The Army’s Special Operations Forces (ARSOF) are in transition. With the end of the 20-year war in Afghanistan and the slow winding down of combat operations in Iraq, ARSOF units are moving from an emphasis to a door-kicking counter-terrorism role to a more traditional role of countering near-peer adversaries such as Russia or China. 

ARSOF’s operators spent 40 years working against Russia during the Cold War. Many of the concepts remain the same, but warfare has changed since then, and there are more domains to be studied and targeted.

The U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), funded the Rand Corporation to conduct research on how ARSOF and SOCOM would best be utilized in a near-peer conflict with Russia. The report, which was released earlier this week, took a detailed look at how ARSOF units should be used. It concluded that the units need better and more detailed direction. 

The Rand Corporation report recommends a return to ARSOF’s roots to combat neer-peer adversaries. Pictured above is the 7th SFG A-Team in El Salvador. (U.S. Army)

The report highlighted ARSOF’s history in countering Russia. “Long before ARSOF were used for counterterrorism missions, these forces were created for combat and competition with other great powers. Many of the U.S. antecedents of contemporary ARSOF arose in response to the exigencies of World War II, and they provided perhaps the preeminent military tools for competition with the Soviet Union in the Cold War.”

The RAND report calls for a return to ARSOF’s roots, which center around developing a physical presence in friendly countries and engaging in activities that the U.S. has frequently used to strengthen partnerships. These include subject-matter expert exchanges, intelligence gathering, and sharing operations. They also include the core SOF activities of Unconventional Warfare (UW), Foreign Internal Defense (FID), Security Force Assistance (SFA), Military Information Support Operations (MISO), and Civil Affairs Operations (CAO). 

In studying how best to use ARSOF in a near-peer environment against Russia, it is also important to study the Russians’ doctrine in asymmetric warfare. A report by the Joint Special Operations University highlights the Eight Phases of New Russian Generation Warfare.

eight phases of Russian new generation warfare
The Eight Phases of Russian New Generation Warfare. (Joint Special Operations University)

Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, all NATO members, are the most vulnerable to Russian aggression. While ARSOF units won’t have any influence in countering a conventional military invasion, they can be used very effectively against the Russian “little green men,” or proxy forces. 

According to RAND,

“In conditions of more intensified competition, when the risk of armed conflict is high, ARSOF can help to defend against proxy forces used by U.S. adversaries.”

“ARSOF can also be used to disrupt adversary operations in denied environments or to impose costs on adversaries, although the most aggressive uses of ARSOF — unconventional warfare intended to overthrow adversary governments—have traditionally been high-risk activities with relatively low rates of success. It may be more successful when used for less ambitious goals, such as disrupting adversary lines of communication in denied environments where reasonably effective and politically acceptable local surrogates exist.”

In the report, RAND Corporation recommended the following:

  • The U.S. Army needs to revise its multi-domain operations (MDO) concepts and provide better and more specific guidance for the employment of ARSOF;
  • SOCOM, the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict, and other key stakeholders need to periodically review allocations of ARSOF to ensure that they are optimally utilized in near-peer power competition;
  • Given the high levels of risk, ARSOF should only engage Russia in UW or information warfare in rare circumstances;
  • Because the benefits of ARSOF tend to be incremental and best measured by partner nation successes, Special Operations troops should be embedded with partner nations for long-term strategy. 

Despite the lip service given to the new near-peer competition, the U.S. is lacking direction for its ARSOF units according to the RAND report.  “Although U.S. strategic guidance proclaims that the United States has entered a new era of great-power competition, concepts for succeeding in that competition remain underdeveloped.”