After more than 16 years of hunting terrorists in Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries, U.S. Special Operations Command is expected to perform in an era of increasing great power competition.
The unclassified summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy laid out the Pentagon's view of the evolving geopolitical environment.
"Inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security," the document stated.
The special ops community has signaled that it intends to adjust to the new situation.
"With the new NDS, we will be looking beyond U.S. SOCOM's lead role in countering terrorism, to recognizing [special operations forces] as a critical component in all aspects of warfighting," Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict Owen West said in recent testimony to the House Armed Services subcommittee on emerging threats and capabilities.
SOCOM Commander Gen. Raymond Thomas III told the subcommittee that his forces must be prepared to deal with near-peer competitors like China and Russia and "rogue regimes" such as North Korea and Iran, as well as non-state actors equipped with increasingly high-tech weaponry.
"There is a high demand for special operations-unique capabilities across the spectrum from peaceful cooperation through competition short of armed conflict, up to and including large-scale combat operations," he said in written testimony.
Seth Jones, director of the transnational threats project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and a former adviser and plans officer for the commanding general of U.S. special operations forces in Afghanistan, said the nature of geopolitical struggle in the coming years could provide a major role for unconventional units such as SOF.
"Based on the likely costs and risks of conventional and nuclear war with China, Russia, Iran and North Korea, much of the competition will likely be unconventional," he wrote in a recent CSIS report, "The Return of Political Warfare."
The term political warfare refers to the employment of military and other capabilities short of conventional war to achieve national objectives, he explained. It can include covert operations such as support to resistance groups.
The United States' adversaries are already engaged in political warfare, Jones noted. Russia utilizes sophisticated offensive cyber programs, covert action and psychological operations, and has been actively supporting foreign militaries in places like Syria and sub-state groups in countries like Ukraine, he said.
Iran is also...