In the first three articles of this five-part series, you learned what it means to be Special Forces; how those warriors are found; and how they are groomed over time to allow them to accomplish the missions they are tasked with. In this article, I’ll explain why, even with great soldiers and great culture, there still needs to be a special sort of method to the madness to allow these operators to thrive and excel during their missions.
Most of the guys I train for Special Ops selection will spend a good amount of time prior to selection mastering the basics. They do this by practicing hand-to-hand combat drills, land navigation, survival, orders, and other basic soldiering skills until they can perform them and teach them at a high level. (A side note here: Mastering the basics is a constant pursuit, not an end state.)
While a solid understanding of how to create a set of orders and execute upon them will certainly carry over into the SOF community, new soldiers soon realize that things are done a little bit differently in these units. The SOF world practices what we call “bottom-up planning.” This planning ideology is what makes some of these units so successful in the first place.
This bottom-up planning process is one of the reasons that SOF units are able to operate the way they do. It allows them to be quick to adapt, remain flexible, and grasp innovation to move things forward. It allows a clear, concise understanding of everyone’s tasks and responsibilities within the mission. However, this planning process wouldn’t work just anywhere.
There are certain characteristics required of the operators in these units for this to work. These warriors need to be adaptable. They need to be cunning. They need to possess a strong imagination as to what’s possible, and most importantly they need a keen sense of awareness regarding when to speak their minds — regardless of rank structure — and when to shut up. This last piece is the only way it will work, otherwise, things turn into ‘kangaroo court’ with everyone being the expert and nothing being accomplished.
The leadership required for bottom-up planning is also key. The team leaders need to be open to criticism and avoid pulling rank when the facts prove them wrong. They need to spend less time managing their men, and more time holding onto the reigns to steer the dogs of war because the SOF operator rarely needs encouragement or direction to move the mission forward. The SOF leader merely needs to maintain the focus and guide his men with a critical eye.
In the regular military, the majority of planning occurs from the top down. The government plays out the political strategy; then the heads of the military and the units devise the strategic goals; then the companies, platoons, squadrons, sections, and teams lay out the tactical plan. Now, a large part of this still occurs in the SOF world, however, it becomes a bit of a two-way street. In the SOF world, the political strategy still occurs at the top, then filters down to the strategic goals, and finally the tactical goals. One of the main differences is the utilization of bottom-up planning.
When the tactical plan comes down to the platoons and teams it comes down in the form of a warning order — an overview of the intended mission. It is an end state or objective passed down to the SOF soldiers and it is up to the ones on the battlefield to determine the details of the plan. Beginning with the newest, greenest warrior on the team, each individual takes a share of the mission, whether that be the insertion method, the defensive and offensive positions, the breaching technique, the communications, weapons, medical, weather, vehicle load, and many other pieces.
Once briefed, they develop the plan before briefing it again and choosing how to execute it. Once the concept of operation (CONOP) is chosen, the team goes into battle prep, getting everything together that is required for the mission, whether that is de-conflicting with other units, preparing an air stack, practicing CQB and breaching drills, or creating a rock drill so the entirety of the defensive and offensive elements can literally walk through the operation.
Utilizing bottom-up planning ensures that every man on the ground understands the bigger picture. They know where everyone is on the ground, what everyone’s role is, and when each element or individual is going to execute their part of the plan. This way, when shit hits the fan, they’re ready to step it up if needed.
This bottom-up planning is another reason why men come first and equipment comes second. Without the right soldiers and the culture to use the equipment and insertion platforms, the effects are drastically reduced.
With all of this SOF selection, training, culture, and planning, what has Canada been doing these past years? In the last part of this five-part series, I’ll talk about Canada’s involvement in the GWOT over the past decades.