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Strategic competition has superseded the Global War on Terrorism as the central organizing principle for America’s military. Conflict has returned to the European continent with Russia’s expanded invasion of Ukraine. The accession of Finland to NATO, and hopefully Sweden soon, the Arctic environment has taken on new importance in strategic calculus. As the defence enterprise writ large shifts to this new environment, so must Special Operations Forces (SOF).
Here, the unavoidable truth is that SOF, American and allied, will not have a primary role in the arctic theatre. These forces must return to a more traditional supporting role as ‘force multipliers,’ ending the primacy they enjoyed in the War on Terror as the supported entity. This means rethinking SOF missions, a re-orientation toward maritime and littoral operations and away from counterinsurgency and counterterrorism.
Russia and China are placing increased emphasis on the polar regions in their strategic calculus and future planning. Russia, prior to its expanded invasion of Ukraine, undertook demonstrative military exercises in the Arctic, and was building up its forces in the High North. In its 2018 arctic policy, China declared itself a ‘near-arctic state’, seeking to assert its regional interests. While much of this activity from Moscow and Russia is predicated on securing economic and commercial interests, military interests and strategic competition-related power projection are clearly not far behind.
Professor Mark Galeotti notes, for instance, that ‘in Moscow’s calculus, SOF will have a limited role in the arctic theatre, focusing on a limited set of traditional “special” missions”’. The much-publicized April 2020 exercise on Alexandra Island saw Russian special operators, paratroopers, and FSB Special Purpose personnel seizing the island and conducting operations there, being much more about signalling maritime and littoral capabilities. A similar return to the traditional unconventional mission set is warranted for American and allied SOF—a focus on the “special” aspect of these units’ missions and a supporting function to the main force. There is, furthermore, an opportunity for allied SOF to prepare for interdiction and direct engagement with adversarial special operations units as a means of deterring their mobility, ability to enable competitor conventional forces, and achieve high-value interdiction against key nodes and competitor centers of gravity.
The End of the War on Terror, Strategic Competition, & SOF
The pivot to strategic competition acutely impacts the SOF enterprise, particularly within the United States and to a lesser degree the United Kingdom, but especially across those NATO countries bordering the Arctic region—the accession of Finland and Sweden’s pending membership to the alliance increases this reality. The degradation of Russia’s conventional ground forces and misuse of their SOF inventory in Ukraine notwithstanding, the Arctic will remain a key area of interest for Moscow, and likely an area in which it will want to assert both its interests and demonstrate its capabilities once those forces are reconstituted. In the interim, Russia’s naval forces (its Northern Fleet in particular) are largely unaffected by the war in Ukraine, a key consideration when evaluating arctic strategy more broadly.
For allied SOF, after 20 years of counterterror and counter-insurgency-focused conflict, the reorientation from the main stage is an uncomfortable proposition. Yet, as operating environments, Iraq and Afghanistan were aberrations in the conduct of modern warfare. In both instances, the predominant paradigm was low-intensity conflict, with only a very minor conventional resistance at the opening stages of the Iraq war, and little, if any, conventional opposition in Afghanistan. Given the political dynamics within the United States, successive presidential commitments, and the unique skillset of SOF, these forces became increasingly attractive and expedient.
Their efficacy was predicated, however, on wholly atypical and unique environmental conditions—the absence of peer- and near-peer adversaries, uncontested air superiority, overwhelming fire support, persistent surveillance and intelligence collection, and more. While the actual physical environment was challenging, particularly in Afghanistan, it was not insurmountable. Moreover, the mission-set of both campaigns—dynamic and deliberate targeting of insurgents and their networks—played to SOF’s strengths and remained politically palatable for successive risk-adverse presidencies.
SOF & Pivoting to The Arctic
These conditions will be minimized in strategic competition and will certainly be absent in the arctic theatre. Competitors possess the ability to deny U.S. special operations forces the very enabling capabilities on which American overmatch rests. Strategic adversaries such as Russia and China have their own anti-access/area-denial capabilities, and, in the event of hostilities, will almost certainly work to deny allied SOF secure rear areas in proximity to contested domains. As a result, operations in the arctic theatre will depend primarily on the ‘big’ stand-off elements of the Air Force and Navy, and to a lesser degree the Army.
