Before Sana’a fell to the Houthis in September 2014, the passengers on flights to the Yemeni capital largely comprised Yemeni businesspeople, members of the Yemeni diaspora, diplomats, oil and aid workers, language students, and the occasional journalist. Every so often, however, another type of traveler would board the plane: pairs of British or American men, invariably lean, muscular, and above average height, with scruffy beards but surprisingly regimented fingernails. They generally wore unbranded baseball caps, hiking trousers, shirts, wrap-around sunglasses, an expensive watch, and one of three brands of shoe. They would be courteous but direct of speech and deliberate in their movements. They would say they were IT technicians, which everyone would accept and no one would believe. They would be picked up at the airport and whisked away to a team house. In the evening they would be met by someone from their embassy and taken to a haven of vice known as the Russian Club to meet their counterparts and have a beer where no locals were admitted. The next day they would go to war.

Special operations forces played a critical role in the secret war against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. They helped whittle the organization down from an international menace to an internally fractured and locally fixed shadow of its former self. The methodologies that brought about this outcome were subsequently applied against the Islamic State as special operations forces spearheaded the campaign to defeat the group, working by, with, and through Iraqi and Syrian forces to find, fix, and finish the operational echelons of the terrorist organization. The methodology was high tempo, built around intelligence-led raiding with follow-up operations that exploited the gathered information before the adversary’s command-and-control system could assess and react. It depended upon local partners for access, a high level of enablement by the joint force to bring operators to the objective as quickly and directly as possible, seamless satellite communications, and airpower.

Special operations forces have long been valued for their flexibility, and this was a characteristic that seemed to be demonstrated throughout the US-led post-9/11 wars as the same teams rotated between theaters and deployed at short notice to respond to sudden policy challenges. That apparent flexibility is misleading, however. As the world returns to an era of great power competition, policymakers need to realize the extent to which special operations forces have been optimized for a narrow mission set. They have fallen into predictable patterns, become overly reliant on technological solutions, and grown accustomed to short operations enabled by overwhelming support. Failure to recognize the changes in the operating environment may carry a heavy price.

Predictable and Exposed

The high tempo of Western special operations forces’ activity over the past two decades has led to repetitive behaviors and the formation of a set of persistent patterns. Before operators arrived in Sana’a, for example, specialist kit would often be flown in by C-130 and picked up by the embassy, giving Yemeni customs workers a fairly reliable indicator that something was going to happen. The team houses were not conspicuous, but everyone knew where they were. For the Russian embassy in Sana’a, the predictable pattern of behavior, and the frequenting of a bar where photographs were easily taken, provided a convenient opportunity to collect a relatively wide set of identities from across the Western special operations community. The Russians have few interests in Yemen, but as Russian special operations forces and private military security contractors begin to encroach upon areas of operation that have been the sole preserve of Western special operators for the last two decades, the ease with which Western troops can be identified should give pause for thought.

More importantly, the discreet posture—whereby forces fight in uniform often as part of a declared operation, while trying to maintain a low profile—of partnered operations, and the widespread use of social media among partner forces, ensures that troops engaged in this work will be quickly identified if they subsequently attempt to adopt a covert posture. Indeed, the widespread collection of biometrics and the pervasive surveillance and archiving of data from public spaces, combined with the existing target decks established through the observation of counterterrorism operations, mean that theater entry in a covert posture against a great power competitor requires careful planning, novel techniques, and a credible digital past to support any false identities.

The threat from terrorism is likely to persist and since special operations forces have proven effective in countering it, they are likely to remain tasked with this mission. But their once vaunted flexibility is increasingly questionable as data storage makes discreet and covert operations almost mutually exclusive. This not only suggests a need for these tasks to be pursued by different personnel, but also for the current career path to be reversed. At the moment, the most experienced personnel generally conduct covert operations, but today these are the individuals most likely to be known to the adversary. Instead, younger personnel with limited risk of exposure should conduct covert operations, before shifting to a discreet posture as their identities are revealed, whether by the cyber breach of military systems or by the signature of their activities.

Covert operations against state adversaries are likely to become all the more important because Western opponents will increasingly be able to respond at a competitive tempo. The past two decades have generally seen special operations forces operate from relatively secure forward bases, with an overwhelming capacity to escalate against opponents that lack effective reconnaissance and surveillance; great power rivals, by contrast, can hit back with their own unmanned aerial vehicles, artillery, ballistic missiles, and well-supported covert operators. This either imposes an unsustainable force protection burden around special operators’ bases or entails a greater reliance on covert activity. Covert forces lack the protective wrap that has supported recent counterterrorism operations, meaning that they will need to be far more self-reliant to achieve their objectives. As Western militaries prepare for great power conflict, special operations forces will need to survive unsupported, which will require a recalibration of the force’s training, equipment, and mindset.

