Cover: Improving the Understanding of Special Operations

Improving the Understanding of Special Operations

A Case History Analysis

Published Feb 8, 2018

by Linda Robinson, Austin Long, Kimberly Jackson, Rebeca Orrie


Download eBook for Free

Full Document

FormatFile SizeNotes
PDF file 1.1 MB

Use Adobe Acrobat Reader version 10 or higher for the best experience.

Research Synopsis

FormatFile SizeNotes
PDF file 0.1 MB

Use Adobe Acrobat Reader version 10 or higher for the best experience.


Purchase Print Copy

 Format Price
Add to Cart Paperback278 pages $36.00

Research Questions

  1. How has successful change previously occurred in the U.S. Army, Joint, and U.S. Department of Defense policy regarding SOF?
  2. How can these observations inform future development of options for policymakers and to articulate ways in which the varied Army Special Operations Forces capabilities can help to meet U.S. national security objectives?
  3. How can future planning and execution by the Army Special Operations Forces, the Army, and the joint operations community be informed by an analysis of past decisions?

This report examines major U.S. decisions related to the development or employment of special operations forces (SOF). The purpose of the report is to analyze how change has previously occurred in Army, Joint, and U.S. Department of Defense policy regarding SOF to inform future development of options for policymakers and to better articulate the ways in which the varied Army Special Operations Forces capabilities can help to meet U.S. national security objectives. The report aims to assist the special operations community to better understand the policy process; formulate appropriate, sound courses of action; and engage with other members of the U.S. government interagency community in a constructive manner.

Thirteen cases are covered in this report: (1) creation of 6th Army Special Reconnaissance Unit; (2) creation of the Office of Strategic Services; (3) creation of U.S. Army Special Forces; (4) special forces expansion under President Kennedy and contraction through the Vietnam War; (5) Central Intelligence Agency – SOF cooperation in Southeast Asia, 1961–1975; (6) special operations capabilities: creation of U.S. Special Operations Command and the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict; (7) special operations capabilities post-9/11 SOF expansion; (8) special mission unit expansion; (9) operational authorities and employment of SOF: section 1208; (10) operational authorities and employment: the Global SOF Network initiative; (11) operational authorities and employment: irregular warfare directive; (12) operational authorities and employment: SOF and Plan Colombia operational authorities and employment; and (13) SOF support to Syrian fighters.

Key Findings

Common Factors That Affected the Decisions and Outcomes of the Cases Studied

  • Identify whether a propitious policy window exists.
  • Understand and leverage established processes to initiate proposals and pursue objectives.
  • A proposal is most likely to succeed if development is rigorous and its substance is externally validated.
  • Map stakeholders and incorporate them from the outset to solicit input and encourage buy-in.
  • Cultivate networks and advocates at all levels in the stakeholder community.
  • Provide subject-matter expertise to Congress and develop relationships with staff through authorized engagements.
  • Address bureaucratic rivalry with deliberate strategies that advance whole-of-government synergy and avoid zero-sum outcomes.
  • Pursue incremental change as part of a long-range plan.


  • Develop "plain English" explanations of special operations terminology and narrative. Rather than coin new doctrinal terms, this report recommends using plain language for wide audiences, in particular relying on such readily understandable broad terms as special operations, indigenous and partnered approaches, and precision targeting.
  • Further develop the relationship between SOF and the Central Intelligence Agency and reframe the conduct of unconventional warfare (UW). A cooperative approach readily suggests itself, which is that these forces enjoy the greatest success if they combine efforts in the conduct of UW. The historical record also suggests that most often, the President will prefer to authorize a UW mission under Title 50 authorities as a covert operation via a presidential finding.
  • Prepare SOF to interact at the policy level. Perhaps the most important single focus of attention for Army SOF, considering the effects it could have for all other SOF activities, would be revisions to its personnel, leader development, and education practices to permit, motivate, and leverage SOF interagency knowledge and experience.
  • Emphasize pathways to innovation and excellence. The nature of special operations, with a premium on flexibility of formations and agility in approaches, necessitates not only innovative material solutions but innovative thought leadership.

Research conducted by

This research was sponsored by the U.S. Army Special Operations Command and conducted by the Strategy, Doctrine, and Resources Program within the RAND Arroyo Center.

This report is part of the RAND research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

This document and trademark(s) contained herein are protected by law. This representation of RAND intellectual property is provided for noncommercial use only. Unauthorized posting of this publication online is prohibited; linking directly to this product page is encouraged. Permission is required from RAND to reproduce, or reuse in another form, any of its research documents for commercial purposes. For information on reprint and reuse permissions, please visit

RAND is a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decisionmaking through research and analysis. RAND's publications do not necessarily reflect the opinions of its research clients and sponsors.