — SIMULTANEOUS — competition/conflict with (a) great powers using “conservatism”/using local “traditional values” as a “weapon of war,” with (b) lesser states and societies using “conservatism”/using local “traditional values” as a “weapon of war,” and with (c) non-state actors (both in their/our own home countries and, indeed, elsewhere/abroad) using “conservatism”/using local “traditional values” as a “weapon of war?”

    A: The answer to this such question is that the Soviets/the communists in the Old Cold War of yesterday — and the U.S./the West in the New/Reverse Cold War of today — determined that they/we would “transform the world” (so as to better provide for such things as socialism and communism in the Soviet/the communist case; so as to better provide for such things as market-democracy in the U.S./Western case).

    From the “global”/from the “both at home and abroad” conflict perspective provided above, would it have been wise (for “integrated deterrence” and/or for other reasons) for the Soviets/the communists — in the Old Cold War of yesterday — to “increase the density” of their special operations forces?

    Likewise from the “global”/from the “both at home and abroad” conflict perspective provided above, would it be wise (for “integrated deterrence” and/or for other reasons) for the U.S./the West — in the New/Reverse Cold War of today — to “increase the density” of our special operations forces?

    1. Addendum:

      Based on the information that I provide in my initial comment above, the frame “great power competition,” this would not seem to adequately define either (a) “the kind of war” that we and our opponents were embarked upon in the Old Cold War of yesterday or (b) “the kind of war” that we and our opponents are embarked upon in the New/Reverse Cold War of today.

      Rather, based on the information that I provide in my initial comment above, a frame of “revolutionary war versus resistance war,” THIS would seem to a better “fit” for “the kind of war” that we and our opponents — then and now — were/are embarked upon. (For example, such things as “containment,” and the use of the conservative elements of the states and societies of the world in this such cause, this being seen more clearly and correctly from a “revolutionary war versus resistance war” point of view?)

      Bottom Line Question — Based on the Above:

      How would my such re-framing of “the kind of war that we and they were embarked upon” — in the Old Cold War of yesterday and in the New/Reverse Cold War of today — how would this such “revolutionary war versus resistance war” framing effect our thoughts as to such things as “integrated deterrence” and “increased density” of our special operations forces in the service of same?

      1. Another way of looking at the matters that I present above:

        By way of “knowing one’s enemies” (both great powers and small enemies, who are using such things as “conservatism” and local “traditional values” against you; both state and non-state actor enemies, who are using such things as “conservatism” and local “traditional values” against you; and both here at home and there abroad entities, who, also, are using such things as “conservatism” and local “traditional values” against you); by way of knowing these such enemies, one can, I suggest, come to:

        1. Know one’s self (in the New/Reverse Cold War of today, WE are the revolutionary entity). Come to:

        2. Know the “kind of war that one is embarked upon” (in the New/Reverse Cold War of today, WE are the one’s engaged in revolutionary war) and

        3. Know how and where one should employ and deploy one’s forces/one’s capabilities/one’s “whole of government” assets accordingly.

        As to all the matters presented here, consider the following from Dr. Robert Egnell:

        “Dhofar, El Savador and the Philippines are all campaigns driven by fundamentally conservative concerns. (However) When we are looking to Syria right now, it is not just about maintaining order or even the regime, but about larger political change. In Afghanistan and Iraq too, we represented revolutionary change. So, perhaps we should read Mao and Che Guevara instead of Thompson in order to find the appropriate lessons of how to achieve large-scale societal change through limited means? That is what we are after, in the end. And in this coming era, where we are pivoting away from large-scale interventions and state-building projects, but not from our fairly grand political ambitions, it may be worth exploring how insurgents do more with little; how they approach irregular warfare, and reach their objectives indirectly.”

        (Item in parenthesis above is mine. See the Small War Journal article “Learning From Today’s Crisis of Counterinsurgency,” an interview of Dr. David H. Ucko and Dr. Robert Egnell by Octavian Manea.)

        Bottom Line Question — Based on the Above:

        Understanding the matters that I have presented here:

        a. What was the best way for the “revolutionary” Soviets/communists — in the Old Cold War of yesterday — to deploy and employ their special operations back then? And:

        b. What is the best way for the “revolutionary” U.S./the West — in the New/Reverse Cold War of today — to deploy and employ our special operations forces today?

  2. A look at such things as “foreign internal defense” and “unconventional warfare;” this, also, may help us consider the best way for the U.S./the West to deploy and employ our special operations forces — today and in the immediate future. In this regard, consider:

    a. Re: foreign internal defense, the following from our Joint Publication 3-22, “Foreign Internal Defense;” therein, see Section II, “Internal Defense and Development Program” and, there, Chapter 2, “Construct:”

    “a. An IDAD (Internal Defense and Development) program integrates security force and civilian actions into a coherent, comprehensive effort. Security force actions provide a level of internal security that permits and supports growth through balanced development. This development requires change to meet the needs of vulnerable groups of people. This change may, in turn, promote unrest in the society. The strategy, therefore, includes measures to maintain conditions under which orderly development can take place.” (Item in parenthesis above is mine.) And:

    b. Re: unconventional warfare, the following from LTG (ret.) Charles Cleveland and GEN (ret.) Joseph Votel:

    LTG (ret.) Cleveland:

    “In the same way that the conventionally focused American way of war is defined by America’s technical and industrial capacity and technological edge, the American way of irregular war is tied to our notions of religious pluralism, democracy, and, above all, human rights. And although the American way of war protects us against near-peep powers and guarantees the lanes of global commerce, the American way of irregular war protects our way of life by both promoting our worldview and giving people the tools to realize the same opportunities that we have had. … ”

    (See beginning at the last paragraph of Page 5 of Chapter One, the Introduction chapter, to the Rand paper by LTG [ret.] Charles Cleveland and Daniel Egel entitled: “The American Way of Irregular War: An Analytical Memoir.”)

