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WS 586

Research Paper

The Future of
Special Operations Forces

Royal Military College
War Studies

20 September 2006
WS 586 The Future of Special Operations Forces 20 September 2006 Chad KOHALYK

In the push for “force transformation” being conducted in most advanced nations world-

wide, special operations forces (SOF) may have to find new roles or else find themselves in dan-

ger of being consumed by future conventional forces. There are two reasons for this: the first is

the impact of technological advances primarily in the field of communications; second is current

thinking about the Future Security Environment (FSE), which has been highly influenced by the

experience of the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan. The combination of these two factors will im-

pact the mission portfolio — and possibly the form — of tomorrow’s special operations forces.

Following the end of the Cold War the advanced nations started to overhaul their militaries.

The international security environment after the collapse of the Soviet Union was considered un-

stable, requiring flexible and rapidly deployable forces. The reduction of defence budgets after

the Cold War demanded militaries do more with less. Recent advances in information and com-

munications technology led planners to believe a revolution in military affairs (RMA) was afoot,

allowing smaller forces equipped with high technology to do more than the traditional prepon-

derant conventional forces of the Cold War era. Visions of semi-robotic soldiers fighting an

equally high tech force on both a physical battlefield and in cyberspace were widespread.

This process of transformation continues into the twenty-first century. Fantasies of high

technology still continue, but are coloured by the experience of intervention in Balkans and most

recently in Afghanistan. The current prevailing view is that a high tech battle with a near peer

competitor is far on the horizon of the future, and irregular warfare will be a defining characteris-

tic of the future operating environment.

Special operations forces have been going through their own transformation in recent

years. From humble beginnings in the Second World War to mistrust and misuse during Vietnam,

WS 586 The Future of Special Operations Forces 20 September 2006 Chad KOHALYK

special operations forces struggled through the late seventies and early eighties accomplishing

some spectacular victories and experiencing some devastating defeats. Finally the “precarious

value” of SOF has been recognized, and SOF forces have been leading the war on terror, not in a

supporting role but as the tip of the spear.

Special operations forces are currently in favour around the world. In the United States re-

cent data on SOF operational tempo is not open to the public, but Pentagon and Congress offi-

cials have indicated that demand is outpacing supply as SOF are deployed at historical peak

levels.1 Completely new SOF units are being stood up in countries like Canada.

In recent years the transformation of conventional forces has gained momentum. In the

next ten to twenty years the roles and responsibilities of regular “green” army soldiers may force

special operators to redefine themselves. What could this next stage in SOF progression look

like? This paper will examine the major impetuses for SOF transformation and illustrate how

special operations forces will stay relevant in the future.

SOF and Technology

The impact of technology on tactics and war is universal and eternal. Military historian Martin

van Creveld wrote that “war is permeated by technology to the point that every single element is

either governed by or at least linked to it.”2 Special operations forces have always had the benefit

of being equipped with the latest and greatest of advanced technology. A flexible organizational

structure allowing off-the-shelf purchasing of equipment — circumventing a lengthy procure-

ment system — combined with unorthodox tactics has translated into a force that quickly and

1 Fitzsimmons, pp. 205.

2 van Creveld. pp. 311.

WS 586 The Future of Special Operations Forces 20 September 2006 Chad KOHALYK

easily leverages technological solutions for missions. This of course has been one of the numer-

ous sore points between special operators and conventional soldiers.

Generally, missions within the purview of special operations forces around the world in-

clude: direct action, strategic reconnaissance, unconventional warfare, foreign internal defence

and counter-terrorism.3

Technology has been integral to many of these mission types. Thus, improvements in tech-

nology will lead to improvements in the ability to complete missions. For example, improved

sensor capabilities could aid in counter-terrorism. As smaller and increasingly sensitive micro-

phones and cameras are developed, more information could potentially be gathered in a hostage

situation. The location of hostages in an airplane or embassy could be pinpointed and monitored

closely, potentially saving lives during a rapid assault by special forces operators.

