Will the role and capabilities required of special operations forces change in a geopolitical context characterized by great power competition? How will SOF balance enduring counterterrorism missions with new requirements to deter great power rivals? Episode 39 of the Irregular Warfare Podcast brings together the commander of US Special Operations Command and a leading researcher of special operations to dig into these questions.
Key to mapping the way ahead is a substantive understanding of the contemporary competition environment, along with a recognition that the requirements for SOF vary greatly across regions and mission sets. Our guests discuss the SOF competencies that are likely to be most relevant to future conflict, with an emphasis on information operations and the importance of working with partner forces, and how US Special Operations Command and the Department of Defense can cultivate SOF talent that is ready to meet these dynamic requirements.
General Richard Clarke currently serves as the commander of US Special Operations Command. He has held command positions at all levels in both conventional and special operations units, to include serving as the commander of the 82nd Airborne Division and as the regimental commander of the 75th Ranger Regiment.
Linda Robinson is director of the Center for Middle East Public Policy and a senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation. She has conducted extensive research on special operations forces and is the author of two critically acclaimed books about SOF: One Hundred Victories: Special Ops and the Future of American Warfare and Masters of Chaos: The Secret History of the Special Forces.
The hosts for this episode are Kyle Atwell and Shawna Sinnott. Please contact them with any questions about this episode or the Irregular Warfare Podcast.
The Irregular Warfare Podcast is a product of the Irregular Warfare Initiative, a collaboration between the Modern War Institute at West Point and Princeton University’s Empirical Studies of Conflict Project—dedicated to bridging the gap between scholars and practitioners to support the community of irregular warfare professionals.
You can listen to the full episode below, and you can find it and subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, TuneIn, or your favorite podcast app. And be sure to follow the podcast on Twitter!
Image credit: Staff Sgt. Thomas Mort, US Army
In order to address matters relating to such things as the use of our special operations forces — this, to "deter" the behavior of our competitors in the great power competition of today — in order to do this, we must first, I suggest, recognize the strategic goals of both ourselves and our adversaries.
In the New/Reverse Cold War of today, the strategic goal of the U.S./the West (the expansion of our preferred way of life, our preferred way of governance, our preferred values, etc.), this is much the same as the strategic goal of the Soviets/the communists during the Old Cold War (as related to the expansion of their preferred way of life, etc., back then).
Likewise, in this New/Reverse Cold War of today, the strategic goal of Russia and China (containment and roll back of the U.S./the West's such expansionist endeavors), this is much the same as the strategic goal of the U.S./the West versus the Soviets/the communists during the Old Cold War.
The way in which we might confirm this such thesis, this would be by seeing if our competitors (and much as we did versus them in the Old Cold War of yesterday) had (a) now embraced a "conservative"/a "traditionalist" stance (much as we did versus them in the Old Cold War) and if they were now (much as we did versus them in the Old Cold War) (b) "courting" — and seeking to work more "by, with and through" — the more "conservative"/the more "traditional" population groups (those such groups in their own countries, in our countries and, indeed, throughout the world).
And guess what? This is what we actually do see. Here are some examples of these such phenomena:
“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.’
In Putin’s view, the fight over values is not far removed from geopolitical competition. ‘[Liberals] cannot simply dictate anything to anyone just like they have been attempting to do over the recent decades,’ he said in an interview with the Financial Times in 2019. ‘There is also the so-called liberal idea, which has outlived its purpose. Our Western partners have admitted that some elements of the liberal idea, such as multiculturalism, are no longer tenable,’ he added. …
(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.)
"Liberal democratic societies have, in the past few decades, undergone a series of revolutionary changes in their social and political life, which are not to the taste of all their citizens. For many of those, who might be called social conservatives, Russia has become a more agreeable society, at least in principle, than those they live in. Communist Westerners used to speak of the Soviet Union as the pioneer society of a brighter future for all. Now, the rightwing nationalists of Europe and North America admire Russia and its leader for cleaving to the past."
(See "The American Interest" article "The Reality of Russian Soft Power" by John Lloyd and Daria Litinova.)
“Compounding it all, Russia’s dictator has achieved all of this while creating sympathy in elements of the Right that mirrors the sympathy the Soviet Union achieved in elements of the Left. In other words, Putin is expanding Russian power and influence while mounting a cultural critique that resonates with some American audiences, casting himself as a defender of Christian civilization against Islam and the godless, decadent West.”
