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.

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.