The capabilities most affected by technology are precision and communication. Advanced

scopes and laser designators have improved targeting abilities. Precision Guided Munitions have

been augmented by satellites. GPS systems allow easy targeting through geolocation, for exam-

ple with “smart bombs” such as the Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM). On average in Opera-

tion Desert Storm ten aircraft were needed to destroy a single target, whereas in Operation En-

during Freedom one aircraft was used to destroy two targets.4

Satellites are possibly the single most important piece of new equipment in today’s mili-

tary. Besides increasing precision firepower they enhance capabilities for communications as

well as navigation in the form of GPS. Long range communication through satellite phones and

3 This is a general list for the purposes of this paper only. Specific SOF units may have missions above and beyond
those defined here. For example, the US special operations mission portfolio also includes civil affairs, psychologi-
cal operations, information operations and counter-proliferation.
4 Chin, pp. 64.

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data uplinks allowing the transfer of massive amounts of data are enabled by satellite technology.

Better long range communications allows units to conduct operations over longer distances. Fur-

thermore, the hardware for these technologies is becoming increasingly smaller, rendering the

backpack-sized communications suite of yester-year obsolete.

Communications technology is not only getting smaller, it is getting cheaper. The cheaper

it becomes to produce equipment the more widespread it becomes. The average soldier is the

benefactor of this process. As better technological solutions aid in SOF mission success, cheaper

technology will allow regular soldiers access to laser designators, satellite imagery and GPS-

enabled navigation and communications suites.

The Afghan Model

Special operations forces played a very important role in the invasion of Afghanistan starting late

2001. American SOF units travelled on horseback through high, rocky mountain paths unnaviga-

ble by vehicles to make contact with Northern Alliance leaders.5 Using classic tactics reminiscent

of eastern Europe during World War II special operators paid off and organized local militias,

coordinating them in the fight against the Taliban. SOF would also provide support for Northern

Alliance forces in the form of air strikes conducted by US and coalition air assets. Special opera-

tors conducted direct action missions by providing line of sight targeting for coalition precision-

guided munitions in Tora Bora.

5 For more on SOF ponies in Afghanistan, see Biddle (2002) pp. 9-10:

“... commandos hauling loads of over 40 pounds of equipment per man were given Afghan moun-
tain ponies with wooden saddles and told to ride along with Dostum’s troops. ... instructed by their
commander to keep their downhill foot out of the stirrups and to lean uphill so if the pony lost its
balance they would fall onto the trail as the pony went into the gorge. On particularly rocky
stretches the team commander ordered his men to travel with weapons out and a round chambered
to shoot immediately any pony that bolted before it could drag its rider to his death over the

WS 586 The Future of Special Operations Forces 20 September 2006 Chad KOHALYK

Operation Enduring Freedom saw an exceedingly small force deliver extraordinary effects

at an astonishing operational tempo. A small number of special operations forces were inserted

into Afghanistan twelve days after the start of the war, and at the height of the invasion there

were no more that 4,000 US service personnel on the ground.6 Washington Post staff writer Dana

Priest saw a “new way of war” on the horizon, and gushed at the efficiency of special operators:7

It took 49 days [from Oct. 19] ... until the Taliban fell to the Northern Alliance
in the southern city of Kandahar on Dec. 6. Moreover, it took just 316 Special
Forces soldiers: 18 A-teams, four company-level units and three battalion-level
commands, all reporting to a Joint Special Operations Task Force at the Kha-
nabad Air Base in Karshi, Uzbekistan, 100 miles north of the Afghan border.
Nearly every team also included one or two CIA operatives and an Air Force
Special Operations combat controller, expert at guiding high-flying aircraft to

In the defense community a debate arose as to why the invasion of Afghanistan was so

successful.8 Some argue the combination of special operations forces, precision guided munitions

and indigenous allies was responsible for victory. This equation allowed Western forces to anni-

hilate enemy forces from a distance, pacifying an area that indigenous allied forces would then

occupy and hold. A small number of troops directing indigenous fighters meant a leaner military

force, easy to deploy and also resulted in far less Western casualties, an intolerable drain on do-

mestic political will. Proponents argue that the “Afghan Model” could serve as a lesson for fu-

ture conflicts.

Detractors of the Afghan Model cite poor skills and lack of motivation as a contributing

cause of the Taliban’s loss. Furthermore, tribal Afghanistan’s “culture of defection” is pointed out

6 Chin, pp. 64.

7 Priest, Dana. "'Team 555' Shaped a New Way of War." Washington Post 3 Apr. 2002: A01.
8 See Biddle (2002) for a more indepth look at the opposing sides of this argument.

