An Evolutionary Vision

Army Special Ops Looks to the Future Armed with Lessons Learned from the Past


By USASOC Public Affairs

The U.S. Army Special Operations Command (USASOC) is the Army component of the Joint Special Operations Command. Among the most diverse organizations in the U.S. military, USASOC brings a broad range of competencies and disciplines to support geographic combatant commanders and ambassadors worldwide. Established in 1989 to enhance the readiness of Army special operations forces, USASOC’s mission is twofold: organize, train, and equip Army Special Operations Forces (ARSOF) units and soldiers and deploy them worldwide to meet the requirements of war plans, geographic combatant commanders, and ambassadors.

Over the past 12 years, the lessons USASOC learned from Iraq and Afghanistan led to the creation of a strategic framework for change called ARSOF 2022. This blueprint focuses on specific areas that needed improvement to better enable theater special operations commands and joint force commanders to conduct SOF campaigns worldwide.

Scope of Operations

The first area of focus was on a key capability gap in conducting “high- end” unconventional warfare, or UW. What differentiates “high-end” UW from more traditional definitions and well-known case studies from the past is that “high-end” UW accounts for the full range of conditions for unconventional warfare. These include scenarios in which resistance movements are operating clandestinely, the occupying power is highly effective, there exists limited safe havens from which to operate, and where the degree of risk is exceptionally high.

USASOC also identified a need to mature the Army SOF profession. While the command refined its tactical-level formations over the course of the past 12 years of war, it failed to develop its operational-level capability. Moving beyond the battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan, Army SOF requires operational-level thinkers who can write the campaign plans to conduct operations in the most difficult and demanding environments. USASOC requires regional experts steeped in the knowledge of their profession who are comfortable with the ambiguity presented by the future operating environment.

 Moving beyond the battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan, Army SOF requires operational-level thinkers who can write the campaign plans to conduct operations in the most difficult and demanding environments.

Another key area of focus for USASOC was to knit two identified seams: the ability to operate interdependently with conventional forces, as well as with interagency partners. Throughout the process of developing ARSOF 2022, USASOC identified opportunities to enhance force structure, establish routine and habitual engagements, collaborative training opportunities, and other mechanisms to synergize its efforts to best leverage a whole of government and Army approach to campaigning. It was with a mindset of shared success—achieved interdependently—that shaped the way USASOC moved to more closely collaborate with key stakeholders.

Confronting Evolving Threats

As USASOC addresses the future operating environment, it envisions even greater demands on ARSOF. The characteristics of the future operating environment will likely be byproducts of an increasingly urbanized global population living in coastal cities deeply connected to the rest of the world. Adversaries will dwell and operate in these crowded spaces, fusing their operations with those of criminal organizations in the employment of shared resources and mechanisms through symbiotic relationships.

The complexities of this operating environment require a deep understanding of the human domain, which SOCOM defines as “the totality of the physical, cultural and social environments that influence human behavior in a population-centric conflict.” To successfully prosecute wars amongst the people, the Army has added a seventh Warfighting Function called “engagement.” Both special and conventional forces will work together in this area.

A Special Operator moves towards his objective in Afghanistan. (Army)

A Special Operator moves towards his objective in Afghanistan. (Army)

Without an understanding of this domain, state and non-state actors could potentially mitigate USASOC’s technical advantages while the adversaries themselves employ state-of-the-art technology. These adversaries could easily create layers of early warning through co-opted and complicit local populations, whose loyalties they purchase with goods, services, and security, and leverage sovereignty to their advantage while engaging us in political warfare. It is a world of increasing demands for ARSOF in the face of significant fiscal constraints for the U.S. and our partners and allies.

But we are responding. Adding the Seventh Warfighting Function—an element well-suited to USASOC’s UW capabilities—will leverage the lessons learned from our most recent conflicts and help the Army devise strategies to operate successfully in this challenging environment. As ARSOF 2022 stated, “The establishment of a seventh Warfighting Function addresses the related tasks and systems that influence the behaviors of a people (friendly, neutral, adversary), security forces, and governments and enables the prioritization and synchronization of efforts to achieve strategic effects.”

The large standing Army, which mitigated the flash points of conflict and potential conflict for the past 12 years, will likely not survive in its current form or end strength. Because the threat is not going away, but rather evolving, the nation will look to ARSOF to enhance the global SOF network, a confederation of allies, partners, and surrogates, through whom ARSOF will achieve collective objectives and pursue shared interests. Persistent and effective engagement, enabled by SOF campaigns that are developed by regionally expert, campaign-capable SOF planners, will enhance the synergies created by a fusion of the suite of SOF capabilities, leveraged to address challenges in difficult and demanding environments.

The future affords us an opportunity to look at the world and ourselves differently, and consider that there might also be a different way to conduct enduring SOF campaigns worldwide.

Sliding back and forth across the scale of conflict’s intensity and lethality, ARSOF will be called upon to operate in a space where conditions to deploy ground forces is not yet met and may never be. Some might see this strategy as going “back to the future,” a return to our roots. In part, this may be true, but the traditional ways in which we fought do not account for how our sophisticated adversaries have evolved, having moved past basic guerrilla warfare and generic terrorism. The future affords us an opportunity to look at the world and ourselves differently, and consider that there might also be a different way to conduct enduring SOF campaigns worldwide.

Moving Ahead

As USASOC celebrates its 25th year as an organization, the responsibility of the command’s leadership is to constantly scrutinize our organizations, personnel, and equipment to ensure its efficiency and effectiveness. Over the past decade, SOF have built a robust capability to target terrorist networks and an unmatched capacity for counterinsurgency operations.

At its peak, the level of support to joint-force headquarters in the U.S. Central Command area of operations was the largest sustained effort in our history. ARSOF soldiers have performed magnificently during two of the nation’s longest wars, while executing a wide range of demanding and high-risk operations in hostile environments.

USASOC units have also been actively safeguarding U.S. interests in other key areas around the world, outside of declared theaters of armed conflict, often by focusing on building partner-nation capacity and advising partner forces. These efforts are typically small in presence, long in duration, and strategic in effect as they directly support regional and national objectives. ARSOF will remain a relevant and indispensable partner to the joint and interagency team as long as belligerent nations, non-state actors, and terrorist networks continue to employ unconventional methods to threaten the U.S. homeland, our interests, and our allies.

Top photo caption: Commandos and Coalition Forces exit a CH-47 Chinook helicopter in the Achin Distric in the Nanghar Province Afghanistan 16 August 2013. The combined team delivered humanitarian aid supplies, medical care, and released a detainee from Bagram Air Field back to his family in the Bagh Village. (SPC Casey Ware)

This article was originally published in the May 2014 issue of Armor & Mobility.