A destroyed Russian military tank in Dmytrivka, Ukraine, on April 21, 2022.

A destroyed Russian military tank in Dmytrivka, Ukraine, on April 21, 2022. Alexey Furman/Getty Images

What Have US Special Operators Learned from the Ukraine War?

The Army, for one, is considering creating a special-operations drone specialty.

U.S. special operators are taking at least two lessons from Russia’s two-month-old war in Ukraine. First, the international partnerships the United States has been fostering for the past 20 years are playing a huge role. And drones are playing an even bigger one. 

The leaders of the Air Force, Army, Navy, and Marine Corps special operations commands all testified before the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities on Wednesday. While the focus of the hearing was on general readiness and the shortfalls of the 2023 budget request, many of the questions focused on Ukraine. 

“What are the follow-on risks of the invasion?” asked Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa. “Where do we need to expand our footprint and presence in EUCOM”—that is, U.S. European Command.

The Army’s Lt. Gen. Jonathan Braga said Russia’s invasion has “added emphasis” to the need to continue to expand “longstanding generational relationships” across eastern Europe.

“With the scale and scope of the threat of Russia and China, we won't be able to do this alone,” Braga said. “That's why I talked about our international partners and how increasing their capacities and their capabilities is so critical.”

The impact of international partnerships with special operations forces of a “multitude of different countries” in Ukraine is an “untold story,” he said. 

“I won’t name the number right now, but they have absolutely banded together…And I think that really bore out from the last 20 years of working together, sweating together, bleeding together on different battlefields, on different continents,” Braga said. 

On the homefront, U.S. special operations is at an “inflection point,” Naval Special Warfare Commander Rear Adm. Hugh Howard said. 

Ukraine represents a “fifth modern era for special operations,” Howard said, one that shifts away from the counterterrorism capabilities that U.S. special operations have so heavily focused on for the past two decades. 

“We over-rotated on counterterrorism. Clearly,” Howard said. “And we have lost some ground in the distinctive things that only we can do and we are moving with urgency to make the main thing the things that only we can do in the maritime domain.” 

The Marine Corps’ special operations commander, Maj. Gen. James Glynn, agreed. 

“The choices that we're having to determine right now is what of the counterterrorism skill set, the stuff that we've invested in and developed very well over the last 20 years, how much of it translates? How well does it translate? And what else do we need to be able to do?” Glynn said. 

Special operators are learning in Ukraine what this future, non-counterterrorism battleground will look like—and a lot of it isn’t on the ground.

“It’s impressive to see the impact that manned and unmanned drones are having,” the Army’s Braga said. While drones were already part of the Army’s modernization effort, he said, their impact in Ukraine have led USASOC to consider creating a military occupational speciality or branch within special operations dedicated to manned and unmanned drones so that it’s “not just an additional duty, it’s an actual specialty.”

“I cannot envision a future battlefield without ever-increasing manned and unmanned robotics and the application of AI to maximize their effect and impact across all war-fighting functions,” Braga told lawmakers. 

And, of course, like the rest of the Defense Department, special operations needs to do all this with a flat budget.

“The topline request for SOCOM is the same as it was last year, despite a significant increase in threats,” Ernst said. “As we all know, a flat budget request equals a budget cut. This reality is only exacerbated by the rising inflation.”

The fiscal 2023 budget request for SOCOM is $1.3 billion less than its fiscal year 2020 budget in real terms, Ernst said. SOCOM also provided a list of $650 million in unfunded priorities. 

“Each year, we find ourselves trying to balance our budgeting recommendations among modernization, readiness, personnel programs…and every year we come up short,” Air Force Special Operations Commander Lt. Gen. James Slife said. “The budget that was submitted…represents a balance of risk among those areas.”