The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan provided "tremendous battlelabs" for Army special operations forces (SOF), Lt. Gen Charles Cleveland said.
Adding, and now, with one war over and the other winding down, "we have to make sure we don’t lose the gains we made."
Speaking at the Association of the United States Army’s Annual Meeting and Exposition in Washington, Cleveland, who heads the Army Special Operations Command, said special operations forces have greatly matured during the past decade.
They have demonstrated skill at operations that range from highly lethal surgical strikes to promoting village stability.
At the same time, special operations forces have solidified their place in the Army.
"For the first time, special operations has its own doctrinal publication. That’s a huge departure," Cleveland said, who chaired an AUSA Institute of Land Warfare Forum Oct. 22. at the meeting.
Having published doctrine "is a recognition of our role in the broader Army," Brig. Gen. Christopher Haas, commander of the Army’s Special Forces Command (Airborne), said.
But doctrine is only part of the change.
Fighting two wars since 2001 has caused a shift in the Army’s mindset about special operations forces, Haas said.
The suspicion with which some commanders regarded SOF in the past now has largely been replaced by enthusiasm.
Commanders now are more likely understand the capabilities special operations forces can bring to the fight and ask: "Where’s my SOF," Haas said.
"Senior leadership in the Army now understands a great deal about what’s going on in special warfare," he said.
Adding, there is "more trust and confidence in the capabilities of both sides [SOF and conventional forces] than we have seen before."
The newfound regard for SOF comes as the future promises to make special operations a way of life for the Army.
"I see a future that includes a lot of small footprint operations by SOF and conventional forces," Linda Robinson, a national security and foreign policy specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations, said.
Wars or operations that are less than wars are likely be small in scale, but frequent, and will require a broad spectrum of capabilities, from peacefully working with village elders to carrying out lethal but highly surgical strikes, panel members said.
SOF personnel will likely be expected to contend with "unpredictable and not fully reliable partners in uncertain environments" around the globe, Haas said.
Cleveland said he foresees "an era of persistent conflict and persistent operations" that will place new demands on special operations forces.
New tasks for SOF troops may include "preventing and shaping" conflicts "in addition to winning" them, Cleveland said.
But even with increased demands, SOF is not expected to grow.
As the Army is reduced in size, special operations forces will shrink too, Haas said.
A smaller Army also means a smaller pool of potential SOF recruits, he said.
And, because of its small size and its high degree of specialization, Haas said special operations forces will not take "ownership of the battlespace," as some have advocated.
There are two reasons why, Haas said. One is that SOF troops often operate outside the geographical boundaries of battlefields, making "ownership" impractical. The other is that the capabilities and expertise needed "to run a battlespace" are not resident in SOF.
Instead, special operations forces will continue to rely on the conventional Army for support such as logistics, resupply and medical evacuation, Haas said.