LTG(R) Charles T. Cleveland is the former commanding general of U.S. Army Special Operations Command (2012-2015) and former commander of Special Operations Command-Central (2008-2011). A 1978 graduate of the United States Military Academy, LTG(R) Cleveland is a senior fellow at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point and the Madison Policy Forum, a senior mentor to the Chief of Staff of the Army’s Strategic Studies Group, and an adjunct at the RAND Corporation.  

CTC: Increasingly, our nation is calling on Special Operations Forces (SOF) to engage its enemies. What are the advantages and disadvantages of this shift toward less-conventional warfare? Is this change a temporary response to the nature of our current fight, or is it a more permanent and fundamental shift for the foreseeable future?
Cleveland: The shift is a response to U.S. dominance in conventional warfighting, which remains critical and should not be taken for granted. The means that one country or group may use to impose its will on another are, however, additive. Conventional war remains a viable means if your adversary is vulnerable to that type of persuasion. So I do not see this as a temporary condition, and it is a result of fundamental changes in the security landscape. So long as we remain or are perceived to be preeminently powerful in the conventional use of force, our enemies will choose irregular means to try and impose their will on the U.S., and our friends, partners, and allies.

Having said that, it is important to understand why SOF has risen from footnote and supporting player to main effort, because its use also highlights why the U.S. continues to have difficulty in its most recent campaigns—Afghanistan, Iraq, against ISIS and AQ and its affiliates, Libya, Yemen, etc. and in the undeclared campaigns in the Baltics, Poland, and Ukraine—none of which fits the U.S. model for traditional war.

There are two primary types of SOF missions and corresponding forces. On the one hand, the Army Special Forces component of U.S. Special Operations Forces, organized after World War II to support indigenous resistance groups, and subsequently to assist in the countering of such groups after the French loss of Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam, uses its deep knowledge of working with locals to either capitalize on indigenous methods that might be more appropriate for certain conflicts or to employ “indigenous mass” in the place of American forces. The other type, being created in part to emulate Israeli success at Entebbe and to overcome failure at Desert One in Iran,a has become an unmatched kill/capture and hostage-rescue capability, with an ability to accomplish its mission with limited collateral damage.

Each type of SOF is organized to reflect the necessarily distinct approaches to uncertainty that these two very different missions entail, and these characteristics have proven critical in today’s population-centric conflicts. The surgical-strike capability reduces uncertainty to the degree possible through high-volume ISR [Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance] and intel fusion, then the capability is executed, further reducing risk by placing superior, mature operators on the objectives. Alternatively, while Special Forces have as their mission to move into uncertainty, they mitigate risk through their ability to understand local situations and use a mix of martial and personal skills to survive, report, mitigate, and exploit the local situation to the advantage of the U.S. This takes specially selected soldiers who spend considerable time compared to other soldiers in education, training, and mission-preparation. The mission requires not only skills in expert light infantry but also language, tradecraft, area studies, survival medicine, engineering, and weapons. These small teams are organized to be self-sustaining in order to enhance their viability in hostile and denied areas. It is these two qualities—the surgical application of force that greatly reduces collateral damage and death of innocents, and the working by, with, and through locals—that has proven not only effective but also most acceptable in recent conflicts.

LTG(R) Charles T. Cleveland, then commanding general of U.S. Army Special Operations Command, is pictured at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, in 2012. (U.S. Army/Dave Chace, SWCS Public Affairs Office)

CTC: Are we, as a nation, where we need to be militarily to meet the challenges of these new threats?
Cleveland: In my estimation, the U.S. still remains at a disadvantage in its operational/strategic-level thinking about such wars and, as a consequence, in its ability to develop appropriate campaigns and field competent, campaign-quality headquarters. Through most of the Cold War our security sector proved adequate to deter, and when applied against conventional enemies in limited wars performed magnificently. However, these same military constructs proved unable to achieve the desired U.S. political objectives in Vietnam, even after a long, costly attempt. As [retired Special Forces colonel and Georgetown University Associate Professor] Dave Maxwell has noted, it could be said that North Vietnam’s strategy of Dau Tranh—integrated political and military struggle—proved superior to the U.S. counterinsurgency campaign.