    “The Achilles’ heel of our authoritarian adversaries is their inherent fear of their own people; the United States must be ready to capitalize on this fear. … An American way of irregular war will reflect who we are as a people, our diversity, our moral code, and our undying belief in freedom.”

    (See the “Conclusion” of the Rand paper that I reference above.))

    GEN (ret.) Joseph Votel (et. al):

    “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 Joseph L. Votel, Charles T. Cleveland, Charles T. Connett, and Will Irwin)

    Note that:

    a. In my foreign internal defense example above, we find the U.S. assisting friendly governments — who, like us — wish to achieve “development”/wish to achieve “revolutionary change;” this, so that their states and societies might be made to better benefit from such things as market-democracy. As this quoted item clearly notes, (a) these such “change” initiatives, (b) by way of their very “change” nature, are (c) likely to “promote unrest in the society.” Thus, the mission of U.S. (special operations and other) forces, this is to help our friendly governments (a) deal with such unrest and, thereby, (b) “maintain conditions under which orderly development can take place.” Whereas:

    b. In my unconventional warfare examples above, we find the U.S. dealing with unfriendly governments; that is, governments who are actively resisting/actively standing in the way of such “development”/such “revolutionary changes” as the U.S./the West seeks to achieve — in that country itself — and/or elsewhere throughout the world. Thus, the mission of U.S. (special operations and other?) forces — in these such circumstances — this is to give added capabilities/added clout/added potency to those individuals and groups, within the unfriendly countries, who would (a) like to benefit from such things as market-democracy and, thus, (b) would help us convince — or compel — their governments to embrace our desired changes.

    Bottom Line Thought — Based on the Above:

    Note that — in both my foreign internal defense and unconventional warfare examples and explanations above: (a) Facilitating/achieving “revolutionary change” (in a friendly country with the help of FID; in an unfriendly country with the help of UW) this is our common goal and that (b) “resisting revolutionary change” population groups and/or “resisting revolutionary change” governments, these are our common enemy.

    From that such perspective (facilitating/helping “achieve revolutionary change” entities; dealing with/defeating “resistance to revolutionary change” entities), where and how does the U.S./the West best deploy and employ its special operations forces today?

  3. With regard to the matters that I present in my comment immediately above, a certain and specific difference in “terrain” (human and physical), this, also, may be an important consideration — this, as relates to where and how we should deploy and employ our special operations forces today and in the future — for example:

    a. The “terrain” which finds (both here home and there abroad) that, generally speaking, the more educated/more secular/more modern/more internationalist people, living in the more strategically important/major economic growth-producing urban/littoral regions of the world, these such people — re: the “development”/the “achieve revolutionary change” political objective of the U.S./the West that I point to in my comment immediately above — these such people are often the U.S./the West’s “natural allies.” Why is this? Because, generally speaking, these such people often support the U.S./the West’s “global”/both here at home and there abroad “development”/”achieve revolutionary change in the name of market-democracy” political objective. This, as compared to:

    b. a. The “terrain” which finds (both here home and there abroad) that, generally speaking, the less educated/more religious/more traditional/more nationalist people, living in the less strategically important/less economic growth-producing rural/inland regions of the world, these such people — re: the “development”/the “achieve revolutionary change” political objective of the U.S./the West that I point to in my comment immediately above — these such people are often the U.S./the West’s “natural enemies.” Why? Because, generally speaking, these such people often do not support — and indeed often stand hard against — the U.S./the West’s “global”/both here at home and there abroad “development”/”achieve revolutionary change in the name of market-democracy” political objective.

    While we may be very familiar with this such difference in “terrain” here in the U.S./the West, a Chinese example may also prove useful here:

    “Many of the findings (which have not yet been peer reviewed, and are subject to change) are intuitive to those who have some basic familiarity with Chinese ideological trends: Respondents who are more nationalist also tend to support both the current ‘Chinese Socialist’ political system — along with the limitations it places on civil rights and liberties — and state control over the economy. In contrast, those who view Western ideals more favorably tend to support constitutional democracy, human rights, and free market reforms. In Chinese political terminology, the former are commonly called ‘leftists,’ and the latter ‘liberals.’ These terms are more than mere descriptive labels; they represent fairly coherent intellectual and political factions that are consciously antagonistic towards each other. Pan and Xu find that leftists enjoy greater popular support in lower-income, inland regions, compared to wealthier coastal provinces, whereas the opposite is true for “liberals.”

    (See the April 24, 2015 Foreign Policy article “What it Means to Be ‘Liberal’ or ‘Conservative’ in China: Putting the Country’s Most Significant Political Divide in Context,” by Taisu Zhang.)

    Bottom Line Question — Based on the Above:

    Re: such things and foreign internal defense and unconventional warfare — in the “development”/in the “achieve revolutionary change both at home and abroad” context that I provide above — is this such difference in “terrain” important; this, as relates to where and how we should deploy our special operations forces — today and in the future?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Send this to a friend