Small Wars Journal

The Dark Arts: Application of Special Operations in Joint Strategic and Operational Plans

Thu, 06/07/2018 - 12:26am

The Dark Arts: Application of Special Operations in Joint Strategic and Operational Plans

Chad M. Pillai

When people think about Special Operations Forces (SOF) today, more than likely they will place the idea of SOF in the context of Counter-Terrorism (CT) operations and high-end units such as those that conducted the Bin Laden Raid into Pakistan.  In fact, since 9/11, the wars against Violent Extremists Organizations (VEOs) such as Al Qaeda (AQ) and the Islamic State (IS) has elevated the role of Special Operations to the forefront of the nation’s preferred toolkit for its Counter Insurgency (COIN) and Counter-Terrorism (CT) operations not only in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, but globally to include Yemen, Somalia, Trans-Sahel Africa, and the Philippines. As Harry Yarger points out, “in the last two decades special operations have taken on a greater role in national defense, and policy makers and strategists have found utility in the kind of military power SOF projects.”[1] However, in addition to the evolving VEO threat, the security environment has grown more competitive and SOF will be asked to do more to support joint strategic and operational plans on behalf of the Geographic Combatant Commands (GCCs). Therefore, it is critical that Joint Force planners at GCCs must have a clear understanding of Special Operations, address its capabilities in context – ranging from overt to capabilities within the dark arts of covert and clandestine, and understand the role that Theater Special Operations Commands (TSOCs), a subordinate unified command of US Special Operations Command (USSCOM) that performs broad, continuous missions uniquely suited to SOF capabilities designed to achieve effects within the context of the Joint Concept for Integrated Campaigning (JCIC).

The Competitive Security Environment

While some may view the current environment as more complex or new, the reality is as Adam Elkus and Michael P. Noonan state in their bibliographic essay and course outline titled Competitive Shaping in World Politics that “what Americans keep forgetting: international politics is competition.” The term used to describe this competition recently has ranged from “Gray Zone” to “Competition Short of Armed Conflict” which Adam Elkus and Michael P. Noonan succinctly add clarity to those terms by stating that “The United States and its allies once again face what is essentially the oldest and most traditional threat imaginable: adversaries that blur the line between war and peace and use all methods of influence at their disposal to undermine American security.” In fact, “The National Defense Strategy acknowledges an increasingly complex global security environment, characterized by overt challenges to the free and open international order and the re-emergence of long-term, strategic competition between nations.” The challenges identified in the National Defense Strategy include competition from states like Iran who is Iran employing proxy and/or surrogate forces in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen to achieve their political objectives of becoming the regional hegemon; Russia’s employment of “Little Green Men” to subvert the Ukrainians in Crimea; North Korean nuclear provocation; China’s combination of hard and soft power as it militarizes the South China Sea, buys influence through its One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative, and increases tensions with Taiwan; and to continued metastasizing of the VEO cancer.  The activities by competitors such as Russia and China are evolving as Thomas Mahnken, Ross Baggage, and Toshi Yoshihara wrote in their work titled Counter Comprehensive Coercion: Competitive Strategies Against Authoritarian Political Warfare:

“U.S. rival ‘are using information tools in an attempt to undermine the legitimacy of democracies,’ for instance targeting ‘media, political processes, financial networks, and other personal data’…it has become increasingly apparent that authoritarian states are waging political warfare against their democratic opponents.  Although this trend is now widely recognized, there has been a tendency among the targets of political warfare to view Russian and Chinese actions as a series of ad hoc activities rather than individual elements of an overarching strategy…that should be viewed as examples of a unique form of authoritarian political warfare: comprehensive coercion.”[2]

Such a competitive environment calls for equally competitive, and sometimes unconventional, approaches that maximizes strategic and operational flexibility and agility across the spectrum of conflict and across geographic boundaries.

