Curb your enthusiasm!: Special Operations Forces should be niche units, not …

By Richard L. Russell

Best Defense guest columnist

We need to take a breath
and see Special
Operations Forces
in context with the history and uses and limitations
of the threat, use, and management of force in American national security. Lest
we forget, Special Operations Forces are just that — special. They provide unique, niche
military capabilities
that place a premium on stealth
and clandestine operations. Yet many, if not most, demands for the threat and
use of American military might require that they be used openly and publicly. As
former head of Joint Special Operations Command Gen. Stanley McChrystal warned, “That’s the danger of special operating forces. You
get this sense that it is satisfying, it’s clean, it’s low risk, it’s the cure
for most ills. That’s the way many new presidents are initially enamored with
the Central Intelligence Agency, because they are offered a covert fix for a
complex problem. But if you go back in history, I can’t find a covert fix that
solved a problem long term.”

These traditional
military capabilities, moreover, often are the foundations upon which
clandestine Special Operations Forces must launch their high-risk assaults. Delta
or SEAL teams might be dispatched into a building, for example, to kill or
capture a high value target. But the building’s neighborhood would be secured
by larger, more traditional forces such as the Army Rangers. A SEAL team might
be dispatched across an international border to capture or kill a high value
target, but the base the team might be launched from and supported with
communications, command, control, and intelligence would come from more
traditional military forces. 

The United States must
guard against gutting its traditional and foundational military capabilities
out of love of the glamour
for Special Operations Forces. The world today has a fair share of countries
with very capable niche or boutique-type military forces for special
operations. The Germans, for example, are known to have very capable hostage
rescue forces, while the Australians and the British have impressive special
operations forces that have been put to hard work in the Afghanistan and Iraq
military theaters. Yet the United States, with its global security interests,
could hardly afford to have its military mirror that of Germany, Australia, or Britain. 

The United States,
moreover, will have to avoid the pitfall of growing its Special Operations
Forces too large. The Special Operations Forces community prides itself on
taking the most physically fit and intellectually nimble of the military duty
pool. But the faster and larger it grows, the lower the physical and
intellectual standards will go to bring down the overall quality of Special
Operations Forces. 

Above all, Americans must
remember that our chief enemy — al Qaeda — for the past decade has been one
uniquely teed-up to be attacked by Special Operations Forces, whether in Iraq,
Afghanistan, Yemen, or the Horn of Africa. Al Qaeda in Iraq and Afghanistan or
the Taliban, like most terrorist organizations and insurgent groups, generally
recruit, train, organize, and plan operations in tight-knit cells and small
groups making them attractive targets for small Special Operations Forces. One
would prefer to dispatch a SEAL or Delta team against al Qaeda or Taliban cells
to try to capture individuals and to gather intelligence rather than to drop
payloads on them from a B-52 to destroy both individuals and documentation and

Notwithstanding common
wisdom today, our enemies of the future are likely to be nation-states as well
as traditional ideological insurgent movements like al Qaeda. For all of the
grave threats that al Qaeda has posed to the United States, we have to remember
that while its Islamic ideology has powerful appeal in the world today,
especially in the Middle East and South Asia, it still lacks the power of a
nation-state. Nation-states in contemporary international security remain the
pinnacle of power, and that’s why al Qaeda has off and on wanted to gain
control in a nation-state — whether Egypt in the 1990s or Saudi Arabia after
2003 and arguably Pakistan today. The United States needs to prudently guard
against al Qaeda remnants and successors, all the while mindful of the ebbing
and flowing of the international distribution of power among

Because Special
Operations Forces typically are small and lightly armed and protected they
require stealth and clandestine operations for their protection. If they are
behind enemy lines and detected by regular forces they will be in a “world of
hurt.” Special Operations Forces have ably gone behind enemy lines in Iraq to
knock-out critical Iraqi radars to create blind spots for the Army invasion of
Kuwait in the 1990-91 war. But Kuwait was liberated by traditional military forces,
not Special Operations Forces in 1991, just as Saddam Hussein’s regime was
ousted by the 3rd Infantry Division in 2003, not by a SEAL or Delta team.

