With an ever-diminishing role in counterterror, special operations troops are in transition, moving back toward a traditional supporting role in a larger effort to deter countries with navies and air forces and other capabilities more on par with the U.S.

Army special operations forces in particular have a role to play in countering Russia, according to an Army Special Operations Command-funded Rand Corp. report released Monday, but they’ll need more concrete direction to be useful going forward.

“Although U.S. strategic guidance proclaims that the United States has entered a new era of great-power competition, concepts for succeeding in that competition remain underdeveloped,” according to the report.

So what can Army special operations bring to the fight? By returning to its roots, particularly for Special Forces, Army special operations can work with allies to strengthen their capabilities against foes like Russia, while at the same time giving the U.S. situational awareness of conditions on the ground.

“In conditions of more intensified competition, when the risk of armed conflict is high, ARSOF can help to defend against proxy forces used by U.S. adversaries,” according to the report. “ARSOF can also be used to disrupt adversary operations in denied environments or to impose costs on adversaries, although the most aggressive uses of ARSOF—unconventional warfare intended to overthrow adversary governments—have traditionally been high-risk activities with relatively low rates of success.”

In order to be successful, the authors wrote, Army SOF needs a few things:

  • Army doctrine, specifically Multi-Domain Operations, needs to include specific guidance for SOF.
  • Special Operations Command and the assistant defense secretary for special operations/low-intensity conflict should do regular reviews of Army SOF activities to make sure they are in line with the change in focus to “strategic competition.”
  • SOF should only engage directly with Russia, through unconventional or information warfare, in rare circumstances.
  • Special operations troops should be embedded with allies as part of a “long-term political-military strategy,” as their progress tends to be incremental and measured by the successes of those partner nations in their own strategies.

“There may well be specific contexts in which UW and aggressive uses of [operations in the information environment] are appropriate tools for the United States to compel Russia to cease certain activities or to disrupt and degrade its ability to pursue them,” the report found. “But the potential benefits of such instruments must be carefully weighed against the costs, risks, and likelihood of success.”

Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members. Follow on Twitter @Meghann_MT

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