July 22, 2020

Adapting the Image and Culture of Special Operations Forces

By Emma Moore and Lt Col Stewart J. Parker

The Trump administration’s 2018 National Defense Strategy postured the U.S. military toward revisionist regimes such as China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea, all of whom are actively undermining the liberal world order. The Department of Defense has not explained what it expects irregular warfare to look like in coming years, and special operations forces today are still heavily engaged in counter-terror and counter-insurgency operations. “Special Operations Command must adapt to combatting nations that pose threats,” Gen. Richard D. Clarke, now its commander, acknowledged in confirmation hearings. As the command shifts away from violently kinetic raids against terrorists, it must adapt its image and culture to be more attractive to individuals with a broader array of skills to defend the United States in the uncertain future.

It is the people in special operations who ultimately make the difference between mission success and failure.

Considerable thought has been given to how special operations missions and force structure could and should adapt to competing against malign influence from nation-states, but such analysis often lacks a personnel perspective. While special operations forces are skilled in navigating ambiguity, to maintain their capability in the kill chain of future warfare, U.S. Special Operations Command must challenge itself beyond just adopting new technologies. More consideration must be given to the who in special operations, not just the what and the how. After all, the first of the “SOF Truths” — the five guiding imperatives of the special operations community — is, “Humans are more important than hardware.”

Read the full article in War on the Rocks.

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