Special Operations Forces:

Opportunities to Preclude Overuse and Misuse

NSIAD-97-85: Published: May 15, 1997. Publicly Released: May 15, 1997.

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Raymond J. Decker
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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO determined whether the U.S. special operations forces (SOF) are being used in a manner that best supports national security objectives.

GAO noted that: (1) SOF is considered an essential element for achieving U.S. national security objectives; (2) in general, there is a common understanding of and agreement on primary SOF mission priorities between the commanders in chief (CINC) and SOF unit commanders assigned to each of the CINCs, and the CINCs often consider SOF their force of choice for many diverse combat and peacetime missions; (3) however, there is some disparity on the priorities for collateral activities for SOF, such as embassy support and antiterrorism activities; (4) little reliable data are available on the frequency and types of SOF missions that would allow an analysis of SOF missions relative to CINC priorities and regional strategy requirements, and historical data on deployment days for all SOF elements are not available; (5) nevertheless, responses to GAO's questionnaire from almost 200 senior-level officers and enlisted personnel in SOF units indicated that they believe the deployments of SOF units have increased to the point that SOF readiness has been, or threatens to be, degraded; (6) specifically, 60, 56, and 86 percent of the Army, Navy, Air Force respondents to GAO's questionnaire, respectively, said they believe readiness has been, or threatens to be, adversely affected by the current level of unit deployments; (7) in addition, SOF unit leaders believe that SOF are performing some missions that could be handled by conventional forces; (8) opportunities exist to reduce the perceived high pace of operations, according to responses to GAO's questionnaire; (9) there may be opportunities to use conventional forces instead of SOF for some collateral missions, such as embassy support, and for missions that are already the responsibility of conventional forces, such as combat search and rescue; (10) however, without basic, reliable, quantifiable information on the nature and extent of actual SOF missions, the way in which SOF personnel are deployed, and the impact of unit deployments on SOF readiness, the U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) cannot identify such opportunities to achieve the appropriate levels of deployment and ensure that SOF are properly used; and (11) therefore, GAO believes that action is needed to complete a system that will allow the: (a) pace of SOF operations to be measured and assessed relative to national security objectives and SOF training needs; and (b) identification of the factors that cause SOF personnel to be deployed in excess of established deployment goals.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: USSOCOM has started collecting and monitoring deployment data by mission category. The data are now routinely included in weekly briefings to the CINC. The command expects to have the data necessary to establish baselines against which deployment rates can be compared by late 1998. SOCOM is using a contractor to set up this system. While working, it is not fully accurate. This should be operational within a year.

    Recommendation: To maintain the readiness of SOF to support national security objectives and help ensure that readiness is not degraded through overuse or improper use of SOF, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Commander, USSOCOM, to complete the Command's efforts to develop an information system for monitoring how the Command's forces are used and establish a methodology for periodically comparing SOF usage with the CINC's priorities and SOF training needs.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: As part of its Global Military Force Policy, the Office of the Secretary of Defense has taken actions to limit the deployment of low density but highly demanded units. Through this policy, the Department has established peacetime priorities for low density/high demand units to assist senior leaders in allocating assets for crises, contingencies, and long term operations. One key consideration in establishing these priorities is an assessment of the capabilities required for specific missions. In addition, the Joint Chiefs of Staff have begun a review of all U.S. forces, including Special Operations, to assess personnel and unit readiness. The implementation date for this study is unknown, but the study does include the impact of unit use on readiness.

    Recommendation: To maintain the readiness of SOF to support national security objectives and help ensure that readiness is not degraded through overuse or improper use of SOF, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Commander, USSOCOM, to exploit potential opportunities to reduce some SOF deployments that do not prepare SOF to perform SOF-unique missions in support of national security objectives and that can be performed by conventional forces.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense


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