Cover: Supporting Persistent and Networked Special Operations Forces (SOF) Operations

Supporting Persistent and Networked Special Operations Forces (SOF) Operations

Insights from Forward-Deployed SOF Personnel

Published Oct 16, 2017

by Derek Eaton, Angela O'Mahony, Thomas S. Szayna, William Welser IV


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Research Questions

  1. What are the operational challenges that deployed personnel have encountered?
  2. Can persistent, networked, and distributed operations resolve the operational challenges identified? If so, how?

U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) executes its mission through a synchronized network of people and technology that provides sustained, persistent, SOF-specific capabilities and capacities and increased persistent forward-deployed presence to support the geographic combatant commands in the execution of their theater campaign plans. Using a multipronged approach, RAND Corporation researchers identified three key operational challenges that forward-deployed personnel have encountered — unity of effort, continuity of effort, and administrative complexity — and then assessed the extent to which persistent, networked, and distributed (PND) operations can mitigate these challenges. PND operations can address some of these challenges through enhanced theater special operations commands (TSOCs), increased forward-deployed personnel, and enhanced interagency and partner-country partnerships. As a critical element in PND operations, enhanced TSOCs have the potential to greatly improve SOF effectiveness. Some improvements accruing to enhanced TSOCs will stem directly from the higher personnel numbers assigned and the consequent removal of constraints on USSOCOM's ability to engage in the full range of planning and coordination activities. However, the assignment of appropriately trained staff to the TSOCs for extended periods of time is essential in order to ensure that all the gains of more-robust TSOCs are realized. Increased forward deployments also have the potential to enhance the impact of SOF activities. The effect can be substantial if the activities are coordinated with other U.S. efforts and build on prior SOF activities with partner forces.

Key Findings

Researchers' Findings Spanned Three Operational Challenges for Special Operations Forces

  • Special operations forces (SOF) and the U.S. Department of State do not integrate their processes as much as they could. SOF teams' mission effectiveness appears greater when there is transparency and trust in teams' interactions with the embassy country team. Integration could also improve between SOF teams.
  • Short-duration deployments coupled with poor to nonexistent documentation for subsequent teams have resulted in dropped products and degraded teams' ability to build on past efforts.
  • The most challenging, mission-critical contract that SOF personnel negotiate appears to be for hiring interpreters. Funding processes generally also frustrate SOF personnel. And many teams found that the foreign disclosure and vetting processes for foreign personnel took longer than the team had expected, which has led to canceled training missions.
  • In addition to these unity- and continuity-of-effort and administrative complexity challenges, researchers found inefficiencies and incongruity in information-sharing between SOF and partner-nation (PN) forces, in PN equipment for training and exercises, in lacking language capabilities upon deployment, in failed or insecure communication capabilities and equipment, and in body armor that can be worn less visibly when wearing civilian attire for meeting with local leaders.


  • Add personnel with both U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM)– and geographic combatant command–specific backgrounds to the theater special operations commands (TSOCs).
  • Ensure that TSOCs are large enough to be effective, to provide continuity between deployments, to support SOF personnel administratively, and to coordinate with other agencies.
  • Leverage SOF liaison elements, such as SOF liaison elements and liaison officers, to improve unity and continuity of effort.
  • Stagger deployments of key personnel.
  • Use the National Security Decision Directive 38 process to formalize relations with chiefs of mission.
  • Include SOF and geographic combatant commander planning within broader U.S. strategic planning at the country level, preferably through the mission strategic resource planning process.
  • Educate SOF and the interagency about their respective activities, capabilities, and responsibilities.

This research was sponsored by U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) and conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Defense Research Institute, a federally funded research and development center sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the Unified Combatant Commands, the Navy, the Marine Corps, the defense agencies, and the defense Intelligence Community.

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