In 2015, United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) was deployed to 70%, 135 of 196, of the world’s countries. Between September 11, 2001 and 2015, SOCOM’s budget quadrupled and the number of uniformed and civilian personnel rose to 70,000, nearly double its pre-9/11 size. The past two administrations have so expanded the purview of America’s Special Operations Forces (SOF) that some have dubbed this the ‘golden age’ of special forces. But such broad-spectrum application of SOF comes at a price. As of May, five out of the six members of the U.S. military killed by enemy fire in 2017 were special operators. So too were more than half of the thirty-three U.S. combat fatalities since 2015. These disproportionately large losses are from a force that constitutes less than 5% of U.S. troops deployed abroad. But why does such a small combatant command have such outsized operational commission? Is that commission sustainable? Hindsight allows us to pick out trends and revise history to fit a linear model. The reality is that warfare in the modern age is volatile and actors difficult to predict. Even as special operators become the ideal guerrilla combatants, new challenges rise to threaten their continued applicability.
September 11th, 2001 was the first indicator of the inevitable failure of conventional military forces to protect the homeland. The ubiquity of social media, technological advances in weaponry, and wars fought over culture rather than sovereignty have outdated the traditional military advantage intrinsic to being ‘bigger and better.’ Operation Iraqi Freedom, launched by President Bush to oust Saddam Hussein, lasted all of two months. And yet, it wasn’t until almost a decade later in 2011 that the flag of command was lowered over Baghdad and the last U.S. soldiers crossed the border into Kuwait. According to U.S. General John Nicholson, the war in Afghanistan, although ostensibly ended in 2014 - almost 3 years after the death of Osama bin-Laden, is still locked in a stalemate and employing more than 11,000 American troops. The interventionist doctrine of the past two presidencies demands a more nuanced approach to conflict than simply “kill, break, leave.” Power vacuums left by toppled governments must inevitably be filled, and it is only in the past half-decade that we have finally realized the need ensure a stable transition.
American SOF are generally older than their conventional counterparts among the three branches of the military. They have families. They speak multiple languages. They are trained as diplomats as well as to be the world’s most elite soldiers. But most importantly, they leave a small footprint. The men and women of the various special operations commands are for all intents and purposes, the best of the best. But what makes them even better is that we don’t have to think about them. The election of President Donald Trump in 2016, who ran on an America-first platform defined by a focus on domestic policy and a withdrawal from the world-stage, is just the latest in a growing list of symptoms of American war fatigue. The complication arises when trying to reconcile such inwardness with ironclad promises to categorically win the War on Terror. Queue the use of SOF. Mired in secrecy and a complete lack of accountability or oversight, it is easy for Presidents as different from one another as Barack Obama and Donald Trump to both point to the successes wrought by small scale missions targeting persons of interest without having to answer embarrassing questions on picture after picture of flag draped coffins arriving at Dover Airforce Base, greeted by the red-rimmed eyes of grief-stricken family. Beyond just the “direct approach” (Hollywood worthy night-time assassinations), American SOF are just as often used for an “indirect approach” – in some instances called nation-building. Small groups of SOF are implanted the world over, training our allies in counter-intelligence and conventional warfare. They assist and advise in battles against terror cells from Yemen to Honduras to the Philippines, all without the need for a congressional declaration of war. While the unique abilities of these impressive soldiers may be perfectly suited to the battles and operations they are assigned, the unfortunate reality is that the use of special forces is no more a permanent solution than a band-aid is to an amputation.
Fortunately, there are steps that can be taken to reduce the strain on the operators themselves, limit mistakes, and increase the viability of SOF for long-term success. The first is to establish a standardized procedural system for employing SOF - what constitutes their necessary use and what is too high a cost. Granting jurisdiction over such a system to congress will ensure it is the will of the people being executed rather than that of the Commander in Chief for political convenience. It is true that, very often, response by our special forces to a situation somewhere in the world is needed much sooner than a congressional testimony will allow, but full and public disclosure of actions taken must be required after the fact as a safeguard against over-reliance on decisions made for short-term expediency. Such a standardized system of approach would ensure that consequences are accounted for, reducing political externalities and unnecessary casualties. Better organization makes it easier to appropriate both resources and personnel. Currently, there is an overwhelming lack of emphasis on doctrine, making any long-term strategic planning all but impossible. The direct approach realistically only buys time for the indirect approach to work, and so a tactical vision and clearly stated operational doctrine for the use of SOF needs to be put forward to maximize effectiveness. However, for any indirect approach to work, proactive involvement is required, and operations must be undertaken before problems manifest, rather than after. Such a change requires a shift in mindset from the American people who, rightly so, have become afraid of anything that smells remotely of American imperialism. This is not a criticism of the public mindset, but if a standardized system is adopted that allows us to define when and where American interests warrant involvement, we can tackle problems while they are still small enough to handle with minimal footprint. This is anathema to a common tendency for us to wait until a crisis is beyond containment and there is no other recourse but extended involvement (think ISIL rising to fill the vacuum left by a defeated al-Qaeda).
The special operators of the American military are elite. But they are still people. To demand so much from our service men and women for so little benefit does not do them the credit they deserve. There are many realizable steps that can be taken to both alleviate their strain as well as ensure their long-term applicability, we as a nation just need to take the first one.