A U.S. Air Force Airman assigned to the 8th Special Operations Squadron looks out the back of a CV-22 Osprey during training, Apr 18, 2022.

A U.S. Air Force Airman assigned to the 8th Special Operations Squadron looks out the back of a CV-22 Osprey during training, Apr 18, 2022. U.S. Air Force / Staff Sgt. Rito Smith

The US’s New Tool for Deterrence Isn’t Ready

The “SOF, space, and cyber triad” is meant to serve as an integrated deterrent, much like the nuclear triad.

A “deterrence triad” that combines special operations, space, and cyber forces has been described as the “next step in terms of deterrence,” to give the U.S. the “ability to protect and the opportunity to disrupt.” But while the concept was announced in August, the actual where, how, and what of the triad remains “a work in progress,” according to special operations thinkers, leaders, and industry-movers who spoke last week at Global Special Operations Foundation’s Modern Warfare Week conference at Fort Bragg, N.C.

“The triad, in simple terms, is the converging and integrating of three very important organizations…and that is Army Cyber Command, U.S. Army Special Operations Command, and U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command,” said one speaker. The conference’s Chatham House coverage rules bar reporters from naming or attributing remarks to any specific panelist. 

“It’s not any one leg of the triad—SOF, space, or cyber—that gets us to where we want to go, which is integrated defense,” a second speaker said. “It’s the combination of the three capabilities. It is the convergence of space, cyber, and SOF working together and being able to fundamentally speak a common language—which we don’t right now.” 

There’s ongoing “experimentation” across the globe to see how these three capabilities can be best integrated on the battlefield of the future, the first speaker said. 

But “fundamentally, we don’t have playbooks on the shelf that incorporate the power of these three elements. And that’s what we need,” the second speaker said. “You can have big plans, but if the only thing you’ve exercised is PowerPoint deep, that doesn’t get you anywhere.”

And once the capability is polished and ready, it must be fielded to be effective. 

“We can’t be content to create the perfect warfighting concept with the most exquisite capabilities, put them on a shelf, and hope that the adversary gets the message,” a third speaker said. 

However, there’s a lot of work that still must be done before the triad is operational. 

“We need a lot of capabilities. We need a lot of help,” the third speaker said.

For example, on the SOF side of the triad, the intelligence community and the West “miscalculated the resolve of the Ukrainians” and generally “[struggle] to understand and assess, from an intelligence perspective, sentiments at the national level,” the third speaker said.  

The other two speakers agreed  that the triad hasn’t done enough in-person operating to see how the three legs will perform in real life. Both panelists want to see more integrated demonstrations—exercises that bring operators from all three legs of the triad together and put them through a real scenario with real data. 

“If we don’t train the way we fight and fight the way we train, we will do that at our own peril,” the second speaker said.

While the war in Ukraine has shown some areas in which the U.S. should improve deterrence, it has also highlighted where the triad’s capabilities would apply. The reliance by Ukraine on Starlink satellite internet shows how the “fusion of space and cyber can be really, really important,” the third speaker said. He also noted how crucial SOF’s partnership-building capabilities have been in Eastern Europe. 

“We’re getting a small glimpse into what we think warfare is going to look like in the future,” the third speaker said, adding that future competition will be in the cyber and space domains.

“Our adversaries don’t necessarily want to challenge us traditionally, because we’re prepared for that. We know how to fight in the air domain, we know how to fight in the maritime domain, and how to fight on the ground. But we’re not quite sure how to fight in space and how to fight in cyber,” he said.