Author’s note: This article evolved from a paper delivered at a March 2019 conference on the role of US special operations forces in the era of great-power competition. The conference was sponsored by the Joint Special Operations University and the Special Operations Research Association.
Rooted in Francis Fukuyama’s idea that the end of history was near, the end of the Cold War saw renewed enthusiasm for the liberal international order. That notion proved both illusory and short lived. By 2014, marked by China’s territorial aggression in the South China Sea and Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the reality of great-power competition in a multipolar world had returned to define how the world is ordered in fact.
First acknowledged in the 2015 US National Military Strategy, great-power competition became the conceptual framework upon which current US security and defense strategies are predicated. These strategies represent a departure from those that underpinned much of America’s post-9/11 wars—with their heavy components of irregular warfare—but that does not mean a departure from irregular warfare itself. Instead, this strategic emphasis on great-power competition is changing when, where, and how the United States conducts irregular warfare—counterterrorism, unconventional warfare, counterinsurgency, foreign internal defense, and stability operations. The changes most directly affect US special operations forces.
US Security and Great-Power Competition
The 2017 National Security Strategy responds to the growing political, economic, and military competition that the United States faces around the world. The 2018 National Defense Strategy flows from it, identifying great-power competition as the primary national-security concern. The NDS recognizes four major state-based threats. Long-term strategic competition with China and Russia are the principal priorities, followed by the rogue regimes of North Korea and Iran. In addition, it recognizes the importance of terrorist and transnational criminal threats. Together, these constitute the 4+1 framework of the NDS.
For cost and deniability reasons, and to avoid engaging their adversaries in conventional warfare, the great powers increasingly use proxies to compete for resources and influence. As existing conflicts in some countries expand, and as new countries become theaters of proxy warfare, the number of countries in the gray zone between war and peace will grow. This will largely be driven by China, which now pursues hegemony over dozens of countries worldwide.
The Expansion of Contested Geographies
In addition to the homeland, the National Defense Strategy identifies four regions of special concern: the Indo-Pacific, Europe, the Middle East, and the Western Hemisphere. In these regions especially, instability should grow as the great powers compete for resources and influence. The nature of the 4+1 threats individually drives where US special operations forces are most likely to be deployed as the new era unfolds.
China. China is in a period of economic and military ascendancy. Its all-of-nation strategy is focused on Indo-Pacific hegemony in the near term and displacing the United States as the leading global power in the long term. Primarily through arms sales and its trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative, China is moving aggressively to lock up natural resources and control global transportation routes. For now, the Belt and Road Initiative covers some two-thirds of the world’s population and involves three-quarters of the world’s known energy resources.
The primary regions where Chinese proxies are emergent are Asia, the South China Sea, the South Pacific, the Indian Ocean, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and east and southern Africa. China is also targeting resource-rich and otherwise strategic geographies in the Western Hemisphere. These include Greenland to the north, and Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Cuba, Panama, Peru, Bolivia, Uruguay, Venezuela, and Mexico to the south of the United States.
Russia. Russia’s focus is on periphery nations, shattering NATO and changing European and Middle East security and economic structures to its favor. The NDS cites Georgia, Crimea, and eastern Ukraine as places of particular concern, but Russia is increasingly engaged in many other countries. In the Middle East these include Syria, Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, and Libya. In Latin America they include Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Bolivia.
As the United States strengthens its hand in eastern Europe through the European Reassurance Initiative, considers an expanded footprint in Poland, and moves to end the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, Russia will likely respond closer to the US homeland. It is already planning, for example, a military base on Venezuela’s La Orchila Island.
Iran. Iran is a rogue state that employs state-sponsored terrorism, a growing network of proxies, and a ballistic missile program. Its primary objective is to create a zone of influence in a Shiite Crescent stretching from the Mediterranean to the Arabian Sea. In addition to Iraq, the countries most directly affected are Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, and Israel. Other countries in the broader Persian Gulf, including US allies like Saudi Arabia, will be increasingly affected through the action of Iranian proxies.
North Korea. North Korea, the second rogue state identified in the NDS, is developing nuclear, biological, chemical, conventional, and unconventional weapons, and a growing ballistic missile capability. The countries most directly affected are South Korea, Japan, Russia, and China. However, with a missile reach that covers a far larger area than just Northeast Asia, North Korea has the growing potential to affect countries throughout the Pacific basin—including the United States.