WS 586 The Future of Special Operations Forces 20 September 2006 Chad KOHALYK

as a unique variable raising skepticism about the application of the Afghan Model to future con-


Stephen Biddle argues that the invasion of Afghanistan was successful for completely dif-

ferent reasons. According to Biddle the campaign was “a surprisingly orthodox air-ground thea-

ter campaign in which heavy fire support decided a contest between two land forces.”9 Enduring

Freedom used generally orthodox fire-and-maneuver tactics — albeit with some unique charac-

teristics — similar to wars of the past. The difference though, was in the close integration be-

tween fires and maneuvers. Better communications technology allowed not only for more precise

targeting, but a decentralized command and control system putting munitions where ground

forces needed it, faster and more reliably. During the invasion air planners cut the traditional 72

hour targeting cycle to as little as 12 hours. Pilots would loiter in 30 “kill boxes” waiting for tar-

gets to be designated by operators on the ground. 10

The reality of highly dispersed ground forces tightly integrated to fires support through a

robust communications network encouraged military planners concerned with force transforma-

tion, validating and reinforcing previous concepts.

The Army of Tomorrow

Thinking about the Future Security Environment (FSE) was shaped in the post-Cold War era of

humanitarian intervention, nationalist movements and the rise of microstates. But the Western

experience in Afghanistan solidified some ideas of what the military should plan for in the future.

After examining arguments over the Afghan Model Biddle concluded that the future enemy will

be “dispersed, dismounted, covered and concealed” thus “the demand for dismounted infantry in

9 Ibid. pp. 6.
10 See Dana Priest, “Team 555 shaped a new way of war.”

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Army combat units is likely to rise.”11 Similar conclusions were reached in light of conceptual

thinking about what the FSE portends.

The Canadian Forces conceived Future Security Environment is described as a world

where irregular warfare will be more prominent, operations in complex terrain will increase and

conflicts more protracted. The emphasis on non-state as opposed to state actors will increase, and

threat will be more transnational and cross border in character. In the future the importance of

shaping “hearts and minds” will rise. Defeating armed forces will be less significant than affect-

ing an opponents will and resolve. The focus on humanitarian and reconstruction requirements as

part of stabilization operations will increase. The use of commercial weapon systems, off-the-

shelf and novel technologies will grow and the time-frame for procurement of new equipment

will be drastically reduced in a bid to remain technically current and relevant. The use of non-

scripted strategies and tactics to overcome problems, especially in a networked environment, will

gain in importance. A very important aspect of the future force is that all levels of command and

individuals will be networked, both in a technological and social sense.12

This vision of the future is shared across Canada’s closest allies. Strategic analysts from the

United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand envision a similar Future Secu-

rity Environment (FSE) characterized by “volatility, uncertainty, and complexity.”13 These allies

are in close contact with one another, and are all following a similar path of transformation into

the twenty-first century.

11 Biddle, pp. 56.

12 Godefroy, pp. 15.
13 See The ABCA Future Concept, pp. 4.

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The Canadian Forces vision for transformation is known as the Army of Tomorrow (AoT)

project. This project informs the Chief of Land Staff on the Future Security Environment and

acts as a conceptual framework for a new Force Employment Concept. The new Force Employ-

ment Concept will become the Canadian Forces roadmap for transformation over the next few


The Army of Tomorrow’s central operating concept is Advanced Dispersed Operations

(ADO) which is described as:

... the ability to conduct coordinated, interdependent, full spectrum actions by

widely dispersed teams throughout the width and depth of the battlespace. ...
The concept envisages networked and integrated manoeuvre forces alterna-
tively dispersing and aggregating over extended distances to find, fix, and
strike full spectrum threats throughout the AoT battlespace. These operations
are dispersed in relation to time, space, and purpose.