The “Gray Zone” and Joint Concept for Integrated Campaigning (JCIC)

To address the challenge of Comprehensive Coercion, the “Gray Zone” or “Competition Short of Armed Conflict,” the Joint Staff recently published the Joint Concept for Integrated Campaigning (JCIC). As Philip Lohaus wrote in his War on the Rocks article A New Blueprint for Competing Below the Threshold: The Joint Concept for Integrated Campaigning, “The JCIC was designed to solve a specific problem: how to apply the power of the American military when adversarial behavior falls below the threshold that would trigger a direct response. While the global distribution of America’s joint force positions it well to contribute to broader government strategies in the space ‘short of war,’ such activities have mostly been limited to the domain of special operations forces.”

To address the global nature of the competition while simultaneously facing resource constraints, GCCs will seek ways to more effectively and efficiently use the Joint Force available to it, to include Special Operations.  As Philip Lohaus points out, “The JCIC reflects an understanding that the utility of special operations disciplines – such as the psychological operations, unconventional warfare, and training, advising, and assisting — extends throughout all ‘phases’ of combat operations and also into ongoing efforts in the competitive and cooperative domains. By infusing these concepts into joint doctrine, the JCIC will enable the expanded application of competencies traditionally associated with special operations forces.” Therefore, it is necessary to provide a contextual overview of Special Operations and how its capabilities can be applied.

What Is Special Operations?

JP 3-05 (Special Operations) defines special operation as “operations [that] require unique modes of employment, tactics, techniques, procedures, and equipment. They are often conducted in hostile, denied, or politically and/or diplomatically sensitive environments, and are characterized by one or more of the following: time-sensitivity, clandestine or covert nature, low visibility, work with or through indigenous forces, greater requirements for regional orientation and cultural expertise, and a higher degree of risk.  Special operations provide joint force commanders (JFCs) and chiefs of mission with discrete, precise, and scalable options that can be synchronized with activities of other interagency partners to achieve United States Government (USG) objectives.”

Put it another way, SOF provides Joint Force Commanders unique small footprint capabilities that operate across the spectrum of conflict from cooperation, competition, to armed conflict. SOF is a 3-dimensional force that operates along the axis of Title 10 (traditional military activities), Title 22 (Foreign Relations), and Title 50 (War and National Defense) that serve as the glue to the entire Joint, Interagency, Intergovernmental, and Multinational (JIIM) enterprise.  In doing so, SOF acts as the global scout force engaging partners and allies while competing for influence against competitors and adversaries; provides advanced warning to underlying causes of instability and potential conflict; and serves as an enabler of the Joint Force by maximizing time and relationships to facilitate the entry of the Joint Force into a theater of operation. Another role SOF plays is the nation’s sniper force through its use of rapid and precision strike capabilities (elite strike forces) to individual “Jason Bourne-like” capabilities or UAV strikes.  These unique capabilities allow SOF assets to be an element of stability, or serve to sow chaos for an adversary to tie its focus, like the Yugoslavia Campaign of WWII where “local partisans pinned over 600,000 German and Italian troops fighting a COIN fight rather than being used to engage the Soviets and/or Combined U.S./UK forces on the eastern and western fronts.” These types of operations, representing SOF’s 12 core activities, enable greater freedom of movement for the rest of the Joint Force and they represent unique capabilities that only SOF can bring to the fight that optimizes risk and cost for the nation now and into the future. JP 3-05 specifies SOF 12 core capabilities as follows.



JP 3-05 further states that “Special operations missions may include more than one core activity.  The execution of one core activity may have operational or strategic impact on other core activities being planned or executed.” A simplified understanding of the 12 core activities was developed by the U.S. Army Special Operations Command (USASOC) when it developed the idea of Surgical Strike and Special Warfare. The two ideas are specified in Army Special Operations Doctrine in ADP 3-05 (Special Operations):

Special warfare is the execution of activities that involve a combination of lethal and nonlethal actions taken by a specially trained and educated force that has a deep understanding of cultures and foreign language, proficiency in small-unit tactics, and the ability to build and fight alongside indigenous combat formations in a permissive, uncertain, or hostile environment. Special warfare is an umbrella term that represents special operations forces conducting combinations of unconventional warfare, foreign internal defense, and/or counterinsurgency through and with indigenous forces or personnel in politically sensitive and/or hostile environments.

