Small Wars Journal

Versatility at the Tip of the Spear: Food Security and the Utility of SOF

Mon, 11/13/2023 - 2:46pm

Versatility at the Tip of the Spear:

Food Security and the Utility of SOF


By Lydia Kostopoulos, PhD, Peter Cloutier, Isaiah Wilson III, PhD


The full use and utility of special operations forces has been underappreciated in the context of food security.


It is food (in)security that lies at the heart of every conflict today and yet invisible to most in its most fundamental context as a matter, and driver, of global security and defense. Special Operations Forces (SOF) offer unique capabilities that can respond best to USAID Administrator Samantha Powers’ concluding statement in the 2022-2026 U.S. Global Food Security Strategy that, “Conflict remains the single largest driver of food crises worldwide, so the Strategy also leverages investments in conflict mitigation, peacebuilding, and social cohesion.” [1] The COVID pandemic has brought our global food systems to the public eye, and it is the Russo-Ukrainian War that has made the fragility of the food system all the more visible and hard-felt.


“Conflict remains the single largest driver of food crises worldwide, so the Strategy also leverages investments in conflict mitigation, peacebuilding, and social cohesion.”

USAID Administrator Samantha Power, Feed the Future Global Coordinator



01. Introduction


02. Food Security, Food Systems - Unavoidable Threat Multiplier


03. The Utility of Special Operations Forces in relation to Food Security


04. The Use of Special Operations Inboxing the Spear Heads in the SOF Toolkit


05. Conclusion




Even before Russia invaded Ukraine, the global economy was suffering from the repercussions of several man-made conflicts, climate shocks, COVID-19 and rising costs— with devastating consequences for poor people in low-income and developing countries.


"The war in Ukraine—a major “breadbasket” for the world—is deepening these challenges on an unprecedented scale. In the immediate, swift and bold action is required by both wealthy and low-income nations to avert humanitarian and economic catastrophe. Looking forward, the international community should learn two key lessons from the Ukraine crisis." [2]


First, that we lie in an increasingly interconnected world and would be remiss if we ignored food insecurity and conflict challenges in any part of the globe as someone else’s problem. Secondly, it is critical for the international community to go beyond immediate stopgap measures; to not only address the root causes for these challenges but to also reexamine the agricultural and energy policies that underpin our global economy. The landscape of international conflict today is filled with examples of nation-state armed conflict such as that between Ukraine and Russia, and conflicts taking place amongst and between nation- states, terrorist organizations and mercenaries such as in the Sahel. [3] There are other layers of conflict which increasingly involve nation-state offensive cyber-attacks on critical infrastructure, economic and societal targets. The most recent Microsoft Digital Defense report illustrates this trend with their graphics showing that nation-state cyber-attacks targeting critical infrastructures has doubled from 20% to 40. [4] The physical and digital terrain is widely understood as the battleground space in international conflict; however, this is only the tip of the iceberg of conflict.


What lies underneath is a large mass of interconnected and intertwined constants and currents of conflict. These include the geopolitics of economics, where goods are (and are not) adequately produced, how they are sourced, and how they are manufactured. They include sanctions that implicate all members of the sanctioned state and impair the development of populations. Increasingly more important are the impacts of climate change where adverse environmental events create ripple effects and waves around the world which are felt in different ways. For some it could be drought, for others it could be flooding. At the very primordial level of the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which all other needs rest on, is the foundation of physiological needs, which includes food.[5]


Today more politicians are asking about food insecurity and more governments are inquiring about food availability in their countries. Now is the time to start talking about how the military, specifically special operations forces, or SOF, can be leveraged to be a part of mitigating, managing, preventing and anticipating food insecurity challenges.


This paper seeks to unpack the global food security challenges through the lens of the compound security dilemma, to articulate special operations competencies and core activities use cases, and highlight the key partners and allies who are an integral part of integrated deterrence in combating the precarious state of global food insecurity.


Access the full article, “Versatility at the Tip of the Spear: Food Security and the Utility of SOF”

About the Author(s)

Dr. Wilson (Colonel, U.S. Army, retired) is a professor and former president of JSOU. He has earned a reputation as a versatile and innovative soldier-scholar. A decorated combat veteran with multiple combat tours in the Balkans, Iraq, and Afghanistan and extensive operational experience across the greater middle east, he is a nationally and internationally recognized advocate for change in how America understands and deals with matters of security affairs and uses of force in times of peace and war— particularly at a time when disruptive change continues to outpace the ability of organizations and organizational leadership to think and act fast and effectively.

Peter Cloutier has 12 years of strategic technical direction for over $1 billion of foreign assistance in multiple regions with proven impact in transformational management. He has advised a Head of State, authored a transformative USG strategy, worked for a Pacific Island government, and was the first USG representative on the ground after the second- deadliest tropical cyclone recorded in the Southern Hemisphere struck Mozambique in 2019. His last full post overseas was as USAID's Health Office Director overseeing the partnership with Government of Mozambique in which he won two Superior Honor Awards for helping lead the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and the President's Malaria Initiative (PMI) to unprecedented performance with 63 staff and an annual budget of over $200 million. He had also led health, governance and environmental programming in Afghanistan, Angola and Timor-Leste. He speaks Portuguese.

Lydia Kostopoulos, PhD is a senior strategy and emerging technologies advisor. Her expertise has been sought by the United Nations, US Special Operations, US Secret service, Foreign Governments, NATO, IEEE International Standards Body, management consultancies, industry and academia. She has participated in UN disarmament conversations on lethal autonomous systems and has advised government entities on future related opportunities and risks in relation to emerging technologies, geopolitics and climate change. More on her work can be found at LKCYBER.COM.