With these factors and limitations in mind, allied SOF must adapt. This necessitates two mutually reinforcing primary courses of action: first, re-prioritizing mission sets that focus on maritime and littoral activities, and integration with partner commands (both U.S. and international); and second, a concomitant enlargement of the base SOF unit to increase self-sustainment to ensure combat effectiveness.=
In the case of the former, the War on Terror’s “contemporary” mission-sets will not transfer to the Arctic theatre. In the place of counterinsurgency and counterterrorism, maritime and littoral operations will take primacy. Consequently, the SOF community must reprioritize its operational focus from being the supported entity to a supporting, enabler role. ‘Big Navy’, ‘Big Air Force’, and Space operations will take primacy in the Arctic theatre. Here, expanded intelligence collection, interference and disruption of adversary capabilities and key operational nodes, and augmenting the ‘Big Service’ actors will replace direct action, foreign internal defence, and network dismantling missions. In a way, this is a return to the core SOF mission sets of truly “unique” operations that augment the main pre- and post-hostility activities while maintaining the modularity of present-day SOF and their unique adaptability, ‘jointness’, and innovation.
SOF has proven its utilitarian value in the Ukraine theater as an enabling force, rather than the main effort. While Ukrainian defence forces engage Russian aggressors on all fronts, Ukrainian special forces have manifested this supporting role through innovative, high-impact operations which are supplemental to the main effort—using drones to target Russian armour and mobility units in ways that aid the greater conventional force—and such a model for operations is a living case-study for arctic SOF employment.
This pivot to maritime and littoral operations also necessitates a re-focusing on the interoperability with key arctic allies. These NATO and non-NATO allies will be of critical importance in the Arctic theatre, providing both invaluable regional and environmental knowledge, but also forward deployment and operating positions from which missions will launch and sustain.
This realignment demands increased cross-training, war-gaming, and force exchanges to maximize familiarity, command and control, and other critical functions in advance of a potential conflict in the Arctic theatre. In a battlespace that could feature a U.S. contingent operating parallel to coalition SOF elements, separated by hundreds of miles of open expanse, a unified chain of command under a dedicated combined joint task force must be implemented, tailored to the Arctic with relevant stakeholders, something presently absent.
By jointly operating and preparing for arctic-related strategic competition, allied SOF units will develop regional accessibility at the company level, tailored to the austere environments. Identifying and developing insertion and forward sustainment capabilities that are not handcuffed to warm-base support—something hitherto enjoyed in Iraq and Afghanistan—is critical for preparing the enterprise to fight in polar climates.
The Arctic & SOF Structure
More specifically for the United States and United Kingdom’s special operations community, this pivot to arctic-related strategic competition must include a fundamental reconsideration of the unit structure itself. While the main value of special mission units lay in their relatively small footprint, this size is predicated on the politically sensitive environments of GWOT and its operational considerations, not the least of which is theatre dominance.
Special Operations will, ironically enough, need to increase the base unit structure despite the downgrading of its mission-set and operational centrality. For example, within American SOF, deploying as a full company as opposed to a single platoon, strike force, or operational detachment to the arctic theatre, and in support of maritime or littoral operations, will prove to be more useful and beneficial than the small unit footprints used in late-stage Iraq and Afghanistan. Here again the reality of theatre considerations is felt—long logistics tails, uncertain air superiority or dominance, and adversaries that field similar operational and denial capabilities.
This thesis does not argue for the broad expansion of the SOF human inventory; “SOF cannot be mass produced after a crisis”, but the existing task organization requires restructure. This will indeed limit the availability and coverage of individual units enjoyed by the coalition during the war on terror, but one that ensures SOF offers the ability to self-sustain and achieve impactful operations in support of the greater conventional force.
Company-sized units operating from allied ’warm’ bases will enjoy better survivability, lethality, and sustainability in contested and hostile (both in terms of nature and the adversary) environments. When paired with better allied integration, these units will challenge strategic competitor interests and regional advantages, while supporting the mainline units, should conventional hostilities emerge. Short of open conflict, the strategic communication benefit and value of this pivot and integration is significant, demonstrating to Russia and China that the West is preparing for competition in this challenging theatre where Russia has most notably already begun preparations for the same.
Strategic competition in the arctic theatre does not eliminate the need for SOF. Rather, it forces SOF to become once again “special”—a force multiplier for conventional forces that focuses on maritime and littoral operations, and structures itself accordingly. By changing the mission focus and the unit structure to meet the unique demands of the operating environment, SOF will remain a key player in any conflict with a near-peer adversary.
Cover photo: WINTER DEPLOYMENT 2022 The Surveillance and Reconnaissance Squadron (SRS) exercised deploying Inflatable Raiding Craft’s (IRC) from a Royal Navy submarine at Lyngan Fjord in Northern Norway.. Photo: MOD