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Re-examining SOTF Command Protocols in the era of Strategic Competition

By Juan Quiroz


This paper analyzes the shortcomings of current Special Operations doctrine that prescribes deploying Special Forces, Ranger, Naval Special Warfare and Marine Special Operations Command battalion level units as cores to establish Special Operations Task Forces (SOTFs), with a focus on how “rotational SOTFs” are ill-suited to the current era of strategic competition where SOF missions focus on long-term effects and preparation of the environment. Successful actions by state and non-state adversaries to shape operation environments in their favor are contrasted with the drawbacks of rotational SOTFs and show how these weaknesses do not allow Special Operations Forces (SOF) and strategic-level leaders to fulfill the “SOF Tenets of Command” listed in JP 3-05, Special Operations. Instead of relying on this practice, this paper recommends updating doctrine to allow for a new type of SOTF headquarters staffed by permanent-party soldiers and includes Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations soldiers in the command structure, while still commanding rotational tactical elements (company and below). The benefits of the proposed restructure include mitigating deployment-induced continuity lapses, improving Theater Special Operations Commands’ ability to measure long-term impacts, improving the synergy of diverse SOF specialties, and aligning SOTFs’ force structure and operational focus with current strategic thinking.


In competition, nonlethal effects are the favored tool of state competitors, and increasingly, non-state adversaries.[1] Special Operations Forces (SOF), with their specialized skills and comfort in ambiguous situations, are the best military tool to complement other instruments of U.S. power and shape environments in favor of U.S. interests

However, there are problems that hinder SOF from maximizing its potential as a shaping force. A 2017 RAND Study determined that bureaucratic complexities, deployment-induced continuity breaks, and disunity within both interagency and SOF had adverse effects on SOF operational effectiveness.[2] To mitigate these issues and improve Theater Special Operations Command (TSOC) shaping operations, SOF command-and-control doctrine must be updated to establish enduring Special Operations Tasks Forces (SOTF), that include Civil Affairs (CA) and Psychological Operations (PSYOP) leaders in key leadership billets.

Doctrinal Limitations and Inconsistencies

JP 3-05 establishes tenets to ensure commanders properly employ SOF elements, four of them are especially crucial to long-term operations[3]: (3) Provide supported commands SOF staff with sufficient experience and expertise to plan, conduct, and support operations; (5) Match SOF unit capabilities with mission requirements; (6) Understand SOF’s synchronization of special operations within joint operations as part of unified action; and (8) Maintain SOF continuity within operational areas and commanders. 3-05 further recommends Special Forces (SF), Ranger, Marine Special Operations (MARSOC), and Naval Special Warfare (NSW) as ideal units to deploy as SOTFs with enablers attached, as needed.[4] For short-term kinetic missions, this model is practical, but it is unsuited to current operational realities where countering state and non-state adversaries have become long-term campaigns. The criticality of the SOF Command tenets in grey-zone conflicts will be explored in further detail to identify the shortcomings of rotational SOTFs and propose how enduring cross-functional SOTFs are better suited to resolve these issues.

Strategy Must Have Continuity (Tenets #3 & #8)

In Africa, China uses state-owned and private enterprises to exert influence on markets and governments.[5] Chinese diasporas are employed for more aggressive purposes, such as disrupting western support for Hong Kong’s resistance movement or stripping medical supply markets.[6] Since the 1990s, Russia has issued passports in tandem with disinformation to stir separatist sentiment and create pretexts for military action such as the 2014 Crimea seizure.[7] These shaping operations require long-term investment and focus to come to fruition, which puts SOF at a disadvantage due to short deployment cycles. For SOF missions, deployment rotations are especially harmful. The loss of operational knowledge and rapport with interagency partners hinders continuity and the development of coherent strategies against competition and counterinsurgency problem sets.[8]

While it is not feasible to keep tactical SOF elements in austere environments for extended tours, SOTF headquarters already operate outside austere environments, in some cases far away from subordinate elements. So why not base SOTFs in duty stations where personnel can bring families on 2 to 3-year service tours and avoid the loss of operational experience and institutional knowledge during a unit Relief in Place/Transfer of Authority (RIP/TOA)? By making SOTFs enduring entities, the burden of maintaining interagency relationships and measuring the long-term impact of operations can be assumed by experienced staffers instead of rotating tactical elements. Without organizational continuity, institutional memory only lasts until the next RIP/TOA, setting conditions for repeating the vicious cycle outlined in the Afghanistan papers: outgoing units claim success while their replacements inherit deteriorating operational environments.[9]

In Support of Policy Objectives (Tenet #5)