Surgical Strike activities include actions against critical operational or strategic targets, to include counterproliferation actions, counterterrorism actions, and hostage rescue and recovery operations. Counterproliferation actions prevent the threat and/or use of weapons of mass destruction against the United States, its forces, allies, and partners. Counterterrorism actions taken directly and indirectly against terrorist networks influence and render global and regional environments inhospitable to terrorist networks. Hostage rescue and recovery operations, which are sensitive crisis-response missions, include offensive measures taken to prevent, deter, preempt, and respond to terrorist threats and incidents, including recapture of U.S. facilities, installations, and sensitive material.

Since 9/11, the predominate Special Operations methodology used has been Surgical Strike; however, there will need to be a paradigm shift away from Surgical Strike to Special Warfare that utilizes irregular warfare and/or unconventional warfare methodologies better suited to compete against state actors.

For Joint Strategic and Operational Planners, it is not as important to fully understand SOF’s 12 Core activities or the difference between Special Warfare and Surgical Strike as it is to identify the desired effect they seek to achieve in their plans and operations.  Having a clear understanding of the desired effects allows SOF planners, like conventional land, air, and maritime planners, to determine the most efficient use of their capabilities.

Desired Effects and Special Operations

As in all Strategic and Operational plans, Joint Force planners must first determine what military problem they are trying to solve and then determine which capability is best suited to achieve the desired effect. As Richard Rubright in his work titled A Unified Theory for Special Operations succinctly describes, “special operations are extraordinary operations to achieve specific effect.”[3] For Joint Planners, Special Operations can be viewed as a form of ‘power’ along the lines of Airpower, Seapower, and Landpower.  According to Harry Yarger in his work titled 21st Century SOF: Toward an American Theory of Special Operations, “SOF’s strategic performance represents a discernible and distinct form of military power – SOF Power. As such, SOF power, like land, sea, and air power, is employable as a distinct instrument of power or as an integrated part of national military power and joint warfare.”[4]  However, it must be clear that Special Operations do not represent a separate domain, unlike air, sea, land, and even the cyber domains, because as Richard Rubright states, “special operations do not need a domain to be defined, and are, in fact, involved in all domains.”[5]  As such, SOF provides political and military decision makers options that span the spectrum of cooperation, competition, and conflict at scale in terms of risk and probability of success. In fact, Colonel Bernd Horn, former Deputy Commander of Canadian Special Operations Forces Command, puts it best when he wrote:

“SOF’s indispensable relevance to decision makers in providing them with a wide scope of cost efficient, low risk, and effective options is precisely the driving force behind SOF Power. Their ability to produce on short notice, courses of action and desirable outcomes, in a number of domains, regardless of the location, with a high probability of success, give them great saliency to political and decision makers.”[6]

In determining what desired or specific effect is desired, Joint Force planners must decide which coercive strategy to employ.  As Robert Art and Kelly Greenhill wrote in their work titled The Power and Limits of Compellence: A Research Note that “Coercion comes in two basic forms: deterrence and compellence. Deterrence is a coercive strategy based on the threat of retaliation that is designed to prevent a target from changing its behavior. Compellence, on the other hand, is a coercive strategy based on hurting a target (or threatening to do so) that is designed to get a target to change its behavior. In both case, the target is being pressured to do something it does not want to do.”[7] Depending whether the compellence strategy is being employed in war or short of war determines how it is referred.  As Robert Art and Kelly Greenhill explains, “When used in war, compellence is referred to as ‘wartime compellence’ and, in situations short of war, ‘coercive diplomacy’ – a term coined by Alexander George.”[8] They further explain that “Coercive diplomacy can involve only the use of force (threats or actual use), only economic means, or a combination of force and other non-kinetic measures. Coercive diplomacy can comprise the use of force at three distinct levels: only threats to use force, the demonstrative use of force, and the limited use of force.”[9] As Robert Haddick writes in his work titled How DO SOF Contribute to Comprehensive Deterrence?  that “In contrast to deterrence, compellence actively seeks to change the status quo. All else is equal, compellence is likely to be more difficult and requires greater levels of threatened force to achieve deterrence. This is because an aggressor is compelled to act or change his ongoing actions, perhaps visibly, the reputation of the aggressor and its leaders are more exposed than in the case of deterrence when non-action is less likely to have reputational costs.”[10]

