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The Fusion of Special and Cyber Forces Makes Sense

There is increasing focus for U.S. Cyber Command (CYBERCOM) to try and replicate the ability of the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) – the unified combatant command with the mission of overseeing the special operations elements in the U.S. 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.”  Indeed, per Politico, an unnamed Congressional aide confirmed that CYBERCOM’s evolution has 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 are able to pull from their existing capabilities, along with space, to fuse cooperation best suited to the needs of today’s information-enabled environment.

In fact, a mid-2022 U.S. defense article revealed that the Army was in the process of doing something similar, trying to combine the military’s cyber, special operations, and space capabilities to create what it termed as a “deterrent triad.”  In this scenario, personnel are embedded together to correlate intelligence from their respective mission areas in order to amplify capabilities to target or deter an enemy.  This seems a natural progression for the U.S. military that first embraced the concept of joint operations in 1993, the doctrine that governs the activities and performance for the U.S. military across the range of operations.  Incorporation of cyber, space, and special operations components are fitting complements to today’s battlespace, and the U.S. Army has already conducted its first tactical exercise using cyber teams in tactical scenarios that required hacking specific targets.  The special operations commander acknowledged that the future of warfare may need more “coders” and less “door breakers.”

The fusion of various aspects of resources in the pursuit of strategic national objectives have garnered global attention since Russia started implementing its “hybrid warfare” strategy.  Hybrid warfare, a concept that includes the synergistic fusion of conventional, irregular, and non-kinetic activities, to achieve advantage.  While Russia has been on the forefront of such integration, the United States looks to be behind its primary adversary, at least according to one prominent think tank.  This is a disconcerting turn of events, given that the United States appears to be firmly engaged in 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 own 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 the conducting of 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 the conflicts in the future, whether to support more conventional engagements like in Ukraine, or those requiring more surgical surreptitious precision.

And while the United States 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 Chinese resources “from cyber to space” and to counter the United States’ Joint All-Domain Command and Control Initiative.  China’s Strategic Support Force is pivotal in making Chinese military “joint,” and its roles and responsibilities are key to harmonizing all of China’s information warfare mission areas.  One U.S. defense official described MDPW as a way to look across the domains to identify vulnerabilities and exploit them.  China’s history of replicating U.S. military practices suggests that it too will look to enhance its own 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 in order 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 pentesting techniques in addition to 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 important 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 together in order 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 may necessitate the speed, adaptability, and stealth of special operations’ proficiency.  If Ukraine is any indication of what future state-on-state engagement looks like, “joint” synergy may be less important than “blended” to achieve maximum effectiveness in pursuit of national security interests.

Emilio Iasiello

Emilio Iasiello

Emilio Iasiello has nearly 20 years’ experience as a strategic cyber intelligence analyst, supporting US government civilian and military intelligence organizations, as well as the private sector. He has delivered cyber threat presentations to domestic and international audiences and has published extensively in such peer-reviewed journals as Parameters, Journal of Strategic Security, the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, and the Cyber Defense Review, among others. All comments and opinions expressed are solely his own.