ADO combines the power of Network Enabled Operations (NEOps) and an effects based

approach to build an agile force capable of delivering various affects thought the spectrum of


Although the ABCA allies14 are expected to continue developing distinct strategies, con-

cepts and capabilities, the common understanding of the Future Security Environment is re-

flected in similar approaches. Below is a comparison of ABCA high level operating concepts:15

14 America, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

15 Ibid, pp. 3.

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Operational EBO Knowledge focused Versatile Knowledge edge
manoeuvre from
strategic distances Agility Network enabled Agile Tailored force

Shaping & entry Directed logistics Effects based Orchestration of Multi-mission force
operations effects
Network enabled Flexible Networked force
Decisive manoeuvre command Devolved situational
Sustainable awareness Precision manoeuvre
Concurrent and sub-
sequent stability op- Modular Network enabled Effects based
Close combat in
Network enabled combined arms
battle command teams

Distributed support Modular

and sustainment
Decision superiority

Network-enabled, effects based, modularity (tailored force) and agility/flexibility are

common concepts across most of the ABCA allies.

A key pillar in the ADO concept is modular units dispersed over a large physical bat-

tlespace. Traditionally tight ranks were kept, and units stayed within mutually supporting range.

Dispersion on the battlefield will necessitate enhanced fire support from higher echelon assets to

make up for the protection once provided by flanking heavy machine guns. Thus a tight integra-

tion between maneuver units and fires will be required. The Army of Tomorrow Primer outlines

the enabling concept of Joint Fires envisioning:16

... a network of land, air, and/or sea-based sensor, weapon, and command and
control systems that combine to provide the dispersed force commander a mix
of lethal and non-lethal area and precision options for engaging the enemy. The
AoT JFS [Joint Fires Support] capability is based on a reduced engagement

16 Godefroy, pp. 38.

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response time-line to produce the desired effect on multiple targets under a

wide range of limiting operational conditions.

Furthermore, the concept of the “front” has been all but abolished. Networked units dis-

persed across a number of non-contiguous areas of operations will spread out giving humanitar-

ian assistance to the population or directing fire from air or naval assets. The SOF experience in

Afghanistan saw dispersed units over a large physical battlespace, networked through satellite

communications and armed with closely integrated fire support.

The Army of Tomorrow will also be advantaged by technology becoming rapidly cheaper.

During the Gulf War only the Americans had the advantage of night observation devices and sat-

ellite navigation equipment. Today any civilian can order this equipment with just a credit card.

Satellite imagery is available from any number of sources on the World Wide Web.

Canada’s vision for the Army of Tomorrow sees a “fluid force structure" that may be "con-

figured as required to meet a specific mission or aim.”17 This “modular” force will be able to

quickly link the resources and capabilities of many organizations to deal with a changing envi-

ronment flexibly. A flexible procurement system will have to be developed to maintain pace with

a modular force. Current military procurement practices will have to shed lengthy bureaucratic

procedures and create a flexible, speedy system which will put current technology in the hands of

the soldiers.

Reorganization of military force also means more decentralization. The Army of Tomorrow

seeks to devolve responsibility to even lower ranks than before. A debate within the Canadian

defence community is trying to determine exactly what level of joint fires support can be called

17 Ibid. pp. 54.

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upon by what level of soldier in the field, and under what circumstances.18 Soldiers at ever lower

levels are required to make strategic decisions on the ground. The demands and responsibilities

placed on the individual soldier today and in the future are growing and will continue to grow.

In light of these developments, the question remains whether or not SOF is a model for the

conventional Army of Tomorrow. With conventional forces becoming smaller and more agile,

dispersing over long distances to conduct full-spectrum operations with modular units made up

of more empowered soldiers armed with the technology and responsibility to direct land, air and

sea-based precision guided weapons, how “special” will special forces be in the future?

Not so special?
Special operations forces are a tiny sub-set of a military’s infantry. There is also much confusion

in defining this sub-set, and what units actually constitute special forces. Different countries have

different ways of identifying their special forces. Generally, units can be divided into three cate-

gories. Units with rigorous selection processes requiring soldiers with highly specialized skills

(not normally associated with conventional infantry skills) to work in small teams are considered

“Special Operations Forces.” Examples include Delta Force, Green Berets, Navy Seals, Special

Air Service and Special Boat Service. “Raiders” are units that have highly trained soldiers that

can perform arduous tasks in larger operations. The US Army Rangers, UK Royal Marine Com-

mandos, the 82nd Airborne and 16 Air Assault Brigade a good examples of Raider units. Finally

there is conventional “Light Infantry” which includes the conventional units that make up the

bulk of the military.

