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How Should US Special Operations Forces Train for Great Power War?

Special Operations Great Power War
Image: Creative Commons.

Bob Dylan highlighted that change is constant, and one needs to get on board or get out of the way. The military is facing a new operational environment, and the times are indeed changing.

The age of Forever Wars is coming to an end, and the era of Great Power Competition is here. Aggressive, assertive, and capable nation-state actors threaten to erode and destabilize U.S. influence globally. Special Operations Forces (SOF) are no exception to the changing environment and constantly adapt and prepare to meet future challenges. Army Special Operations Forces (ARSOF) balance the line between the fight today and tomorrow’s threats. Unit readiness is exceptionally critical as the demand for SOF increases, and the operating environment remains complex. Focus is shifting from training on Counter-Insurgency Operations (COIN) to Large Scale Combat Operations (LSCO) against peer threats. However, ARSOF cannot train for LSCO independently. Instead, ARSOF must train with Conventional Forces (CF) to build Interoperability, Integration, and Interdependence (I3) to prepare for future threats and embrace the changing times. ARSOF needs to focus its limited resources, both time and forces, divesting from training that does not build ARSOF’s required readiness capabilities to invest in opportunities to forge ARSOF to meet, compete and win the fight.

Combat Training Centers (CTC), such as the Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC), in Fort Polk, LA, support unit readiness to preparing units to face the multitude of operations in the future. JRTC remains a bulwark for unit training for Army Brigade Combat Teams (BCT) and their subordinate units preparing for LSCO. ARSOF, due to their unique mission sets, tend to have specialized training sites particular for SOF and often do not train with CF. JRTC provides an excellent training venue for SOF and CF to train together in a realistic environment enhancing SOF-CF I3. However, JRTC is not a SOF training center. The primary training unit for JRTC is a BCT, who conducts a 14-day exercise to engage force on force with an opposing force in a live-action environment.

Conceptually, in LSCO, SOF often operates independently or with partner forces with CF support beyond a CORPS level fire support coordination line (FSCL). SOF prepare and shape the environment in the deep area and at the opportune time hand over the battlespace to conventional forces. Given the size and time constraints of JRTC, ARSOF units are often pushed in the close area with the BCT and struggle to prepare, shape, and hand over the battlespace on the timeline provided by the exercise, degrading I3.

JRTC rotations provide diminishing value to ARSOF readiness and squander excellent opportunities to enhance SOF-CF I3 with these limitations. However, simple re-tooling of the JRTC environment to create applicable training opportunities for ARSOF’s role in LSCO could make JRTC a premiere ARSOF training center for LSCO. This paper examines JRTC’s ability to effectively provide ARSOF training opportunities through USASOC 2035’s four primary stated capabilities that ARSOF provides to the joint force. Further, this paper offers three potential solutions for re-tooling JRTC to enhance both ARSOF unit readiness for LSCO and increase CF-SOF I3.

Higher Guidance

The United States addresses rising and existing challenges to the nation in strategic documents.  The 2021 Interim National Security Strategic Guidance states, “We face a world of rising nationalism, receding democracy, growing rivalry with China, Russia, and other authoritarian states” The 2017 National Security Strategy (NSS) notes that “China and Russia want to shape a world antithetical to U.S. values and interests.” The 2018 National Defense Strategy observes that “Inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security.” All the documents highlight a shift in national focus. The change from counterterrorism and counter-insurgency to great power competition and potential LSCO is without a doubt challenging for the military. For SOF, the threat of terrorism and insurgencies does not go away; instead, roles and tasks are expanding in an ever-complex environment.

Following national guidance, the Army is also shifting its focus. The Army capstone doctrinal publication FM 3-0 states, “The Army and joint force must adapt and prepare for large-scale combat operations in highly contested, lethal environments.” Other emerging concepts such as the Army’s Multi-Domain Operations (MDO) highlight great power challenges and the need to leverage and integrate all capabilities across domains to achieve objectives in large-scale combat operations. USASOC nests within the Army’s MDO concept in the United States Army Concept for Special Operations 2028-2040, which complements the necessity for I3 between Army SOF and CF in the future operating environment. “ARSOF require the ability to coordinate, synchronize, integrate, or deconflict ARSOF and CF activities in time, space, and purpose.” Working together to achieve a common objective against a capable adversary becomes challenging as units strive to take on and adjust to new roles.