Terrorist and Transnational Criminal Threats. The +1 priority of the NDS focuses on nonstate actors that threaten the United States, including terrorists, transnational criminal organizations, and others. A specific objective of the NDS is to degrade the ability of nonstate actors to acquire, proliferate, or use weapons of mass destruction. A second is to prevent terrorists from conducting operations against the United States or its allies.
The National Security Strategy explicitly identifies “the most dangerous terrorist threat” to the United States as jihadist terrorist organizations. Indicative of the scope of the threat, half of all active insurgencies in 2015 involved such organizations and most of those insurgencies had combat support from outside nonstate actors.
A November 2018 study from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) found that the total number of active Salafi-jihadist fighters in the world was at “near-peak levels,” and almost three times higher than at 9/11. The diversity of jihadist groups has also grown. While ISIS and al-Qaeda have been the dominant focus of counterterrorism efforts since 9/11, two-thirds of the sixty-seven Salafi-jihadist groups worldwide are directly affiliated with neither organization.
The CSIS study identifies the Middle East, North Africa, south and central Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa as the regions with the most Salafi-jihadist fighters. Europe, east Asia and the Pacific have smaller numbers. The most fighters as of 2018 were in Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Nigeria, and Somalia. Others report significant jihadi activity in Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Libya, Egypt, the Caucasus, Brazil, Mozambique, India, Bangladesh, Burma, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, and many other locations. These include Australia, the United States, Canada, and western Europe.
Irregular Warfare and Great-Power Competition
Irregular warfare is the core mandate of US special operations forces, and SOF will be the most directly affected of all US forces by great-power competition. This applies especially to when, where, and how irregular warfare missions are engaged.
Since the 2014 drawdown of forces in Afghanistan, there has been a de facto demotion of two of the five forms of irregular warfare—counterinsurgency and stability operations. This is attested to by dissolution of the US Army Irregular Warfare Center (2014); the attempt to eliminate the Army’s Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Institute (2018); dissolution of most of the Center for Complex Operations (2018); and narrowing of DoD’s role in stability operations (2017–2018). All five forms of irregular warfare, however, will be affected by the strategic pivot to great-power competition.
Counterterrorism. Counterterrorism has been the most visible focus of SOF since 9/11. Recent experience with ISIS in Syria and Iraq has provided extraordinary examples of what can be accomplished, and adaptation of that experience to other countries like Afghanistan will continue. Counterterrorism will remain a de facto high priority in the era of great-power competition, and it will continue to enjoy great domestic political support.
Unconventional Warfare. Notwithstanding twenty-first-century successes like Afghanistan in late 2001 and Libya in 2011, unconventional warfare has been uncommon in recent years. In the last decade, SOF has focused on counterterrorism, counterinsurgency, foreign internal defense, and direct-action missions. Some argue that addressing today’s gray-zone conflicts will require greater use of unconventional warfare, and that SOF skills in this area have atrophied. This form of irregular warfare will likely resurge in the era of great-power competition, and could include supporting resistance forces in countries overrun by conventional enemy forces in locations such as eastern Europe.
Foreign Internal Defense. Strengthening the internal defense of allied countries has been a US security priority for decades. It involves a wide spectrum of US government agencies and associated organizations, and it has been a mainstay of US defense operations for special operations forces.
This mission will remain a high priority in the era of great-power competition. Demand for it will grow, as China, Russia, and Iran increasingly use proxies, more countries become unstable, and the gray zone expands. Limited public appetite for deeper US military engagement will fuel the demand for these kinds of operations, even as the number of operations could be constrained by budget and manpower limitations.
Counterinsurgency. Counterinsurgency has been de-emphasized as an element of irregular warfare since the 2014 drawdown of forces in Afghanistan. Seth Jones attributes this to three things: public aversion to the prolonged wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; identification of counterinsurgency with the deployment of large foreign forces; and conflation of counterinsurgency with a population-centric military strategy. But “as long as there are insurgencies,” he writes, “governments will need to conduct counterinsurgency warfare.”
