23 June 2015

The Only Thing Worse than Misusing SOF is Policy Makers Misusing SOF Operational Methods as a Strategy

June 17, 2015

The Only Thing Worse than Misusing SOF is Policy Makers Misusing SOF Operational Methods as a Strategy

Special operations forces are a national grand-strategic asset: they are a tool of statecraft that can be employed quite surgically in support of diplomacy, of foreign assistance (of several kinds), as vital adjunct to regular military forces, or as an independent weapon. Colin S. Gray

For decades now Special Operations Forces have made numerous important contributions to the military services from equipment to tactics to actual operations. From pioneering night vision flying to development of advanced weapons, body armor, personal equipment and advanced communications, much of the military equipment that is now service common was once SOF unique. The room and building clearing techniques that are used by every Army and Marine squad and platoon were once classified tactics used by special mission units.

“Through, by and with,” was developed by Colonel Mark Boyatt to describe operations by Special Forces working with indigenous elements in Haiti was adopted by GEN Odierno in Iraq in his guidance to the force when the Iraqi military was to take the lead in operations.

USSOCOM has partnered with the Army and Marine Corps to ensure there is sufficient emphasis on the human domain in the full spectrum of war fighting. The Army established the Asymmetric Warfare Group (AWG) that drew heavily from the active duty and retired SOF community and often shares SOF tactics, techniques and procedures with the Army and joint forces.

While the public is enamored with Special Operations conducted to capture or kill bin Laden in Pakistan and Abu Sayyef in Syria or rescue Captain Phillips in waters off the Horn of Africa policy makers have also become enamored with the possibility of using Special Operations methodologies on a larger scale and have more a larger amount of non-SOF forces conduct operations using SOF methods. Without specifically saying so US national leadership seems to have based the 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance on an operational methodology and techniques that are heavily influenced by SOF. We should consider this paragraph from the 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance:

“…, we will develop innovative, low-cost, and small-footprint approaches to achieve our security objectives, relying on exercises, rotational presence, and advisory capabilities.”

This is a description of some of the traditional SOF operational methods and seems like a sound way to operate in a fiscally constrained environment in which the President bases his strategy on not committing ground troops to overseas conflicts. This is the essence of our strategic problem today: we have an “ends – ways” mismatch between what we say and what we will order our military to do. We have said our end is to degrade and destroy ISIL yet we have constrained our ways and instead are trying to employ a low-cost, low-risk course of action based on SOF methods that can be very effective when properly employed in support of an overall strategy but in the wrong situation can be counterproductive and even lead to mission failure.

However, the above quote is missing two very important words: “whenever possible.” I deliberately left them off because we seem to have forgotten them and now default to using these techniques and methods without consideration of what is feasible, acceptable, and suitable. The problem is that we really do not think strategically and when it comes to SOF we do not appreciate how it can support policy and strategy with the operative word being support. SOF does not win wars by itself. Conducting operations “through, by, and with indigenous forces,” using a small footprint, advising and assisting and building partner capacity support strategy but cannot be the sole ways and means of strategy especially when trying to achieve an end such as the destruction of ISIL. Despite success host nation forces in places such as Colombia, The Philippines, and Africa with SOF support through discreet operations by advising and assisting friends, partners, and allies in support of US strategy, employment of SOF and SOF methods alone is not a substitute for strategy.

We have built a strategy of words saying we will degrade and destroy ISIL but it rests on the foundational administration policies of "no boots on the ground," no nation building (not that I am advocating nation building at all - I believe the military can be used for stability operations but only the people of a nation can build a nation and its state - we cannot do it for them), do nothing that can be associated with Bush 43. It also means that we can have no mission creep. As an aside, this is really problematic for anyone who knows that strategy needs to be adaptive and iterative but any change to the strategy based on assessment and understanding of actual conditions, both military and political, is automatically deemed mission creep. This means that strategists have to come up with the perfect strategy the first time and from then on it cannot be adapted. Use of air power is controlled from inside the Beltway and airmen are not allowed to use the full extent of their capabilities to maximize effectiveness (although administration officials and policy makers remain enamored with the Air Power and SOF lash up they observed in Afghanistan in 2001 – yet they will not allow it to be effectively employed). Worst of all the military is told to destroy ISIL but it will only be able to outsource the fight to ineffective proxy forces in Iraq and Syria whose interests are not aligned with the US. The situation in the Middle East also requires political solutions to achieve success but the US cannot force the necessary solutions upon the partner governments and organizations. Perhaps the name of the mission in Iraq and Syria should be Mission Impossible and the Task Force should be called the Impossible Mission Task Force. 

