The United States has arrived at a critical inflection point in the development and employment of its special operations forces. (Robinson 3)

When I heard about Linda Robinson’s Council on Foreign Relations sponsored white paper I was expecting another abstract academic work which was frighteningly detached from anything resembling reality but was pleasantly surprised at Robinson’s down to earth recommendations. Her outline of SOF and policy recommendations are impressively on target, especially for someone on the outside looking in, without getting into classified aspects of the Special Operations community.  You can read Robinson’s paper, The Future of US Special Operations Forces on the CFR website.

As someone who was an insider, I felt that I had a bit of an opportunity to expand on a few of her points from a soldier’s perspective. I should note up front that what you will read here are my personal opinions and in no way represent official statements from SOCOM or for that matter the unofficial opinion of the Special Operations community as a whole.

Direct vs. Indirect Approaches

Much have been made over the last ten years about Special Operations Forces, in particular Special Forces, getting fixated on Direct Action operations. While units such as SEALs and Rangers are designed for Direct Action, Special Forces is designed for Unconventional Warfare. Unconventional Warfare emphasizes a long term approach to influencing the battle space by developing host nation military forces (Foreign Internal Defense) and engaging with the local community on various civil projects among other activities. The accusation has been made that SOF has gotten obsessed with conducting Direct Action High Value Target raids at the expense of keeping an eye on the long game.

Afghan and coalition forces patrol Shah Joy district
Special Forces in Afghanistan

While this claim has merit we should also look at the flip side of this issue. Iraq was spiraling into chaos by 2005 as the country imploded on itself. The gloves had to come off and dismantling terrorist networks with non-stop Direct Action operations was the only tangible tool at SOF’s disposal in order to keep the country at least somewhat intact. What we would have been looking at without using this tool would have been a clear decisive defeat in Iraq. The consequence which this would have had on America domestically and on the world stage would have been absolutely devastating. We should have played the long game from the beginning, Special Forces really should have been the main effort for the duration of the War on Terror but when push came to shove we did what we had to do.

However, Direct Action enabled America to save face. As bad as that sounds, a face saving withdrawal was preferable to a bitter defeat but this strategy was never a real long term solution to the problem. If you need further evidence of this examine exhibit A: Iraq and exhibit B: Afghanistan. Direct Action of course has its place and is always a tool that Special Operations soldiers should have at their disposal but unilateral combat operations are not always the preferred method.

The Conventionalization of US Special Operations

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Operator vs. Assaulter

And the indirect approach languishes more as a bumper sticker or a random engagement tool than an overarching game-changing approach that effectively addresses conflicts or emerging threats. (Robinson 14)

Part of the problem is that building long term relationships and being cultural experts is largely lip service within the Special Forces community and SOCOM. While there are some Special Forces soldiers who thrive on FID, the vast, vast, majority are only interested in conducting Direct Action. Everyone wants to pull triggers. Very few want to concern themselves with the relatively mundane FID mission. Behind the curtain, there is a fair amount of xenophobia within the ranks. A lot of guys don’t want to work that closely with Arabs. On one hand this is understandable, this author must concede that there are aspects of Arab culture that are difficult to reconcile with American values. How many of you have had an Arab want to hold your hand as gesture of friendship? Kisses on the cheek? Does that make you feel gay? However, if you cannot interact with the local culture than perhaps the Special Forces mission is not for you.

In the Special Forces Assessment and Selection program, soldiers are selected for Special Forces training based partly on how they interact on a team, and how personable they can be with others. That may not sound like normal selection criteria for barrel chested freedom fighters, but if you think about it, being personable and knowing how to approach others is a critical skill in Special Forces, and SFAS takes some positive steps in this regard.

Special Forces in Colombia
Special Forces in Colombia

The obsession with Direct Action runs deep. When I was in Special Forces, nearly everyone wanted to go for to the CIF Company (a DA specific element), which was seen as having increased stature and respect within the unit. The emphasis is very much on training for DA operations while in the rear, and there are also bureaucratic incentives to conduct DA. Crossing out names on a list of bad guys is something tangible – successful operations which promotions can be based on.

What about the ODA that builds close rapport with the local military and political establishment, has some wells dug for the villagers, and slowly swings local support away from the Taliban so that in a few years they support the Americans? You can’t put that on a Powerpoint slide. That is subtle, and no one has the patience in a world of 6-month deployments where officers are rapidly cycled through duty positions for a mission that spans years.

Special Forces largely maintains the image of conducting UW rather than DA because they can always claim the Robin Sage training exercise that every Green Beret goes through in the Q-Course. Robin Sage is a great course, but this is, and was, the end of UW for many Special Forces soldiers.

When it comes to selection and training, how could we improve UW capabilities? I’ve come across some interesting examples. When South Africa’s Recce commandos would hold selection courses, they would pair up one white candidate with one black candidate. Bare in mind that we are talking about apartheid-era South Africa, a nation considered to be very racist and xenophobic. Those caricatures were exaggerated in some ways, but racial tensions were very real. So was the culture clash.

Could you imagine pairing up each SFAS student with a soldier from Colombia, the Philippines, or Afghanistan? Someone who you have to build rapport with in order to complete selection, but you probably don’t speak a word of their language? Actually accomplishing this out at Camp Mackall would be problematic, but it’s something to think about anyway.

How about the Q-Course? Robin Sage is a great exercise, but I think for further UW training we should replicate Dark Phase from Selous Scouts training during the Rhodesian Bush War. Dark Phase consisted of Selous Scout trainees living in a mock terrorist training camp where their instructors were former terrorists. They would receive the type of indoctrination that the enemy was exposed to, learn the enemy’s culture and how to walk a mile in their flipflops. In a future where counter-terrorism operations may well consist of one or two operators conducting low-vis operations with a half dozen local nationals, could this type of training be helpful?

