Gen. Bryan P. Fenton, commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, speaks at SOF Week 2023 in Tampa, Florida.

Gen. Bryan P. Fenton, commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, speaks at SOF Week 2023 in Tampa, Florida. U.S. Special Operations Command

How Special Operations Forces Must Meet the Challenges of a New Era

To the commander of U.S. SOCOM, what matters most is whether we solve the problem our nation needs solved.

Discussions and debates about how U.S. and allied SOF must become more capable and ready for an era of growing strategic tensions and conflicts are central to this year’s SOF Week conference in Tampa, Florida. For U.S. SOF, the National Defense Strategy priorities of integrated deterrence, campaigning, and building enduring advantages highlights the direction we must take, but it is our people, and partners, who must ensure our thinking, investments, training, and mindset are optimal for the demands of this strategy: to win without fighting when we can and prevail in combat when we must.

Here is our start point for SOF Week. History shows SOF is at its very best when we define ourselves by “how well” we solve extraordinarily complex, wicked, and sometimes lethal problems. Some of these require us to win by fighting, but in today’s environment, the challenges our nation faces globally are often not solved by kinetic power alone.

While recognizing the strengths SOF has always displayed in combat, what truly made SOF “special” historically has been our ability to generate disproportionate strategic effects in highly complex and contested environments via small and uniquely skilled teams. Certainly, in many instances this required our forces to show incredible combat proficiency. What is less well understood by the general public, yet something we must never forget, is not only how well we can deliver precise kinetic force, though that is certainly important; what matters most is whether we “solve the problem” our nation needs solved, and not necessarily whether the solution requires lethal action. 

This is not new. The rejuvenation of SOF, begun by the 1987 Nunn-Cohen Amendment, was a public acknowledgement, and a clarion call to the SOF practitioner, that the United States needed a permanent, fully capable, always ready, and sophisticated special operations force capable of solving problems no one else can. Our emphasis on ideas, such as quality over quantity, and the skill and ingenuity of our people (military, civilian, contractor) is more important than the power of our hardware and has made us the world’s premier SOF community. We have augmented our community with years of emphasis on creating genuine military, interagency, and international integration, creating “networks of networks” across government that made every participant more capable and effective than they could be alone. Our traditional emphasis on “with, by, and through” our global allies and partners is not just a SOF slogan, it is a chosen lifestyle through which we ensure strategic success. All of these are directly applicable in today’s confrontation with strategic competitors and continue to make SOF a national advantage.

Though often obscured by the volume of combat that SOF has recently experienced, the preponderance of our activities since 1987 has been for the purpose of working with our allies, thereby strengthening collective efforts to meet shared national-security concerns. Just as important, these efforts developed networks of personal relationships with our partners, creating mutual understanding and robust channels for continuous cooperation, something priceless in today’s strategic competition. We cannot build trust in a crisis. Relationships forged today are investments that can be decisive in preventing or prevailing in crisis tomorrow.

As a result, strategic competition has long been in SOF’s DNA. Quite deliberately, much of SOF is purpose-built to help the U.S. compete and prevail by campaigning prior to, or in the absence of, armed conflict. We have decades of experience in persistent global engagement with allies and partners, especially in complex or dangerous environments that demand a light U.S. footprint, while cultivating durable networks of personal and operationally invaluable relationships in the process.

To be sure, we and our international SOF partners must remain proficient in counterterrorism because, while the physical manifestation of terror has been degraded, we must remain vigilant. Aside from the threat terrorists pose to the United States, they are just as often a threat to many of our allies. 

Yet while we sustain our unmatched counterterrorism skills, we must also strengthen our ability to contribute to the United States’ contest with great-power adversaries. We must prioritize and modernize our traditional activities such as Foreign Internal Defense, Security Force Assistance, Special Reconnaissance, Unconventional Warfare, and Military Information Support Operations; re-emphasize the importance of language and cultural skills found within our formations; and develop even newer methods applicable to strategic competition. These methods, employed by U.S. and NATO SOF to train Ukrainian SOF after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, clearly illuminate what U.S. and partner-nation SOF can contribute. Today’s battlefield prowess, and the resulting psychological inspiration, that Ukrainian SOF is providing to their military and their population is due in part to the decades-long efforts of U.S. and NATO SOF.

Of course, as proud as our community should be of our abilities and contributions, we cannot become complacent or harbor illusions that we are somehow more important, or deserve more attention, than our partners across both the military and interagency. All of them are courageous, skilled, professional, and have long and proud traditions of safeguarding and advancing U.S. interests. Instead, what we seek is to build on the extraordinary operational integration, the networks of cross-government relationships, and the sense of “all being in this together” that blossomed so strongly during the past 20 years of combat. These networks of relationships are something we must never take for granted and must deliberately and collectively build and strengthen, making our integration and collaboration even better, and ensuring its centrality in everything we do for integrated deterrence. We were already an impressive team of teams, but the challenges we now face require us to make that team even stronger, faster, better.

The tragedy in Ukraine today illuminates the fact that America and our global allies face daunting and quite dangerous global challenges. Our adversaries will not wait, they will not hesitate, and are willing to use their instruments of power (all the DIME—Diplomatic, Information, Military, Economic) with no regard for the rule of law or human decency, just like we are witnessing in Ukraine. U.S. SOF brings much to bear “left of conflict” or in the gray zone. We are certainly not alone in this journey, but we must now emphasize our own readiness for the unique and vital roles that only we can play.

Whether the challenge is in Europe, the Indo-Pacific, or anywhere else; whether it is strategic competition, crisis response, or countering terrorism; or whether it is military or paramilitary, economic or political; wherever the cause of freedom and our collective interests are being threatened, U.S. SOF and its global SOF partners must be optimally ready and able to do our part. Our citizens, and our belief in liberty, prosperity, and security for our people, demand no less of us.

Gen. Bryan P. Fenton currently serves as the 13th commander of U.S. Special Operations Command.