Unconventional Deterrence in Europe: The Role of Army Special Operations in Competition Today
The Problem: Russian New Generation Warfare
Russia’s aggressive actions in Georgia, Crimea, and Ukraine highlight its ability to quickly achieve escalation dominance along its frontier through the employment of new generation warfare and reflexive control. Russia occupied sovereign Georgian territory, quickly annexed Crimea, and supports proxy separatists in the Donbass region of Eastern Ukraine—subverting Western interests without triggering a war with NATO.
This Russian way of war involves a combination of early planning, mobilization of special forces and proxy elements (“little green men”), and political warfare. Under the guise of protecting “compatriots,” Russia utilizes indigenous populations to justify humanitarian intervention and then maintains “frozen conflicts” to create new facts on the ground that cement favorable political outcomes, such as thwarting Georgia’s accession into NATO. Russian faits accomplis against neighbors demonstrate its ability to separate the U.S. and its partners politically. Russian speed and unity of action exploit the West’s uncertainty about the extent of what is happening, its permanence, and an inability or unwillingness to respond quickly and assertively.
In competition, Russia stays below the threshold of armed conflict by paralyzing political decision-making processes through the use of information operations and unconventional warfare. On select battlefields of its choosing and in support of its broader campaign of competition, Russia dominates in short periods of armed conflict utilizing advanced weaponry and employing anti-access/area denial systems. Through this hybrid operational construct, Russia has proven its ability to separate its foes’ armed forces in time, space, and function through the application of non-military, indirect, asymmetric, and traditional military methods. Furthermore, allied war games have demonstrated that Russian forces could accomplish even more. They could reach the Estonian and Latvian capitals of Tallinn and Riga within 60 hours, while the recent Russian Zapad 17 exercise further demonstrates the vital nature of speed for the NATO alliance.
Russia’s new generation warfare presents two critical challenges to traditional deterrence. 1) Evasion mechanisms characterized by “salami tactics” avoid triggers for a NATO Article V response. 2) Advanced anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities constrain options to punish the offender. Traditional deterrence, backed by large military formations and nuclear weapons, relies on the power to hurt an adversary if they cross a line. Deterring hybrid threats requires a different approach. It must address the vulnerabilities the adversary exploits in the target nation and augment capabilities to asymmetrically nullify the adversary’s military advantages. Army Special Operations Forces offer unconventional ways to achieve such deterrence.
Confronting the Challenge: Unconventional Deterrence in Europe
"It is precisely to send a message to Russia -- don't do it –we are ready and will not be hoodwinked like Ukrainians." - Karolis Aleksa, Lithuanian Ministry of Defense
In recognition that conventional force preparation alone is inadequate, the Baltics and other European nations have adopted a whole-of-society “Total Defense” approach consisting of civilian and military elements with the populations serving as the primary actor.
Army Special Operations Forces (ARSOF) play a critical role in preparing the European population to fulfill its Total Defense responsibilities – defending national sovereignty through resilience to adversary aggression and regaining national sovereignty through resistance to enemy occupation. Deterrence is the aim, preventing adversaries from taking malign actions in the first place. Deterrence requires both military capability and political commitment to use it. One without the other is insufficient. Moreover, America must demonstrate its capability and signal its intention to act early to establish its credibility and influence Russian foreign policy.
American commitment increases partner resilience and resistance within the affected country. However, conventional deterrence postures, such as large exercises and troop mobilization, can be viewed as offensive—despite efforts to signal defensive intentions. Unconventional deterrence is typically less provocative because it involves a smaller military footprint and less overt show of force. Yet it still communicates to the would-be adversary, such as Russia, “If you invade, don't expect our people to make it easy for you.”
As an element of allied support, ARSOF contributes to both resilience and resistance through foreign internal defense (FID) and preparation of the environment. Working with partner forces, this unconventional application of security force assistance asymmetrically sets the theater to shape the operational environment, deter aggression, and establish the conditions to win in large-scale combat operations (LSCO).
Resilience – FID, executed by Army Special Forces, Special Operations Civil Affairs, and Psychological Operations units, contributes to resilience by supporting partner nations’ internal defense and development programs. These pre-conflict activities bolster the nations’ institutions prior to the employment of resistance and address societal vulnerabilities that Russia exploits.
