Dangerous by Design: The American Special Operations Institution and Strategy in Irregular Warfare
The United States Department of Defense defines irregular warfare as a struggle among state and nonstate actors to influence populations and affect legitimacy. Yet, despite the centrality of influence and legitimacy in this definition and military doctrine, U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) has almost exclusively relied on force while fighting irregular wars since 9/11. Why have strategies employed by United States special operations forces in irregular warfare converged on the use of force to the exclusion of other forms of power like inducement and persuasion? I argue that SOCOM’s convergence on strategies of force resulted from the path dependent nature of the civil-military institution surrounding special operations. Congress uniquely designed SOCOM to have a dual operational and institutional role, generating strong feedback channels not seen elsewhere in the military. The degree of feedback SOCOM receives from its operations varies according to their salience, while the type of feedback—positive or negative—is determined by the perceived appropriateness of the operations and forces who conduct them. I test my theory by tracing the development of SOCOM, paying particular attention to its treatment of three types of units that proxy for different applications of power: direct action units that apply force, Psychological Operations units that apply persuasion, and Special Forces units that have the capability to apply various forms of power. Using interviews with over 50 elite policymakers and special operations personnel, an original discrete choice experiment and survey instrument, archival research, and analysis of primary source materials from SOCOM, the Pentagon, and Congress, I find that direct action force is considered to be more salient and appropriate than inducement or persuasion. The positive feedback generated by the use of force and negative feedback from the use of persuasion helped SOCOM’s direct action units lock in leadership positions and sustain institutional arrangements that continued to prioritize the use of force. My research contributes to the understanding of how civil-military relations shape the selection of military strategies broadly, and it specifically offers important insights for how states select strategies in irregular warfare.
Embargo Lift Date
Showing items related by title, author, creator and subject.