U.S. Army Special Forces patrol a valley outside Forward Operating Base Salerno, Khost Province, Afghanistan. Special operations can be used in supporting and, in some specific cases, decisive operations to better shape the contemporary operating environment. U.S. Army photo.

Special operations as a warfighting function

By Lt. Col. Glenn R. Thomas
Originally published in the January-February 2011 edition of Special Warfare

In recent years, the Army has made great strides in adapting to the changing operational environment, adjusting its training and leader development to focus on building more agile and effective leaders. Despite the improvements, however, issues remain regarding a lack of doctrinal emphasis that would teach leaders to appreciate the role and effects of special operations.

Army Training and Doctrine Command Pamphlet 525-3-0, The Army Capstone Concept, Operational Adaptability: Operating Under Conditions of Uncertainty and Complexity in an Era of Persistent Conflict 2016-2028, takes into consideration the changing operational environment and seeks to describe the capabilities the Army will require. At the core of the concept is the need for leaders to embrace changes necessary for dealing with anticipated threats. General Martin Dempsey, commanding general of the United States Army Training and Doctrine Command, or TRADOC, introduces The Army's Capstone Concept by emphasizing the requirement for a "mindset based on flexibility of thought and calling for leaders at all levels who are comfortable with collaborative planning and decentralized execution."1 The need for that adaptive mindset is critical in shaping future military operations and requires the Army to rethink doctrine.

Along with placing greater emphasis on adaptability, the Army has transitioned its focus on training and operations from developing forces for large-scale maneuver warfare to increasing the capability of individuals to operate in smaller, decentralized elements. It can be argued that the military as a whole is seeking to become more like special-operations forces, or SOF.

SOF have played and will continue to play a major role in all facets of military operations, and it is imperative that all military leaders and planners understand SOF's capabilities and limitations. The challenges posed in recruiting, training and employing large forces that can operate in a manner similar to SOF are many and will not be addressed in this article.2 The author of this article understands that the necessity to understand special operations is in no way limited to the Army, but the article will address Army doctrine only, in order to address and foster discussion on the inclusion of special operations into the Army's warfighting functions, or WfFs.3

Army warfighting functions

Through the lens of doctrine, Army leaders learn to address operational challenges. The Army's FM 3.0, Operations, is the proponent field manual for operations and, along with FM 1.0, The Army, provides the force's doctrinal framework. According to FM 3.0, doctrine provides a "body of thought on how Army forces intend to operate as an integral part of a joint force." It also explains that "doctrine promotes mutual understanding and enhances effectiveness."4 Arguably, the most important update of FM 3.0 — the 2008 version — is the emphasis on preparing the Army for an era of "persistent engagement." Compared to the previous version of the FM (14 June 2001), the current FM more adeptly describes the operational environment the Army will face in the years to come. It describes an environment of persistent conflict, and the use of a "spectrum of conflict" makes it evident that leaders can expect to face threats in the execution of operations ranging from peace to general war.5

Even though the current FM 3.0 redefines the operational environment, it remains fixated on the application of combat power for large-scale operations. The 2008 version remains dedicated to the full-spectrum operational concept introduced in the 2001 version, but it replaces the battlefield operating systems, or BOS, with six WfFs: movement and maneuver, intelligence, fires, sustainment, mission command and protection.6 Leadership and information join the six WfFs to form the eight elements of combat power.7 Through the application of combat power using combined arms, the Army ultimately seeks to conduct operations.8 Viewing operations in the context of synchronizing and prioritizing WfFs to support combined-arms operations provides a framework that leads planners to view all operations as they relate to combat operations.

Like the BOSs they replaced, the WfFs assist leaders in identifying, prioritizing and categorizing the resources and capabilities available to friendly and threat forces. In many ways, the WfFs serve as a checklist for ensuring that planners address all elements of combat power.9 The categorization and structuring of the WfFs into simple, all-encompassing categories provide planners a means of ensuring that they are addressing all capabilities required to support full-spectrum operations. However, a major shortcoming of the current WfFs is their failure to adequately capture and address the role that special operations may play in supporting, leading and, in some cases, preventing the need for operations.

Special operations as a WfF

The current doctrinal construct provided in FM 3.0's description of the WfFs efficiently organizes the elements of combat power. The newer FM's greater appreciation of the operational environment is critical in developing leaders who plan with foresight, but the current structure of the WfFs fails to assist planners in recognizing the capabilities and effects that special operations contribute.

Now, more than ever, it is of paramount importance for leaders to understand the capabilities and limitations of special operations. Planners must also recognize the unique contributions that SOF provide throughout the spectrum of conflict. The major combat operations ongoing in Iraq and Afghanistan have created a default view among many Army leaders that special operations are merely direct action. Directly complementing ongoing combat operations is but a fraction of the abilities that elements of Army Civil Affairs, or CA; Military Information Support Operations, or MISO; and Special Forces, or SF, bring to the table. Special operations can be used in supporting and, in some specific cases, decisive operations to better shape the contemporary operating environment.