Kinetic operations will always have a place in SOF’s tool kit. However, lethal effects only buy time and space for SOF and Joint, Interagency, Intergovernmental, and Multinational partners to affect environmental changes that advance U.S. objectives. The 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS) lists “corruption, predatory economic practices, propaganda, political subversion, proxies, and threat or use of military force” as the preferred tools of malign actors.[10] The NDS also points out that extremist ideologies are most dangerous in areas suffering from political and economic instability.[11] JP 3-05 acknowledges this new reality, describing irregular warfare as the use of “political, psychological, and economic methods, reinforced with military-type activities that favor indirect approaches and asymmetric means.”[12] Both policy and doctrine recognize that warfare has shifted primarily to the political, economic, social, and informational spheres; CA and PSYOP areas of expertise. To truly match SOF capabilities with current missions sets, CA and PSYOP leaders are required in SOTF leadership to ensure non-lethal effects are leveraged for maximum shaping effect on SOF Areas of Responsibility.

Synchronizing SOF Effects (Tenet #6)

Rotational SOTFs normally require augmentation to effectively plan and integrate SOF activities into a cohesive effort.[13] JP 3-05 recommends attaching CA and PSYOP tactical elements to SOTFs even when information and civil-military task forces are already operating in the same areas.[14] SOTF staffs also receive CA & PSYOP augmentees, but they are limited to an advisory role. On the other hand, Commanders, Operations Officers, Chiefs of Staff, and Senior Enlisted Advisors from SF, NSW, and MARSOC units have the authority to shape operations and are usually the same rank as CA and PSYOP staff personnel.

Within Army SOF, personnel from all branches (SF, PSYOP, CA) attend the same post-qualification courses, e.g., Operational Design and Network Development Courses, to increase interoperability and integrate all branches’ capabilities. 1st Special Forces Command, recognizing the advantages of integration, is now pushing for the formation of cross-functional teams.[15] Synergy at the tactical level will not translate to meaningful progress on TSOC lines of effort however if decision-making authority at SOTFs is primarily monopolized by one SOF branch. A cross-functional SOTF headquarters with different SOF personnel filling key billets would better integrate the varied capabilities of tactical SOF elements and better shape the current strategic environment, where non-lethal effects are displacing lethal effects as the weapon of choice of state and non-state participants.

De-mobilize Force Providers

With the United States Special Operations Command attempting to fulfill increasing operational commitments by growing the force, some might balk at the prospect of “permanent” SOTFs competing with component SOF units to fill manning requirements from an overworked personnel pool.[16] This is a valid concern, especially for low-density units such as CA and PSYOP, whose skills are in high demand for competition and counterinsurgency problem sets.[17] The solution is to streamline component SOF unit’s Modified Table of Organization and Equipment. while ensuring they have enough force structure to accomplish their force-provider missions and, if necessary, deploy to support contingency operations worldwide. Enduring SOTFs would gain the newly “released” SOF personnel from CONUS-based units and assume ongoing operational planning and support functions currently conducted by rotational units in SOTF billets.

Another benefit of delineating between force-provider and operational units is the opportunity it provides key development-complete soldiers to continue working on problem sets they encountered at the tactical level and build professional networks outside of their branch. Operational billets, especially command billets, can be used to reward leaders who perform well in force-provider billets and raise their profile when it comes to consideration for promotion or positions of increased responsibility.

Thrive through Transformation

During a lecture Professor Sean McFate asserted that war is “retreating into the shadows,” and adversaries would only engage in conventional conflict when their end-states are fait accompli.[18] One only has to look at authoritarian states’ adoption of “lawfare” tactics against social media companies to see Russia’s successful degradation of democratic norms,[19] or Chinese incursions into neighbors’ airspaces to increase its sphere of influence.[20] None of these actions are war in the traditional sense but they shape the physical, informational, and cognitive battlefields. To win these battlefields, doctrine needs to evolve and ensure the SOF enterprise is postured to shape environments characterized by “uncertainty, complexity, rapid change, and persistent conflict.”[21]

Practitioners of irregular warfare can look back to their predecessors for examples of discarding obsolete organizational practices as a prerequisite to achieving mission success. During World War II from 1942 to 1945, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) Detachment 101 distinguished itself from its already unconventional parent organization by disregarding branch distinctions when assigning personnel to operational billets, mostly due to manning shortfalls and increasing operational requirements.[22] Detachment 101 would frequently adapt its command structure to operational realities as the Burma campaign progressed, incorporating specialties like psychological operations in anticipation of evolving mission requirements and an eye towards achieving strategic impacts.[23] In its final mission in Burma’s Arakan region, Detachment 101 employed “maritime, land, psychological, and intelligence components” to turn an operational backwater into a success story with theater implications while simultaneously disbanding itself.[24]