(See the “National Review” item entitled: “How Russia Wins” by David French.)
"During the Cold War, the USSR was perceived by American conservatives as an 'evil empire,' as a source of destructive cultural influences, while the United States was perceived as a force that was preventing the world from the triumph of godless communism and anarchy. The USSR, by contrast, positioned itself as a vanguard of emancipation, as a fighter for the progressive transformation of humanity (away from religion and toward atheism), and against the reactionary forces of the West. Today positions have changed dramatically; it is the United States or the ruling liberal establishment that in the conservative narrative has become the new or neo-USSR, spreading subversive ideas about family or the nature of authority around the world, while Russia has become almost a beacon of hope, 'the last bastion of Christian values' that helps keep the world from sliding into a liberal dystopia. Russia’s self-identity has changed accordingly; now it is Russia who actively resists destructive, revolutionary experiments with fundamental human institutions, experiments inspired by new revolutionary neo-communists from the United States. Hence the cautious hopes that the U.S. Christian right have for contemporary Russia: They are projecting on Russia their fantasies of another West that has not been infected by the virus of cultural liberalism."
(See the December 18, 2019, Georgetown University, Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs article "Global Culture Wars from the Perspective of Russian and American Actors: Some Preliminary Conclusions," by Dmitry Uzlaner. Look to the paragraph beginning with "Russia and the United States as screens for each other’s projections.")
From the perspective that I have offer above, the effort to "deter" the behavior by our competitors, this must be focused on:
a. "Deterring" these competitors from trying to "contain" and "roll back" the expansionist efforts of the U.S./the West. And, thus, must be focused on:
b. "Deterring" these competitors from using their "natural allies" — the more-conservative/the more-traditional population groups and their causes — in these such "containment" and "roll back" efforts.
Bottom Line Question — Based on the Above:
Re: the use of our special operations forces in these such "deterring" missions (see my "a" and "b" immediately above), are there any Old Cold War lessons that we can use;
Wherein, for example, we find the Soviets/the communists successfully using their special operations forces; this, to "deter" the U.S./the West from (a) employing "containment" and "roll back" strategies and (b) using one's "natural allies" (the more-conservative/the more-traditional population groups and their causes) in these such "containment" and "roll back" efforts?)
So let's look at the mission of "deterrence" (of Russia and China for example) — and the use of our special operations forces in support of this such "deterrence" mission — from following perspective:
a. At the end of the Old Cold War — and continuing on to today — the goal of the U.S./the West has been to transform the states and societies of the world (to include our own such states and societies); this, so that same might be made to better interact with, better provide for and better benefit from such things as capitalism, globalization and the global economy.
b. These such political, economic, social and/or value "change" missions — by their very "change" nature — (a) threaten the political, economic, social and/or value status quo of every state and society in the world (to include our own such status quo) and, thus, (b) threaten everyone in the world (especially the more-conservative/the more-traditional population groups) — who rely on the status quo for their status, privilege, prosperity, position, safety, security, etc.
In this regard, what one can easily see, this is that the threat to the world's status quo, posed by such things as U.S./Western-promoted "globalization" today, this "mirrors" the threat to the world's status quo, which was posed by Soviet/communist promotion of communism after World War II.
a. While back in the Old Cold War, our special operations forces were used to "deter" the Soviet/the communists — from attempting to "change" the status quo — especially in our backyard/in our sphere of interest.
b. Today, in the New/Reverse Cold War, China and Russia's are using their special operations forces to "deter" the U.S./the West — from attempting to "change" the status quo in Russia and China's backyard/in their sphere of interest.
"As true as this rings, there is enough rhyme in recent history to remind us that it was not always so. The last time Russia and the United States grappled indirectly as adversaries in 'the gray areas' during the final phase of the Cold War, it was the United States that put a hybrid 'blend of military, economic, diplomatic, criminal, and informational means' to effective use, notably in Central America. Of course, there were important differences between the character of that confrontation and today, but much about the goals and the means were comparable, only it was the United States that seemed to 'have it down.'