And since Vietnam, our adversaries have increasingly aimed their strategies at a weakness exposed by Vietnam, namely America’s inability to sustain casualties and outspend opponents for extended periods in conflicts that are not existential—in other words, our will. I think it is no coincidence that as the American people were able to witness firsthand the horrors of war in ever increasing fidelity, first through TV and now through social media and the internet, the U.S. policy- and war-makers’ ability to use overwhelming force in population-centric wars has been hamstrung to the point that they are clearly insufficient. Therefore, so long as we maintain our conventional dominance, our state and proto-state enemies will continue to further their interests, when diplomacy and other instruments do not suit them or apply, through proxy fights, terror, and permanent, low-grade conflict just under the threshold for what is viewed as traditional war.

CTC: Given this discussion, should conventional U.S. forces be increasingly trained and outfitted in ways traditionally reserved for SOF?
Cleveland: I maintain that in the most recent fights, the U.S. did not fail because of inadequately or improperly trained or led battalion-level formations. For the most part, whether conventional or SOF, these units were magnificent and reflected every bit of what is great about the American Soldier. So I believe they must strive to remain elite within their specialty as a deterrent and to assure friends of our ability to succeed in a conventional war.

It has been my experience that the bona fides of U.S. units and soldiers with any foreign military or militia is their ability to perform their primary war-fighting tasks, not their cultural sensitivity. Time spent becoming culturally sensitive at the expense of time in the field or on the range is, in my experience, a poor tradeoff. Perhaps a more useful SOF example for conventional forces is in SOF’s surgical strike half. Adopting appropriate tactics, techniques, and procedures used by our national-level raiding forces in targeting, infiltration, and tactics is more useful to their pursuit of being the best at their primary mission. The Ranger Regiment’s Abrams Charterb is a standing directive and reminder of the natural and necessary connection between it and the conventional infantry.

The U.S. military’s challenges were largely above the battalion. They were in the senior leadership and supporting staff’s understanding of the nature of the conflict and in their inability to overcome institutional and structural bias towards fighting the war as they would want it to be, as opposed to the way it was. Most damaging were several, compounding bad national policy decisions for both Afghanistan and Iraq that shaped U.S. campaigns in those theaters. Deciding that nation-building was essential to success in Afghanistan and electing to not reconstitute the Iraqi Army and to purge all Baathists in 2003 in Iraq committed the U.S. to long, costly campaigns that exposed our strategic weakness. I do not know what military advice was given to policymakers or how well the arguments were framed. I have to wonder, if the U.S. could do it over, would we do it differently? Further, what formations or capabilities would we have wanted to have when the war started?

CTC: Are there steps that could or should be taken to enhance the necessary capabilities?
Cleveland: To fill the capability gap, USSOCOM [United States Special Operations Command] must be tasked and authorized by Congress to take over the professional military education (PME) of its officers. Further, it should task its Special Warfare Center and School at Fort Bragg to become the DoD center for the study of the phenomenon of resistance, insurgency, rebellion, terror, and civil war, and for joint and interagency concept development for U.S. use of and counter to such forms of conflict. Finally, USSOCOM must develop, in cooperation with the Army and Marine Corps, joint special operations commands staffed with appropriate special and conventional professionals and interagency expertise to develop and execute campaigns that are designed to support other nations in their fight against insurgents or terrorists, empower them without supplanting them, or execute “small footprint” SOF campaigns alongside indigenous forces against an enemy nation, occupying power, or hostile non-state actor.