Although our current strategic environment is not as dire as a world war, recent actions by revisionist competitors blur the line between competition and conflict. With 100,000 soldiers massed on its Ukrainian border and ongoing cyber-attacks, European partners warn that Russia’s brinksmanship could tip into large-scale conflict, at the cost of tens of thousands of lives.[25] China is bolstering its aggressive posture towards Taiwan, violating Taiwanese airspace a record 961 times in 2021, and is set on ratcheting up tensions in the coming year.[26] These situations may still be resolved peacefully, but it is important to remember that these actions are being undertaken because our adversaries believe the operational environment currently favors them, and they are willing to capitalize on perceived advantages to achieve their objectives. SOF is the U.S.’ best military tool to reclaim the initiative and shape operational environments in our favor. To achieve our objectives, it is necessary to reevaluate command-and-control practices and establish enduring SOTFs that include CA and PSYOP leaders at the operational level, not just as tactical-level enablers, or staff advisors, and foster operational continuity for the long-term struggle to counter, and if necessary, defeat our increasingly emboldened adversaries.

About the Author

Juan Quiroz served as a Civil Affairs Team Chief in the 91st Civil Affairs Battalion from 2019 to 2021 and deployed to Northwest Africa in 2020. He is currently a Training With Industry (TWI) Fellow at Research Triangle Institute (RTI International). The opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect the views of his prior or current organization.

[1] Omer Dostri, “The Reemergence of Gray-Zone Warfare in Modern Conflicts,” Military Review, (January-February 2020), [2]Derek Eaton, Angela O’Mahony, Thomas S. Szayna, William Welser IV, Supporting Persistent and Networked Special Operations Forces (SOF) Operations: Insights from Forward-Deployed SOF Personnel (CA: RAND Corporation, 2017), ix-x, [3]Joint Chiefs of Staff, Special Operations JP 3-05, Department of Defense (Washington DC: Joint Chiefs of Staff, 2014), III-2. [4] Joint Chiefs of Staff, Special Operations JP 3-05, III-9 – III-10. [5] Liang Xu, “The three phases/face of China in independent Africa,” Social Science Research Council, accessed May 25, 2021, [6] Chauncey Jung, “How China’s ‘United Front’ Endangers Ethnic Chinese Abroad,” The Diplomat, May 12, 2020, [7] Peter Dickinson, “Russian Passports: Putin’s secret weapon in the war against Ukraine,” The Atlantic Council, April 13, 2021, [8] Derek Eaton, Supporting Persistent and Networked Special Operations Forces (SOF) Operations, 13-14. [9] Craig Whitlock, “At War With The Truth,” The Washington Post, December 09, 2019, [10] Jim Mattis, Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy of The United States of America (Washington DC: Department of Defense, 2018), [11] Jim Mattis, Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy. [12] Joint Chiefs of Staff, Special Operations, II-1. [13] Chris Liggett, “It is Time for Civil Affairs to Lead Special Operations in Northwest Africa,” Small Wars Journal, March 25, 2021. [14]Joint Chiefs of Staff, Special Operations, III-10. [15] “A Vision For 2021 And Beyond,” 1st Special Forces Command, accessed May 25, 2021, [16] Mark F. Cancian, “U.S. Military Forces in FY 2020: SOF, Civilians, Contractors, and Nukes,” Center for Strategic & International Studies, October 24, 2019. [17] Andrew Feickert, “U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF): Background and Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Service, May 6, 2021. [18]Sean McFate, “The Unconventional Future of Conventional War” (Horns of the Dilemma Podcast, The Clement Center, University of Texas, April 30. [19] Adam Satariano and Oleg Matsnev, “Russia Raises Heat on Twitter, Google and Facebook in Online Crackdown,” New York Times, May 26, 2021. [20] David Axe, “The Chinese Air Force Practiced Resupplying Its Island Outposts. Malaysia Wasn’t Happy,” Forbes, June 02, 2021. [21] Joint Chiefs of Staff, Special Operations, II-1. [22] Troy James Sacquety, “The Organizational Evolution of OSS Detachment 101 in Burma, 1942-1945” (PhD diss., Texas A&M University, 2008), 277. [23] Sacquety, “The Organizational Evolution of OSS Detachment 101 in Burma, 1942-1945,” 275-277. [24] Sacquety, “The Organizational Evolution of OSS Detachment 101 in Burma, 1942-1945,” 250-252. [25] Economist, “As war looms larger, what are Russia’s military options in Ukraine?” Economist, January 21, 2022, [26] Eric Chang, “5 Chinese military aircraft enter Taiwan’s ADIZ,” Taiwan News, January 20, 2022,

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