Is the U.S. relying too much on Special Operations Forces?

Is the U.S. relying too much on Special Operations Forces?

Many Western military commanders consider Special Operations Forces (SOF) to be the perfect tool for almost any job, but the current deployment model is outdated. Greater specialization of roles could help the U.S.

Whether it’s the training of Non-Commissioned Officers (NCOs) in the Baltic States, providing assistance to the Afghanistan National Army in Counterinsurgency (COIN) operations, or chasing Islamic State militants in Africa or Syria: Navy SEALs and Green Berets are found in many places and on many battlefields. Under the current US administration, more Special Operations Forces than ever have been sent overseas.

There are good reasons to rely on SOF: they are highly skilled, versatile, fast and easily deployable troops, and, what is maybe the most important reason, their missions can be kept confidential. Since the beginning of NATO operations in Afghanistan in 2001, US and Allied Special Operations Forces have been bearing the brunt of the fighting.

As a consequence, most of the US soldiers that were killed in recent years in operations overseas were from the Special Forces community or attached to Special Forces operations. Another result of their extensive deployment is a lack of training and overstretched resources. Not only the combat footage from the recent Niger ambush where four U.S. Special Forces soldiers were killed, but other sources as well, indicate that not only many regular US troops, but also some of the SOF, lack some of the most basic infantry fighting skills.

Conventional Forces vs. Spec Ops

Western land forces traditionally have divided their troops into regular conventional and unconventional (or Special Operations) forces. When deliberating on which troops are best suited for a certain mission, military commanders have the choice between just these two options.

This conventional/unconventional dichotomy has made a lot of sense in the past, but after the First Gulf War, the battlefield has changed dramatically:

Today’s wars are extremely complex affairs, with a multitude of actors often fighting on more than just two sides. While new alliances are made and peace deals are brokered, your enemy of today might become your ally of tomorrow. Ground forces may encounter a variety of adversaries; from stone-throwing kids to a conventional armored brigade, both at the same time and in the same area of operations. Like in the Niger operation, a Special Forces unit deployed to deal with lightly armed militants might suddenly face a much more serious threat.

US military commanders have recognized these problems and are giving their standard recommendations: More and better training, raising troop levels and “changing the rules of engagement”, which means that more initiative shall be given to the commanders on the front line.

Tactical changes, however, may not bring the desired results. It will also be a very difficult task to allocate more time for badly needed additional training.

The ‘Eastern’ way

The US and their Allies aren’t the only military organizations that have to deal with overstretched resources and training deficits. However, unlike most NATO countries, a number of non-Western countries, when faced with similar problems and similar circumstances, have chosen a radically different approach to deal with it.

Instead of relying on a traditional army structure and deployment model, they have created a bigger variety of troops in their land forces.  They have integrated so-called Guards battalions, paramilitary and security forces, and even police units into their ground forces and use of all these tools in a rather unique way. Each of those ‘tools’ is best suited only for a few specific aspects of hybrid warfare.

Iran’s “whole army” approach

During their involvement in the Syrian war, Iran has surprised many military observers and experts. Instead of relying heavily on SOF, they did exactly the opposite by deploying mainly regular ground forces from all of their military branches.

Iran decided that this was the best way to go into battle in a modern hybrid war scenario. Especially remarkable was the deployment of troops from the Basij Organization, an all-volunteer paramilitary force.

Aside from the Basij forces, including Basij Special Forces, Iran’s military leaders sent parts of the regular army, the Artesh, the IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) ground forces and the Quds Force (as advisors to the Syrian Arab Army) into battle. Iranian military officers even commanded local Syrian army units and various militia groups.

This “whole army” approach proved successful. Iranian forces were credited for much of the government’s forces successes during the Battle of Aleppo.

Chechnya and Kosovo

Other examples of creating a large variety of very different units, each for a very limited task, are the Russian Army during the Chechen Wars and the Jugoslav National Army (JNA) in Kosovo. As Slobodan Milosevic’s Generals didn’t have enough Special Forces to conduct all of their COIN operations, they had to divide the tasks between different units:

Conventional JNA forces would conduct all combat operations, unless they encountered stronger resistance.

Tasks which demanded less specialized skills, like population control and search operations were mainly done by police and “Gendarmerie” units. “Gendarmerie” units in many Eastern European countries (and in Turkey as well) are internal security forces that are often under the command of the military.  Unlike what the term might suggest, the Serbian “Gendarmerie” was well equipped with armored vehicles, Infantry Fighting Vehicles (IFV’s) and light artillery.

In case that the regular JNA forces met stronger resistance, SOF would be flown in. However, these SOF were never deployed for a longer time in an area, but only used for extremely difficult missions or as a Quick Reaction Force.

When a territory was “pacified”, paramilitary units were deployed to stabilize the area. These paramilitaries were only equipped with light weapons (up to 60mm mortars), but could call in artillery strikes from the JNA at any time.

The JNA would often attack combined with paramilitaries (armed locals with limited fighting skills, but who knew the ground). Sometimes the army would “lend” a few tanks to the locals to achieve a limited goal (recapture a village etc.) or the Gendarmerie would attack together with the JNA. It often happened that all of these different troops were on the battlefield at the same time.

Specialized Special Forces

Russian forces in Chechnya were operating with similar structures. Additionally, the Russian military has a large variety of Special Operations Forces with very different mission parameters. While one unit is expert in mountain warfare, another one is solely trained for urban combat. Many of these forces are under the command of the Security Services.

Not all their Special Forces are what some people call “Tier One”, but they don’t have to be. In a combat situation, a military leader doesn’t always prefer to use a unit that is highly specialized in a large number of tasks (like the U.S. SOF), but the one which is capable to complete the mission at hand.

Filling the Gap

Of course, a military structure like Serbia’s during the Kosovo War or that of the Iranian military is not applicable to a Western military. However, every military commander prefers to choose from as many options as possible and our current structure is rather disappointing in this regard.

Our actual deployment model is outdated and the creation and training of conventional forces that are capable of taking over some of the tasks which are currently ‘reserved’ for SOF is highly recommended. At the same time, less ‘elite’ Spec Ops units could take off another big chunk of the SOFs heavy workload. “Good enough to do the job” and available in sufficient numbers is always preferable to a small group of highly skilled, but exhausted experts.

Categories: Guest Post, Security

About Author

Roland Bartetzko

Roland Bartetzko is a German soldier who volunteered for the Bosnian Croat side (the HVO) in the Bosnian War (1992–95) and the ethnic Albanian rebels (the KLA) in the Kosovo War (1998–99). He has a university degree in law and is currently working for a law firm in Prishtina, Kosovo. He published a study on radical Islam in Kosovo and his analysis for GRI on counterinsurgency "A-how-to guide for counterinsurgency" has been referenced by NATO as a recommended read. Roland is the author of “The Smell of War: Lesson from the Battlefield”.