May 1, 2013  

Rebuilding defense around SOF

Norway’s smart move to put special operations front and center

Last year, Norway pulled its special-operations units from their various armed services and used them to create Norwegian Special Operations Command. The Ministry of Defence gave NORSOCOM its own funding pool, prioritized it higher than conventional forces’ funding and invited the special operators to shape the much larger budgets of the other service branches.

Wow. The world is truly being turned upside down.

No calamity prompted this fundamental change, which makes it a rather stunning divergence from the way large organizations typically operate. Instead, it simply reflects the rising prominence of special operations forces in Norwegian defense strategy.

Norway is hardly alone in consolidating its SOF units into parent commands. The U.S., of course, did so after the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986. Canada, France and Poland have followed suit, while Denmark and others are working in this direction.

SOF’s stature has risen so far, in fact, that in many countries, such units are viewed by many — among policymakers, the military and the public — as their nation’s first line of defense. This is a far cry from SOF’s historic role as support elements to general-purpose or conventional forces.

This strategic trend has been underway for about a decade and is gathering steam. It is most visible in Europe, where defense spending is pressured both by the global economic downturn and by sentiments that large general-purpose military forces are dwindling in utility.

Special operations forces, on the other hand, are seen as an increasingly acceptable way to contribute to coalition conflict, such as in Afghanistan. They are also seen as the most adept and cost-effective way to attack contemporary threat organizations, most of which operate as hidden networks. This perception is bolstered by well-publicized SOF successes in recent years, most notably the 2011 raid into Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden.


In certain respects, we’ve seen this before — the pre-eminence of a single community within the armed forces when money grows tight. In the mid-1950s, the United States, already fatigued by World War II and Korea, was faced by a new existential threat in the Soviet Union. The enormous cost of general-purpose forces led the Eisenhower administration to its New Look strategy: addressing the predominant national threat with nuclear weapons — in particular, the Air Force’s long-range bombers and ICBMs — and allowing overall defense expenditures to fall.

Another historic parallel is to the post-Vietnam era, when the U.S. military, determined to avoid another counterinsurgency effort, switched strategies. Conventional warfare was re-emphasized in the 1970s and 1980s, and general-purpose forces were built up to achieve military objectives primarily through overwhelming, precision-guided force.

Today, the U.S. is likewise endeavoring to confront its most pre-eminent threats while hoping to avoid another long conflict.

After 9/11 and a decade of insurgency warfare, threat groups such as al-Qaida have been pushed underground. Large, general-purpose forces designed to hold ground and defeat adversaries through massed firepower are not well-suited to confront stealthy, contemporary threat networks.

The U.S. and other nations are also expanding the emphasis on SOF because they generally do their jobs with small footprints, making them far less likely to compel a national commitment on the scope, cost and duration of a Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan.

These strategic trends were vividly illustrated in the striking dissimilarities between two multinational military conferences held last May: NATO’s conference in Chicago and U.S. Special Operations Command’s International SOF Conference in Tampa, Fla. The NATO conference focused on shrinking and disengaging conventional forces from Afghanistan, while the ISOF conference discussed the increasing, and increasingly integrated, efforts by SOF from around the world.

SOF’s emergence should not obscure its limitations. Its operators are quick to recognize their reliance on general-purpose forces. They are not, for example, equipped for the heavy lifting on intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance missions; projecting maritime power; deterring nuclear strikes; or seizing, defending and controlling large swaths of territory. Widespread reductions in general-purpose forces therefore affect SOF performance.

Nor can SOF remain the lead service when a major theater conflict demands a massive response, as happened in 1950, when North Korean forces streamed south, and in 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait.

NORSOCOM’s standup is best understood as emblematic of a global, strategic trend to address several modern-day realities. New conventions are needed to address pre-eminent, contemporary threats. Funding constraints are compelling the world’s democracies to cooperate in security efforts. And international SOF organizations utilizing networked mechanisms will be patrolling territory formerly covered by large-standing conventional forces.

In years hence, the actions NORSOCOM is taking are likely to be viewed as the signature response by a nation to the state of affairs in the early 21st century.

Lt. Col. Thomas Macias is the Air Force Special Operations Liaison Officer Program Manager at Headquarters, U.S. Special Operations Command in Tampa, Fla. The views expressed here are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of the Air Force or the Defense Department.