EXCLUSIVE: Special ops to turn focus from war on terror to China, Russia

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Army Green Berets are trained for lethal close-quarter combat operations and small-team interoperability, but they will need digital skills for the future of warfare. (U.S. Army) (Photo by: Sgt. Ian Ives)

 

Will be taking a larger role in cyberwarfare, information and ‘influence’ operations, sources say

America’s elite special operations forces are getting new marching orders as the Pentagon moves away from its post-9/11 focus on radical terrorist groups and trains its eye on big-power rivals such as China and Russia.

In a major shift of mission, officials at U.S. Special Operations Command are drafting new guidance to reorient its cadre of top-tier military units to fight the expanding armies and navies of what U.S. strategists call “near-peer” powers.

Under the guidance, which is still pending approval by command chief Gen. Raymond A. Thomas III, U.S. special operations fighters will be taking a larger role in cyberwarfare, information and “influence” — digital age propaganda — operations, sources say, as well as training allies in the new skills.

“It is fair to say you will see a rebranding of special operations forces,” Andrew Knaggs, deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations and combating terrorism, said earlier this month. “Our problems will not be addressed through conventional deterrence alone.”

Since 9/11, U.S. special operations forces have been at the forefront of the U.S.-led global war on terror, from leading the fight against the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan in 2001 to taking the fight to the Islamic State’s “caliphate” in Syria in 2014. But the new Pentagon National Defense Strategy, fashioned in large part by former Defense Secretary James Mattis, is ushering in a shift away from the fight against nonstate radical terrorist groups to traditional big power rivals.

Under the new strategy, Europe and Asia once again become the “priority theaters” for U.S. forces. The Middle East will become a theater to be managed, not a region of consuming focus.

Whether that shift is an opportunity or an attempt to clip the special operations forces’ wings is a matter of sharp debate in military circles. The combined special operations forces, including separate arms of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines, grew from 45,000 in 2001 to an estimated 70,000 today, and some critics say the expansions in size and mission have not been healthy.

Mr. Trump announced late last year that the 2,000 mostly special ops personnel in Syria would be coming home as the Islamic State caliphate collapses, although the White House said Thursday that a residual force of at least 200 American troops will remain in the country.

The top officer with U.S. Africa Command announced Wednesday a 10 percent reduction in forces over the next three years. Nearly 300 American special operations troops will be pulled permanently from the continent from June 2020 to January 2022, command chief Gen. Thomas D. Waldhauser told the Military Times.

Changing face of war

Pentagon and special operations command officials say the mission to fight extremist groups will remain a part of the special ops mandate but that the command-level directives will place a larger premium on nontraditional skills in cyber and information operations.

“The nature of war does not change, but the character of war has changed radically in the last 15 years,” Mr. West told House lawmakers. “Dealing with [allies], problems that need to be agilely solved in a cheap manner, you are really talking about SOF.”

The biggest advantage special operations units provide in the new strategic environment is during “competition short of conflict,” or a Cold War-style deterring of an adversarial nation, Gen. Thomas said. That gray area between a hot and cold war “is arguably the most important phase of deterrence.”

But shifting gears from the clandestine direct-action operations, or “kill/capture” missions venerated in Hollywood and American popular culture in the post-9/11 era, to more subtle missions has already been in the works.

Full article: EXCLUSIVE: Special ops to turn focus from war on terror to China, Russia (The Washington Times)

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