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In this concise JSOU monograph, Dr. Rich Yarger considers the 21st century security environment, previous work on special operations theory, and various other perspectives of SOF gleaned from his research to synthesize an American SOF school of thought, which he argues provides a foundation for developing an American special operations theory for the 21st century. He offers definitions, premises, and principles that explain modern American special operations over the last 70 years and can serve SOF well into the future. Based on his research, he identifies major areas of concern for SOF leadership.
As USSOCOM confronts the challenges offered by the 21st century and policymakers continue to look at SOF as a preferred means to address numerous and complex security issues, theory is essential in determining and explaining the appropriate roles and missions for SOF in the 21st century and for building and sustaining the forces. It explains the strategic utility of SOF, bolsters the strategic art within SOF, and informs doctrine. This monograph offers a basis toward such a theory.
The timing for advancing a comprehensive theory of American special operations could not be more opportune for several reasons. First, with over 70 years of modern history, the American SOF reputation has never stood higher in the esteem of the public and policymakers. In the last two decades special operations have taken on a greater role in national defense, and policymakers and strategists have found utility in the kind of military power SOF projects. Such recognition is a double-edged sword. The nation has been confronted with significant challenges in the first half of the 21st century that have already strained the capacity of the United States and its strategic partners to deal with them. Policymakers and the 2012 Defense Strategy are correct to recognize the relevance of SOF to these threats and opportunities, but in advocating the greater use of special operations they clearly do not grasp what the SOF Truths imply about SOF capacity.5 As a result, U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) must parley the hard-earned esteem won by special operators over the past decade to build the force for the future while advising policymakers and senior military decision makers on how best to use a qualitatively constrained SOF capacity. Concurrently, a number of people question whether the greatest strategic utility is being made of SOF power.6 This is not a questioning of SOF personnel's efforts, but a genuine concern about how unique and limited capabilities are used, or not used, and how they might best be used in the future. A unified theory would inform how best to wield the SOF sword.
Second, under USSOCOM, SOF have matured into a discrete military force with many of the distinguishing characteristics that define a separate service. Theories and schools of thought explain how each service fits into the nation's security, sets the parameters for roles and missions, lays the basis for a strategic art, and informs doctrine and the professional development of the force. In the past, SOF have relied on mentoring, on-the-job experience, a limited doctrine, and a high degree of flexibility and adaptability. Notwithstanding the great need for and value of the latter, a theory and school of thought provide perspective for strategy, mission planning, and improvising when in contact with the enemy, significantly shortening and lowering the cost of the learning curve at all levels of war.