Special ops expected to play key role in shaping future battlespaces in ‘non-physical domains’

With many questioning the role SOF will play post-Global War on Terror in great power competition, officials believe they will be key in shaping conflicts before they begin.
A Czech Special Forces member provides ground support while U.S. Army Special Forces perform a static-line jump during Emerald Warrior 22.1 at Hurlburt Field, Florida, May 5, 2022. Emerald Warrior is the largest joint special operations exercise involving U.S. Special Operations Command forces training for response to various threats above and below the threshold of armed conflict. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Joseph P. LeVeille)

Special operations forces will be critical to forward posturing capabilities and shaping conflicts before they break out against sophisticated adversaries in the future — including in the so-called non-kinetic realms of military activity, officials say.

With the conclusion of the Global War on Terror and the return to great power competition in 2018 — prioritizing nation-states over non-state actors for the first time since 9/11 — U.S. Special Operations Command has been asked frequently what its role in this new paradigm will be.

Socom was the workhorse during those early 21st century conflicts, pioneering new tactics, perfecting how to hunt down individuals and terror networks, and ultimately, conduct deadly raids.

With the shift to great power competition, outside commentators and lawmakers alike have wondered how these skills and this force will translate in a new geopolitical era.


“We’re looking increasingly to be focused on really shaping the environment so that if there is a fight against a near-peer adversary or an adversary like a China or a Russia, we’re able to shape the conflict before it even occurs, and in many cases, hopefully establish deterrence to ensure it does not occur — or if it does occur, it occurs to our advantage,” Christopher Maier, assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict, said Thursday at the Atlantic Council in Washington.

While this shaping effort will still have applicability within the traditional kinetic realm of warfare where bullets fly, Maier empathized that it will mostly be in the non-kinetic space where special operations forces will have a big impact in setting up the joint force for success, namely, in what officials term placement and access.

“Of course, there’s the physical domains, the sea, land and air, but increasingly SOF is a key player in the non-physical domains — be that space, be that cyber, the information space, the electronic warfare space,” he said. “It’s having that placement and access to be able to sense when, at times, things are going in a negative direction, being able to know that and then having the capability to respond if need be.”

Placement and access refers to the unique ability of SOF to be on the ground and close to hard targets given their unique ability to be forward in an undetected manner.

“I think if you take the case of, say, cyber or space — and we spent a lot of time in recent years talking about a nexus between SOF, cyber and space — the effects, the incredible exquisite capabilities that space and cyber in our [combatant commands] bring, is sometimes challenged by the lack of proximity. SOF can really help with that last tactical mile, being in that right place at the right time to really unleash some of this capability,” Maier said. “SOF has ability to close kill chains, i.e. solve problems for the joint force to gain placement and access in areas that maybe isn’t as easy to do from a conventional standpoint either because the platforms and assets they’re bringing or are going to attract a lot of attention or they’re just unable to access certain areas because of the defenses that [an adversary] potentially has.”


The Army has pioneered a vision of what it deems the modern triad — which is much different than the nuclear triad of bombers, intercontinental ballistic missiles and ballistic missile submarines geared toward strategic deterrence that emerged during the Cold War era — that combines special operations, cyber and space. This new triad aims to also contribute to deterrence by combining these capabilities to be more than the sum of its parts.

Officials have begun talking more about its applicability at the joint level with closer partnership between Socom, U.S. Cyber Command and U.S. Space Command.

“When I talk about SOF helping to fill some of the gaps that the conventional force is really struggling with, I see it in some of these ability to gain closer, more proximate access to targets or to key points of military objectives that we’re going to need to affect and hold at risk,” Maier said.

As part of being able to gain unique accesses to targets, SOF forces will have to invest in new capabilities and tactics to hide from sophisticated nation-state threats that were not needed as much during the counterterrorism fights. The environments in Iraq and Afghanistan were relatively permissive. However, high-tech foes will have sensors and integrated air defenses that will make it easier to detect and thwart SOF action.

“We weren’t dealing with advanced conventional capabilities [in the counterterrorism fight], things like integrated air defense systems. We’re going to have to be able to penetrate those systems, and a lot of that’s going to be low visibility or hard to spot or moving fast enough that it can’t be acted on by the adversary set,” Maier said.


He also noted SOF forces must be able to operate more stealthily in the maritime environment from seafloor to subsurface and low-visibility surface — or else they won’t be filling needs for the joint force.