Insurgency is the most common form of warfare. There have been 181 insurgencies since the end of World War II, most of them resolved on the battlefield. The number of active insurgencies has been roughly stable since 9/11 at about thirty to forty a year, but they may grow in frequency if not intensity during the era of great-power competition as the use of proxies grows. SOF especially will remain heavily engaged in limited-scope counterinsurgency operations—in fact if not in name—even as full-spectrum counterinsurgency is eschewed.
Stability Operations. Among the five forms of irregular warfare, stability operations are unique. Some argue that stability today is a fundamental component of multi-domain operations. This includes proactive stability as well as counter-destabilization actions. Both state and nonstate enemies use destabilization strategies. Examples include Russia’s use of “little green men” in Ukraine, Iranian cyberwarfare in the Middle East, and rural insurgency by the FARC in Colombia.
The US military has engaged in several hundred stability operations since 1789. These include opening the American west, post–Civil War reconstruction, Germany and Japan after World War II, CORDS in Vietnam, and the ongoing wars in Colombia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. After 230 years, however, the Department of Defense 2018 directive on stabilization marks a sea change in US military policy. It designates the Department of State as the overall lead for stabilization, USAID as the lead for nonsecurity stabilization, and DoD as a supporting element charged with security and reinforcing civilian efforts.
In the era of great-power competition, instability should spread as the geographical scope of preconflict competition grows. Some say this argues for stronger US engagement in gray-zone stabilization campaigns. So long as US policy supports lower stabilization funding, however, the most likely scenario is less stability in more countries, and less sustainability of military gains in those theaters where stability needs go unfunded.
Fewer US resources will likely be allocated to longer-term stability operations because of US budget limitations, domestic funding needs, donor fatigue, and widespread public aversion to anything that walks, talks, or looks like “nation building.” Where the United States does engage in postkinetic stabilization, such as in Syria and Iraq, DoD will play a declining hands-on role as the scope and extent of direct intervention narrows. Stability will increasingly be funded by other donors. Those operations funded by the United States will be executed mostly through grants to host countries and international organizations like the World Bank, the regional development banks, and the United Nations.
Just as the US national-security and defense strategies refocus America’s strategic priorities on great-power competition, they also recognize the changing character of war. This is driven by technological advances in computing, big-data analytics, artificial intelligence, autonomy, robotics, directed energy, hypersonics, and biotechnology. These are tectonic shifts, and they will affect the ways and means by which war is conducted.
The risk of conventional warfare will grow in the new era as the strategic focus shifts to Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea. But execution of US strategy on the ground will continue to rely heavily on irregular warfare—counterterrorism, unconventional warfare, foreign internal defense, counterinsurgency, and stability operations. What will change for US special operations forces is when, where, and how irregular warfare is pursued.
Jeff Goodson is a retired US Foreign Service officer. In twenty-nine years with the US Agency for International Development (1983–2012), he worked on the ground in forty-nine countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America, eastern Europe, and the Middle East. He deployed three times to Afghanistan for a total of thirty-one months, serving as chief of staff at USAID/Kabul from 2006 to 2007 and director of development at ISAF headquarters from 2010 to 2012.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Tech Sgt. Efren Lopez, US Air Force
The author is correct about the integral part that Irregular Warfare, enabled by SOF, should and does play in a Great Power Competition (Cold War).
But, I would just point out that Irregular Warfare and proxy forces aren't something new that came with GWOT. In fact much of what the author proposes for Africa and Latin America specifically is what was happening during the previous great power competition.
During the height of the Cold War operations carried out by irregular proxy forces and enabled by SOF, were a central theme in the U.S.'s actions to counter Russia and socialism across the globe.
With the Bush Wars, where the U.S. funded, supplied, and trained proxy forces to fight against socialist rebels backed by the U.S.S.R across Southern Africa.
And, the same was done in Latin America by the U.S. (e.g.. The School of the Americas now called The Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation) and U.S.S.R; which consequently is why there is such a pervasive theme of socialism in Latin America to this day.
To be clear, the article doesn't "propose" anything. It merely forecasts the likely impact of the national strategic shift to great power competition on irregular warfare and SOF.
Absolutely understand that, and I apologize for using a less than efficient word when I said "proposes".
My intent was simply highlighting that the use of SOF and proxy forces in a great power competition isn't a new concept in the context of the not so distant past, and that we have a pretty extensive history doing exactly that pre-GWOT.
