The United States likes quick victories when it goes to war. The short conflicts of Grenada, Panama and the Gulf War are looked back upon as wars that went well for the United States. Although our military suffered casualties, the conflicts were resolved quickly and with satisfying results. The current administration recognizes this factor and has adopted the use of SOF, airpower, and a light footprint to resolve conflicts and issues around the world.

Two more recent conflicts – Iraq (OIF) and Afghanistan (OEF) – have proven to be problematic. These two wars have cost the United States many thousands of fatalities, many more wounded, and billions of dollars. The long-term nature of the counterinsurgency operations in both countries have sapped the energy of the American public and exhausted the U.S. military. In addition, the end results of the two conflicts have been up to now unsatisfactory and are far from determined. The irony is that both of these conflicts achieved the objective of overthrowing the regimes (Taliban and Saddam Hussein), in both cases the U.S. opted for an initial light footprint, and in the end the U.S. went ‘all in’ with a surge of troops to conduct population-centric counterinsurgency and nation-building (governance and development).

Some critics have stated that it is best not to become so heavily involved in these massive counterinsurgency efforts where the U.S. is the primary combatant fighting the insurgents. They advocate a model where U.S. advisors provide training, advice and assistance to foreign militaries engaged in counterinsurgency operations. Perhaps they are right; it would seem it is easy to get deeply involved in a counterinsurgency fight and hard to extract oneself from it. These same critics say we need to be more discerning in which conflicts we get involved in and to limit the level of our involvement. They advocate the ‘light footprint’ approach.

Many observers note that special operations forces are uniquely qualified for ‘light footprint’ operations. The training that the Army’s Special Forces (Green Berets), Navy SEALs, Marine Special Operators, and Air Force SOF go through prepares them for the many types of light footprint missions throughout the world. The new commander of United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) in Tampa, Florida – General “Tony” Thomas – sees “. . . America’s elite troops transforming from a reactive to a proactive force, one that operates globally, but still with a light footprint.” [1]

There are limitations to the light footprint approach. Sometimes you don’t achieve your objectives because the proxy (or indigenous) forces do not have interests that are in direct alignment with your interests. In many cases the amount of military force used is insufficient; the current crisis in Libya, Syria, and Iraq are good examples. Sometimes the ‘ends’ are not attained because of insufficient ‘means’.

Certainly one aspect of President Obama’s legacy will be his reluctance to become so deeply involved in conflicts to the point where it is difficult to leave if things go badly. He is taking a lot of heat in this regard. Many observers say he is a believer in the light footprint approach to conflict so as to minimize U.S. involvement in international affairs in order to concentrate on domestic policy issues. [2]

Although the light footprint approach can help a nation avoid long-term conflicts that are costly in lives and treasure; the approach may not achieve any lasting results in line with U.S. interests. Currently U.S. special operations forces are deployed in over 80 countries (estimates vary) engaged in ‘indirect action’ or operations with a light footprint. Part of the SOF mission is to shape the operational environment of areas where future conflicts are likely. Some folks refer to this as shaping the environment ‘left of the bang’.

These SOF deployments are taking place where active conflicts are raging – Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, and Afghanistan. In addition, SOF is engaged in many other countries throughout the world ensuring that the militaries of ‘partner nations’ are able to conduct counterterrorism, counterinsurgency, and other types of military operations.

Certainly the light footprint approach can be done with a smaller military. In addition, if SOF and conventional forces engage early enough in a trouble spot, it may be possible to avoid a larger problem later on. However, the light footprint approach is not applicable to every situation.


[1] See “America’s New Special Operations Commander Wants to Predict the Future”, Defense one, May 25, 2016.

[2] See “Welcome to the Era of the Light Footprint: Obama finally finds his doctrine”, by Leon Wieseltier, New Republic, January 29, 2013. The light footprint policy did not start with Obama; SECDEF Rumsfeld was a big believer in the light footprint concept as well. The difference between Obama and Rumsfeld, however, is that Obama is aligning the “ends” with the “means”.

Additional readings on the “light footprint”:

Carty, LTC William J., SOF/Convention Force Light Footprint Interdependence in Asia and Beyond, United States Army War College, 2013. This 56-page paper by a Special Forces officer advocates a “. . . full spectrum engagement under a Light Footprint strategy . . .”

Lujan, Major Fernando M., USA, Light Footprints: The Future of American Military Intervention, Center for a New American Security (CNAS), March 2013. This 44-page paper by an Afghan Hand and Special Forces officer points out the pros and cons of the light footprint approach to military interventions.

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Stapleton, Bradford Ian, The Problem with the Light Footprint: Shifting Tactics in Lieu of Strategy, CATO Institute, Policy Analysis Number 792, June 7, 2016.

Watts, Stephen et al, Countering Others’ Insurgencies: Understanding U.S. Small-Footprint Interventions in Local Context, RAND Corporation, 2014. This 254-page report explores the extent to which the small-footprint model has been and will be successful in bringing an end to an insurgency or conflict.

Map of SOF commands and theater special operations commands from page 23 of the U.S. Special Operations Command Fact Book 2012.