The other option for Joint Force Planners is deterrence whether deterrence by denial or punishment. Robert Haddick explains that “There are two forms of deterrence: deterrence by denial, and deterrence by punishment. With deterrence by denial, the defender employs the threat of force to convince the aggressor that the defender’s military power will deny the aggressor the objective he might seek, usually through the defender’s convincing threat to destroy the aggressor’s military forces should he attempt to use them. With deterrence by punishment, the defender threatens to inflict costs and pain on the aggressor, and perhaps his associates and society, should the aggressor attempt actions against the defender’s interests. Deterrence by denial is a stronger form of deterrence than deterrence by punishment.”[11] In either case as Robert Art and Kelly Greenhill point out that “Denial strategies, in both war and peace, work by convincing the target that it will be unable to attain its political goals through force.”[12]

To effectively deter or compel, the U.S. and its partners need to utilize more than the military instrument of power. It must develop cost-imposing strategies that convince a competitor or group of competitors that the cost is higher than they are willing to pay. In do so, the U.S. and its allies and partners can develop both direct or indirect – symmetrical or asymmetrical – measures to offset a competitor’s political warfare.[13] This means integrated all forms of national power – Diplomatic, Information, Military, and Economic (DIME) into a cohesive strategy.  As Thomas Mahnken, Ross Baggage, and Toshi Yoshihara elaborate:

“In case of political warfare, democratic nations could engage in a variety of non-military activities that seek to raise the price of manipulating Western public and political opinion…By contrast, asymmetrical cost-imposing measures would entail competing in different area, such as the military domain, with the goal of building leverage over rivals and creaking linkages to their political warfare campaigns…The United States and its allies should, therefore, explore which military or economic measures would have the biggest impact on adversary decision-making, as well as how those measures could be implicitly or explicitly tied to political warfare threats.”[14]

Since Special Operations rest along the three-dimensional axis of Title 10, 22, and 50, as Robert Rubright points out, the SOF community “recognizes the need to include the whole-of-government (special operations conducted with other governmental and non-governmental organizations) approach to tackling the complex and dynamic challenges of the present and future.”[15] Support such an approach, Special Operations provide Joint Force Planners a variety of means to compete in the Gray Zone against state-based actors.  These include denial or punishment responses as proposed by Robert Haddick who developed the following chart.[16]



These responses can be conducted overtly or covertly in denied areas, where conventional forces generally are not involved, to impose a cost on the competitor and/or adversarial state by employing “clandestine, proxy, or low intensity actions including non-kinetic activities to thwart the adversary’s gray zone actions.”[17] Punishing a Gray Zone adversary includes expanding the area of operations beyond a GCC’s boundaries to areas where an adversary has interests that could be threatened. As Robert Haddick points out, “Gray Zone punishments are likely to employ horizontal escalation, the extension of the conflicts to new geographical areas or involve new players as combatants.”[18]  A note of caution for Joint Force planners and SOF planners regarding expectation management.  A clear understanding of the desired effects within the realm of the possible is needed.  Linda Robinson, Austin Long, Kimberly Jackson, Rebeca Orrie highlight in the RAND Report titled Improving the Understanding of Special Operations: A Case History Analysis, the expectations that SOF could build a large Syrian Opposition force to conduct conventional style maneuver warfare against ISIS in 2014-2015 proved problematic.

