In future years, U.S. Special Operations Forces must utilize next generation technologies and strategic partnerships to counter the threats posed by extremist groups, weapons of mass destruction proliferation and Anti-Access/Area-Denial challenges.
Highlighting a handful of impactful global technological and geo-political trends, the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments also emphasized that while SOF forces will likely continue “kinetic” raids and counter-terrorism missions as needed, a greater emphasis will be placed upon foreign internal defense, building partner capacity, unconventional warfare and civil affairs.
“We see a multitude of dangers the SOF are going to have to address – ranging from the Korean peninsula to thinking about long term competition with China to thinking about growing resource and territorial disputes in places like South East Asia. We are also thinking about continued instability in places like Central Asia and the Persian Gulf,” said Jim Thomas, co-author of the CSBA study titled “Beyond the Ramparts: The Future of Special Operations.”
Overall, the SOF end strength has grown to more than 65,000, and is currently on the way to 71,000, The SOF budget has essentially doubled in the last 10 years, rising to more than $10.8 billion, the report cites.
“R&D should be a major priority for USSOCOM in the years ahead to ensure SOF will have ‘new magic’ and specialized equipment to help keep SOF special,” the report cites.
Thomas cited key statistics and accomplishments central to the SOF communities’ activities over the past decade such as the successful killing of Osama Bin Laden during the raid on the Al Qaeda compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, and work with the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan in the Fall of 2001.
In particular, among the 2,000 raids conducted over roughly the last 10-years, 84-percent of them achieved their mission without any shots being fired and 83-percent of them resulted in the successful capture or kill of the intended targets, he added.
“There has been a renaissance in special warfare over the past decade. Raids can buy time to allow the indirect approaches to work, but ultimately its special warfare and the indirect approach which helps us reduce longer-term risk. So this becomes even more important as we look out into the future,” Thomas added.
Referring to the air-ground coordination and SOF involvement during the onset of the war in Afghanistan, Thomas said that “in a mere 60-days, a very small U.S. force, coupled with an Afghan force, was able to depose the Taliban and destabilize the al Qaeda elements in the country.”
The report focused on Anti-Access/Area-Denial challenges, essentially the realization that the U.S. no longer enjoys the same degree of technological global superiority it grew accustomed to as recently as ten years ago.
Today, the proliferation of precision-guided weapons such as long-range ballistic missiles, unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), cyber, space and electronic warfare capabilities of potential adversaries makes it much harder for U.S. forces to be able to “project power” and ensure access to strategically vital areas, such as islands, coastal waterways and forward locations.
A2/AD pushes conflict to the periphery, thus requiring a circumstance wherein SOF forces will need to strengthen alliances with strategically vital friends and allies and invest in technologies which extend range for communications, weaponry and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets, Thomas explained.
“As power projection becomes more difficult, we have far less flexible conditions for conducting flexible deterrence options and conducting a forward presence as we did in the past,” Thomas said. “With respect to disrupting Anti-Access/Area Denial networks, we really looked and saw that Special Operations Forces are probably one of the most viable power-projection options the U.S. will have in coming years.”
For instance, stealthy well-inserted SOF forces could help disrupt command and control and ISR systems used by a potential enemy, thereby better enabling higher-signature, conventional forces the ability to enter an area, Thomas explained.
One analyst said that, given its history of operating behind enemy lines, the SOF community would be well suited to expand these kinds of mission roles.
"SOF is experienced with laser designators and going behind the enemies front line defenses to provide targeting, so this is a perfectly plausible role. It probably can be used even more than we have thought about in the past now that we have new technologies. We now have the technology that allows a closer connection between sensor and shooter," said Daniel Goure, vice-president of the Lexington Institute, a Virginia-based think tank. "SOF has shown a remarkable ability to get people where they need to be. We had SOF going around the western desert of Iraq in the first Gulf War to locate SCUDs, hoping that would allow us to mouse trap some of the missile launchers."
Given these and other factors, the report suggests the SOF community continue to invest in a range of next-generation technologies to include stealthy, long-dwell unmanned aerial systems and what the report calls “novel weapons systems” such as lasers or directed energy and small, mobile precision-strike, air-launched capabilities.
As examples, the report cites Advanced Precision-Kill Weapons System (APKWS) and Viper Strike munitions. APKWS is a laser-guided, precision variant of the conventional 2.75 folding-fin, Hydra 70 rockets currently launched from helicopters.
The report also cites the importance of developing “identity masking” technologies such as biometrics and the need for more “stealthy air support,” and “long-endurance dry submersibles” to improve possibilities for access in the undersea domain.
“The proliferation of long-endurance maritime patrol UAVs and affordable commercial off-the-shelf undersea sensor networks could make the future surface and undersea environments more transparent, thereby putting littoral SOF insertion at risk,” the report states.