The Army faces the challenges of preventing and deterring conflict while maintaining the ability to defeat current and future threats. The Army's operating concept states that the nation's military problem is, "How do future Army forces prevent and deter conflict, prevail in war and succeed in a wide range of contingencies?"10 Army special-operations forces, or ARSOF, are uniquely postured to execute operations across the spectrum of conflict. While the Army describes the current and future operational environment as one of "persistent conflict," ARSOF view it as an opportunity for "persistent engagement." Elements of CA, MISO and SF routinely deploy during times of peace to execute missions of foreign internal defense and security-force assistance. Through those deployments, they gain functional experience and knowledge in areas prior to the beginning of hostilities. CA, MISO and SF teams also hone their ability to operate in smaller, decentralized elements — skills that are applicable in any environment or theater of operations during peacetime, limited intervention, peace operations, irregular warfare or major combat operations.11

CA, MISO and SF elements' investment in the individual throughout all aspects of selection and training creates a specialized and unique capability that provides the Army with the most capable force for shaping the operational environment throughout all phases of conflict. The investment made in SOF provides military and national decision-makers with specialized capabilities that can drive courses of action that may not be readily apparent. For instance, images of bearded men on horseback during Operation Enduring Freedom exemplify modern SF's execution of unconventional warfare; however, one can read Bob Woodward's Bush at War and realize that the military was caught off-guard by the 9/11 attacks and did not have a "boots on the ground" option readily available to present to the president and his staff.12

Without an adequate understanding of the capabilities and limitations of SOF, leaders fail to consider the way these types of forces may complement a particular course of action. Not listing special operations as a WfF in Army doctrine makes it less likely that commanders and staffs will consider them during operations planning. That is particularly concerning, as SOF offer the military a specialized capability and often provide area-specific knowledge and expertise gained prior to hostilities. Not only does a lack of understanding of special operations lead to underuse: It can actually lead to misuse. This is evident in the growing tendency of planners at all levels within the Army to view SOF as commandos for direct-action operations or as smaller, "infantry-like" forces that can be readily positioned throughout a battlefield.

Army leaders at all levels still fail to appreciate that SOF provide a combat-multiplying capability. With the reduction in the scale of operations in Iraq and the likelihood of reduced operations in Afghanistan in the years to come, it is likely that the employment of special operations will increase. Using the experience and knowledge gained from regionally specific operations, CA, MISO and SF elements can directly and indirectly shape the operational environment prior to hostilities. These specific skills and established relationships with host-nation and interagency elements can then serve to contribute to the execution of operations by conventional forces. In some situations, the employment of special operations in support of geographic combatant commanders may actually prevent or deter threats.

Ultimately, the efficient and effective employment of SOF requires their consideration prior to the onset of hostilities and not as an afterthought. In order to increase awareness and understanding of special operations and how they may best support combatant commanders, the Army must work to educate and develop leaders at all levels, and that requires conceptual and doctrinal updates. The current WfFs do not adequately capture the unique and specialized missions encompassed by special operations and the ways they can serve as a force multiplier or as an economy of force. Doctrinal inclusion of special operations as a WfF would provide a starting point for increasing education and improved integration of forces at all levels.

SWCS' current initiatives

The specialized capabilities of SOF provide planners at all levels with unique abilities that are easily overlooked or less effectively included as subsets of other WfFs. In addition to using the WfFs as a means of conceptualizing capabilities in terms of combat power, the Army also uses them as a means of organizing and assigning responsibilities for doctrine, organization, training, materiel, leadership, personnel and facilities, or DOTMPLF, to command organizations called centers of excellence, or CoE.13 TRADOC maintains six CoEs that encompass all six WfFs. A shortcoming of the current CoE construct is that special-operations missions and forces do not readily fall into the current warfighting taxonomy. The six WfFs do not capture the unique DOTMPLF requirements associated with CA, MISO and SF. The JFK Special Warfare Center and School, or SWCS, now serves in a similar capacity to TRADOC's CoEs, and its role would only grow with the inclusion of special operations as a WfF.

SWCS's Army Special Operations Capabilities Integration Center, or ARSOCIC, is charged with anticipating the future environment, threats and requirements for ARSOF. ARSOCIC supports the development of concepts in CA, MISO and SF and provides subject-matter expertise to analyze guidance from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Department of Army and the U.S. Special Operations Command that pertains to the future operational environment. The result of the studies, combined with an understanding of future capabilities, capacities and government relationships, allows ARSOCIC to prepare concepts that describe how ARSOF should operate if they are to dominate strategic and tactical challenges of the future.

ARSOCIC works directly with the U.S. Army Special Operations Command, the U.S. Army Special Forces Command, the U.S. Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command and TRADOC's Army Capabilities Integration Center, or ARCIC, to better prepare ARSOF and the Army as a whole for the future. Among numerous projects, ARSOCIC's current initiatives include working with ARCIC to address how ARSOF can more efficiently contribute to operations and to achieve inclusion of special operations as a WfF. Additionally, ARSOCIC works directly with ARCIC's CoEs to better identify current and future warfighting requirements. Currently SWCS works directly with TRADOC and the CoEs to better identify current and future warfighting requirements for the Army as a whole.

