Where does Special Operations fit in the Multi-Domain Operations Discussion?

By: Chris Beets
Estimated Reading Time: 9 Minutes

Excerpt: Multi-Domain Operations (MDO) is the trendy term given to the emerging strategy of integrating capabilities across domains and platforms for effective combat operations, particularly in reference to great power competition. However, special operations forces (SOF) are routinely overlooked in this discussion. SOF can serve as a current model for successful MDO in low-intensity conflict and will play a vital role in MDO against near-peer threats.

Special Operations’ Place in the MDO Discussion
MDO is a popular expression amongst military academics and strategists, highlighting the complexities and adeptness required for modern warfare, driven by the advancements in technology. Strategists will express the importance of seamless integration amongst military capabilities and across domains as requisite for success; however, military analysts often fail to include the critical enabler of special operations. As SOF already operates across domains, they don’t fit neatly into a domain “category” in the same way that a traditional military service might; therefore, we may struggle to identify their place in multi-domain operations writ large.

However, to know where special operations really fit into the MDO concept, we have to have a shared understanding of what MDO is. The multi-domain concept is commonly used to try and explain the complexities and keys to success on future battlefields, where effective operations are not limited to a single domain of warfare (i.e. air or maritime), but “effects” span and transcend multiple domains. This is all tied together by effective use of the electromagnetic spectrum, being harnessed through space, cyberspace, and other terrestrial assets to enable connectivity and communications. The essence of multi-domain operations as summarized by a 2012 Joint Operational Access Concept report:

“The complementary -vice merely additive- employment of capabilities in different domains such that each enhances the effectiveness and compensates for the vulnerabilities of the others.”  (Source: JOAC 2012)

The JOAC’s description of “cross-domain synergy,” now colloquially known as multi-domain operations, hits on the key tenets required for success. These include simultaneous maneuver through domains, leveraging effects in one domain for another to exploit vulnerabilities and minimize risk in the seams, and creating freedom of maneuver and temporary advantages.

United States Special Operations Command (SOCOM) is already distinctively organized and structured to carry out this vision. SOCOM executes operations in this manner, especially on the tactical or target level. The DoD should consider incorporating some of these SOF constructs on a macro or strategic level if it wishes to create a multi-domain force.

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Army Special Operations Aviation MH-47s conduct training evolutions with Naval Special Warfare Boat Teams in Moses Lake, WA

SOCOM as Model to Build On for Successful MDO
SOCOM’s focus on the individual operator, its structure and organization, and its collective forward-looking vision make it a unique combatant command and the one that is already most closely aligned to conduct multi-domain operations.

The Right People
SOCOM remains faithful to its core asset – the SOF operator. In fact, for the command, it is its #1 SOF Truth:

Humans are more important than hardware.

This is a principle that is carried through the command, that its strength rests within its individual operators and their ability to overcome circumstances regardless of their equipment. This happens by getting the right people into the command. SOF operators all undergo a rigorous selection and assessment process. Once vetted, training pipelines are long and arduous, some as long as 24 months before they earn their title and can join an operational unit.

This focus on the individual results in trust on the battlefield amongst the team and with their commanders. SOF empowers leaders at a lower level to make decisions on the battlefield without the second-guessing from the JOC or having to request authorization. Junior officers and Senior NCOs on the team are empowered and entrusted to be decisive. Operating in small teams, every individual has a defined role or specialty and is relied upon by the rest of the team. This trust and maturity in the special operations community is paramount to its success. The 2012 JOAC report says that empowered leaders must exist at lower echelons to be successful, SOCOM’s priorities are already deftly aligned with this principle.

The Right Structure
Beyond its people, SOCOM is better structured for success on the multi-domain battlefield. It was created under the Goldwater-Nichols Act and empowered with some unique authorities as a combatant command. Under Title 10 authorities, it operates in many service-like capacities. Amongst other things, SOCOM is responsible for:

  • Developing its own strategy, doctrine, and tactics
  • Establishing and validating its own requirements
  • Directing expenditures
  • Developing SOF-specific equipment
  • Assuring the readiness of its forces

This creates a combatant command that is structured with its operational objectives in mind and serves as a model to be replicated. SOCOM is charged with the acquisitions of “SOF peculiar” equipment. It has created some unique acquisitions processes that have allowed for rapid fielding of equipment to the battlefield and have bypassed the bureaucracy built into the larger DoD acquisition machine. A recent example of SOF acquisitions and innovation is freeze-dried plasma, which can be reconstituted with water, thus eliminating the need to carry refrigerated blood on the battlefield.

Operationally, SOCOM is oriented to tackle regional problems. The command is broken up into Theatre Special Operations Commands (TSOCs), sub-unified commands of SOCOM, but under the operational control of their assigned Geographic Combatant Commanders. These TSOCs provide regional presence, expertise, and assigned or attached special operations forces in the AOR. They are commanded and controlled in a Joint Operations Center (JOC) which combines the service units as they employ under a given operation or task force. This joint organizational structure and command and control function cuts out lots of friction and lends itself to interoperability.

On the tactical level, the numerous joint exercises amongst SOCOM forces pays dividends. The smaller size of SOCOM forces lends itself to building relationships through habitual training partners. This carries on from exercises to deployments. With units being assigned geographic areas of responsibility, the same units will rotate out to work with other joint units on a reoccurring basis. These relationships build trust which leads to success on the battlefield.

