US special forces to the frontline against China, Russia

US Special Operations Forces (SOF) are undergoing a transformation from an emphasis on fighting insurgencies to potential great power conflict with China and Russia.

This month, Breaking Defense reported that the US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) is seeing rising demand for SOF support across the armed services, with demand to support strategic competition up over 30% and for crisis response events over 150%.

SOCOM Chief General Bryan Fenton said during a recent keynote address that special military operations were in a bit of a “renaissance” as the character of warfare evolves and amid a “convergence of adversaries”, namely the growing cohesion among China, Russia, Iran and North Korea.

In a February 2023 US Congress hearing, Representative Jack Bergman highlighted the change in US strategic priorities from counterterrorism to competing with major powers like China and Russia. He explored the relevance of SOFs in addressing irregular warfare and supporting allies in the current geopolitical climate.

Representative Ruben Gallego has emphasized the significance of a comprehensive government strategy to tackle great power rivalry while also questioning the preparedness of SOFs to shift from counterterrorism to irregular warfare capabilities like foreign internal defense and information operations.

In response to Gallego, Seth Jones, senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank, has argued for the critical role of SOF in irregular warfare amid competition with state actors like China and Russia.

Jones points out that amid restrained conventional warfare among nuclear powers, major global competitors including China, Russia, and Iran are intensively engaging in irregular warfare through military, intelligence and non-state operations.

He advocates that US SOFs shift their focus from direct action to roles such as foreign internal defense and unconventional warfare, utilizing their broad non-kinetic capabilities. He has urged the US Congress to expand funding and review interagency roles to enhance US effectiveness in irregular warfare.

David Ucko, professor and department chair of the National Defense University College of International Security Affairs, has emphasized that SOFs must build resilience against foreign proxies and support resistance in states threatened by foreign invasions.

Matching words to deeds, the US has stationed SOFs on Taiwan’s frontline islands and is re-equipping its SOF units for a possible major great power conflict in the Pacific.

In March 2024, Asia Times reported that US SOFs have been permanently stationed on Taiwan’s frontline islands, just ten kilometers from mainland China. Reports have said US military advisers will be stationed long-term at the Taiwanese Army’s amphibious command posts in Kinmen and Penghu.

US Green Berets will also frequently participate in training drills with Taiwan’s 101st Amphibious Reconnaissance Battalion and Airborne Special Service Company, which are analogous to US Navy SEALs.

Kinmen and Penghu are essential for Taiwan’s defense, and SOFs are crucial in implementing a protracted defense strategy for these islands. The capture of Kinmen and Penghu would be critical in a Chinese cross-strait invasion of Taiwan.

Taiwanese SOFs can perform delaying actions to buy time for US and allied intervention while also providing critical intelligence and targeting for strike platforms. If China occupies Taiwan, Taiwan’s SOFs may form irregular resistance units that operate behind enemy lines, inflict casualties, cause delays and sow confusion.

Further, The Warzone reported that the US Navy is upgrading its special operations boat fleet, testing a new loitering munition launcher on the Combatant Craft Medium (CCM) and ordering a fourth Combatant Craft Heavy (CCH).

The fleet of CCHs is currently undergoing modernization to enhance its capabilities and survivability. These vessels are semi-submersible, climate-controlled and specifically designed for covert and sensitive maritime missions.

They can achieve a speed of 40 knots, carry up to 7 crew members along with 12 passengers or a payload of 1,500 kilos, and have a range of 400 nautical miles.

The CCHs are designed with a low profile and stealth upper structure to minimize radar and visual signatures while the hulls have variations in window arrangements.

The Maritime Precision Engagement (MPE) program aims to integrate stand-off, loitering munitions with man-in-the-loop guidance systems on CCMs. Testing should conclude by the end of fiscal year 2024 or early fiscal year 2025, with decisions on further integration to follow.

These advancements reflect a shift in US SOF focus from counterterrorism to preparing for major conflicts, particularly in the Pacific.

However, despite the re-emphasis on SOFs in the context of rising great power tensions, the US SOF community may have to contend with budget and manpower cuts while dealing with recruitment woes.

This month, The Washington Post reported that US SOCOM is adapting to budget cuts by reducing its forces by about 5,000 troops over the next five years while integrating high-tech experts into their teams.

The Washington Post mentions that lessons from the ongoing Ukraine war, particularly the experiences of UK SOFs, are shaping the restructuring efforts.

It notes that the US Army is facing the most significant reduction, with plans to cut about 4,000 positions. This reduction is influenced by the need to shift focus from counterterrorism to large-scale combat operations and challenges in meeting recruitment goals.

Despite those cuts, The Washington Post says there is talk of increasing the size of Green Beret teams to include specialists like drone software engineers and broader inclusion of technical roles across all military services.

Taking a critical view of US military downsizing, Erik Prince opines for Asia Times that US power projection and credibility are in decline, contrasting the US military juggernaut of World War II with its present state.

Prince cites US embassy evacuations in Sudan, Afghanistan, Belarus, Ukraine and Niger, US citizens taken hostage in Gaza and the Houthi blockade of commercial shipping in the Red Sea, where US ground and naval forces are shot at with impunity, as symptomatic of US military decline.

He traces this apparent decline to the post-Cold War peace dividend, debt and overspending on the Global War on Terror, lack of strategic discipline, and prioritizing revenue for large defense contractors instead of winning wars and building strategic partnerships.

Price notes that the US wages “forever wars of convenience” in the belief that the military-industrial complex and precision drone strikes can shield US elites from the terrible realities of war.

In the case of Taiwan, he urges US policymakers to learn from past failures to avert an apocalyptic conflict with China. He advocates using the US private sector to achieve military objectives, contrasting bureaucratic government processes and large defense contractors with the private sector’s competition-driven efficiency.  

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