Who has more freedom of movement in a combat zone: a highly trained and well-resourced Special Operations fighter, or an untrained volunteer working for a cash-strapped religious non-governmental organization (NGO)?

In the author’s opinion and experience, the answer is the NGO worker — and by a long shot. The reason for this predominantly boils down to organizational culture, resources, and risk tolerance. Is this a perfect basis for comparison? Definitely not. But it certainly provides differences to be identified and appreciated for the purposes of healthy discussion.

Some general thoughts on risk

Life is certainly full of risks, many of which we automatically accept, cannot change, and do not even consciously consider. Doing so would be debilitating, counter-productive, and would not lead us in the path of a peaceful and meaningful life. But what happens when an organization loses sight of this and trends towards risk aversion? What if risk tolerance is so low that it precludes operational success? What is the relationship between risk management and acceptable war costs?

Risk management is the bane of all staff officers and the primary mechanism by which the military attempts to identify and assess risk. Risk management is not a new concept and was born from the well-intentioned desire to minimize risk to the mission and the force.

Military operations — and special operations, in particular — are inherently dangerous. Static line and free-fall parachuting, live-fire weapons training, advanced driving courses, and many other activities come with generous helpings of inherent risk. Indeed, recently, a MARSOC Raider was tragically killed during an airborne operation at the Army Airborne School at Fort Benning. (The incident is currently under investigation.)

Risk increases once the environment transitions from a controlled training one to the “real world.” For the men and women undertaking both conventional and special operations, these risks are calculated and mitigated as much as possible through extensive training, experience, rehearsals, and planning.

The Danger and Design of High Risk Training

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Naturally, the desire to mitigate risk to one’s self and comrades is completely well-founded. At the individual level, a lot of risk management occurs automatically and is reinforced by our natural instincts to survive and escape danger. Organizations adopted this natural ability and codified it in the form of formalized risk assessments, policies, and procedures to be undertaken prior to any activity, whether in training or on a real-world mission.

It is the author’s opinion that policy and some measure of structure for risk management are incredibly valuable. They help standardize risk management and offer a framework that can be replicated across a diverse range of complex operations. However, we must distinguish between risk management and mitigation. It is not possible to remove or control risk. The best one can do is attempt to identify and mitigate it, and then continue with the mission.

Depending on our definition of success, we can obtain a sense of successful risk mitigation strategies simply by comparing the number of isolated personnel incidents between aid workers and military members in hazardous regions (particularly among French aid workers, it seems). There is clearly some benefit to robust risk management policy as executed by the military compared to the almost haphazard approach of NGOs.

So why and how does an untrained, cash-strapped NGO volunteer have more freedom of movement in a combat zone?

From an NGO worker in Iraq

We recently had the opportunity to speak with an aid worker who volunteered with a religious NGO in Iraq for a period of several months — almost the same amount of time as a typical Task Force deployment. When swapping stories of familiar areas, sights visited, and experiences with the various cultures, the amount of freedom and mobility the aid worker experienced was remarkable.

One of the most surprising observations was the aid worker’s mobility given his appearance. We shared common ethnicity, appearance, and language skill. This man was easily identifiable as a Westerner. However, it did not impact his mobility whatsoever. The aid worker traveled alone across the country with zero support, communication plans, contingency plans, or weapons. And he did just fine, never experiencing a single incident that threatened his safety and well-being. Nobody seemed to care who he was or what he was doing, and if anyone did ask, it was primarily out of curiosity.

The author’s initial observation? By operating as a true “singleton,” one becomes so obscure and “low profile” that the demand for such exhaustive organizational risk management measures appears to change (within reason).

Is a low profile a guarantee of safety and security for sensitive military operations? Of course not. But anecdotally, the stark contrast between the two cultures (NGO and military) as they pertain to freedom of maneuver (aka mobility) and relative effectiveness, present a compelling contrast that needs to be examined further.

Let’s take a look at some vignettes.

The Conventionalization of US Special Operations

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When overseas, checkpoints are normally unpleasant. It can be difficult to assess under whose control they are and what actions will be taken if a team comes across one. What should be a routine check for papers and payment of a checkpoint “management fund” fee could quickly escalate to extensive questioning, detention, and an international incident. Therefore, checkpoints are generally avoided.

That aid worker, however, frequently traveled alone through a number of Arab, Kurdish, and other checkpoints with impunity, oftentimes interacting with forces such as the Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Front (PMF) militias. They gave him no trouble whatsoever, even though he was a Westerner (this is borderline astounding given general Iranian animosity and malign influence, especially given tensions last year).

More often than not, the aid worker was not asked to furnish any documents (i.e. a visa), despite traveling through diverse regions under the control of militia or others. He barely spoke the language, was not armed, did not have a quick reaction force on standby. Yet, he could still come and go as he pleased.

In the military, missions generally only gain approval after extensive staffing (oftentimes spanning weeks or, more realistically, months-long) planning, rehearsal, numerous CONOPs, decision briefs, progress updates, white papers, and other such bureaucratic “operational” mission planning requirements.

While the author did not wish to ruin pleasant conversation with a discussion of such laborious bureaucratic processes, we can only surmise that NGO operations do not require such extensive feats of coordination, pre-briefing, read-aheads, or staff “churn.” Or so we’d like to think.

Whereas military operations are normally staged from highly defended and built-up forward operating bases or other locations, the aid worker lived alone, unprotected, in the middle of a small town outside Mosul. He frequently moved in taxis or rented vehicles across the region, only speaking a little of the local language. He relied on the goodwill and relationships of locals and used his local connections to help guarantee his personal security, safety, and welfare — all of which he built and maintained himself.

Most remarkably, the aid worker successfully accomplished this despite living and working in Iraq at a time of great uncertainty following the U.S. targeted killing of former Iranian Quds Force commander, Qasem Soleimani.

A few downsides

The benefits of assessing the aid worker’s mobility in Iraq are most useful when attempting to replicate his general placement and access to a large geographical area that is inhabited by a number of diverse populations. Such environments are something Special Operations attempt to replicate when conducting sensitive activities.

Without highlighting any of the operational details that make sensitive Special Operations successful, the anecdotal contrast with the mobility experienced by the aid worker remains noteworthy. Certainly, there is an extensive and well-exercised framework in place that provides a reasonable amount of risk mitigation during special operations. Processes ensure redundancy, security, safety, structure, and support.

This generally applies to all aspects of mission planning and execution. What such military operations lack in relative agility and mobility they arguably compensate for with robustness. Need a quick reaction force? One call away. Miss your communications window? There’s a variant time and explicit plan in place for what to do next. About to be overrun? Fire mission is incoming.

This is not to say that NGOs lack such risk mitigation capacity. All organizations stand to benefit from risk management and generally seek to mitigate risk in a manner that better enables their operations.

But are Special Operations becoming victims of their own meticulous planning and mission execution? Has risk management transformed into risk aversion as commanders’ tolerance for risk decreases with the rise of “no-fail” expectations? Have we been culturally conditioned to expect zero casualties, exposure, or adverse impacts to our mission and force? At what point do we “shoot ourselves in the foot” with exhaustive mission planning and approval processes that limit our ability to operate in a capacity similar to the aid worker, i.e. autonomous, alone, and unafraid?

Thanks for listening.