Green Berets and Navy SEALs have fought terrorists for two decades. The new mission against China and Russia requires Cold War skills.
by Hal Brand
The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan this summer will bring an end to a supposedly “endless war.” It will also mark the close of a golden age for America’s special operations forces.
The global war on terrorism put the special operations forces, or SOF in military jargon, at the forefront of American strategy for a generation. It was a period in which SOF – these include not just the Army’s Special Forces (or Green Berets) but also Navy SEALs, Marine Raiders and others — made outsized contributions, reaped outsized rewards and suffered outsized losses.
Today, however, the U.S. is shifting its focus from counterterrorism to long-term competitions against China and Russia. To remain relevant in dealing with the threats of a new era, America’s special operators will need, somewhat ironically, to pivot back to their pasts.
Over two decades, counterterrorism became central to the special operations forces’ identity. From the earliest days after 9/11, special operators were deeply involved in tracking down terrorist leaders and destroying terrorist networks. They took the fight to al-Qaeda and other foes in countries from the Philippines to the Persian Gulf to the Horn of Africa.
If anything, the role of special forces became more important after bin Laden was killed. Beginning under President Barack Obama, the U.S. shifted from large-scale counterinsurgency missions in Iraq and Afghanistan to a lighter-footprint counterterrorism strategy. That approach placed an extremely high premium on small, skilled units that could conduct raids or support friendly forces fighting the Islamic State or Qaeda. And as SOF delivered the results policymakers wanted, policymakers leaned ever more heavily on SOF: The budget of Special Operations Command roughly tripled between 2001 and 2017 and its manpower increased from 43,000 to 70,000.
The human price was high. In the later years of the war on terror, special operators (who make up about 5% of the overall military) sometimes accounted for half or more of total American fatalities. The tempo of deployments and operations could be punishing.
Meanwhile, the post-9/11 era was both shaping and deforming the SOF community. SEALs, Green Berets and other units gravitated toward counterterrorism missions at the expense of the tasks for which they were initially designed. That’s creating challenges as America’s strategic priorities evolve.
Counterterrorism isn’t going away: There will still be dangerous work in the austere locales of the Middle East and Africa. But the primary problem for U.S. security now takes the form of great-power struggles that are waged mostly through means short of war, even though the threat of war is perpetually present. U.S. policymakers will want to know what their elite units can do to help Washington win these competitions. For special operations forces to remain relevant, they must go back to basics.
Take the Army’s Green Berets. That force was created during another global struggle, the Cold War, not to chase terrorists but to help Washington compete for influence along an unstable global periphery. Green Berets played an essential role in Cold War hot spots such as El Salvador.
At present, there are plenty of vital contributions Green Berets can make: Serving as the U.S. government’s eyes and ears in places such as Africa, where rivals are gradually enhancing their presence; strengthening partners, such as Ukraine, that are on the front lines of geopolitical competition; helping countries in Scandinavia or the Baltic threaten Russia with the prospect of prolonged, bloody insurgency if Moscow attacks. But that will require refocusing on traditional skills, such as unconventional warfare and foreign language capabilities, which have atrophied over the last 20 years.
Or consider the Navy SEALs. Since 9/11, the SEALs have increasingly been pulled into land-based counterterrorism. In the future, they will be needed primarily in the maritime expanses and littoral regions of the Indo-Pacific. Their contributions to great-power competition will feature activities that more closely resemble their deep history than their recent past — such as conducting sensitive reconnaissance in peacetime and paving the way for conventional units to push into hotly contested areas in wartime.
The same general point holds, to varying degrees, for Army Rangers, Marine Raiders and other elements of the SOF community. And making this shift is not simply a matter of equipment and training; it will also require deeper cultural and organizational changes.
Special operators who are near the beginning of their careers, or who joined the military prior to 9/11, may have less difficulty adapting to an era in which combat deployments are infrequent and peacetime competition is the norm. For the generation of special operators who joined SOF units at the height of the war on terrorism, the move will be more disruptive.
Geopolitical upheaval triggers bureaucratic upheaval. Virtually every part of the U.S. foreign policy apparatus, from the Commerce Department to the State Department to the intelligence community, is having to develop — or redevelop — muscle mass for intense strategic competition. For America’s special operators, that adaption will be mostly a matter of going back to the future.