What Does the Future of U.S. SOF Look Like Within Great Power Competition?

SOF and Great Power Competition

By Christian P. Martin.

The Global War on Terror (GWOT) saw the U.S. military engaged in combat operations the likes of which had not been witnessed since the Vietnam War. American military personnel serving during the GWOT were deployed around the globe to seek out and destroy the terror networks (and complicit governments) that were responsible for the September 11 attacks. While conventional forces such as Army and Marine Corps infantry or armored units were a common sight on American news channels, special operations forces (SOF) were conducting surgical strikes with astounding regularity and effectiveness. However, the rise of China and Russia and their designation as near-peer competitors, would signal a return to Great Power Competition. This move will greatly shift the way in which special operations forces are utilized, from a direct-action focus to agents and custodians of American influence.

In the years following the attacks on September 11, specifically in 2003, there were “… approximately 20,000 SOF operators, representing almost half of the entire special operations force of 47,000, involved in ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq” (Horn, 2020, p. 6). Fast forward three years to 2006, and Joint Special Operations Command was conducting 300 missions per month in Iraq alone (Horn, 2020, p. 6). In the first three months of 2011, Allied special operations forces conducted 1,600 missions and captured or killed approximately 3,000 insurgents (Horn, 2020, p. 7). U.S. Special Operations Command was the vanguard of the 20-year War on Terror; its personnel, skillsets and specifically their ability to carry out lethal and destructive direct-action strikes were always in high demand. 

Yet, with an eye toward a challenging future, the 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS) made clear that the “…primacy of counterterrorism, which dominated US foreign policy for years after 9/11 is a thing of the past. Competition with authoritarian great powers—Russia and particularly China—is the order of the day” (Brands & Nichols, 2020, p. 1). The 2018 NDS set the massive gears of the American defense establishment in motion and charted a course toward a familiar, yet hazy, past; that of competition short of all-out, high-intensity warfare, reminiscent of the Cold War days with Soviet Russia.

In line with the aforementioned NDS, by 2021 the U.S. military had completed its withdrawal from Afghanistan, thus officially closing the door on its singularly focused global counterterror effort, heralding the ascent of Great Power Competition. With U.S. policymakers and the defense establishment now laser focused on competing with rival states, where does this leave U.S. special operations forces?

At first glance, one may be led to believe that Great Power Competition will solely be within the realm of the conventional armed forces. That conclusion would be incorrect. The conventional military forces of all sides will or should act as buffers against high-intensity warfare, due to the immense toll, in both human and economic terms, that would result from a conventional war. The Gray Zone between the conventional formations of the competing states is precisely where special operations forces will maneuver and be most active and impactful.

Short of a conventional war, a primary and crucial role for special operators will be advancing, consolidating and securing influence with partner or prospective partner states. The acquisition of influence then raises barriers to entry of America’s rivals, denying them the space to operate both diplomatically and militarily. To this point, former Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Michael Vickers aptly stated, “…Great power direct conflict shouldn’t dominate the force. I want as much influence around the world as I can; the main competition is where SOF lives” (Ball, 2020, p. 7).

Special operations forces are ideally suited for influence operations as they are rapidly deployable, and they have the capability to gain entry into denied or difficult-to-access geographic locations while maintaining a low profile. Once in place, SOF operators can readily assist partner states or prospective partners who may be vulnerable to foreign-sponsored insurgent threats, coercion or overt, external military threats. Critical mission areas of these deployed operators are, but not limited to: Counterterrorism, Security Force Assistance, Foreign Internal Defense, Foreign Humanitarian Assistance and Military Information Support Activities (Ball, 2020, p. 7).

A prime example of U.S. special operations forces activity would be the enduring relationship with the Philippines, and the U.S. support via Foreign Internal Defense and Security Force Assistance. In this situation, U.S. special forces personnel were the architects, not only of the design, but also the execution of the Philippine counterterror effort (Robinson, 2016, p. 152). During this campaign, U.S. SOF operators assisted their Filipino counterparts in their battle with Abu Sayyaf (affiliated with the Islamic State); the Islamic militant terror group operating in the Southern Philippine islands. This effort:

 “…laid the groundwork for Philippine security forces to adopt an approach that minimized civilian harm as they pursued terrorist elements . . . the U.S. ethos was transferred to Philippine forces during close partnering efforts. This process has professionalized the Philippine security forces since 2001 and has enabled continued close relations between the two nations’ militaries despite growing Chinese efforts to drive a wedge”.

