Navy Special Warfare Combatant-Craft Crewmen from Naval Special Warfare launch an unmanned aerial system June 20, 2019, during a patrol on the Black Sea.

Navy Special Warfare Combatant-Craft Crewmen from Naval Special Warfare launch an unmanned aerial system June 20, 2019, during a patrol on the Black Sea. U.S. Navy / Senior Chief Mass Communication Specialist Jayme Pastoric

Army SOF Units Are Getting Smaller, More Self-Reliant as Focus Shifts to China, Russia

New adversaries, warfare concepts, and gear are also driving special operators to become more tech-savvy.

As the United States pivots away from the Middle East to face China and Russia, U.S. Special Operations Command will need new capabilities in the electromagnetic spectrum, new highly autonomous small drones for reconnaissance and strike, new night vision, and small computers. But special operators themselves will also need to become more technologically competent as they face more high-tech adversaries. 

For the past two decades, special operations forces have played a key role in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, finding and disrupting insurgent networks. That counter-terrorism mission will remain a core competency. But bigger potential adversaries actually means a smaller—or at least more subtle—special forces footprint in the field. 

“The operating environment of the last 20 years has been fairly dependent on main operating bases where there's been this established support infrastructure in place,” Lt. Gen. Francis Beaudette, the commander of Army Special Operations Command, said Thursday, speaking at the SOFIC forum hosted by the National Defense Industrial Association. That large support infrastructure may not exist in the future, he said. 

“The equipment available to us is not necessarily geared towards that” reality, he said. “So we have to find a way to get lighter and leaner and more self-sufficient in our ability to operate [in a] kind of in a disaggregated fashion.” 

For instance, operators will no longer be able to count on the quick availability of strike aircraft for close-air support. The force is moving toward new types of kamikaze drones that can be launched from the ground, such as the AeroVironment Switchblade drones that SOF units used against ISIS in Syria, said Col. Joel Babbit, the head of the SOF Warrior program executive office at U.S. Special Operations Command, or U.S. SOCOM. 

“Going from Air Force strike jets dropping bombs or guided missiles on targets to a missile being carried by a ground vehicle, set up and launched in an operationally relevant time,” was the “most important change” in his portfolio, he said. That flying missile should be able to “seek targets as it loiters around, it does those racetracks in the sky, much like our... planes currently do,” he said. “It's a game-changing capability that allows us to operate underneath the umbrella of integrated air defense systems.” 

At ground level, SOCOM is looking to develop small drones for individuals and units that operate autonomously and send the operator visual intelligence with little operator feedback, instead of requiring operators to look down to handheld devices to steer. The force has been experimenting with voice-operated and motion-controlled drones for years, but advances in artificial intelligence and small, deployable mesh-networks are making those ideas more feasible, Babbit said. 

The demands on these drones will also be high. “AI-enabled drones for small unit maneuver...must function at high levels in the dark, in broad daylight and low light, and non GPS areas, degraded GPS...indoors, outdoors, and dense urban [and] rural terrain,” he said. 

The force is also moving away from traditional night-vision to new capabilities that perceive heat as well as objects, and display everything digitally. “Lay over the top of that [conventional green night-vision display] red outlines of every single thing that's creating heat in the room, and you immediately have very quick target recognition,” he said. This, too, is a “game changer for forces.”

Perhaps the most pressing need is in the realm of electromagnetic warfare, an area where the United States hasn’t kept pace with China or Russia. “We're in the process of conducting a study for our next-generation electronic countermeasures capability to get after emerging threats,” Babbit said. The study will conclude in the 2023 timeframe. 

But operators will also need to have much better technical understanding of the spectrum, as well as cybersecurity and offensive and defensive cyber operations, said Command Master Chief Darryl G. Beauchamp, of Marine Special Operations Command. 

“We've been through a generation of high-demand, low-density occupational specialties. That is just...not the case anymore,” Beauchamp said. “Cyber is going to be one of those areas [where demand is high] and our operators are going to have to have that level of expertise as it relates to cyber to be effective in the future operating environment...One example is cyber toolkits that enable small teams to create localized effects to support their activities and defend our own electronic systems.” 

Special operators also need to have a much better understanding of how their communication, even over encrypted channels, could make them visible to a high-tech adversary, he said. “For example, the probability of detection and intercept waveform technology, the operators of the future are all going to have to be cognizant of how to use that and what's available to them. And we got some work to do in that regard,” he said.