Naval Special Warfare Will Have to Fight Differently

Naval Special Warfare is a crucial strategic tool for the U.S. military. Yet there has been remarkably little public thinking on the role special operations forces might play in a large-scale strategic confrontation. The War of 2026 scenario helps clarify the requirements for Naval Special Warfare (NSW) in such a conflict.

Two points need articulation. First, the revisionist coalition the United States and its allies face, primarily in Eurasia, has weak points; second, special operations forces (SOF) are the best tool to stress these weak points while ensuring high-end conventional assets are available for traditional engagements. These two arguments indicate a third, more profound reality: SOF can demonstrate the necessary link between the operational and the geopolitical in great power war—assuming it is properly resourced. This is true not only for NSW, but also for the broader SOF community.

SOF and Strategic Objectives

Romanian, Ukrainian, and U.S. special operations personnel conduct close-quarters battle training in Romania in May 2021. The most pervasive peacetime SOF mission today is training with U.S. allies and partners globally. DOD Courtesy Photo (Roxana Davidovits)

Special warfare is, by definition, odd. Anglo- American strategic historian Colin Gray once argued that special operations does not fit well into the United States’ political-military taxonomy. It is culturally, strategically, operationally, and tactically distinct from the traditional warfighting arms of any service. While NSW may fall under the Navy Department’s organizational chart, for example, SOF are naturally ground forces, and there will be friction between them and the traditional mechanized and armored forces that predominate.

Twenty years of counterinsurgency and counterterrorism transformed U.S. special operations from a niche discipline within a conventional military into a well-known, near-celebrity, almost standalone component of U.S. power. Joint Special Operations Command completely retooled itself during the 2000s and 2010s, becoming a force capable of prosecuting a strategic campaign against a mobile, adaptable, tenacious network of conventional and unconventional forces.

U.S. operators, whether NSW operators, Air Force Special Tactics Airmen, Army Special Forces (including 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment–Delta, sometimes referred to as “Delta Force”), or Marine Raiders, are extraordinarily well trained, disciplined, and effective soldiers, sailors, and airmen molded into small assault teams. Their light footprint makes them responsive, rapidly deployable, and capable of a breakneck operational tempo. But their transformation into a tactical entity that neutralizes high-value targets has become increasingly irrelevant since the early 2010s. And the cultural hangover from those missions and tactics inhibits strategy making. Special operations can only be retooled for a high-end fight if strategy and tactics can be linked through coherent operational design.

To begin, the entire special operations community, including NSW, should emphasize combined training and presence throughout Eurasia, building competence with potential and current U.S. allies as rapidly as possible. Indeed, its most pervasive peacetime mission today is training with U.S. allies and partners globally.

Read the rest at USNI.

Seth Cropsey is the founder and president of Yorktown Institute.

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