(Robinson et al, 2023, p. 33)

The result of over two decades of U.S. special operations personnel working side by side with their Philippine counterparts is an enduring relationship and influence among career Philippine military personal. As these men and women have climbed to command positions within their respective military branches, this influence then aids with the retention of the U.S. as their central training partner and guide for developing military doctrine. Additional benefits would be the continued privilege of the U.S. military to operate out of Philippine military bases and retention of the U.S. as their preferred arms supplier.

This all works together to deny China its desire to expand its sphere of influence at the expense of Philippine sovereignty. Similarly, this provides confidence to other southeast Asian nations in their attempts to stand firm against the intimidation tactics of the Communist Party of China and its baseless territorial claims. In the end, the example of the Philippines is a microcosm of the global effort carried out by U.S. special operations personnel now and in the future.

A final notable aspect of special operations forces, particularly the Green Berets, is their ability to deeply intermesh or meld with the population within their area of operations. Often these soldiers are assigned to one regionally designated Special Forces group (currently there are seven such groups). Their time spent mastering one region allows them “…to develop expertise in the culture, language, traditions, geography, infrastructure, politics and environmental conditions of a particular area” (Bohle, 1997, p. 6).

Their depth of regional and local knowledge will provide for a valuable and continual flow of intelligence from a potentially contested region regarding the disposition of the local population and its societal conditions. This finely detailed intelligence (the likes of which cannot be gleaned from a satellite) can then be utilized by policymakers or combatant commanders to develop regionally sensitive and appropriate policy, thus furthering the defense and possible humanitarian goals and planning for said region. 

The personnel of U.S. Special Operations Command are highly trained, intelligent and capable individuals, with the ability to have outsized effects upon their area of operations when compared to the size of their deployed unit. While great attention was placed on SOF during the Global War on Terror, renewed focus will be placed on their valuable ability to assist partners on a global scale. This assistance will provide for the primary function of maintaining and furthering of American influence to the ire of Russia and China, who seek to weaken and displace the U.S. and further their own brand of authoritarian governance. It is thus incumbent upon U.S. policymakers and military planners to maintain appropriate budget levels for the special operations community as their role overseas is just as important now (possibly more) as it was in the last 20 plus years.


Author: Christian P. Martin is a defense and security researcher and writer, he spent seven years in Saigon, Vietnam as an English teacher. During that time, he earned a Master’s degree in Defense & Strategic Studies from the University of Texas at El Paso. Currently he lives in Michigan with his family. His professional areas of interest are land and naval warfare (both conventional and unconventional), with a focus on the developing world and an emergent China.

Image: Derived from CIA maps.


Ball, T. (2020). Still the One: Great Power Competition and Special Operations Forces. Foreign Policy Research Institute: National Security Program.

Bohle, C. (1997). Army Special Forces: A Good Fit for Peace Operations. U.S. Army War College: Carlisle Barracks. https://apps.dtic.mil/sti/tr/pdf/ADA326503.pdf

Brands, H., & Nichols, T. (2020). Special Operations Forces and Great-Power Competition in                     the 21st Century. American Enterprise Institute. http://www.jstor.org/stable/resrep25369

Horn, B. (2020). “The End of ‘The Golden Age Of SOF’? Is There a Role for Special Operations                 Forces in the Renewed ‘Great Power Competition?’” Journal of Future Conflict, (2), 1-33. https://www.queensu.ca/psychology/sites/psycwww/files/uploaded_files/Graduate/                          OnlineJournal/Issue_2-Horn.pdf

Robinson E, Heath, T.R., Tarini, G., Egel, D., Moesner IV, Curriden, C., Grossman, D. & Lilly                   S. (2023). Strategic Disruption by Special Operations Forces: A Concept for Proactive                           Campaigning Short of Traditional War.

https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/research_reports/RRA1700/RRA1794-                           1/RAND_RRA1794-1.pdf

Robinson, L. (2016). “The SOF Experience in the Philippines and the Implications for Future                        Defense Strategy.” PRISM, 6(3), 150–167. http://www.jstor.org/stable/26470470