18This topic was the subject of much discussion between Battle Group design panel members at the Army of Tomor-
row Seminar Wargame, August 2006.

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Each of these categories has specific roles in operations. General Edward Charles “Shy”

Meyer, who was one of the men responsible for the rebuilding of US special operations in the

1970’s, discusses the divisions:19

“When we started to lay out the differences between what Ranger forces could
do and what they couldn’t do, and what light infantry [forces] could do and
what they couldn’t do... . it became clear that there was a void that needed to be
filled on the low end of the spectrum of warfare that included not just counter-
terrorism but a host of other requirements.”

General Meyer was one of the main personalities behind the standing up of Delta Force in

1977, the US military’s counter-terrorism force.

Charles Heyman, Editor of Jane’s World Armies, gives an illustrative example of how

these different types of units work together:20

Special Forces will undertake the identification and close reconnaissance of

likely targets, and the targets will then be attacked by Raider units ... Forward
operating bases, from which Special Forces and Raiders may have to operate,
will require some serious defences. This will generate a requirement for con-
ventional light infantry to man the defensive perimeter and if necessary to pro-
vide defence in depth by patrolling out into the surrounding countryside.

Light Infantry obviously make up the bulk of a military. The

strength of the United Kingdom’s Regular Army Infantry as of 1
January 2006 was 40 battalions.21 Raider units represent a

smaller ratio of highly trained soldiers. The UK Royal Marines

Light Infantry
are made up of 6 regiments. Finally, “real” SOF represent a

19 Marquis, pp. 63.

20 See Heyman (2001).
21See the British Army Strength and Deployment statistics online at
<http://www.armedforces.co.uk/army/listings/l0086.html>. The 40 battalions stated above is strictly Infantry and
excludes Armour, Artillery, Engineers, Medical Regiments, Air Corps and other Battalions/Regiments. The total
number of Battalions/Regiments in the UK’s Regular Army is 133.

WS 586 The Future of Special Operations Forces 20 September 2006 Chad KOHALYK

much smaller number of personnel. The Special Air Service has three regiments in total, two ter-

ritorial army and only one regular army.

Special operations forces by their very nature make up a very small portion of the military.

They have a distinct organizational culture that separates them from conventional forces. The

military personnel that are attracted to special operations units have a different mindset than con-

ventional officer and and enlisted personnel. John M. Collins, staff researcher for the Congres-

sional Research Service, has conducted numerous studies on special operators and found that:22

Innate intelligence, physical strength, agility, stamina, and standard training are
not enough. Temperaments also must combine resourcefulness, ingenuity,
pragmatism, and patience with self-discipline and dependability to extraordi-
nary degrees. ... Even common tasks call for uncommon skills applied under
uncommon circumstances. [For example] ... any rifle company can conduct
conventional raids and ambushes, but it cannot do well indefinitely, [and] while
[it is] living off hostile land, safely relieve an enemy convoy of volatile cargo,
... or accomplish many other special missions.

Only a certain type of personality can be recruited and trained to the level operationally

required by special operations forces. Lowering the standards to allow more personnel into SOF

would be self-defeating. Increasing that small percentage of special operators without lowering

the extremely high standards would be extremely difficult. Thus it would be impossible to field

an entire military of special operators. As former commanding general of Joint Special Opera-

tions Command and US Army Special Operations Command, General Peter Schoomaker has

stated, “Special operations forces cannot be mass produced.”23 Despite this increasing the num-

ber of special operators is a very attractive option for some countries.

22 Marquis, pp. 46.

23 Schoomaker (1997).

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Canada is attempting to do this by standing up the Canadian Special Operations Regiment

(CSOR). Canada’s Joint Task Force 2 will maintain its counter-terrorism mission, and CSOR will

"support JTF2 but contribute capabilities of its own" including training foreign soldiers, special

reconnaissance operations or direct-action missions.24 CSOR will join JTF2, a new special opera-

tions aviation squadron and an expanded nuclear, biological, chemical and radiological response

unit under the recently stood up Canadian Special Operations Forces Command (CANSOF-

COM). CANSOFCOM is to increase Canada’s special operations capability and is estimated to

be responsible for 2,300 personnel by the end of the decade. 25

CSOR looks to be a Green Beret equivalent and the proposed new Airborne unit may take

on a Raider-type mission portfolio. The only core special operations mission Canada does not

seem to address is an Unconventional Warfare capability.

