According to trusted government sources, there is an increasing focus on US Cyber Command (CYBERCOM) to try and replicate the ability of the US Special Operations Command (SOCOM), the unified combatant command with the mission of overseeing the elements of the special operations in the US Armed Services to bring capabilities directly into the battlespace. At a recent meeting, the chief of CYBEROM is quoted as saying that the command is “trying to build our authorities much in the same way Special Operations Command did this.” An unnamed Congressional aide confirmed that CYBERCOM’s evolution had been modeled on the same “legislative techniques” used for SOCOM. The concept sounds reasonable, particularly as the conflicts being fought are moving to more agile and quick operations. And as one author points out, both commands can pull from their existing capabilities and space to fuse cooperation best suited to today’s information-enabled environment.
A mid-2022 US defense article revealed that the Army was doing something similar, trying to combine the military’s cyber, special operations, and space capabilities to create what it termed a “deterrent triad.” In this scenario, personnel is embedded together to correlate intelligence from their respective mission areas to amplify capabilities to target or deter an enemy. This seems a natural progression for the US military that first embraced the concept of joint operations in 1993, the doctrine that governs the activities and performance of the US military across the range of operations. Incorporating cyber, space, and special operations components is a fitting complement to today’s battlespace. The U.S. Army has already conducted its first tactical exercise using cyber teams in tactical scenarios requiring specific hacking targets. The special operations commander acknowledged that the future of warfare may need more “coders” and fewer “door breakers.”
The fusion of various aspects of resources in pursuing strategic national objectives has garnered global attention since Russia started implementing its “hybrid warfare” strategy. Hybrid warfare is a concept that includes the synergistic fusion of conventional, irregular, and non-kinetic activities to achieve an advantage. While Russia has been at the forefront of such integration, the US looks to be behind its primary adversary, according to one prominent think tank. This is a disconcerting turn of events, given that the US appears to be firmly engaged in a non-military confrontation with China and Russia for the foreseeable future, where the soft power tenets of hybrid warfare take place in what is often termed “the gray zone.”
While the United States has used financial and material resources to bolster Ukraine in its conflict with Russia in its version of hybrid engagement, the combination of cyber and special operations units is Washington’s recognition that this needs to be implemented on the battlefield level as well. Special Forces’ abilities to work in small, clandestine operations and access hard targets could be a natural fit for cyber ops that require similar covert consideration, careful planning, and specialized skill sets. Additionally, these forces’ experience with working with regional communities, host country language skills, and their background in conducting influence activities are immediately relevant to non-disruptive cyber actions. The sea, air, land, space, and cyber domains are all touched by information technology, making the immersion of special and cyber forces imperative for conflicts in the future, whether to support more conventional engagements like in Ukraine or those requiring more surgical surreptitious precision.
And while the US works on fusing its capabilities across domains, its other significant adversary China is quickly adopting a similar mindset through its “Multi-Domain Precision Warfare (MDPW),” a strategy intended to align all of the Chinese resources “from cyber to space” and to counter the US Joint All-Domain Command and Control Initiative. China’s Strategic Support Force is pivotal in making the Chinese military “joint,” Its roles and responsibilities are key to harmonizing all of China’s information warfare mission areas. One US defense official described MDPW as a way to look across the domains to identify vulnerabilities and exploit them. China’s history of replicating US military practices suggests that it, too, will look to enhance its special operations forces with an offensive cyber capability as it monitors Russian and U.S. developments in this area. Given China embracing an all-out engagement across political, military, economic, and cultural as it strives for global influence, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Beijing isn’t looking to fast-track this capability to be used worldwide.
Special Forces are often cross-trained in specialized disciplines to make them streamlined, self-reliant teams. While the integration of cyber operators may be necessary for the present, being able to perform more technical missions is logical in an information space-driven environment that touches all of the warfighting domains. Special operators may soon find themselves learning pen-testing techniques and other sophisticated skills. What’s more, the very secretive nature of this blended capability lends itself to overtly and covertly supporting other governments, as in the case of Ukraine, in both a military and nonmilitary capacity, and even training them. When looking at another potential hot spot area like China-Taiwan, special operations units could play an even more critical cyber role than a kinetic one, especially if hostilities fall short of armed conflict.
Moving forward, the Department of Defense (DoD) may look to combine CYBERCOM and SOCOM to unify special capabilities under one umbrella and one budget and independent of other DoD entities. As the Ukraine crisis has borne out, militaries will need to be able to address the complex nuances of hybrid warfare, even if conventional military operations are taking place. Not every action will or should require a kinetic response, but it may necessitate the speed, adaptability, and stealth of special operations’ proficiency. If Ukraine is any indication of future state-on-state engagement, “joint” synergy may be less critical than “blended” to achieve maximum effectiveness in pursuit of national security interests.
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