I enjoyed the write-up and actually added it to the open source roll-up that I produce.
Thank you, sir!
This article reads more like a CIA or State Department Brief than a USA military strategic or tactical plan, and that's fine.
Truth is, in mid-year 2020, there are people and nation states that dislike and even hate the USA and Americans. That, obviously is nothing new, but it is the level of hatred that moved the Doomsday clock to 90 seconds before Midnight to all out nuclear war, Global Disaster, or World War Three, the closest the clock handles has ever been to Midnight.
To adopt a philosophy of constantly looking for the next war is dangerous and expensive. Yes, NATO must prepare for war, but that is their job and GWOT was just the low end of the spectrum of a military that prepares for all kinds of contingencies, even COVID-19. To be caught Flat-Footed and unprepared is a lesson learned to better prepare for the new decade to come.
Not everything could be solved with bullets (force) and beans (money) when there is rampant corruption and shifting alliances in the world. Perhaps more PSYOPS and "SOF and State Department love" is needed in a world plagued by uprisings, refugee movement, starvation, locust, and pandemic. People are people and humans and need to be treated accordingly. Remember, before the bullets fly, usually the State Department talks first and if that step is missing, then the whole Diplomatic system is upside down and whacked up.
And just recently,
SASC draft NDAA-21 language includes:
Sec. 1209 Functional Center for Security Studies in Irregular Warfare
The committee recommends a provision that would require the Secretary of Defense, in coordination with the Secretary of State, to submit a report not later than 90 days after the date of the enactment of this Act that assesses the merits and feasibility of establishing and administering a Department of Defense Functional Center for Security Studies in Irregular Warfare. Further, not earlier than 30 days after the submission of the required plan and subject to the availability of appropriations, the provision would provide discretionary authority to the Secretary to establish and administer such a center.
Incidentally, USMC established a Center For IW in 2007, disbanded it in 2015.
From my very limited experience/interaction with SOF, this is likely a good forecast of what it will end up doing to continue to compete in GPC. Stability operations, COIN/UW, FID, among others, will still continue to be imperatives in the proxy-heavy competition between our 4+1 adversaries. I think, however, that it lacks certain capabilities that that will be very, very important in strategic competition. GPC in the modern era is certainly going to necessitate CA/CMO/CME in new regions and continued efforts in regions where these operations are currently ongoing. Interaction with populations of fringe countries and even those of solid US allies will be critical to crafting a political and social advantage over our adversaries, particularly China and Russia. Psychological and information operations – to include advancing our capabilities in the cyber and space domains – will also be key to degrading support for our adversaries abroad and securing an American advantage in GPC. Special operations are not necessarily confined to the tactical tasks with which we are familiar or those which are most attractive or trendy, and we must keep this in mind to continue to evolve our SOF capabilities to remain competitive in GPC.
I think this piece is especially relevant now more than ever. No one wants to touch COIN or stability operations with a ten-foot pole. It feels like it's the post-Vietnam Army, just this time switch Vietnam with Afghanistan, and we are still in Afghanistan. These topics will become increasingly relevant as adversaries choose to engage with us in areas where we have demonstrated weakness.
No one seems to want to touch COIN or stability operations with a ten-foot pole right now, which is unfortunate considering the shear probability we'll find ourselves involved in those operations again. This is giving off post-Vietnam Army vibes, with a total aversion to these subjects, even though we aren't even all the way out of Afghanistan. This article seems to correctly point out that adversaries recognize that going toe-to-toe with us conventionally, at least right now, isn't preferable to hitting the US where it's weak, which is at countering insurgencies and conducting stability operations. Overall, incredibly relevant.
This article is incredibly relevant right now. It highlights the need to address our deficiencies in conducting COIN, stability operations and irregular warfare in general. It points out that our adversaries are beginning to take advantage of our weaknesses in these areas, which is strategically better for them than addressing us conventionally. No one wants to touch topics such as COIN though, with a ten-foot pole, considering the situation in Afghanistan. Seems very similar to the post-Vietnam averseness of the Army to COIN or stability op.'s. With SOF playing a major role in COIN, CT, stability op.'s, etc. it seems imperative we address deficiencies in the way we execute these types of operations.
