Look at Great Power Competition Through a Special Operations Lens

By Kevin Bilms and Christopher P. Costa

June 18, 2020

Recent events in Crimea, Syria, Libya—even the COVID-19 pandemic– show that state adversaries compete with the United States deliberately below the threshold of intensity likely to escalate to conventional war. Success in great power competition, therefore, requires more than preparation for conflict and high-intensity warfare. Instead, it demands an immediate focus on building global influence, credibility, and legitimacy. In other words, Washington must emphasize the human element of competition before hostilities occur.

Such competition is inherently focused on people. This is the traditional wheelhouse of Special Operations Forces (SOF) and the center of the U.S. military’s expertise in population-centric aspects of competition, despite its predominant post-9/11 focus on direct action in counterterrorism. As a result, our nation’s reorientation towards global competition should be informed by several key SOF principles.

First, emphasize a clear unity of purpose. Since 9/11, the U.S. government has developed closely integrated teams at the tactical and operational levels to meet critical counterterrorism objectives. These task force structures are flat, agile, bring together diverse interagency tools and authorities, and remain laser-focused on a specific outcome. Strategic and national policymakers must adopt this mentality for great power competition.

What this could look like: The National Security Council could convene departments and agencies to provide representatives to examine SOF’s integrated task force models against a specific challenge, and apply these models for strategic competition short of armed conflict. Such an examination should be unrestricted in its review of available resources, authorities, and partnerships that could be brought to bear. In doing so, recommendations may break artificial siloes among departments and agencies, enabling and empowering national security professionals to pursue innovative and creative strategic approaches at the speed of operations and with fewer bureaucratic constraints.

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Second, leverage the United States’ formidable global network of allies and partners. The SOF community has honed its by-with-through approach to counterterrorism, including with proxies and non-traditional partners. As partners and allies similarly grapple with the implications of a rising China and reasserted Russia, closer partnership with Washington would allow these nations to share the costs of countering malign activities, to more effectively compete before conflict, and to compound the effects of their actions alongside the United States across all levels of government and society. Close coordination and increased integration with its global network would position Washington to work by-with-through willing partners and disrupt destabilizing disinformation, predatory economics, and other subversive activities whose consequences transcend a single nation’s borders.

More broadly, U.S. policymakers must nurture and add to these relationships. If the United States prioritizes remaining the preferred partner, it will boost its own partners’ efficacy while denying adversaries new allies. If not, it will learn that a network of allies and partners is neither preordained nor self-sustaining.

What this could look like: U.S. missions abroad already host numerous government officials across all departments and agencies within the U.S. government. Less commonly, U.S. officials embed and integrate alongside government officials in the relevant ministries of key partner and allied nations, particularly ones under pressure from adversaries.

The United States should seize opportunities to advise and assist partners, helping them to bolster their whole-of-government national resilience while preserving Western influence and deterring adversaries’ advances. Depending on the challenge facing a given nation, this support could range from identifying and disrupting disinformation or election interference, to countering state-sponsored transnational organized crime and illicit finances. In doing so, the United States could maintain its international legitimacy and credibility as a trustworthy partner; build partners’ and allies’ abilities to compete; share the costs of competition; and secure desirable outcomes with a smaller U.S. footprint and less direct investment.

Third, seek an exquisite understanding of the competitive landscape. Central to the SOF mission is to secure access and placement, prepare the operating environment, and understand local conditions in order to present informed options in event of crisis. Given the centrality of “hearts and minds” in competing for influence and legitimacy, this gives way to offensive and defensive applications. 

Offensively, this focus would allow the United States and allies to identify an adversary’s missteps and strategic vulnerabilities, and exploit their weaknesses to secure objectives at lower costs. Defensively, close proximity to vulnerable populations would provide warning and indicators of an adversary’s malign activities, allowing the United States to mobilize with partners against the threat.

What this could look like: U.S. policymakers should focus scarce personnel and materiel on the contested regions where adversaries are conducting grey-zone activities, including the Greater Sahel, sub-Saharan Africa, Central Asia, and Southeast Asia. This does not mandate universal American presence or an unnecessary risk to force. Instead, prioritizing the civil domain is required. U.S. diplomats, military personnel, and other officials must assiduously forge the relationships and build long-term human networks necessary to enable follow-on actions. Only with unvarnished ground truth can the United States understand local motivations, craft effective messaging that resonates with the target audience, and identify early trends of shifting public or political opinion that may indicate attempts by an adversary to subvert a partner nation—and quickly develop options to mitigate these challenges.

Finally, have a bias towards action. The impetus to act does not rest on a catastrophic beginning sequence imposed by an adversary. Nor does it imply the need to wait for contact, or hope that conflict never happens. As the National Security Strategy illustrates, a United States successful in competition should never need to go to war. The SOF approach is proactive and determined to solve pressing problems. It recognizes that the United States is a great power and will work with its allies and partners to overcome challenges together.

What this could look like: An approach that resists impulses of “analysis paralysis” and transactional policymaking is imperative, to avoid merely admiring the complexity of great power competition or creating incremental policies detached from a greater strategy. Greater strategic thinking and tactical flexibility are essential to generate effects that shift conditions in the United States’ favor. The SOF community prides itself for emphasizing problem solving skills; if this problem solving is applied to competition—and not focused solely on conflict—the United States may better focus on the challenge at hand, lest a fait accompli emerge before Washington is forced to take action.

None of this implies that “more SOF” is the answer. Far from it. Rather, the SOF approach is adaptable and provides opportunities to apply creative thinking and whole-of-government solutions to confront the asymmetric threats facing the nation in an era of relentless great power competition.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. government. 


By Kevin Bilms and Christopher P. Costa // Kevin Bilms is a career Department of Defense civilian serving as the irregular warfare team chief in the office of special operations and combating terrorism. He most recently served as the senior policy advisor for counterterrorism and transnational threats at the National Security Council. // Christopher P. Costa is executive director of the International Spy Museum and a retired U.S. Army colonel. He served in the first year of the Trump administration as the special assistant to the president and senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council.

June 18, 2020

https://www.defenseone.com/ideas/2020/06/putting-special-operations-lens-great-power-competition/166241/