An interesting overlooked development taking place within the U.S.’ ever-expanding military is the recent announcement that conventional forces will begin blurring their roles with those of Special Forces, according to the Department of Defense.
At the end of last year, Defense Secretary James “Mad Dog” Mattis told Pentagon reporters that the experiences of war since the 9/11 attacks have blurred the lines between the two forces, noting that general purpose forces will eventually shoulder missions of their Special Forces counterparts.
“I anticipate more general purpose forces being used for some of the missions,” he said. “In the past, we used only special forces to do it. The general purpose forces can do a lot of the kind of work that you see going on and, in fact, are now.”
Specifically, Mattis expects this to happen within Iraq and Syria (bear in mind that U.S. troops, whether or not they are Special Forces, do not have the legal basis to operate in Syrian territory).
“I mean, there was a time when the only people who ran drones were the Special Forces,” Mattis also said, as quoted by Military.com. He said the use of drones is now widespread in the conventional force.
Special Operators have complained that they are overstretched, having been deployed almost everywhere across the globe. In 2017, fourteen of the 33 U.S. troops killed were assigned to Special Forces operations, several of whom died in battle arenas where the Trump administration has expanded counter-terrorism operations over the past year.
“We are not the ultimate solution to every problem, and you will not hear that coming from us,” Gen. Raymond “Tony” Thomas III, SoCom commander, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in May 2017.
“We operate and fight in every corner of the world,” Thomas also reportedly said. “On a daily basis, we sustain a deployed or forward stationed force of approximately 8,000 across 80-plus countries. They are conducting the entire range of SOF [Special Operations Forces] missions in both combat and non-combat situations.”
Special Forces are typically tasked with carrying out 12 core missions, including counterinsurgency and unconventional warfare to hostage rescue. As the Washington Post established, these Special Forces are frequently on the ground to coordinate fire support, acting as an “observation element for what appears to be US airstrikes carried out by A-10 ground attack aircraft.” According to a report by Vice News, at any given time, U.S. Special Forces are conducting nearly 100 missions across 20 African countries. According to the Nation, Thomas also said:
“Special Operations Forces are the main effort, or major supporting effort for US VEO-focused operations in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, across the Sahel of Africa, the Philippines, and Central/South America—essentially, everywhere Al Qaeda (AQ) and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) are to be found…”
The recent change seems likely to indicate that the U.S. will be stepping up its involvement in areas it deems hotbeds of terrorism, perhaps opening up the door to something more confrontational.
It also seems likely that we will see the increased presence of Special Forces — as well conventional forces who have been trained to act like Special Forces — in places well outside the Middle East and Africa, including the Philippines.
According to Mattis, this change will most likely affect the dynamics in the Afghanistan theater, as well. The Army’s new “Security Force Assistance Brigades” (SFAB) is expected to deploy in the spring to Afghanistan to train, advise, and assist the duties of the Special Forces with the conventional Afghan forces.
“We’re going to be putting more American forces, advisers, in the more conventional force in the Afghan army. As you know, they have not had them, and they’ve not — they were not ready to fight in the way we want them to,” Mattis said.