Doug Ollivant's recent article for CNN, "What war has in store," addresses key themes in planning for future conflict. However, the problem with Ollivant's approach, along with that of many other policymakers, is the heavy focus on special operations forces (SOF) as the silver bullet to many of our nation's security threats.
It is the conventional force that will continue to do the heavy lifting in most if not all conflicts. Therefore, the US should be looking through a different lens to effectively prosecute these future wars. To be successful, it is the conventional forces that require structural improvements and individual training, which will better achieve the overall results that Ollivant desires for the US to adapt to the operating environment of future wars.
First, it must be acknowledged that conventional forces must remain the primary means of achieving victory in future wars. While special operations forces are excellent enablers to almost any conflict, their small size, niche capability and high cost are obstacles to being the weapon of choice. By contrast, conventional forces are formed to the very struggles Ollivant describes; Gaza, ISIS and Ukraine.
SOF is best employed in specialized mission sets and as a complement to conventional forces, but should not supersede them. Employment of company-sized units along with SOF that mutually support one another with logistics, fire support and medical aid are the cornerstone of effectively fighting future small wars.
Second, Ollivant neglects to express how the US military command structure, persistent engagement and integrating SOF into conventional operations are the keys to success. Conventional units must be forward-deployed persistently to establish long-term relationships and trust with the local population to enable success in future conflicts.
You start by expanding theater security cooperation engagements augmented by military-to-military training and exchange programs at the lowest levels possible, such as non-commissioned and company-grade officers.
To be effective in future distributed operations, the US military must loosen its strict hierarchical command-and-control procedures. The Army and Marine Corps must experiment now in their large-scale training exercises to best design, develop and train company-sized units prepared to operate in a widely distributed, non-contiguous environment. It will require commanders and their staffs to redesign longstanding training scenarios, creative thinking, and a willingness to accept failure in training.
Advancing integration of SOF with conventional forces in training and exercises is needed. An unintended consequence of the current paradigm is that SOF missions generally occur outside the conventional force's battlespace. So, rather than executing integrated operations, we have developed a culture of segregating the two to mitigate risk.
Third, Ollivant mentions language and cultural training for conventional forces, but inaccurately gives the priority to training SOF. This is a historical trend that continues today, resulting in our conventional forces being inadequately prepared to understand the societal underpinnings of small wars, an element critical to strategic success.
A practical example is how multiple Western militaries can operate in their former colonies so effectively. Take, for example, the French military operating in northern Africa. The French history in Africa provides context for understanding the deep-seated problems that develop in many African states. In fact, many French officials are critical of how US forces operate "outside the wire" from large bases rather than living and operating among the local population.
Ollivant also describes the "long-standing suggestion to increase language training," but then asserts it should be focused on SOF, while conventional forces are trained "as need be." However, the fact that the US military does not provide thresholds of basic language training for all conventional forces will have other consequences. Learning the language naturally includes a basic understanding of culture, religion, politics, etc., which will make US forces better prepared to understand the strategic context of the struggle.
As the US reconfigures its defense priorities while assuming a reduced defense budget, language and cultural training, combined with challenging field exercises integrating SOF, cannot be overemphasized. Presence and integration are critical. At stake is the US military's proper preparation for "what war has in store."
Michael Tyson is commandant of the Marine Corps' senior fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington, and Kenneth Lewton is a retired Marine lieutenant colonel serving as a government contractor with the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab in Stafford, Virginia. These views represent only those of the authors'.