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President's Commentary: SOF Carries a Big Stick

Most of what SOF does is hidden from the public eye and is far more important than many realize.

By Lt. Gen. Robert M. Shea, USMC (Ret.)

When the public thinks of Special Operations Forces (SOF), the vision that usually comes to mind is of gun-blazing commando raids such as the one that brought justice to Osama bin Laden. Yes, certain elements of SOF receive considerable public attention and accrue celebrity-style glamour. While this attention is well-deserved, most of what SOF does is hidden from the public eye and is far more important than many realize.

SOF covers a broad spectrum of operations and brings tremendous capability to further U.S. goals internationally. Its importance has increased in recent years as a result of geopolitical changes. During the Cold War, the global environment used to be binary—the free world, led by the United States, arrayed against the communist bloc, headed by the Soviet Union. But now, the number of significant potential adversaries adds up to “the four plus one”—a resurgent Russia, an emergent China, a rogue Iran and an openly hostile North Korea, along with nonstate ISIS. The United States can neither be in all places at all times nor be all things to all people. This is where SOF plays a key role.

These bright, well-trained service members engage in virtually every type of military operation conducted by specialists throughout the Defense Department. This includes humanitarian, partnership building and covert operations, all of which help tip the geopolitical scales in the United States’ favor. SOF personnel work with the State Department on the interagency level, and in many cases, they quietly serve as the face of the U.S. government.

SOF experts around the world help train and advise local militaries and security forces in partner nations. Many are active in counterinsurgency operations, protecting friends and allies against global terror organizations, and they will engage in hostage rescues. SOF also plays a significant role in detecting, monitoring, tracking and mitigating the development and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction by hostile powers.

Special forces also work in civilian affairs, and they are adept at conveying the U.S. message to foreign audiences. These efforts aid in influencing emotions and ideas that present U.S. values in a favorable light. And this work often serves as a two-way street as SOF personnel can become sources of understanding of a foreign country’s geopolitical environment.

Today, SOF executes the role that conventional forces filled during the Cold War. Their deployment was designed to prevent a conflict escalating to the point of nuclear exchange between the two superpowers. The use of SOF aims to prevent a number of diverse threat scenarios from rapidly evolving to wartime conditions. In effect, SOF is often the tip of a silent spear.

Under any threat, SOF serves as an enabler for combatant commanders and joint task forces. This activity is likely to increase as adversaries become more asymmetric in their operations. Now we must ask ourselves: How much can we put on the plate of the people who are engaging in SOF activities? Is there a need to expand the force? Can we effectively expand it? Do we expand the force or assign some of its roles to the services?

As we look at the diverse ideologies and theologies around the world, clearly we need someone to monitor them and provide a capability to understand their motives and anticipate their actions. In this role, SOF is a tremendous force multiplier. But how big should SOF become, and how fast should it enter a targeted theater? What effect will expansion have on developing and honing the skills necessary to carry out missions? SOF must not enlarge to the point that it becomes unwieldy or suboptimal.

SOF brings a unique enabling capability to the force. For a relatively small investment, it provides a big return. But what lies ahead may determine the role SOF plays in national security, and planners must tread carefully to avoid weakening one of the greatest assets the United States can bring to bear in an uncertain world.