The definition and purpose of special operations continue to be a moving target as the United States pulls away from the War on Terror and begins to prepare and train for a “great power” conflict.

The special operations community has been a key player and in the spotlight in our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Its mission hasn’t changed much over the past 20 years.

Special operations units have paid huge costs. Their reputation has been paid for with long stints away from home and major sacrifices made by those continuing to forward deploy.

With the shift to great power competition, the federal government and department of defense are re-evaluating spending and budgets. Based on a article, the Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) is currently trying to prepare and plan for a minimized budget and change in operational requirements.

Lt. Gen. James Slife, the head of AFSOC, acknowledged the tightening budget and shift away from AFSOC’s stereotypical mission, on which AFSOC has excelled over the past two decades.

Last November, in a discussion with the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Slife acknowledged this by saying, “One thing that’s clear to us is that the future doesn’t look a lot like the present to us [sic].”

In preparation for a diminishing budget and a changing combat arena, Slife said, “The only conclusion one can come to is we have to stop doing some stuff. We have to divest in order to invest.”

The equipment and training required to wage war against other superpowers are going to look very different than what is being used right now to fight our extremist enemies.

Slife has said that some “legacy” systems may need to be removed from AFSOC’s inventory in an effort to cut down on costs and prepare for a new type of warfare. Although he has not said it directly, Slife made comments previously that the U-28A Draco, an unarmed aircraft that conducts intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions, is ready to be replaced.

Responding to the requirement of having to flex and adjust the Air Force Special Operations inventory, Slife commented, “We have to look ruthlessly at what we have been doing and what we’re going to be required to do and make the trade to position ourselves for the future.”

Slife also said that the power pendulum is going to change. The special operations community were the “rockstars” in the war on terror. The conventional military heeded and yielded to the special operations’ mission, providing tremendous support and latitude to allow the special operations community to do their job. It is time for the special operations community to return to supporting the conventional military branches, Slife added.

Slife summed it up by saying, “We need to return to being a supporting force to the larger joint enterprise and, for me, that means the U.S. Air Force. That’s probably the area that’s attracting more of my attention than anything else right now.”

This report was originally published on November 30th, 2020.