Special Operations Forces: From Reaction to Preemption

Date of Graduation

Summer 2005


Master of Science in Defense and Strategic Studies


Defense and Strategic Studies

Committee Chair

C. Walton


Since the events of 11 September 2001, the use of Special Operations Forces (SOF) has significantly changed. Prior to this, Counterterrorism (CT) was primarily reactive in nature, reflecting the overall view of terrorism as a law enforcement matter. The events of 11 September provided a paradigm shift that changed the view of terrorism to an act of war and enabled a doctrine of preemption. This change has profound implications for the Special Operations Command (SOCOM), which is tasked as the lead military agency in the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT). Global deployments of SOF reflect a strategy aimed at both working with local populations and winning ‘hearts and minds’ through Unconventional Warfare (UW) and Foreign Internal Defense (FID), and the desire to conduct aggressive Direct Action (DA) missions. Aggressive use of SOF is referred to as black or high-end operations while missions centered on foreign populations are considered white or low-end. This thesis advocates the continued use of both white and black SOF. Criticisms, be they moral, legal, political, or ideological, ultimately fall short when compared to the threat of transnational terrorists and the proven value of SOF units in current deployments in the GWOT. Future SOF missions are likely to be small in scale and involve close cooperation with the CIA. The future of SOF in CT is uncertain. Future political and military leaders could prove to reverse the present use of SOF. However, given the current security environment marked by asymmetric threats the need for SOF various skills will likely continue.


Special Operations Forces, global war on terrorism, preemption, counterterrorism, intelligence

Subject Categories

Defense and Security Studies


© Matthew P. Johnson