SOF-CF I3

During the Counter-insurgency conflicts, Special Operators have often taken the lead supported by conventional forces. During LSCO, conventional forces most likely will take primacy requiring SOF to conduct missions supporting a broader joint force. SOF and CF have distinct sets of responsibilities, capabilities, training, and relevant tradeoffs. SOF-CF I3 continues to be a friction point and an answer key for effective LSCO operations.

The concepts of I3 are crucial in the command and control (C2) of SOF and CF on the battlefield. TRADOC pamphlet 525-3-0 defines SOF-CF interdependence as “The deliberate and mutual reliance by one force on another’s inherent capabilities designed to provide complementary and reinforcing effects. Integration and interoperability are subsets of interdependence.”  Interdependent SOF and CF forces mutually support one another with capabilities and specializations.

Historically, SOF and CF tend to focus on different levels of war. Due to their unique mission set and capabilities, SOF commanders focus on affecting objectives at the strategic and operational levels. In contrast, CF commanders focus on achieving their objectives in the tactical battlespace. Both groups have the same strategic objectives as part of a larger joint force. However, at times they are mutually supporting strategically but tactically divergent. In many cases, divergence can cause friction between SOF-CF, such as resource allocation and prioritization of objectives. JRTC’s size provides a limited tactical space, an area where ARSOF shapes but primarily does not operate.

JRTC

The Combat Training Center Programs are Army programs established to provide realistic joint service and combined arms training in accordance with Army doctrine. The CTCs offer training units opportunities to increase collective proficiency on the most realistic battlefield available during peacetime. The four components of the CTC Program are: (1) the National Training Center, (2) the Combat Maneuver Training Center, (3) the Joint Readiness Training Center, and (4) the Battle Command Training Program.

JRTC focuses on improving unit readiness by providing highly realistic, stressful, joint, and combined arms training across the full spectrum of conflict. As a CTC, the JRTC trains a multi-component force: About one-third of the Army’s Brigade Combat Teams, Army National Guard and Reserve units, and their associated rotational unit enablers undergo the most realistic and relevant training the Army offers. JRTC trains rotational units to perform their core Mission Essential Tasks in a Decisive Action Training Environment (DATE). The primary customer for JRTC is a BCT, and the DATE is not designed for ARSOF units.

ARSOF’s Role in LSCO

SOF has a distinct role in LSCO. SOF reinforces the Army’s fighting approach to seize, retain and exploit the initiative. Special Operations core activities, including Direct Action (DA), Special Reconnaissance (SR), Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction (CWMD), Counterterrorism (CT), Unconventional Warfare (UW), Foreign Internal Defense (FID), Security Force Assistance (SFA), Hostage Rescue and Recovery (HRR), Counterinsurgency (COIN), Foreign Humanitarian Assistance (FHA), Military Information Support Operations (MISO) and Civil Affairs Operations (CAO).  Those roles are not unique to LSCO but are executed across the range of military operations, including LSCO.

USASOC highlights the strategic value ARSOF brings to the force in LSCO. According to the U.S. Army Concept for Special Operations 2028-2040, Special Operations contribute to joint force in armed conflict by:

-Sense deep in denied areas. Enable deep area fires.

-Enable the disintegration of critical nodes within enemy A2/AD systems, specifically focusing on the integrated long-range fires complex and the integrated air defense system.

-Maneuver locally recruited, trained, and equipped forces in deep areas.

-Support conventional forces in the close fight.

-Converge cross-domain capabilities in the deep areas through SOF Command and Control.

There is a significant disproportion between a typical ARSOF Company Mission Essential Task List (METL) and the conventional counterpart in LSCO, which creates a challenge to integrate the two forces effectively.

USASOC’s Four Pillars

USASOC highlights ARSOF’s capabilities through the SOF core activities and operations in armed conflict.   According to USASOC 2035, ARSOF’s four pillars of capability are An Indigenous Approach to operations; Precision Targeting Operations; Developing Understanding and Wielding Influence, and Crisis response.