Lions Lead By Lambs: Washington's Special Operations Power Grab

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One problem is that Americans have cultural inhibitions that prevent us from getting that close to the enemy. We don’t walk a mile in his flipflops because we don’t want to, we don’t want to get that close to him. Better to keep him at a distance but within shooting range.

But what really needs to change is unit culture. The current polarity that emphasizes DA over decentralized training and operations required for UW needs to be flipped. Getting that done is difficult, you can’t throw that up on a Powerpoint slide either. It has to start with the NCO’s, and right now you have an entire generation of Special Forces soldiers raised on DA operations.

Developing Intellectual Capital with Operators

Robinson also points out that we need to be developing more intellectual operators. Some of this is already in the works. Soldiers who complete the Q-Course are now showing up at their units with an Associates Degree. Down the line it may become required for NCO’s to attain Bachelors and Masters Degrees in order to assume higher duty positions. This is great in theory, but I can hear several thousand Green Berets’ response to that idea:

Fuuuuuuuccck that!

I get it, but if structured in a non-traditional manner this extra education could be useful. Imagine putting Special Forces soldiers through a specialized BA or MA program in which they study military science, topics like the history of covert operations and unconventional warfare. They could also immerse themselves in the region to which their Group is assigned, studying the history of the nations in that AO, brushing up on the language they are assigned, and getting a more nuanced understanding of the places they work in. This could be done the right way, no need for these guys to take PE and Philosophy classes filled with kids waxing poetic. These classes would also have to be almost entirely online, the force can’t afford to lose the manpower.

Still, at the end of the day, it is shifts in unit culture that can give a real return on investment, not formal education.  Knowing how to lie, cheat, and steal in an unconventional environment is more important than advanced degrees and PT scores.

SOF and Conventional Forces Inter-Operabili-blah-blah-blah

In addition to these internal operational shortfalls, special operations forces and conventional military forces have failed to combine routinely in ways that would increase the U.S. capacity to conduct small-footprint operations. Special operations forces lack enablers (such as airlift, combat aviation, logistics, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, and special functions such as judge advocates and provost marshals), additional infantry, and command relationships. By design and doctrine, special operations forces rely on the conventional military. Conventional forces do not readily provide small, scalable units because their systems are geared toward providing larger units. (Robinson 16)

Another policy recommendation proposed by Robinson is that SOF and Conventional Forces should work together more often. SOF doesn’t have the logistics infrastructure on its own, and CF can provide valuable support including Infantrymen who should be trained to conduct UW to give Special Forces teams added muscle.

Reality is a little more complicated.

SOF and CF can compliment each other very well…when both units want to work together and are willing to shelve their egos. Although there has been some improvement, SEALs are notorious for a culture of arrogance that alienates and ostracizes units assigned to support them. Special Forces ODA’s work better with CF, but only when an ODA works with a Squad- or Platoon-sized element. Younger soldiers and NCO’s can understand the Special Forces mission and integrate with them. When you start talking about Company and Brigade commands, UW is absolutely baffling to them. Special Forces needs wider left and right limits to do their job than the Conventional Forces are prepared to give them.

Special Forces in Mali
Special Forces in Mali

When you have an ODA working with larger military commands such as this, it only decreases that ODA’s capabilities through overzealous application of arbitrary rules and regulations. Sometimes sensible rules also work in contradiction with the SF mission. Here is an example, there was a rash of so-called “insider killings,” in which host nation soldiers would kill American soldiers. The CF approach is that all host nation soldiers must be disarmed while on an American FOB to prevent this from happening. This directly contradicts the SF mission of building long-term rapport and trust with their indigenous forces. While we are preparing to give our counter-parts more responsibility to take over our job when we leave, CF wants us to strip them of weapons, a huge insult in their culture or ours.

Scaling the Infantry down to be able to fight smaller decentralized campaigns and conduct maneuver warfare is an admirable goal, and worthy of an independent study, but please keep the regular military away from Special Forces who will want to turn an ODA into nothing more than a high dollar Infantry Squad.

A Dangerous Trend

…there is a serious danger that special operations forces will be employed in a permanent global game of whack-a-mole and in other tactical and episodic ways, rather than as part of deliberate campaigns that can achieve lasting outcomes. (Robinson 14)

As we begin our withdrawal from Afghanistan, we are entering a dangerous period. Special Operations has tremendous capital, and overwhelming public support that it never had before. Both Republican and Democrat administrations are now obsessed with the capabilities that SOF brings to the table. But as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan shut down, the bureaucrats and Generals involved will not want the loss of prestige that will occur by benching their men. New outlets will be sought to apply counter-terrorist forces to. As less and less Al Qaeda targets are available, SOF will be sent across the globe to hunt down “low hanging fruit” in places like Libya and Uganda, before cycling back to Central and South America.

This can turn into a game of whack-a-mole, as Robinson describes it, without any long term strategic goal, just endless Direct Action missions in order to conduct maintenance on any and all perceived threats. This may not even be sustainable, but even if it is, using short-sighted tactics is inadvisable over the long haul.

We may need a sanity check, both on the tactical and strategic levels. Right now SOF has been in Uganda for over a year with Joseph Kony (supposedly our reason for being there) still at large. Could it be that we are trying to overlay the Afghan/Iraq model of counter-terrorism in Uganda and finding that it doesn’t apply in this Area of Operations?

Maybe its time to shelve the high tech and send out a few operators who know how to walk in the enemy’s flipflops instead.