The US is also expanding its SOF assets. The 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review recom-

mended and increase in special operations forces by 15 percent. This would include a third more

Army Special Forces battalions, a 2600 man Marine component in Special Operations Com-

mand, more Navy SEAL capacity and a new SOCOM UAV squadron. The QDR also called for

expanded Psychological Operations and Civil Affairs units.

Michael Fitzsimmons argues that this is exactly the wrong direction to take in regards to

the relationship between SOF and conventional forces.26 Instead of bringing more units under the

purview of SOCOM, such as the experimental Marine reconnaissance unit, conventional infantry

24 See Pugliese, “Riding with Canada's Commandos.”

25 Ibid.
26 Fitzsimmons, pp. 215.

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units should take ownership of innovative concepts and tactics themselves. Fitzsimmons argues

that policy-makers should even consider moving the Rangers out of SOF.27

Expansion seems to be in the near future of special operations forces. But in order to pre-

serve the quality of these forces, growth must be incremental. As mentioned earlier, this is a

daunting task and special forces must maintain high standards to preserve its “specialness.” In-

creasing the number of Raiders may be an easier task. Either way this type of force generation

has a finite limit.

A more viable future for SOF might not be a vast increase in numbers, but a devolution of

responsibilities. Conventional forces, as per the Army of Tomorrow, will be increasingly able to

carry out certain mission types such as Direct Action or Special Reconnaissance. US Secretary of

Defense has already begun looking for opportunities to shift SOF missions to conventional

forces to alleviate strain on special operations force structure.28 Armed with cheaper, more read-

ily available technology and highly integrated Joint Fires Support, regular “green” army soldiers

will be able to conduct missions that were once only the purview of today’s special forces. Tech-

nology, once the boon of SOF, will ultimately redefine what a special operation is.

This does not preclude the abolition of special operations units. Highly specialized mis-

sions such as counter-terrorism and Unconventional Warfare will always require small, highly

trained teams thereby guaranteeing the existence of SOF in the future. Furthermore, certain types

of Direct Action missions, for example missions with extremely tight operational security, the

targeting of a strategically important high value target, or “deep operations” with little to no

higher echelon support will require the advanced skills of special operators. As current specific

27 Ibid. pp. 214.

28 Fitzsimmons, pp. 204.

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special operations missions are reassigned to other units, the SOF of the future will have to be-

come even more specialized. Technology does not make a soldier a special operator, training and

skills do. If technology makes certain missions easier for lower-tier forces to do, then SOF will

update their skillset to do what cannot be done by conventional forces.

Advanced technology has been a double-edged sword for special operations forces. Once a part

of their unique identity, advanced technology will ultimately redefine that identity. Furthermore,

the SOF experience in Afghanistan has influenced military planners’ perceptions of the capabili-

ties of technology and dispersed organizational design. This has given planners concrete prece-

dent to base their vision of how military operations will be conducted in the future security envi-


But vision does not equal reality. The ABCA nations’ respective future strategic analysts

may have a highly detailed idea of what the mid- and longterm future should look like, but the

near term future will affect how those plans are played out. Government policies and bureau-

cratic inertia could stalemate plans to build a modular, networked force governed by a flattened

hierarchy and commander’s intent, something that looks much different than we have today. The

military structures found in today’s militaries have hundreds of years of history. The defence

community as a whole has countless vested interests. Change will not come easy. Current poli-

cies such as Canada’s Management Readiness Program could stymie the more revolutionary

changes necessary to bring the Army of Tomorrow closer to the present. The actual future of spe-

cial operations forces very well could be more of the same, at least until the next crisis alters the

paradigm of international conflict a la the Cold War or the September 11th attacks.

WS 586 The Future of Special Operations Forces 20 September 2006 Chad KOHALYK

Arthur C. Clarke famously observed that the effects of technological innovations are typi-

cally overrated in the short run but underestimated in the long run. The advancement of cheap

and widely available technology may change the role of SOF in the future. As certain types of

missions become conventionalized, special operators will change there skillsets to reflect the un-

conventional. What that role exactly is remains to be seen, but SOF has survived a rocky history

thus far, and is sure to survive into the future, in one form or another.


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