The topic has been addressed before, but it seems that things are changing for U.S. Special Operations units. For 20 years, the Special Operations community and the U.S. military as a whole have been locked into a fight against terrorism. This kind of fight has required boots on the ground, kicking doors down, and getting rid of the bad guys. But, as one door closes, another opens. We’re on the precipice of a new age of warfighting, with new players at the top of the “bad guy” list.

Based on articles written by the Military Times, the U.S. is shifting its focus from counterterrorism operations to concentrating on information warfare and Gray Zone operations. Gray Zone indicates operations and events that take place before a major armed conflict breaks out. This can come in the form of small group, militia-like attacks, and cyber warfare.

This notable and official shift for U.S. Special Operations is a result of the Irregular Warfare Annex to the National Defense Strategy. The classified version of the Annex was released in January of 2019, and the unclassified version was released last week. The general purpose of this document is to outline a plan for how to effectively compete in the “great power competition” against China and Russia.

It took quite some time to declassify the Annex. But it was deemed appropriate to do so, in an effort to share the plan with allies, Congress, and the public.

During an interview, Defense News reported that the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Combating Terrorism, Joe Francescon, explained that it’s important for people to understand the U.S.’s strategy for conducting irregular warfare. This will make clear what kind of steps and actions are taken before a break out of full-scale war.

Special Operations Units in the Gray Zone Space

Uniformed men, believed to be Russian servicemen, march outside a Ukrainian military base, March 5, 2014
Uniformed men, believed to be Russian servicemen, march outside a Ukrainian military base, March 5, 2014. (Photo by Vasily Fedosenko /Reuters)

Francescon went on to say, “I think it’s important for the United States to characterize, both for us and for our allies, the military, national security impacts of what our adversaries are doing to us in the Gray Zone space before armed conflict. It can’t just be an armed conflict solution, is what we’re looking at.”

Since the release of the classified version, Francescon’s challenge has been convincing members of Congress that the Pentagon needs to strategically shift away from concentrating on counterterrorism and move towards the world of irregular warfare.

Francescon said, “Naturally, as the way we’re looking at it right now, we probably expect more of a drawdown in our counterterrorism monies just because that’s where we are not doing these large-scale counterterrorism operations in some of these theaters. We’re transitioning more to training and education. So you’ll see, hopefully, those budgets ramp up (including) distinct information operations capabilities.”

He went on to say, “It’s ultimately our goal that we maintain a very cost-effective move towards irregular warfare, not away from counterterrorism, but in conjunction with the counterterrorism drawdown. It’s just more important than ever that we be cost-effective with the very small resources that we do have.”

How Will the Operator of the Future Look?
Special Warfare Combatant-craft Crewmen (SWCC) aboard their craft. (Naval Special Warfare)

In light of the Annex, it is clear to the U.S. Special Operations Command, that they are going to have to broaden their recruiting techniques. They will have to bring other specialties into the fold in order to conduct Gray Zone operations.

Echoing this sentiment, former head of Army Special Operations Command, Retired Army Lt. Gen. Kenneth Tovo said that the stereotypical “operator” will no longer be a big, bearded dude, with tattoos, and a dip in his mouth, kicking doors down in the middle of the night.

According to Tovo, deliberate studying and research will have to be done to determine who are the right candidates for this new type of warfare and which is the best place to find these types of people.

He jokingly said, “We’re going to have to be a little more proactive than sticking a sign outside the PX saying ‘if you want to join, come to the meeting on Tuesday.'”

Michael Lumpkin, a retired Navy SEAL, acknowledged that the traditional Special Operations warrior may diminish in the future, but he reassured that the type will certainly not go away. He pointed out that the individuals that are still out there fighting the fight, will need and benefit from technologically advanced equipment. Being armed with tools that contain software instead of bullets, operators will be able to make intelligent and quick decisions, conduct information warfare in hostile areas, and keep themselves safe in combat environments.

This article was originally published on October 8, 2020. It has been edited for republication.