Overused and Underprepared?

On a windy April afternoon in 2021, a V-22 Osprey helicopter came in low and slow over the trees. Putting down in a boggy depression it inserted a team of US Army Special Forces, joining an allied training exercise in northern Europe. The team was supposed to work its way forward to emplace an observation post and thereby locate and direct the engagement of an enemy air defense system.

Were it not an exercise things would have gone very badly for the operators. In the exercise, the opposing force’s surface-to-air missile battery had little difficulty maintaining a lock on the V-22, whose flight profile, size, and speed made it hard to mask behind the available terrain. From the moment the team landed its communications showed up bright in the electromagnetic spectrum. Nor, as it turned out, were the operators themselves well prepared. One operator, for example, had failed to bring cold weather gear and had to be lent appropriate equipment by an allied unit.

These shortcomings were not all the fault of the operators. The US team members were experienced soldiers. The selection process that had granted them entry into the special operations community was as rigorous as those endured by their predecessors. The use of the V-22 was a product of what was available to support the exercise rather than what might be best suited to the mission. The team had driven for hours from a previous engagement and rolled immediately into the exercise without having been fully briefed. The team members grabbed the kit that was at hand in the minutes available, later discovering that it was not suitable. Their communications equipment was what they had been issued.

These shortcomings are unlikely to be replicated in an operation. But the gap between how the force trains and how it is expected to fight in any major conflict—as the leading edge in the reconnaissance battle against layered enemy standoff—should be a cause for concern. Against a peer adversary long-range standoff will force back insertion capabilities so that special operations forces will need to conduct an extended approach to the objective. They will need to look after themselves for a prolonged period in the field. They will need to minimize their emissions, which will require them to be unplugged from support by the joint force and necessitate that commanders are comfortable with only intermittent updates on their progress. The detailed planning necessary to operate undetected in an electronically contested environment will require a slow and deliberate tempo of operations.

Some specialized methods of insertion may remain viable, such as subsurface delivery, but even here the target may be well inland, while maritime deployment limits the equipment that can be taken ashore. Long-range patrols will need to mitigate observation from enemy radar, electronic warfare units, and unmanned aerial vehicles with mounted thermal cameras. While it may be comforting to hope that technology will shield special operations forces from enemy attention it seems more realistic to minimize signature rather than attempt to conceal it. Minimizing signature requires discipline. Discipline is achieved through practice. But if special operations forces continue with a high tempo of exercises and operations that conform to approaches optimized for counterterrorism campaigns, units are unlikely to be best prepared.

As with the challenges in covert operations there are cultural implications to how units prepare for fighting unplugged. Special operations forces have become accustomed to multiple successive short operations, rather than prolonged periods in the field. This is reflected in equipment: significant advances in the ergonomics of tactical gear, for example, have not been matched by advances in systems for carrying heavy loads long distances. It is even evident in the physiology of personnel. Within many units it is noticeable that operators who became lean to pass the endurance tests they faced in selection rapidly bulk up their upper bodies upon joining their units. While this allows for speed and power—ideal for raids—it comes at the expense of endurance. And there is a reflexive tendency to reach for technology to observe adversaries, such as the use of unmanned aerial systems that necessarily have a significant electronic signature. If units must increasingly operate at reach then dependence upon technological tools also risks exposure. Finally, as with the problems with pattern forming in a discreet posture leading to the exposure of covert forces, communications patterns used during exercises will form a set of expectations among adversaries. As a result, operators cannot simply rely on communications procedures that emphasize the usual equipment, but should design them with a conscious assessment of the mission, the threat, and the enemy’s expectations.

None of these challenges are likely to surprise those within the special operations community, nor are they impossible to solve. But for units to address these problems they require the time and space to do so creatively. Perhaps the most important prerequisite for special operations forces optimizing for great power competition, therefore, is the recognition by policymakers that throwing them into the breach to confront every challenge comes at a cost. The political convenience of special operations forces threatens their readiness for tasks where their skills and capabilities are essential enablers for the joint force. If policymakers will not allow special operations forces to conduct operations unplugged from the command structure, then they will find it difficult to do so when it is necessary. If the force is overcommitted, it will take short cuts that form predictable patterns. It may be highly effective, but it will also become hyperconventional.

Leaders have the right to choose what they want from the special operations community. Since that community is limited in size, however, policymakers should think twice when they deploy it—or else they may find themselves with special operations forces that will struggle to offer assurance when faced with a great power competitor.

Jack Watling is Research Fellow for Land Warfare at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London. He is the author of a recent RUSI report, “Sharpening the Dagger: Optimising Special Forces for Future Conflict,” which expands upon the arguments presented here.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.

Image credit: Spc. Steven Hitchcock, US Army