Lieutenant Colonel Glenn R. Thomas is director of the JFK Special Warfare Center and School's Army Special Operations Capabilities Integration Center. He began his Army career as an infantryman with the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), where he participated in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Commissioned in Infantry upon graduation from Indiana University, he served as a rifle platoon leader, support platoon leader and executive officer in the 3rd Infantry Division before attending the Special Forces Officer Qualification Course. Lieutenant Colonel Thomas has served in the 3rd and 5th SF groups and served previously at SWCS as a small-group instructor and commander for the 18A portion of the Special Forces Qualification Course. He is also a graduate of the Naval Postgraduate School.


1. The Army Capstone Concept, i.

2. Brigadier General Bennet Sacolick, in articles for the Small Wars Journal and Special Warfare, describes the challenges inherent in training individuals to serve in special operations.

3. Joint Publication 1-02, (amended April 2010) defines special operations as "Operations conducted in hostile, denied or politically sensitive environments to achieve military, diplomatic, informational and/or economic objectives employing military capabilities for which there is no broad conventional-force requirement. These operations often require covert, clandestine or low-visibility capabilities. Special operations are applicable across the range of military operations. They can be conducted independently or in conjunction with operations of conventional forces or other government agencies and may include operations through, with or by indigenous or surrogate forces. Special operations differ from conventional operations in degree of physical and political risk, operational techniques, mode of employment, independence from friendly support and dependence on detailed operational intelligence and indigenous assets." Also called SO. (JP 3-05)

4. FM 3.0 (Appendix D).

5. FM 3-0, Chapter 2, explains that the "spectrum of conflict is the backdrop for Army operations." Figure 2-1 showcases levels of violence on an ascending scale, based on the operational environment (stable peace, unstable peace, insurgency and general war).

6. The BOS were originally introduced in the 1990 version of TRADOC Pamphlet 525-5: Blueprint of the Battlefield. The pamphlet introduced seven tactical BOS: intelligence, maneuver, fire support, air defense, mobility and survivability, combat service support, and mission command. FM 3.0's Chapter 4 describes warfighting functions as "a group of tasks and systems (people, organizations, information and processes) united by a common purpose that commanders use to accomplish missions and training objectives." Updates to the warfighting functions that will likely be found in an update to FM 3.0 is the change of command and control to the more holistic term, mission command.

7. FM 3-0, Chapter 4, paragraph 4-1, defines combat power as "the total means of destructive, constructive and information capabilities that a military unit/formation can apply at a given time. Army forces generate combat power by converting potential into effective action."

8. FM 3-0, Chapter 4-30, explains combined arms as "the synchronized and simultaneous application of the elements of combat power to achieve an effect greater than if each element of combat power was used separately or sequentially."

9. Throughout FM 5-0, Army Planning and Orders Production (2005), the BOS are presented as a means of assisting in the commander's visualization process. Additionally, the BOS are used by planners to categorize, prioritize and synchronize capabilities. The draft version of FM 5-0, The Operations Process (2010), uses the WfFs in the same manner as the BOSs. The draft FM 5-0 also incorporates the WfFs in supporting planning efforts over a "horizon" of time through the use of planning cells (plans, future operations, current operations).

10. Army Operating Concept, 11.

11. FM 3-0, Chapter 2, Table 2-1, lists examples of joint military operations conducted with operational themes. The operations listed under "Peacetime military engagement and limited intervention" includes security assistance, joint combined exchange training, noncombatant evacuation operations and foreign humanitarian assistance. The irregular warfare theme includes foreign internal defense, support to insurgency, unconventional warfare and counterterrorism. Figure 2-2 ("The Spectrum of Conflict and Operational Themes") highlights the types of operations (operational themes) as they fall into the visualization of the spectrum of violence.

12. Bob Woodward, Bush at War (New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2002), 79-80. According to Woodward, CJCS General Hugh Shelton presented the president with three military options. The first two options centered around the use of cruise missiles or a combination of cruise missiles and aircraft to strike al-Qaeda training camps and Taliban targets. The third option presented a combination of missile and aircraft strikes with the inclusion of special operations and, potentially, Army and Marine ground forces. Though the third option introduced "boots on the ground," the intent to use SOF to work with the Northern Alliance as a surrogate force to target al-Qaeda and topple the Taliban regime was not presented.

13. A center of excellence is defined as a designated command or organization within an assigned area of expertise that delivers current warfighting requirements; identifies future capabilities; integrates assigned doctrine, organization, training, materiel, leadership, personnel and facilities dimensions; and presents resource-informed, outcomes-based recommendations to the TRADOC commanding general. The Army currently maintains six CoEs: Fires, Maneuver, Maneuver Support, Sustainment, Intelligence and Signal. (http://www.tradoc.army.mil/about.htm.)

This issue

January-February 2011
Volume 24 | Issue 1

Special Warfare, January-February 2011

Special Warfare

Special Warfare is an authorized, official bimonthly publication of the United States Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School, Fort Bragg, N.C. Its mission is to promote the professional development of special-operations forces by providing a forum for the examination of established doctrine and new ideas.

Views expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect official Army position. This publication does not supersede any information presented in other official Army publications.