Officials are looking more and more at SOF-peculiar needs, capabilities separate from the conventional force that apply to special operators and their requirements, with low visibility being a top priority.

In addition to low visibility, SOF forces must be better at operating in a challenging electronic warfare environment, something they got a taste of in Syria operating alongside Russian forces.

A prior commander of Socom in 2018 called Syria the “most aggressive” electronic warfare environment on the planet.

“Some of the things we’ve had to deal with [in Syria], again, in primarily a defeat ISIS and counterterrorism context, have fast forwarded our ability to think about this in a contested environment where access is denied and we’re not able to gain the type of proximity we feel like we need,” Maier said.


The key to shaping and having that placement and access is the partnerships U.S. SOF have around the world. By partnering with other nations, these forces will already be present on the ground in theater where they’re able to shape the environment ahead of time.

“Being in the right place at the right time working through allies and partners, of which we have far more than any of our adversaries, we’re at any given point in 70 to 80 different countries around the world as an enterprise,” Maier said.

A spokesperson from Socom in written responses to DefenseScoop said in the last year there has been an increased demand from combatant commands for SOF capabilities in support of campaigning in the gray zone, or the threshold below armed conflict. This builds upon the relationship U.S. special operators have with partner nations, “which facilitate the placement and access necessary for SOF to prepare the operating environment daily, across the globe, below the threshold of armed conflict.”

“After 20+ years of primarily focusing on counterterrorism, SOF is returning to its roots as a force that prevents and prepares, transregionally, to enable the Joint Force to prevail in the event of conflict. SOFs value in these earlier phases ultimately provide options to our senior leaders with agile and tailored capabilities. SOF continues to deliver the best force possible for the personnel and budget provided,” the spokesperson said.

Information operations


Integrated deterrence is a key pillar of the Department of Defense’s national defense strategy that envisions a layer of policies, partnerships and capabilities to dissuade adversaries’ malign behavior.

Information ops will serve as a key enabler of realizing that type of deterrence, Maier said.

“When you think about integrated deterrence, that’s about the cognitive space and that’s about foreign leaders, our adversaries thinking that they don’t want to go to war with us or the cost will be exorbitant and they shouldn’t do that. Information operations plays a key role in amplifying and accelerating some of that,” he explained.

However, recent cuts to Army SOF, namely in psychological operations and civil affairs, will hurt the joint force’s ability to be successful in conducting information ops.

“Within the joint force, Army Special Operations brings a lot of that capability. We’re talking about psychological operations. They’re the real experts in crafting messages, doing these type of information activities in the information environment for military effects. That’s going to be effective of some of the cuts we will take in Army SOF,” he said.


The Army chose to make cuts — roughly 3,000 SOF personnel — as it is making hard choices about modernizing its force to better posture itself for great power competition and make investments in other capabilities and troops. In the Army’s thinking, these psychological operations and civil affairs personnel aren’t as needed in a great power competition fight as other needs — such as indirect fire protection, counter-small drone batteries and maneuver short-range air defenses.

“The Army overall felt the need for a whole host of reasons to draw down into its force structure. Army Special Operations is the largest component of the joint special operations enterprise. From the SOF perspective, we’re going to have to pay our dues, to some degree. We’re going to have to take some cuts because the bigger Army required it,” Maier said. “My concern as the ASD for SO/LIC is when you lower the overall denominator of what you can bring in, you’re going to have a hard time growing to future challenges. I think we haven’t talked about as much here, but we talk a lot of time in the department about the information environment being so critical. Army psyops, Army, civil affairs are among the best capabilities we have across the joint force.”

Maier also noted that the DOD has been playing catch up in the information operations space, given it was not as necessary in the counterterrorism fight.

“We have not invested as a department nearly as much as probably I would like or compared to some of the other domains like cyber and increasingly in space. I think there’s reasons for that — some has been because it was focused on the counterterrorism fight principally and it was really hard to discourage true believers from coming off their ideology,” he said. “As we reflect forward to an environment where we have adversaries who invest far more than we do and see it as a comparative advantage for themselves and operate by much different rules, we tend to try to be truthful when we do things. They have no compunction to do so.”

While competitors have a higher risk calculous to put out misinformation and disinformation, the U.S. should be more targeted when choosing to apply information capabilities to greater effect, he said, adding that he’d love to see more information capability in the conventional force and other parts of the department.

Latest Podcasts