Simply because conventional forces (CF) and Special Operation Forces (SOF) successfully operated in unison on some levels throughout the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT,) it does not make the two effectively capable of sustaining future similar operation capability; nor does it prepare CF or SOF for future and unknown conflicts. Both CF and SOF are organizations capable of their own brand of exclusive combat multiplies with effectiveness and efficiency in global theatres on a wide variety missions. The ongoing development of a force sustainment and warfighting joint force must continue to be developed before a shotgun wedding style plan is implemented by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO).  A richly detailed and clear plan must first be developed; in which the joint force enablers of CF in respect to a detailed grasp of SOF operational procedures, with a streamlined capabilities and resources interdependence playbook; and a real mission first attitude emblazoned on the front page.

A recent report released by the GAO suggests that the Department of Defense (DOD) should investigate the possibility that SOF roles should incorporate the regulars for joint-force deployments. The primary motivation behind this report and its findings is budget based. This action is geared off a provision in the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act, for Fiscal Year 2014 which called for a trend-based budgetary review from 2001 to 2014 focusing on SOF operational composition, personnel management, budget and deployments.

Image courtesy of U.S. Government Accountability Office.
Image courtesy of U.S. Government Accountability Office.

The GAO report focuses on the costs of U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM,) with a special emphasis on troop strength. The GAO found, at no great surprise that as GWOT escalated and so did the need and number of SOCOM personnel. In the thirteen years covered in the report, SOCOM grew by 20,000 personnel to a 2014 high of 62.800 in operational and support roles. Not surprisingly, the increased number of personnel and mission tempo resulted in higher spending. Despite the lemonade stand mathematics involved in this issue, the GAO seems literally flabbergasted judging by the phrasing used throughout the report.

The issue scurrying behind the fact of this matter is that the DOD, who is the essential oversight of SOCOM, has not implemented rigid controls over SOCOM spending and budgetary accountability. In response the GAO is pushing for IRS style; accountant-to-accountant reporting, forecasted financial planning and the assessment of SOCOM resources. This demand results from a budgetary increase to SOCOM of $6.7 billion dollars from 2001 to 2014. The report also knocks inter-branch funding to SOCOM which the GOA places at a 2014 estimate of $8 billion.

The GAO, based on budgetary concerns has suggested that a cross-functional framework should be constructed to implement joint-force operations such as using CF in SOF roles. This brings to mind a few examples of successful join-force training exercises and operations over the years, but SOF was always calling the shots; not the stereotypical grumpy career-centric Colonel and know-it-all Command Sergeant Major at a CF battalion or brigade.

Image courtesy of FM 3-05.130.
Image courtesy of FM 3-05.130.

SOF or SOCOM personnel can be and is often listed with the similar personality traits of an entrepreneur; which realistical because not everyone cannot be either or. Both SOF and entrepreneurs are self-starters, who went through a selection process that finds individuals who can operate independently, or operate as a member of a team. They have to be able to work on a team and be a team player and they will also need to successfully operate individually without being told what to do. This means that they need to be able to think, and not only while looking at a digital screen but in the field and under pressure. To test this and to qualify on some basic requirements; a U.S. Army Special Forces soldier must undergo in addition to their existing occupation training; six phases of additional training. This initial SOF training typically lasts between 56 and 95 weeks, based on their occupational and language specialty. In contrast a U.S. Army Infantryman (11B) or Combat Engineer (12B) has only 14 weeks of initial training.

SOF often has an extremely complex a job with many unknown variables that must be done fast, accurately, efficiently and often with regards to the operating nation and allies. These are aspects which are unlikely to be realistically considered by CF planning staff and commanders. Historically CF staff and leadership have failed to grasp the bigger picture of SOF operations or even operations outside of their specific branch specialty or area of operations. If the DOD truly intends to implement an effectiveness operational warfighting capability from CF at SOF status, then the roles; most importantly at the command and staff levels must be carefully delineated, and encompass maximum flexibility and be capable of understanding and structurally supporting as a joint force.

Should SOF Be Its Own Service?

Read Next: Should SOF Be Its Own Service?