Remarkably, there is no Service PME focused on understanding what history teaches are these most prevalent forms of conflict. Isolated pockets of scholarship exist, such as the SOCAP [Special Operations Campaign Artistry Program] Course at Fort Leavenworth, Naval Postgraduate School’s Defense Analysis special operations curriculum, and in the National Defense University’s master’s program at SWCS [the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School]. But there is no focused effort to create the needed scholarship to provide the foundation for PME or the development of military concepts for its role in these fights. This blind spot in the U.S. approach to defending the national interest ultimately has resulted in a lack of critical capabilities. The U.S. is hampered by the absence of a SOF equivalent to the Air Land Battle Concept for conventional operations. Such a SOF concept would then drive needed doctrine, organization, training, manpower, leadership, etc. to better achieve U.S. objectives. The U.S. has been highly successful in developing its concepts for conventional war; it needs similar success in its approach to these more prevalent, less conventional enemy strategies.

CTC: If we take a step back, it’s clear that today’s soldiers, particularly Special Operations, are increasingly being asked to fulfill multiple roles when they are sent to conflict areas—diplomatic, intelligence, etc.—in addition to their operational duties. Is this an acceptable ask of today’s soldier?
Cleveland: It depends, and SOF leaders have to judge when to say yes or no or when to push back when the tasking comes from a higher headquarters that may not understand SOF’s mission or limitations. So long as the tasking is related to their core missions, which can be interpreted fairly broadly, I think it is acceptable, so long as it is a priority. SOF has filled some administrative taskings in countries that gave the operator exposure to the culture or gave the command first-hand information on an area of interest. Also, some of these taskings are of national importance and the seasoned, proven SOF operator may be the best choice to reliably get it done, especially if it is in an area that is hostile or dangerous. These Soldiers, particularly the Special Forces soldier, are specially selected, may have relevant language skills and experience in the country, and are trained to operate in ambiguous situations. Also, the recent reorganization of the SF Groups created smaller units of action consisting of three-man teams or singletons to apply against such non-standard taskings.

Having said that, non-SOF soldiers have provided absolutely essential support to special operations missions. Conventional units have conducted combat operations as part of a SOF operation and individual soldiers and units are normally woven into the fabric of SO headquarters downrange. It really depends on what soldier skills are called for and what the environment is. I am reminded of a warning passed down from the great ones of the past: Don’t confuse enthusiasm for capability. There are some things that should be left to SOF.

CTC: Much of the public discussion of SOF tends to focus on the counterterrorism application of these forces, for obvious reasons given the conflicts we have been involved in over the past 15 years. But can you speak more broadly about prevalence of irregular warfare in today’s environment and the role of SOF in dealing with these challenges, beyond CT? 
Cleveland: The irony is that the most successful aspects of our work with the Afghans and Iraqis have not been with our conduct of U.S. CT, which certainly earned its notoriety. Instead, it was SOF’s development of the Iraqi Counterterrorism Service (CTS) and its special operations units, and Afghan Commando and Afghan Special Forces units under the Afghan National Army Special Operations Command. Today, both remain at the forefront of their respective fights and are their countries’ most capable warfighting units. Also, it has been a while, but you’ll recall that it was SOF’s unconventional warfare capability with the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan that toppled the Taliban.

SOF is at its best when its indigenous and direct-action capabilities work in support of each other. Beyond Afghanistan and Iraq and ongoing CT efforts elsewhere, SOF continues to work with partner nations in counterinsurgency and counterdrug efforts in Asia, Latin America, and Africa. Russia’s use of its updated variant of unconventional warfare in the annexation of Crimea, in eastern Ukraine, and the threat it poses to Poland and the Baltic States has resulted in a renewed interest in the U.S. unconventional warfare capability and how it can assist in their defense should the Russians use the same tactics against them.

CTC: How did SOF capabilities evolve over the years that you were a leader in that community? What challenges did you experience, during your time in command of these units, in adapting to the fight? 
Cleveland: I was lucky enough to serve in SOF from 1979 to 2015. My first unit was the 10th SF Group, which had an interesting, strange, and largely dysfunctional chain of command. The command was dual-based, namely under the operational command of the EUCOM Commander who was based at Patch Barracks [in Stuttgart, Germany]. But since it was based in the U.S. for administrative purposes, the unit was under the administrative control of the Fort Devens Post Commander. I was very junior, but it seemed the advantages were few. One, though, was that members of the Group would routinely coordinate directly with national level agencies. I can remember doing so several times as a very junior officer. I would have to wait until I was a general officer to get the same access.

