The elite US special operations forces are ill-equipped for high-tech warfare with China and Russia, experts warn, as the Trump administration pivots from the “war on terror” to a struggle with geopolitical rivals.
Special operations, known for kicking down doors and eliminating high-value targets, number 70,000 personnel, cost $13bn a year and have carried much of the burden of the war on terror. But it is unclear what role they will play as the Pentagon moves to redeploy troops from Afghanistan to the Indo-Pacific to counter China’s regional ambitions.
General Richard Clarke, commander of special operations command (Socom), told an industry conference this week that the US needed to develop new capabilities to “compete and win” with Russia and China. He added that Socom must develop cyber skills and focus on influence campaigns rather than “the kill-capture missions” that characterised his own time in Afghanistan after the September 11 2001 attacks. Socom’s fighters include US Navy Seals, Army Green Berets and Marine Corps Raiders.
Defence officials say China has raised military spending and research with the aim of exploiting American vulnerabilities, while Russia has tested out new technology during combat in Syria.
“Maybe we are further behind than we know,” Colonel Michael McGuire, director of combat developments at Socom, told the annual Special Operations Industry Conference. Because of Covid-19 the event was conducted virtually for the first time. “Things just moved much more quickly than we expected,” he said of the new threats, citing the erosion of America’s traditional military advantages in the sky, space and communications.
Col McGuire highlighted US vulnerabilities in cyber security, and soft-power tactics by America’s enemies that could “drive fissures through some of our alliances”. He proposed shifting focus to defence over attack.
While some military analysts have suggested SOF should take on more of a supporting role and expand their psychological operations, others urge speedier development of new stealth weapons and cutting-edge technology.
“You could have hundreds and thousands of engagements every single day in a fight against China. We are just not fast enough, dynamic enough or scaleable enough to handle that challenge,” said Chris Brose of Andruil. Chief strategy officer at the start-up defence technology company, which supplies SOF, he added that satellites could be blinded or shot out of orbit.
But he said the battle with Beijing would probably fall far short of all-out war. “Most of the US-China competition is not going to be fighting world war three,” he said. “It’s going to be kicking each other under the table.” He cited reconnaissance, influence operations and sabotage.
“It’s not going to be Abbottabad; this is going to look very different,” he said of the 2011 US Navy Seal raid on a Pakistan compound in which al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was killed.
US special operators have for years had the run of the battlefield. But they face very different conditions in any fight against China, which has developed an arsenal of missiles, fighter jets, spy planes and other eavesdropping and jamming techniques that would make it hard for America to conceal troops, transport and communications.
An SOF commander said Socom would need to plan operations without GPS or access to satellites, which help with targeting, communications and beaming down intelligence. They would need to develop cheaper, more plentiful and easily replaced equipment in case satellites were shot out of the sky.
“Special operations forces are not ready for operations against a near-peer foe, such as China, in a direct engagement,” the former commander told the Financial Times.
“We need special operations forces to find a way to operate in running gun battles and other scenarios without communications,” he said. He added that units would have to be cut off from higher command and execute plans on the ground with “substantially less oversight that we have practised in the recent war on terror”.
An SOF intelligence officer said the traditional culture of the troops had been changed by the demand for direct battle in counter-terrorism operations. He called for a return to their cold war roots.
“Vintage special operations forces is about stealth, cunning and being able to blend in — they were triathletes rather than muscle-bound infantrymen with tattoos,” said the former officer. Such attributes, he added, would be more useful in efforts to counter China.
Special operations troops already undergo language training and regularly train, advise and assist foreign militaries in allied countries that face aggressive encroachment from China and Russia.
Tom Mahnken, president of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington DC think-tank, said US special forces needed to “regain proficiency across the spectrum” in order to counter China. However, they were likely to face “gravitational pull” from ongoing counter-terrorism operations, which would remain a priority.
David Maxwell, a former Green Beret and military analyst, is among those who favour a shift towards political warfare. One such idea of his would involve a popular writer being commissioned to pen “the Taiwanese Tom Clancy” — fictionalised war stories based in Taiwan — intended to discourage Beijing from invading the self-governing island.
He told a gathering of Pacific special forces operators in February that fictional losses could “tell the stories of the demise of Chinese soldiers who are the end of their parents’ bloodline”. He argued that Beijing’s former one-child policy could be weaponised to convince China that war would be too costly.
But Mr Maxwell said such ideas have yet to catch on. He added that psyops officers lamented to him that it was “easier to get permission to put a hellfire missile on the forehead of a terrorist than it is to get permission to put an idea between his ears”.