SOF has what your typical grunt command does not, a structure that is confident and capable in politically sensitive environments, often in obscure environments and situations. This is a concept not often considered by CF; because CF has an object and they will go in and wreck up the place just for that objective without any considerations for anything other than what is right and front of them; and things in front of them are typically identified as hostile. A flaw which will ensure CF failure at SOF operations, and this is not a flaw of the grunt on the ground but the training, operations and command structure nurtured, endorsed and implemented across CF which is not only destructive but politically motivated for advancement by objective based successes.

CF commands “in the field” often views themselves as under their own rule of laws. Meaning that any information or intelligence which is not directly on target is often ignored, placing all outliers or anything not mission essential up for command interpretation. This does not mean that a pack of barbarians is on the loose; as CF has much more to worry about politically. There is a massive politically sensitive infrastructure which almost halts the professional development of warfighters thanks to an overly concerned and watchdogged personnel management system throughout the CF infrastructure. This being only a snapshot of the beast that is CF and the complexities which make it an ineffective platform from which to conduct SOF operations, as it can barely conduct modern warfare without multiple principally junior personnel reviews and investigations.

Another problem with CF acting as SOF is that they do not understand and often are not afforded [albeit, internally] the opportunity of reconnoiter or proper cross-examination of their targets. There is a near dismissal of consequence or implications as CF planners often make extremes guesses and generalization as to how a hostile force may reaction, but it is often planned against with overkill or bypass. These kinds of activities combined with career minded leaders and short-contract junior-enlisted can lead to a complete blow-out for any joint force activity that would have to be conducted as any kind of culturally sensitive or classified operation. While SOF intelligence and endurance has time and again proven itself to be more than capable of operating in operate in uniquely adept global environments; while being culturally sound and independent of the large joint force supply and support channels.

CF and SOF are most likely are incapable of combining capabilities across the joint forces because their missions and motivators differ too greatly. Typically SOF leads to innovative outcomes while CF leads to hours long formations in the motor-pool with lectures about haircuts and uniforms. The enduring and evolving aspects of SOF are counterintuitive to joint force command structures, both officer and enlisted. For a joint force linkage and interconnection to become even remotely successful the alliance can only develop with CF providing joint force capacity to operations, much as it currently does. A primary CF counterintuitive concern of operational success is the small force capability which is regularly delivered by SOF, while CF relies on the heavy doctrine of the widest degree of depth and protection in numbers, force and presence.

Conventional Forces training with SOF at Ft. Bragg. Image courtesy of author,
Conventional Forces training with SOF at Ft. Bragg. Image courtesy of author,


The GAO and DOD imagines a marriage of SOF and CF as part of a overarching and budget friendly run though MS Office. Much like tech developer envisions a new application which will connect multiple platforms, resources, capabilities and engage the end user function successfully while provided a prosperous service. Although if you own or operate any technology, this is never the case. There are always many unforeseen issues and irreconcilable data losses that never make the drawing board. Regardless, the DOD is allowing this push citing this an evolution as part of a joint force competency project. CF and SOF can deliver whatever the battlefield needs, but the battlefield continues to need less old doctrine sensitive commands. Today’s wars continue to demand more SOF centric commanders and senior NCOs in the ranks of CF and SOF if this concept is to make one successful step to achieve such broad strategic concepts.

If the GAO and DOD are to successfully forge a SOF and CF operational capability for the long-term it will need precision tuning with SOF oversight and CF command in tow.  A possible methodology to successfully implement this policy driven institutional interdependence is in the development of SOF driven, CF facing doctrine, command-level course education, and training; not on the go or online but in the classroom and the field. The operational integration of systems and understanding is paramount for any successful integration of CF into SOF roles starting from the top down.

The joint force policy must address SOF capabilities as assets which are mission centric and understand that SOF operates outside the typical command and environment controls of CF. The plan must devote to reframing the CF concept of interdependence large maneuver, to encompass the unique and real-world realms of cultural awareness, human psychology and sociology as well as a broader spectrum understanding and use of information and intelligence domains. CF and SOF can become interdependent by pooling their resource and capabilities to support one another as they have throughout GWOT, but the conventional CF outlook of closed-minds and old doctrine toxic commands can easily containment operational readiness and constrain mission accomplishment.