Implications of the 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance for U.S. Special Operations Forces
February 13, 2012
On January 5, 2012, the Obama administration unveiled the 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance. Entitled Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for a 21st Century Defense, the document details a strategy for developing U.S. military forces through the year 2020. While this guidance will affect all elements of the military, its impact on Special Operations Forces (SOF) is likely to be particularly significant. Given their ability to operate in a wide range of environments and undertake tactical actions that produce strategic effects, SOF will increasingly be relied on to help address national security threats and challenges on a global scale.
Q1: What role do SOF have in the new strategy?
A1: The 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance lists a number of primary missions for U.S. Armed Forces, several of which SOF are uniquely positioned to address, including counterterrorism, irregular warfare, and the countering of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). Given their basic skill sets, unique training, and operational flexibility, SOF have repeatedly proven their ability to accomplish the difficult and sensitive operations these missions frequently demand. During the initial invasion of Afghanistan, a handful of SOF units, backed by air support, were able to route a vastly larger force, removing thousands of Taliban and al Qaeda fighters from the battlefield. Over the past decade of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, SOF units have been instrumental in targeting and eliminating key enemy leaders, including Osama bin Laden. While SOF will continue to conduct similar direct action missions in service to the nation, the Defense Strategic Guidance strongly suggests that SOF’s core competencies in indirect action also will be in increasing demand across a variety of situations and locales where kinetic operations will be a secondary focus. From training host nation security forces to engaging with host nations and indigenous populations to operating in ambiguous and unorthodox environments, SOF will be called on to enhance security in potential hotspots across the globe. The demand for these types of “left of the line” missions, combined with the continued need for targeted kinetic operations, indicates that the full spectrum of SOF capabilities are likely to play an increasingly prominent role in future U.S. military efforts.
Separate from the Defense Strategic Guidance, Admiral William McRaven, commander of U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), has recently put forward a proposal to grant USSOCOM increased authorities to deploy SOF and launch operations across the globe. Such authorities would allow SOF capabilities to be brought to bear with greater speed and flexibility in regions such as Africa, Asia, and Latin America, where SOF activities have previously been limited. While there has not yet been a decision made regarding this proposal, if accepted, it would solidify SOF’s increasingly prominent position as a truly global force.
Q2: How will the force reductions outlined under the new strategy affect SOF units?
A2: Since 2001, USSOCOM has doubled its manpower, tripled its budget, and quadrupled its overseas deployments. These numbers are unlikely to be reduced under the new strategy. Despite the increase in size over the last decade, SOF still constitute a small percentage of the U.S. Armed Forces’ overall manpower and budget, representing a total force of only 60,000 personnel. Yet the tactical actions taken by SOF can produce strategic effects disproportionate to the number of personnel deployed.
According to Admiral Eric Olson, former USSOCOM commander, operational commanders have learned that no other force can accomplish such a broad array of missions in such diverse operational environments—and with so few personnel required. As the new strategy aims to reduce the size of the military overall without diminishing its capabilities, it is unlikely that units as efficient as SOF will be cut. The United States spent a great deal of money to build SOF capabilities over the past decade and, by sparing SOF significant cuts, is poised to reap a high rate of return on those investments.
Q3: How might this strategy negatively impact SOF?
A3: A budget-constrained environment will heighten resource competition among the military branches. SOF, which are already tacitly criticized by the services for receiving a disproportionate amount of resources, will face increased budgetary scrutiny. The services, under their own budget pressures, will likely demand that USSOCOM rely more on its SOF-specific funding source (MFP-11) and less on money directly from the military branches (MFP-2). While this debate is unlikely to manifest in public, behind closed doors SOF may find relations with the services increasingly strained. Further, the flood of resources directed at SOF over the past decade has already begun to slow. The amount authorized for USSOCOM under the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012 was less than requested, and the amount proposed for FY2013 is static. These budgetary constraints will likely keep SOF from growing at the same rate they have in the past decade.
The resource competition between SOF and the military branches may extend to the personnel level as well. SOF units draw their operators and support personnel from the General Purpose Forces (GPF). A reduction in the number of soldiers, marines, airmen, and sailors translates into fewer SOF candidates and support personnel available to support SOF’s continued growth. Most special operations require GPF support. Accordingly, fewer conventional units could reduce SOF’s ability to conduct the range and depth of missions required in the new strategy. In addition, as a result of increased demand for SOF, a high operational tempo may place increased pressure on these already-stressed units.
There also exists the potential that, given their proven record of success, increased availability to local commanders, and the alignment of their core capabilities with the twenty-first-century geostrategic landscape, SOF units may be tasked with missions that would generally be performed by conventional units. As Michele Malvesti noted in To Serve the Nation: U.S. Special Operations Forces in an Era of Persistent Conflict (CNAS, 2010), this may leave SOF less time to hone their unique skills and capabilities and could potentially dull the adaptive and innovative mind-set necessary for unconventional operations. As demand for these forces increases, SOF run the risk of losing that which make them unique and valuable.
Q4: In addition to the Defense Strategic Guidance, the White House is reportedly considering a new, SOF-centric strategy for the drawdown of troops from Afghanistan. What impact would this shift in strategy have on SOF?
A4: As large numbers of conventional troops begin to leave Afghanistan over the next few years, this proposed strategy would increasingly hand responsibility for security to local Afghan forces, which would largely be trained and advised by SOF. Further, as the United States moves away from a troop-intensive counterinsurgency strategy, SOF also would remain in place in order to target key enemy leaders and assets. As a result, even as the number of conventional troops is reduced, the number of SOF in Afghanistan would remain the same, if not increase.
While the missions outlined under the proposed drawdown strategy play directly to SOF’s skills, the strategy itself holds a variety of potential challenges for these forces. By requiring that thousands of SOF remain in Afghanistan for several years, this strategy necessarily limits the number of SOF operators available for deployment elsewhere. Further, by increasing SOF’s role in Afghanistan, the strategy ensures that these forces will continue to operate at a high tempo, potentially increasing the strain felt after a decade of constant combat. Finally, by assigning SOF responsibility for the final, and perhaps most delicate stages of the Afghan conflict, the strategy may inimically tie SOF to the eventual outcome in Afghanistan. If the end-state achieved in Afghanistan is not the one desired, SOF may shoulder a disproportionate share of the blame, whether deserved or not.
Rick “Ozzie” Nelson is director of the Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Michael Stieg is an intern with the CSIS Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Program.
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© 2012 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.