I agree with the way Goodson analyzes the ways in which irregular warfare impacts a new era of great-power competition, especially the portion about counterinsurgency. These insurgencies, as stated by Goodson, are the most common means of warfare and therefore counterinsurgency should be the objective focus for COIN and should be rarely discarded or ignored as it has been at times in the past. With the multipolar polar world as it is now, these insurgencies could tip the balance in any ongoing war and could with little difficulty if left unchecked, begin one on a much larger scale.
I think this article highlights really how much SOF strategy needs to shift to better reflect our near-peer and rouge nation threats. As a strong believer in the importance of an increasingly relevant space domain, I'd like to know how/if SOF is preparing for the threats and changes in this domain. China and Russia have strong space capabilities that can cripple our systems and change how warfare as we know it is fought. How are army space support units such as 1st Space Brigade and other agencies such as the NRO prepared to assist SOF at a moments notice is dealing with near-pear threats and COIN operations? Is SOF adjusting it's training to incorporate more space assets or preparing for a fight with all space assets unavailable such as GPS, communication services, weather services, jamming/spoofing, etc?
I think it's interesting how irregular warfare is having to change as the United States is beginning to turn away from counterinsurgency threats. Recent events have allocated resources to preparing conventional forces to face a near-peer threat. This threat isn't likely to show itself in the next few years, but there is now a definite competition between the U.S., Russia, China, and North Korea. This new world of possible threats opens a broad range of possibilities for how irregular warfare can be incorporated. This isn't just using proxies to assault the allies of near-peers, it's also the ability to directly affect those threats. The risk of the missions exponentially increases if those circumstances become a reality. The consequences of that mission failure could mean conflict with a near-peer. Those circumstances can only be allocated to an irregular warfare unit. This is just a theoretical comment that shouldn't be taken literally, but it begs the question, "Can today's irregular warfare units handle the task of innovating their strategies to facing new threats?"
One thing that I found very interesting was how we, as the American public, are currently very in tune with a "proxy situation" going on right now involving China and Afghanistan. This article was written in 2020, yet the same situation that it descried is happening right in front of us now. Big powers such as China, Russia and Iraq are expanding their circle of control and creating more theaters for conflict. I personally had never thought about it his way until recently, though it has been going on for a long time.
This article states that "Fewer US resources will likely be allocated to longer-term stability operations because of US budget limitations, domestic funding needs, donor fatigue, and widespread public aversion to anything that walks, talks, or looks like 'nation building.' " With the recent pull out of Afghanistan, it seems as if the majority of the public, in addition to military members, preferred nation building over withdrawing. While, as President Biden mention, the intent of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan was never nation building, maybe the public would've been willing to spend U.S. resources to do so now that they have seen the affects of our departure.
I think that irregular warfare will still play a large role in great power competition. Although there may be an increased chance conventional warfare breaking out, Special Operations Forces can still play a big role in the conflict. However, I expect certain aspects of irregular warfare, such as counter terrorism and foreign internal defense to play less of a role. On the other hand, stability operations, particularly those aimed at destabilizing an enemy country, seem more likely to be used by the United States to weaken the country without provoking an official war, as most of the states in the great power competition possess nuclear weapons.
This article really shows that dynamic nature of SOF. Although the focus shift to conventional threats is occurring, the SOF mission sets maintain vital roles. I found the analysis of unconventional warfare and stability operations to be most interesting. Goodson's example of Eastern Europe, as a location for increased demand of unconventional warfare, seems like something that could come into play in the very near future, considering the threat that the former Soviet satellite states feel. Countries like Ukraine, Lithuania, and Poland would all greatly benefit from SOF assistance if they became occupied by conventional Russian forces. As far as stability operations go, I never considered their abundance in US history. Goodson's example of Westward Expansion after the Civil War as a stability operation was eye opening for me.
I would be interested to see what the author thinks about how the division of work between SOF and conventional forces will shift as the world shifts further into a trend of Great-power competition. I agree, that in the future, the USA will continue to rely on counterterrorism, and irregular warfare to achieve its strategic aims. But as conventional forces are no longer needed on the ground as much in areas such as Afghanistan (we just pulled out), I wonder how much of that mission will be carried out by conventional forces.