Beyond the obvious disadvantages of a split chain of command, SF in those days were often the last to be resourced. This problem continued for a while beyond the stand up of USSOCOM and its subordinate service components. I can remember in 1989 watching the 7th Infantry Division soldiers patrol through our housing areas in Panama where I was assigned to the 3rd Bn, 7th Special Forces Group. Their kit was high tech and new. Ours was low/no tech and old but serviceable. With the creation of USSOCOM and its own funding line (referred to as MFP 11) the chain of command cleared up and resourcing improved dramatically. Lastly, and probably most importantly, over the years SOF’s approach to selecting and assessing candidates improved across the force. This increasing quality in manpower drove improvements in all other areas. The teams, companies, and battalions became uniformly elite across the board. The differences between special operations forces became their mission sets, not the quality of their soldiers. It was remarkable to be a part of the change.

CTC: What specific changes or reforms that you implemented while USASOC Commander do you think will have the most enduring impact on enhancing the effectiveness of our SOF? 
Cleveland: The writing of the Army’s first Special Operations Doctrinal Publication, ADP 3.05, in 2012 was a watershed achievement for the Special Operations profession. It advanced two important principles that can lead to significant advances in U.S. special operations capabilities. The first is that the ADP properly describes the two very different but essential Special Operations capabilities that the country needs. It was [previously] widely understood that there were two types of special operations; these were often referred to as “black and white SOF” or “national and theater SOF.” Neither were really accurate or helpful. The ADP set forth that the two types of SOF were a no fail surgical strike or precision direct action capability and a special warfare capability that centered on working through indigenous assets and units in unconventional warfare. The second important principle was ADP’s explicit recognition of a portion of the conflict spectrum where special operations is the primary maneuver force. By doing so, the Army identifies the need for SOF campaigns and SOF operational art. Those are being developed now and given where the future fights are likely to take place, none too soon.

CTC: What specific and/or immediate threats do you anticipate the next president will have to grapple with? Are there ways that SOF are uniquely prepared to meet those challenges? 
Cleveland: The next president will need all the military tools at the ready. Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, ISIS, AQ, and the inevitable natural disaster and pandemic will all demand some form of a military response during his or her term. Actually, I think that the world is more dangerous today than it has ever been during my lifetime, which is saying something since I can remember having to duck under our desks in grade school during A-bomb drills. Important though will be the U.S.’s ability to aggregate and disaggregate military, interagency, and even private capacity with agility around given security problems, and to do so where it can to prevent conflict from erupting to begin with.

Some of these will obviously be SOF-centric, SOF-led campaigns, but in most, SOF will have some role. Also, automating all source intelligence sources, particularly open source and social media, has the potential to allow the U.S. to know and act sooner and for less cost, an important option after the last 15 years.

CTC: What have you observed is the most persistent misunderstanding by the public of what Special Operations Forces do? 
Cleveland: That’s a tough question, but I think most people believe that U.S. SOF operates with an open checkbook, unfettered by the rules, and filled with nonconforming, rugged individualists who have a problem with authority. They are right on one of these.

Substantive Notes
[a] In July 1976, Israeli commandos carried out a hostage rescue mission at Entebbe Airport in Uganda. Desert One refers to the failed April 1980 Delta Force mission to rescue American hostages held in Iran.

[b] In activating the Ranger Regiment in 1973, General Creighton Abrams stipulated that it would be “an elite, light, and most proficient infantry battalion in the world … that can do things with its hands and weapons better than anyone.” Russ Bryant and Susan Bryant, Weapons of the U.S. Army Rangers (St. Paul, MN: Zenith Press, 2005), p. 23.

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