We really have to get our "WMD" right - word, message, and deed or as I like to think: word, mind, and deed -the words mean nothing to the mind of the target audience unless they are connected to the right deeds that back up the words. The problem we have with ISIL is our ends-ways disconnect - degrade and destroy ISIL does not compute in the minds of ISIL, Syrian "moderate" resistance, Iraqi government and people, the international community, and the American public when it is not backed with the appropriate deeds. The "deed" that is not appropriate, to reiterate, is contracting out the ways to inept proxy indigenous and host nation forces whose interests are not aligned with ours so that they will not be able to achieve our ends.

One of our strategic weaknesses is that we labor under the assumption that we can get people to like us (and even worse that we should try to make them like us). We should consider Machiavelli who said it is better to be feared (or better said perhaps, respected) than loved. We need to be able to act decisively in our interests and not apologize for trying to protect those interests as well as our values. In fact we should consider focusing on protecting our values rather than projecting them.

Which brings us to the most important point. We have been trying to define the nature of the conflicts we are experiencing around the world. While we still see the full spectrum from peace to war what we are observing most are conflicts in the space between peace and war or between diplomacy and war where effective use of all the instruments of power to include some forms of military engagement and at times fighting are required. While we can debate various names, i.e., "gray zone", "hybrid threats," "the missing middle," "asymmetric warfare," and more, what I fear our strategy is called is “politically correct warfare,” which is based on our fundamental strategic weakness above, namely our desire to be liked. It also leads to another strategic weakness: risk averseness (risk to the forces, risk to the mission, and most of all risks to the political leadership) that constrains us from effectively using all the instruments of national power and again drives us toward the words from the 2012 Defense Strategic guidance:

“…, we will develop innovative, low-cost, and small-footprint approaches to achieve our security objectives, relying on exercises, rotational presence, and advisory capabilities.”

Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recognizes that the troops on the ground do not have the latitude necessary to accomplish the mission. If you want the troops on the ground to be effective then you have to let them do their jobs. The more constraints we place on them in the misguided belief that by doing so and by micromanaging them from inside the beltway that this will somehow prevent things from going wrong, the more we hinder mission accomplishment and the more we put the troops at risk.

In our risk (averse) analysis, as previously stated, we have three risks: risk to mission, risk to force (people) and risk to political leadership. Based on not giving the troops sufficient latitude to do their job we demonstrate that our risk analysis is only focused on one of the three risks.

We were of course “surprised” by the rise of ISIL, so much so that Brett McGurk now says we must get a handle on this on this and the CIA has had to reorganize to fight ISIL. But our politically correct warfare has blinded us to the reality of the threats and we have spent the past 14 years trying to counter narratives and make people like us rather than protecting our interests and achieving the correct policy and strategic ends.

While all forces from both the conventional force and special operations must have advisory capabilities we are now developing these capabilities on an “industrial scale” which of course will conflict with both low cost and small footprint approaches. Despite General Dempsey recognizing that operations are going to be long duration and we must have patience it appears that the view among some policy makers is if we can send more advisors and supporting forces of up to some 20,000 to 30,000 as John Nagl advocates then we can achieve results faster. However, the 450 troops recently announced is a far cry from what Dr. Nagl and other analysts recommend. As the old adage goes: “Cheap, fast, or good, pick two because you cannot have three.” It appears we are going for cheap and fast vice good.

This is a problem caused by replacing strategy with special operations tactics, concepts, and operational methodology. This choice should be understood by policy makers and strategists: if you want a rapid and decisive victory employ conventional forces along with SOF and all the elements of national power in support of a strategy that can maximize the effectiveness of all elements. If you want to constrain the footprint and restrain cost and only work through and with indigenous forces then employ SOF. However, to do the latter you still must have a strategy that employs and orchestrates all the elements of national power with SOF in support and you must accept that it will take time and require patience to achieve the desired effect. The strategy also cannot simply be based on training and equipping but must include effective advice and assistance on operations as well as the effective diplomatic efforts to influence the host nation government and other partners (i.e. resistance forces). But we must be prepared to explain the reason for a long duration sustained effort and seek the support from the American public for a long term commitment using the U.S. military in a purely secondary and supporting role.

Continuing to add larger numbers of advisors, particularly from the conventional force will likely dis-incentivize host nation forces from fighting effectively. It will also undercut our diplomacy to influence the host nation government to make the necessary domestic political changes to undercut the legitimacy of the enemy. 