TSOCs are uniquely postured to provide their GCCs the ability to cross-GCC boundaries and seams due to their ability to communicate and synchronize their efforts through SOCOM, the Functional Combatant Command (FCC) tasked with synchronize global special operations. For example, both Russia and China have expanded their influence beyond the traditional boundaries of U.S. European Command (EUCOM) and, recently re-named, Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM) and into U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), and closer to home in U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) areas of operations. As such, special operations can conduct denial and/or punishment operations against Russia and/or China across the globe below the threshold of armed conflict while the conventional forces continue to posture for deterrence and major combat operations. While SOCOM is postured to synchronize SOF operations, the reality is less than optimal and as stated before regarding the entire Joint Force, in my Strategy Bridge article, that “unless reforms are implemented, the United States will remain a global power that thinks and acts regionally, while our state challengers are regional powers that think and act globally.”

In addition to cross-GCC synchronization, TSOCs offer GCCs the ability to tap into Allied and Partner nation SOF elements. For example, coordinating with Allied SOF in Operation Inherent Resolve to conduct various SOF missions ranging from CT to FID (Build Partner Capacity) allowed US SOF and key Allied SOF (UK SOF comes to mind) to focus its efforts on riskier operations while Allied and Partner SOF were able to exercise their considerable talent on building partner capacity.

The Darks Arts: Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark Side

When SOF planners are developing their support plans or in tandem with Joint Force planners at the GCCs alongside their conventional component planners, the one unique attribute they provide that others cannot is the window into the “Dark Arts” of the SOF tradecraft. Simply put, this means providing options that fall within the realm of clandestine and covert operations utilizing the full scope of their Title 10, 22, and 50 authorities. I laid out some of these tenants in my joint article with Lee Jae Hun and Peter Scharling Pedersen titled Countering 21st Century Threats: The Need for an Increased Joint, Interagency, Intergovernmental and Multinational (JIIM) Approach to Irregular Warfare. The reason this is important for Joint Force planners to understand is as Rory Cormac and Richard J. Aldrich wrote in their article Grey is the new black: covert action and implausible deniability, “For hundreds of years, states have sought to intervene in the affairs of others in deniable manner” by conducting covert action which is “commonly understood as activity to influence events in a plausibly deniable manner.” Russia’s “Little Green Men” in Crimea serves as an example of a covert operation where the government officially denied its involvement.  

It is incumbent on SOF planners to provide an overview to Joint Force planners what potential covert and/or clandestine operations entail – to a sufficient scope without violating any security protocols – to provide a fuller menu of options available.  In some cases, this means operations to gather intelligence discretely to inform and/or validate planning assumptions or to conduct proxy warfare. Even this needs further elaboration as Rory Cormac and Richard Aldrich state “disagreements exist over the relationship between proxy warfare and covert action.”  They further elaborate that “Andrew Mumford [cited from his article titled Proxy Warfare] argues that the two are distinct on the basis that covert action requires intelligence or special forces personnel on the ground in a target country, whereas proxy warfare is conducted more indirectly. Others believe proxy warfare can be a (para)military form of covert action – nevertheless, all conceptualize exposure in binary terms.” They also address the rise of private military contractors who “further complicates issues of deniability.”  This was seen recently when US forces engaged Russian paramilitary forces in Syria whose involvement was denied by the Russian government since they were not formally associated with the Russian forces operating in the country. In the process of planning to conduct Joint Integrated Campaigning, it is instructive to understand the communicative value of covert actions as seen by Russia in Crimea as Rory Cormac and Richard Aldrich explain: “Like deception and deterrence, covert action has communicative value only if the target can both see and understand it.”


