Restructuring Special Operations Forces for Emerging Threats

Posted in United States | 01-Feb-06 | Author: David Tucker and Christopher J

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Green Berets walk from their MH-47E helicopter.
Green Berets walk from their MH-47E helicopter.
The Secretary of Defense has asked whether organizational reform is necessary to win the war on terror. The authors’ answer is yes, and that restructuring special operations forces is a key step in this effort. They grant the costs of such reform may seem high now, and even politically prohibitive. However, they conclude that the costs must be measured against the decades-long struggle before us and the consequences of terrorists using weapons of mass destruction.

Key Points:

Special Operations Forces (SOF) already make major contributions to national defense. However, the Department of Defense should adjust SOF operations, organization, and national-level command and control to deal more effectively with terrorism and related forms of political violence. Almost 20 years after the Special Operations Command was created, it is clear that to make strategic contributions to defeating current and emerging threats, SOF direct and indirect action capabilities should be organized in separate commands.

SOF’s so-called indirect action activities—typically performed by Special Forces, psychological operations, and civil affairs when they work by, with, and through the forces and people of host countries, such as the Philippines, Afghanistan, or Iraq—are critical for reshaping the sociopolitical environment in which terrorists and insurgents thrive. A separate command will ensure resources and priority missions for indirect action capabilities that currently are underemphasized. The new command’s indirect capabilities should be augmented by improved abilities to understand and influence traditional social networks.

SOF direct action capabilities that support or bring force to bear directly against the enemy are proficient but require national-level decision-making reforms. Better command and control mechanisms, including the Defense Department and national-level horizontal integration teams with their own resources, are necessary if direct action capabilities are to reach their full potential.

David Tucker is an associate professor of defense analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School. His contribution to this article is based in part on research supported by the Smith Richardson Foundation. Christopher J. Lamb is a senior fellow in the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University. This essay is based on research and conclusions from the authors’ forthcoming book, U.S. Special Operations Forces, to be published by Columbia University Press in 2006.

Please direct questions and comments to Dr. Christopher Lamb, (202) 685-2037, .

Media inquiries: please contact Kathryn Hodges Kiefman at INSS, (202) 685-2220, or Dave Thomas, NDU PAO, (202) 685-3140, .

Institute for National Strategic Studies
National Defense University
Strategic Forum 219