But perhaps the grossest misunderstanding of SOF methodology was demonstrated in Brett McGurk’s other comments this weekend. He stated what every SOF advisor has known from long experience. Indigenous forces always perform better when US advisors accompany them on operations. That is logical and borne out by history. But the problem becomes when the number of advisors becomes too large you create a dependent relationship and while their performance improves in the short run it may not be sustainable over time and after the departure of advisors which is perhaps a lesson we should learn from the eight years Operation Iraqi Freedom from 2003 to 2011.

Special operations and specifically special warfare, from which the expertise of advising and assisting is derived, is by nature long duration, requiring presence, patience, and persistence. SOF in today’s Iraq mission cannot be the main effort or at the forefront of policy and in the public eye where immediate short-term results are demanded by the 24 hour news cycle. They are by nature low visibility often discreet operations but of course this no longer the case with ISIL. And conducting advisory operations on an industrial scale the way the U.S. military does it is not a small footprint or low cost especially with all the logistics support required. And worse, the larger our advisory effort the more we take over operations and strategy and put the host nation in the back seat and as has been said, dis-incentivizing the host nation military forces because they know that U.S. forces will pick up all the slack.

Rather than conducting “politically correct warfare” perhaps we should consider a political warfare approach though it may well be too late to make this the foundation of an approach in Iraq. In this case the US Army Special Operations Command SOF Support to Political Warfare White Paper published in March 2015 is instructive.


“Political Warfare emerges from the premise that rather than a binary opposition between “war” and “peace,” the conduct of international relations is characterized by continuously evolving combinations of collaboration, conciliation, confrontation, and conflict. As such, during times of interstate “peace,” the U.S. government must still confront adversaries aggressively and conclusively through all means of national power. When those adversaries practice a form of Hybrid Warfare employing political, military, economic, and criminal tools below the threshold of conventional warfare, the U.S. must overmatch adversary efforts—though without large-scale, extended military operations that may be fiscally unsustainable and diplomatically costly. Hence, the U.S. must embrace a form of sustainable “warfare” rather than “war,” through a strategy that closely integrates targeted political, economic, informational, and military initiatives in close collaboration with international partners. Serving the goals of international stability and interstate peace, this strategy amounts to “Political Warfare.” (Page 1)

The question we should be asking is whether ISIL has crossed the threshold of conventional war. If not we may be able to develop an effective political warfare strategy. And note these important caveats. Political warfare is not a SOF strategy but instead plays an important roll in supporting it as is described in the USASOC White paper. But if ISIL has crossed the threshold of conventional war then we really must re-evaluate our “end-ways” mismatch and determine the appropriate elements of the military instrument to employ, assuming we believe their conventional war fighting capabilities poses a threat to the US. However, even if a larger US military force is required political warfare will still be able to play an important supporting role.

In summary, if you want to make SOF (or SOF methodologies) the lead (which I do not recommend) then look hard at a strategy based on political warfare and the orchestration all the instruments of national to achieve the ends. But if immediate or near term (even 2-4 years) destruction of ISIL is the end state then you might have to consider a strategy that does not rely solely on proxies. We cannot contract out the defense of our interests. We can help friends; partners, or allies defend themselves against their threats but if the threat includes the U.S. then contracting out operations with proxies may not be the best course of action for the U.S.

This is the fundamental analysis we must conduct. If the threat is limited and not a direct threat to the U.S. then indirect means using a low cost, small footprint advisory approach (SOF methodologies) may be enough to achieve our objectives by following George Kennan’s definition of political warfare: “In broadest definition, …the employment of all the means at a nation's command, short of war, to achieve its national objectives.” But if we determine the threat is a significant one to the U.S. then we must consider the use of all means necessary to protect the nation, to include conventional military forces in a decisive manner. The bottom line is if we are at war then we need to go to war.

David S. Maxwell is the Associate Director of the Center for Security Studies in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service of Georgetown University. He is a retired US Army Special Forces Colonel with command and staff assignments in Korea, Japan, Germany, the Philippines, and CONUS, and served as a member of the military faculty teaching national security at the National War College. He is a graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, the Command and General Staff College, the School of Advanced Military Studies at Fort Leavenworth and the National War College, National Defense University.

David S. Maxwell is the Associate Director of the Center for Security Studies inthe School of Foreign Service of Georgetown University. He is a retired US Army Special Forces Colonel with command and staff assignments in Korea, Japan, Germany, the Philippines, and CONUS, and served as a member of the military faculty teaching national security at the National War College. He is a graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, the Command and General Staff College, the School of Advanced Military Studies at Fort Leavenworth and the National War College, National Defense University.

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