The Right Vision
This regional focus in an example of SOCOM’s vision already being aligned to the multi-domain construct. Beyond the TSOCs alignments to GCC, its Army Special Forces (SF) Groups are permanently aligned to geographic areas. An SF soldier may spend his entire career within one SF Group, creating the relationships and trust, while also building upon regional expertise. Special Forces soldiers receive language training on a regional language, work with regional partners, and become experts in regional threats. This alignment opens doors to access and insight in the selected region.

SOCOM’s official vision statement from the 2019 SOCOM Factbook:

Empowered SOF Professionals, globally networked, partnered and integrated, relentlessly seeking advantage in every domain to compete and win for the Joint Force and the Nation.

According to the vision statement, SOCOM has already made the shift to a globally integrated multi-domain mindset. It’s acting on this vision by developing the Global SOF Network initiative. As summarized in a recent RAND report, “The Global SOF Network consists of a globally networked force of SOF, interagency allies and partners able to rapidly respond to, and persistently address, regional contingencies and threats to stability.” In many ways, this is SOF continuing to do what SOF does, but in other ways, it’s a deliberate focus on global integration and quick reaction. Understanding that threat networks aren’t limited by geographical area, and responsiveness is key to mitigating an asymmetric attack. The Global SOF Network consists of three supporting elements:

  1. Small footprints and low-level presence
  2. Responsiveness
  3. Capacity-building for regional SOF

While many of the details of the vision are restricted, it is clear that SOCOM has shifted its thinking to tackle global threat networks with agility and speed, while always building access and assistance through its partner forces. This will be advantageous in a peer conflict by conducting shaping operations prior to conflict and enabling global access through partner forces.

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Army Special Forces soldier in Afghanistan.

SOF’s Role in Future MDO-centric Conflict
Another key point to address on the topic of special operations in MDO is what would SOF’s role be in future multi-domain warfare? The past 17 plus years of low-intensity conflict in the global war on terror have given the wrong perception of SOF’s doctrinal mission and roles on the battlefield. SOF has become the easy answer for policymakers not looking to commit large forces to a regional conflict.

As we pivot to great power competition and near-peer threats, what would SOF’s role be under a new multi-domain concept? The prevailing argument is that SOF would simply refocus its efforts on its doctrinal missions, or in SOF parlance, “Core Activities”.

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SOF Core Activities from JP 3-05.

Recent SOF operations in CENTCOM have focused heavily on direct action and counterinsurgency mission sets on GWOT operations. However, future MDO and gray zone operations will result in more subversive, “indirect action” missions, such as special reconnaissance, military information support operations, and unconventional warfare. These missions are already in the SOF toolkit and will receive a resurgence in training and refinement.

Another critical component of SOF’s role in MDO will be in Phase 0 shaping operations in which SOF will continue conducting its foreign internal defense (FID) and security force assistance (SFA) missions. Building partner nation capacity through FID missions will still be paramount for the United States in the future to create access and stability in friendly countries. FID and SFA missions were being conducted in Afghanistan and Iraq, but with a different end state in mind. They instead were part of the US military exit strategy, creating internal security forces and local governance as a means for the withdrawal of American forces.

Phase 0 shaping operations will become the essential components of any DoD MDO strategy. SOCOM is already at the forefront of these actions with its Global SOF Network vision, creating access, building relationships and partnerships, and allowing for asymmetric advantages that these conditions grant.

In conducting these “indirect action” and shaping missions, SOF will likely pivot from being the supported command to becoming a supporting component. This will particularly manifest itself in a near-peer conflict. However, these concepts are not new for SOF historically. From SOCOM’s origins in the Office of Strategic Services during WWII operating behind enemy lines to supporting the land invasion of Iraq in 2003 by destroying early warning network targets in advance of the incoming air strikes.

Future multi-domain battlefields will require SOF to adapt in some ways. The inclusion of space assets, cyberspace, and the electromagnetic spectrum will be key for SOF in MDO. These domains will evolve from simple intelligence collection methods to weapons themselves. As SOF continues to adopt new technologies, adding the full complement of space and cyber assets to its robust air, land, and sea capabilities will truly make it a formidable MDO force.

Lastly, a key tenet of multi-domain operations is the focus on the human domain as the definitive target. Special Forces as specialists in the unconventional warfare (UW) missions that are ultimately targeting the human domain. SOF are built to be regionally-focused, relationship driven, and masters of the human domain. Their missions are already aligned to effects in the human domain, thus their keen ability to operate in MDO.

The Way Forward
The DoD is moving forward on having a shared understanding of how future warfare will likely be conducted. As each service begins to embrace it and understand what it means for its own operations, we can move forward on a joint multi-domain solution. SOCOM having evolved into a service-like combatant command already embodies a lot of the concepts that MDO is meant to capitalize on. Its acquisitions process is more agile, its task forces are seamlessly structured into joint organizations and regionally aligned, and its operations C2 and tactical execution is empowered at the lowest level. Therefore, the DoD needs to consider reforms to the Goldwater-Nichols Act and the Unified Command Plan to reflect a more adaptive, more holistic force structure absent of service fiefdoms. This would allow for multi-domain functionality and structure inherent in DoD’s warfighting entities. Then we can leverage our full multi-domain capability, to “enhance effectiveness and compensate for vulnerability” on the future battlefield.

Major Chris Beets is a Combat Systems Officer in Air Force Special Operations Command. He is currently a student in the Multi-Domain Operational Strategist concentration at the Air Command and Staff College. Email: chriscbeets@gmail.com

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or any organization of the US government.

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