In the early 1980s, Central America had gone from backyard backwater to flash point in the Cold War. Walter Cronkite’s first question for President Ronald Reagan shortly after his inauguration was about El Salvador. Reagan reassured the American public that — less than a decade after the American tragedy in Vietnam — he had no intention of sending U.S. combat forces into a Central American quagmire. His administration then built on Jimmy Carter’s reactive stance to contain the spread of Cuban-inspired, Soviet-aligned revolutions from Nicaragua to El Salvador and beyond through a combination of measures. Some of them were prosaic, others unorthodox and controversial in the extreme. In El Salvador, light footprint counterinsurgency held off Latin America’s fiercest guerilla army while a democratic political strategy took hold. Covert action supported insurgents, the Nicaraguan Contras, who kept the Sandinista government off balance and mired in war. U.S. military forces on permanent exercise menaced from across the border in Honduras. Aid programs pumped U.S. dollars into the underdeveloped region. Desultory diplomatic negotiations mollified regional actors, allies, and the U.S. Congress. Information operations aimed at the homeland audience featured images of Soviet tanks headed toward Harlingen, the first American city at the southern tip of Texas.
The purpose of all this? Defending America from hostile foreign interference — the Monroe Doctrine. But it was also a 'forward strategy for freedom,' as Secretary of State George Shultz called it, which above all served to demonstrate that America had revitalized its will to oppose the Soviet Union in the Cold War. Whether or not hybrid war as employed in Central America was a good thing or bad is a matter of political judgement. It associated the United States with unsavory allies and terrible human rights violations, while the misguided evasion of Congressional restrictions on covert action led to the Iran-Contra scandal that nearly wrecked the Reagan administration. Certainly the consequences of protracted war were very costly to the people of the region, even if they could be said to have benefitted from the advent of democracy. Objectively, the United States did achieve its stated aims, specifically containing the spread of leftist revolution elsewhere in Central America and reversing it in Nicaragua; lasting peace coincided with the end of the Cold War itself, but it cannot be said that the wars in Central America made any contribution to that outcome.
Employed as part of a broader strategy ("containment" and "roll back?"), what hybrid warfare did was allow the United States to carry out open-ended competition and signal certain confidence that the value of protecting the U.S. sphere of interest was greater than any opponent’s interest in upsetting it. After all, it would have served little purpose to test the escalation dominance the United States enjoyed in the hemisphere, say by threatening direct action against Cuba or rattling nuclear sabers. Instead, the method was a low-fear, low-cost, economy-of-force way to manage superpower confrontation that remained well below the threshold that might have provoked a more energetic response.
That the United States and NATO, a conventional defensive alliance, should be confounded by similar maneuvers on the part of Russia and left groping to 'connect the dots' from Crimea to the Baltic is not a surprise. What should not be a matter for confusion is that hybrid warfare is not the exclusive province of a nefarious Putin, but rather a method available to any power with the motivation to employ it. This takes us only half way toward a solution. But, in paraphrase of Clausewitz, the first essential act of judgment is to establish the kind of war in which we are embroiled.
(Item in parenthesis — in the third quoted paragraph above — is mine.) (See the War on the Rocks article "America Did Hybrid Warfare Too" by Todd Greentree.)
Bottom Line Questions — Based on the Above:
1. Just how does one "deter" someone, who, in fact, (a) actively seeking to "deter" you and using (b) the exact methods (hybrid warfare and "co-option" of the threatened conservative groups) — in support of the exact same strategies (containment and roll back) — that you used versus them in the Old Cold War?
2. In this regard, are there Old Cold War examples that we can look to — that would show how the Soviets/the communists "deterred" the U.S./the West who — indeed back then — were actively seeking to "deter" the Soviets/the communists?
My item in parenthesis — in the quoted Todd Greentree article above — this appears in the fourth, not the third, paragraph thereof.
In light of the matters that I presented — in my second comment above — let's look as some specifics:
"Asymmetrical actions have come into widespread use, enabling the nullification of an enemy´s advantages in armed conflict. Among such actions are the use of special operations forces and internal opposition to create a permanently operating front through the entire territory of the enemy state, as well as informational actions, devices, and means that are constantly being perfected. …"
(Gen. Valery Gerasimov, Chief of the Russian General Staff)
As we can see here, GEN Gerasimov wants to use his "special operations forces" — and "internal opposition" (for example, the more-conservative/the more-traditional elements within the U.S./the West's own states and societies and those of our partners and allies) — to "create a permanently operating front through the entire territory of the enemy state."
Question: How exactly can we:
a. Use our special operations forces to
b. "Deter" GEN Gerasimov from doing what he intends — and indeed has already done — above?
Answer: As per GEN (ret.) Votel, LTG (ret.) Cleveland, et. al, below.
