In an interesting development, albeit a more muted approach than what we saw back in the fall, the Secretary of Defense, Jim Mattis said on Tuesday that the lines that separate the Special Operations Forces from conventional operating forces are blurring. And that he expects general purpose forces will soon take on missions that were once the sole province of their Special Forces brethren.

Defense Secretary James N. Mattis told Pentagon reporters today that the experiences of war since 9/11 have blurred the lines.

This change will not be enshrined in strategy, he said, but will come about as a result of policy and the growth of general purpose forces’ capabilities.

Mattis said he expects more general purpose forces to take on missions in Iraq and Syria. “In the Trans-Sahel [region of Africa], many of the force supporting the French effort are general purpose forces,” the secretary said.

If a mission comes up, the secretary said he’ll determine the parameters of it and pass that to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The chairman will then determine what forces take on that mission. They may be special operations forces or general purpose forces with unique capabilities.

This is an evolution of the U.S. military spurred by the lessons of war, the secretary said.

Mattis said he does not want a force that is dominant in yesterday’s challenges, but irrelevant in today’s. The general purpose force, he added, is going to have to have the capabilities that were once associated only with special operations forces.

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The secretary gave the example of remotely piloted vehicles. In 2001, he said, the only people who ran drones were special operations forces.

Mattis spoke about the SFAB units that are slated to deploy to Afghanistan and take over the training to the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces, doing for them what SF troops do for the Afghan SF troops. And he cited the work that conventional troops are doing in Fort Irwin, CA where conventional troops are doing tasks normally reserved for SOF and capable of doing it on par with SOF according to the secretary.

Whether it was a slip of the tongue or just a mistake, the last line is bound to get the attention of the Special Forces troops. The secretary talked about the blurring of Special Operations and conventional troops but then said that the missions “once the sole province of Special Forces” won’t go over well with SF troops already smarting of the SFAB troops being issued “olive green” berets.

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Photo courtesy DOD