As stated above, SOF planners can provide a menu of options to Joint Force Planners at GCCs that allow for the competition short of armed conflict ranging from overt to covert across GCC boundaries to hold adversary interests at risk creating multiple dilemmas. Moving forward, GCCs should task TSOCs to not only provide SOF options that directly support conventionally focused contingency plans but ask for alternative irregular warfare plans that capitalizes on SOFs ability to operate across the spectrum (overt to covert) with the intent on creating confusion to force an adversary to look inward or in the wrong direction. 

LTG Sam Wilson, legendary leader who served in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and former director of the DIA wrote provided 20 characteristics of which I offer three for observation:

  • Special Operations are POLITICAL in nature. Special Operations are, by their very nature, more political than conventional operations.
  • Special Operations are strategic in impact and nature.
  • The limitations for Special Operations are not the same as the limitations for Special Operations Forces.

These and others are critical for SOF Planners and Joint Force Planners to understand in order to operationalize the JCIC and effectively compete below the threshold of armed conflict.  With a better understanding of the Dark Arts that TSOCs and SOF planners bring to Joint Force Planners along with a clear understanding of desired effects, the more effective strategic and operational plans will be in competing and defending our nation’s national interests.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's alone and do not represent the official position of the Department of Defense or the US Government.

End Notes

[1] Yarger, Harry R. 21st Century SOF: Toward an American Theory of Special Operations. DoD. MacDill AFB: Joint Special Operations University (JSOU) Press, 2013.

[2] Mahnken, Thomas G., Ross Babbage and Toshi Yoshihara. Counter Comprehensive Coercion: Competitive Strategies Against Authoritarian Political Warfare. Think Tank Report. Washington, D.C.: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment (CSBA), 2018. Document.

[3] Rubright, Richard W. A Unified Theory of Special Operations. DoD. MacDill AFB: Joint Special Operations University (JSOU) Press, 2017.

[4] Yarger, Harry R. 21st Century SOF: Toward an American Theory of Special Operations. DoD. MacDill AFB: Joint Special Operations University (JSOU) Press, 2013.

[5] Rubright, Richard W. A Unified Theory of Special Operations. DoD. MacDill AFB: Joint Special Operations University (JSOU) Press, 2017.

[6] Horn, Bernd. "Operationalizing SOF Theory: A Function of Understanding SOF Power." Special Operations Theory. Ed. Peter McCabe and Paul Lieber. JSOU Report 17-6. MacDill Air Force Base: Joint Special Operations University (JSOU), 2017. 55-73.

[7] Art, Robert J. and Kelly M. Greenhill. "The Power and Limits of Compellence: A Research Note." Political Science Quarterly: The Journal of Public and International Affairs 133.1 (20148): 77-97.

[8] ibid

[9] ibid

[10] Haddick, Robert. How Do SOF Contribute to Comprehensive Deterrence? JSOU Report 17-11. MacDill Air Force Base: Joint Special Operations University (JSOU), 2017.

[11] ibid

[12] Art, Robert J. and Kelly M. Greenhill. "The Power and Limits of Compellence: A Research Note." Political Science Quarterly: The Journal of Public and International Affairs 133.1 (20148): 77-97.

[13] Mahnken, Thomas G., Ross Babbage and Toshi Yoshihara. Counter Comprehensive Coercion: Competitive Strategies Against Authoritarian Political Warfare. Think Tank Report. Washington, D.C.: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment (CSBA), 2018. Document.

[14] ibid

[15] Rubright, Richard W. A Unified Theory of Special Operations. DoD. MacDill AFB: Joint Special Operations University (JSOU) Press, 2017.

[16] Haddick, Robert. How Do SOF Contribute to Comprehensive Deterrence? JSOU Report 17-11. MacDill Air Force Base: Joint Special Operations University (JSOU), 2017.

[17] ibid

[18] ibid

About the Author(s)

Lt. Col. Chad M. Pillai is a U.S. Army strategist who has completed multiple joint and institutional Army planning assignments. He earned his master's degree from Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) and will begin his War College fellowship at Queen's University in the fall. The views expressed in the article are his and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. government and the Department of Defense.