"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-peer 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 the Introduction chapter to Rand paper by LTG [ret.] Charles Cleveland 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 "The American Way of Irregular War: An Analytical Memoir" by Charles T. Cleveland and Daniel Egel.)
"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)
Our foundational ideas re: "religious pluralism, democracy, and, above all, human rights" (see my second quoted item above) — re: "our diversity, our moral code" (see my third quoted item above) — and re: "fear, oppression, and injustice" (see my fourth quoted item above) — all of these such foundational ideas seem to have been "trashed" somewhat, and/or discarded, lately. This, in pursuit of more selfish goals.
How do we proceed to "deter" the Russians, and the Chinese — using the "weapons" that GEN Votel, LTG Cleveland, etc., described above — when, in fact, these such "weapons" may no longer be available to us?
Let's be blunt and factual…
The US Special Forces are now EQUAL or BEHIND peer nations due to the capture of equipment, weapons, A-29 attack planes, pickups, M1114s, trucks, MRAPs, gear, uniforms, NVGs, K-9 dogs, and explosives in Afghanistan. Russians, Chinese, North Koreans, Insurgents, Taliban, militias, and anyone who wants to can look like US SOFs due to the vast "War Booty" captured in Afghanistan and available on the Black Market right up and down to the US boots, helmets, night vision, carbines, vests, body armor, vehicles, K-9s, trucks, helicopters, etc. The match isn't exact in some cases (such as the helicopters aren't Special Ops modified), but close enough.
USSOCOM doesn't have A-29 attack planes, but the captured ones might go to the peer nations for reverse-engineering and those nations might even field Light Attack Planes even before SOCOM. Thus, SOCOM is BEHIND or will be EQUAL to the Afghan National Army Air Force that has disbanded due to the US and NATO Withdrawal.
If the US SOFs can purchase the "Best equipment money can buy," well, the Afghan Army has all this already so USSOCOM is equal and might fall behind now that peer nations can grab onto this captured gear.
This means that the USSOCOM's capabilities have to change, and that means spending Big Bucks. The 6.8mm NGSW is one way, as are new NVGs and technology, but that also means peer nations are equal or ABOVE US Army National Guard and regular Big Army due to the vast trove of captured war booty with matching M4s, M240s, pickups, M1114s, drones, and US equipment–many of them brand new and in better condition that what the US Marine and GI has. That is the greatest fear is if the enemy looks, acts, pretends, drives, talks, radios, and fights like the USA. The SOF roles will be similar, but its the difference in guns and gear and uniforms that characterize the forces, but no longer. The DoD needs to start programs to address the captured War Booty and advance out of that trap.
Therefore, USSOCOM needs to reinvent itself, and in a big way, all the way to small arms, helmets, data, radios, and uniforms. US SOFs cannot look the same anymore, and that's a costly problem if the enemy looks like US SOFs. Sun Tzu's "All War is Deception" requires new radios, IDs, bio-metrics, IFF, encryption, and datalinks to get USSOCOM out of Afghanistan into a more secure footing to fight Russia and China that might possess the very same equipment, weapons, uniforms, and intel that the US Army and USSOCOM has. The US just has to be BETTER than what was lost in Afghanistan, and the DoD really needs to figure out the intelligence and appearance loss and how it might affect the future battlefields. This cannot be downplayed because already the Russians are buying US equipment to look very similar to US and NATO SOFs because rumor was it that the Russian gear is lousy. When DoD has lost a stash able to equip 300,000 troops, then US SOFs better pay heed and notice as to who really is friend and foe by appearances alone out in the field. The US SOFs have also "lost the night" to captured night vision googles and laser designators MADE IN THE USA.
What then can the US SOFs do? Besides a total revamp of guns and gear and appearances, robotics and AI would be of more importance to remove the US SOF Operator from CQB. Armed SPUR robot dogs, FLIR Black Hornets, quad-packs, loitering munitions, small armored ATVs, etc. to increase the standoff distance from CQB because the TALOS "Iron Man Suit" didn't work out. USSOCOM needs to be more innovative in gaining the advantage of overhead and situational awareness and then decide on when to pick fights. If the enemy is a mass infantry formation, then perhaps robot sentry guns like in the movie ALIENS are required because no way can SOCOM do battle against a mass horde or enemy troops like the Spartan 300.
And that is the main issue fighting against an adversarial army or SOFs that possess the same guns, gear, and equipment of the US SOFs…the US will essentially be fighting against itself, and even the Chinese have the QBZ-191 that looks a lot like the M4A1 carbine.