Civil Affairs - Civil-Military Support Elements (CMSE) from the 92nd Civil Affairs Battalion, 95th Civil Affairs Brigade maintain a persistent presence 365 days a year in Europe. CMSEs map the human terrain, allowing Special Operations Command Europe (SOCEUR) to better understand the ground truth in the countries where the teams operate while also supporting partner nations’ civil administration. Civil Affairs units are also uniquely capable of advising and assisting the partner nation on the development of a parallel or shadow civil government to govern during resistance while supporting its ability to achieve a high level of political mobilization, and assisting in the facilitation of civil unrest.
Psychological Operations - The 6th Psychological Operations Battalion, 4th Psychological Operations Group shapes, disrupts, and influences behaviors of foreign audiences through precision messaging. Psychologically hardening populations against adversary influence operations is a form of cognitive access denial. Exercises such as Gallant Sentry, which focused on the ethnically Russian region of Narva in northeastern Estonia, demonstrate the power of messaging to communicate U.S. and NATO protection of marginalized communities, assure partners, and deter Russian aggression, rendering Estonians and other Europeans less vulnerable.
Resistance – In preparation for resistance activities to regain national sovereignty post-invasion, Special Forces groups enable European allies to harden civilian populations and develop local insurgencies. This resistance capacity serves as a persistent deterrent in support of resilience by signaling to an adversary that the target of aggression would be too difficult to take and hold – a form of physical access denial. Those capabilities may be exercised as flexible deterrent options (FDO) in lieu of, or in conjunction with, conventional FDOs. If deterrence fails, ARSOF could support existing resistance capabilities through unconventional warfare (UW) activities in a blunt layer transition to slow enemy momentum and enable combat forces to surge into the theater of war. ARSOF could also leverage the insurgency to create windows of opportunity for the Joint Force to exploit in the close and deep areas during LSCO. Security cooperation exercises in support of resistance include:
Trojan Footprint– This SOCEUR-led exercise rapidly deployed SOF from America, Canada, and across Europe into Poland and the Baltics on short notice to support the region’s indigenous territorial defense forces’ resistance activities. Trojan Footprint demonstrated ARSOF’s ability to shape the battlespace for decisive action by conventional forces while clearly sending the message that the U.S. is ready to go to war to protect its NATO allies.
Flaming Sword – This annual Lithuanian SOF-led multinational exercise, linked directly to Trojan Footprint, focused on Lithuanian SOF’s ability to command and control SOF from multiple nations, and integration with their conventional and irregular forces, the Ministry of Interior, and other agencies to neutralize asymmetric threats, conduct resistance activities, and support conventional forces in countering hybrid aggression.
Allied Spirit– Allied Spirit is a U.S. Army Europe-directed multinational exercise designed to enhance NATO and key partners’ interoperability and readiness. This exercise allowed ARSOF to build capacity with partner SOF and territorial defense forces while improving integration and interoperability with the U.S. Army’s 2nd Cavalry Regiment, the 1st Infantry Division, and the 4th Infantry Division Mission Command Element. As part of a contingent representing 10 nations, Texas Army National Guardsmen from 19th Special Forces Group (Airborne) mentored Albanian SOF and the Lithuanian National Defense Force Volunteers (KASP), Lithuania’s primary irregular defense unit.
Unconventionally Expanding the Competitive Space
Army Special Operations Forces play a critical role in building the resilience and resistance capacity to support Europe’s "Total Defense" programs. This demonstrates U.S. resolve to NATO while signaling the costs of Russian aggression without requiring a significant military footprint. Conventional force preparation alone is inadequate to deter Russia’s hybrid threats because of Russia’s significant economic, materiel, and military advantages. No realistic amount of American-provided lethal aid can tip the balance against Russia.
Conventional deterrence, then, is insufficient. It is also more costly. Conventional deterrence in Europe runs $1.875 billion for a conventional rotational presence versus $55.8 million for SOF partnerships to build capacity. At a fraction of the cost, unconventional deterrence supplements conventional deterrence by hardening an entire society to adversary attempts to subjugate them and by providing means to resist before, during, and after large-scale combat operations.
These contributions are an advancement of ARSOF’s Cold War forward presence in Europe and mission to conduct UW should war break out between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. This forgotten history should serve as a mental model for operations today. ARSOF’s cost-effective expansion of options allows the Joint Force and policymakers to capitalize on limited resources and Conventional Forces-SOF synergy to prevail in great power competition with Russia.
LTC Bryan Groves is an Army Strategist and Special Forces officer serving as the Director of the United States Army Special Operations Command (USASOC) G-5 Strategic Planning Division.
MAJ Steve Ferenzi is an Army Strategist and Special Forces officer serving in the USASOC G-5 Strategic Planning Division.
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army Special Operations Command, the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.