In sharp contrast, a
great many types of operations require that forces be seen and heard. Overt
military capabilities of traditional air, land, and sea power are required to
deter nation-states from launching open warfare. The United States, for
example, to deter any future Chinese military moves against Taiwan, has to have
its air, naval, and land forces seen in and around the Taiwan Strait and Asian
theater to have any deterrent effect. Should Chinese forces one day not be
deterred by American forces in Asia from taking Taiwan, Special Operations
Forces certainly would not be able all by [themselves] to dislodge Peoples’
Liberation Army forces from occupation of the island. For that type of mission,
the United States would have to call in the Marines for amphibious operations,
whether against Taiwan directly or elsewhere in Asia as diversionary or
retaliatory operations against the Chinese, or call on the Army Rangers to
retake and secure Taiwanese airbases in order to hustle in larger army forces
on board U.S. Air Force combat flights.

Special Operations Forces
wonderfully augment naval capabilities for protecting sea lanes of
communications. They have performed admirably, for example, over decades
battling Iran’s irregular Revolutionary Guard Forces harassing maritime traffic
in the Persian Gulf or with sniper operations to kill Somalia-based pirates
before they could execute their civilian captives on the high seas. But these
Special Operations Forces in and of themselves could not protect and keep open
the sea lines of communication in critical choke-points, whether in the Middle
East at the Red Sea or the Strait of Hormuz, or in Asia at the Strait of

Traditional naval forces
will carry out the lion’s share of the burden for these critically important
defense missions. If, one future day, the Chinese tap their growing submarine
capabilities to wage a campaign to cut American sea lanes of communication with
security partners in Japan, Australia, South Korea, and Taiwan, U.S. Special
Operations Forces would be no substitute for American attack submarine capabilities
to escort shipping convoys — much like was done in the Atlantic during both
the world wars — as well as for hunting Chinese predatory submarines.

The United States, too,
will need an overt and modern nuclear triad of aircraft, ballistic missiles,
and submarine based nuclear weapons to maintain a deterrent posture against
growing Chinese strategic nuclear forces. A robust American nuclear posture
will be needed to deter China’s growing nuclear forces. The United States
reluctantly will be sliding toward a mutual-assured-destruction posture with
China reminiscent of the one it had and still has, even if not as pronounced
with the Soviet Union during the Cold War and with Russia today. China could be
deterred by American nuclear forces from using its own nuclear forces, but not
from the threat of Special Operations Forces retaliatory strikes against
Chinese assets.

Likewise, to compel or
coerce a nation-state adversary to change his behavior requires the overt
threat or application of military power. That military power is to be exerted
until the enemy changes the offending behavior or he will risk receiving
additional military strikes. The United States and allies applied coercive
military power to Serbia in 1999, for example. The United States applied
airpower to Serbia and Serb forces in Kosovo and, with the pushing of the
British, was on the cusp of escalating to the insertion of ground forces to
compel Slobodan Milosevic to stand down his ruthless military and paramilitary
campaign in Kosovo.

The bottom line is that
Special Operations Forces in the American military arsenal have been and will
continue to be unique and niche “force multipliers.” But as we enter an era of
increasing budgetary demands to make trade-offs and make ends and means match in
our defense strategy, we have to remember that Special Operations Forces, as
important as they are, are often more akin to dessert than to a main course. If
we load up too much on the dessert in our future defense posture, we will wind
up fat in the wrong places, and without the military muscle needed to wage
future war.

Richard L. Russell is a professor of
national security affairs at the National Defense University’s 
Near East and South Asia Center for
Strategic Studies. He received his doctorate in foreign affairs from the
University of Virginia, and previously served as a political-military analyst
at the Central Intelligence Agency. The views expressed are those of the 
author alone and do not reflect
the policy or position of the U.S. government, the Department of Defense, or
the National Defense University.