With an Indigenous Approach to operations, ARSOF leverages persistent partnerships and relationships with partner forces globally. This provides the joint force with a low-cost, high yield option to execute operations and maintain a persistent global sensor. Additionally, ARSOF, by, with, and through their partner forces, gain access and placement to uncertain and potentially hostile environments in which CF cannot easily access. In LSCO, this might look like UW and FID operations with resistance forces or the existing military of a host nation under invasion.

Precision Targeting operations involve direct action (DA) or counter-network activities employed against critical nodes or hard targets to create specific effects. These activities create windows of opportunity for the joint force. In LSCO, this could be penetration of an adversary’s anti-access aerial-denial (A2/AD) system or stimulation and strike on a strategic target.

Developing Understanding and Wielding Influence includes leveraging the SOF network through ongoing partnerships and presence to develop an advanced understanding of the complex environment. This enhances the joint force’s understanding of the operational environment. In LSCO, ARSOF would operate in semi-permissive environments, creating an advanced understanding of the operational environment, expanding options, and understanding areas where CF is not currently operating.

With the fourth pillar, Crisis Response, ARSOF can rapidly respond to crises and provide options to the joint force when threats and unstable situations emerge. By integrating existing capabilities and understanding, ARSOF can address a range of emergencies to support the force. During LSCO, ARSOF offers the ability to gain access to denied or hostile areas for limited amounts of time to support an emerging or immediate objective.

Solutions

In a short training exercise, it is challenging to recreate persistent partnerships and networks. The volunteers and role players utilized as partner forces in SOF training have limited knowledge of the scenario and limited SOF experience. This simulates a raw, untrained unit, as opposed to a realistic SOF partner. This shortfall detracts from ARSOF ability to focus on it’s role in an LSCO training event.  Further, JRTC lacks a deep environment for ARSOF to prepare, shape, and hand over the battlespace. This constraint reduces an advantage to a CF unit conducting LSCO training.  Finally, SOF require specific infrastructure, both physical, virtual, and cognitive, to train its LSCO tasks.

A potential solution to enhance the Indigenous approach at JRTC would be to create a permanent partner force at JRTC. Permanent SOF role-players with military training and a deep understanding of the terrain and environment provides ARSOF immediate combat capability and value in the exercise.  A suitable partner force would require a company size element that can resemble a near-peer military or resistance force.  The unit maintains an enhanced knowledge of the operating environment, fully equipped and augmented with senior prior service SOF providing depth and realism as an effective training aid.  Role players need to be re-tooled to mimic a resistance or military force with organic capabilities and realistic C2. This partner force needs to be funded and trained for a SOF scenario, capable, competent, and ready to engage in LSCO immediately. This enables the ARSOF training unit to mass combat power against objectives with the BCT immediately.

In LSCO, ARSOF operations often occur in the deep maneuver area, affecting actions that will have second and third-order effects on the close fight. These areas are well beyond the organic fire capabilities of a BCT. However, the deep maneuver area remains pertinent to a CF CDR as actions in the deep area shape the tactical battlespace.  JRTC does not have a deep maneuver area, limiting ARSOF operations to the small area where the BCT operates, creating friction as both units compete for the same targets, rather than synchronizing efforts in both the close and deep areas for layered effects.  If ARSOF trains LSCO at JRTC, a deep maneuver area tied to the close area is required.  Developing a deep maneuver area linked with the close area allows SOF to conduct its roles in LSCO to support and create an advantage for the CF. Creating a deep maneuver area supports ARSOF readiness, enhances the overall training environment for a BCT, and offers immense training opportunities for other domains.

Complex and hard target sets need to be created for ARSOF forces to conduct Precision Targeting Operations. Spray-painted PVC pipes do not cut it. Realistic targets with complex and integrated operating systems or fortified critical nodes are needed for ARSOF to train to conduct operations. These “hard targets” present realistic adversary systems.  The hard targets should connect and support the existing adversary infrastructure in the training scenario and provide critical capabilities to the enemy that provide the BCT with an advantage if taken out of the fight. Creating strategic and operational targets tied to the tactical level would assist in target delineation and create synergy between SOF-CF enhancing I3. This also allows each force to focus efforts on their respective targets and achieve unity of effort. Replication of strategic targets with strategic defenses creates high-value targets that become a realistic SOF target. For example, protected assets with layered security from multiple domains such as communication networks, cyber, and physical defenses in near-peer terms.

At present, the rotational timelines for the training units remain the same, meaning the start and end time for the exercise occurs roughly simultaneously for both SOF and CF. This allows limited time for ARSOF to conduct their roles in shaping the environment and targeting critical adversary nodes to create a window of opportunity for a BCT to conduct a JFE in the training area “box.” A solution to this problem to offset the rotational timelines. This would enable SOF to infiltrate the area first to shape the environment, partner with indigenous forces, target adversary key systems, and build an operational picture that supports the BCT’s planning. Offsetting provides ARSOF with opportunities to send specialized units to validate on hard target mission sets. Additionally, offsetting demonstrates a more realistic role of ARSOF in LSCO that enhances SOF-CF I3 as they mutually support each other and conduct battlefield handover.

The highest risk of SOF-CF operations remains in battlefield handover. Proper battlefield handover provides CAF the most advantage to close with and destroy the enemy.  Rotational offsetting at JRTC provides the opportunity to train on battlefield handover, enhancing SOF-CF I3. Rotational offsetting entails JRTC adjusting its rotational schedules to allow for time for SOF to conduct training. This would increase a strain on the OPFOR, sustainment, support, and exercise control to support a longer rotation.

China Missiles

Depiction of Chinese missiles attacking the U.S. Navy. Image: Chinese Internet.

Given the operational limitations of JRTC, ARSOF would benefit the most by focusing on a specific task that is strategically critical to the BCT in the tactical fight. For example, penetrating and disintegrating an adversary’s A2AD bubble provides a window of opportunity for a BCT to conduct a JFE. This mission demonstrates and trains ARSOF’s ability to leverage their relationships with the indigenous population, understanding and wield influence, and conducting precision targeting in a denied environment against a near-peer threat incorporating multi-domain capabilities. This focused mission would enhance SOF-CF I3 and demonstrate ARSOF’s role in LSCO to conventional force commanders and staff.

Conclusion

Times are changing, and national guidance has driven the Army and USASOC to focus on LSCO. JRTC is a venue in which SOF-CF can train on LSCO together, but JRTC has limitations for SOF. Three potential near-term solutions to enhance JRTC for SOF-CF I3 and readiness are:  Create a permanent partner force; build and integrate strategic and operational targets; and offset rotational start times. A long-term solution includes the creation of a deep area for SOF operations.

At JRTC, SOF offers very little to a BCT in the close fight, and SOF’s incessant craving to show relevance could be damaging CF’s understanding and utilization of SOF’s role in LSCO.  Without a deep area, SOF is forced to focus on “selling” their relevance to a BCT instead of exercising their mission sets. SOF and CF have distinct roles which can complement each other in affecting both the tactical, operational, and even the strategic levels of war to ultimately attain mission accomplishment. In training and war, without a doubt, there will be friction between the two groups as limited resources, competing objectives, and varying levels of risk and mission accomplishment create diverging paths.  The struggle is to make training as close to realistic to LSCO as possible.

Military Drones Threat

A Kazakh Air Force CAIG Wing Loong during a Defender of the Fatherland Day parade on Independence Square in Nur-Sultan.

SOF-CF should not adapt to JRTC; JRTC should strive to provide a realistic training environment to enhance readiness. Re-tooling JRTC to meet both SOF and CF requirements could have immense impacts on overall force readiness. SOF-CF have to adapt and develop substantial I3 to face the challenges of the future. With minimal investment, JRTC provides opportunities for both SOF-CF to train, enhance and validate their roles in LSCO.  Change is challenging, but the benefits of minor adjustments at our Combat Training Centers such as JRTC could genuinely benefit our nation’s ability to fight and win.

Major Justin Woodward is a Special Forces officer, veteran of small wars, and a student of Unconventional Warfare. He has served in the Army in various roles for 13 years.

The above work reflects the authors’ opinion and does not represent the official policy or position of the Special Forces Regiment, the Department of Defense, or the United States Army.

Written By

Major Justin Woodward is a Special Forces officer, a veteran of small wars, and a student of Unconventional Warfare. He has served in the Army in various roles for 13 years.

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