There is something about American culture, we love high tech. I mean, we really love our gadgets. Tesla death rays that fry terrorists into Kentucky Fried Chicken? Sign us up! Americans love defense technology, from laser guided bombs, to night vision goggles, to more futuristic things like the so-called Iron Man suit. With the development of these technologies, the American soldier has been able to do things that no else can. We can see in the dark and fight at night, we can drop precision guided munitions, we have instantaneous communications systems, and get pin point accurate grid locations through GPS. While these high tech devices have made the US military more lethal, and more effective, I would argue that there is one unit in the Army that technology hurts just as much as it enables: Special Forces.
When a 12-man Special Forces ODA shows up in country, they bring with them some of the best kit that the United States can provide from night vision, to infrared lasers, to thermal imaging devices, and satellite communications systems. The local partner forces that these Special Forces men meet are no doubt impressed, even in awe, of the Americans and their futuristic weapons and equipment. Yet, they themselves are carrying dusty old AK-47’s, dry rotted canvas field gear, and have no idea what a map and compass even looks like. That’s no exaggeration, if you show the average person in Iraq or Afghanistan a topographical map (or overhead imagery) of their own hometown, they have absolutely no idea what they are looking at.
By comparison, the direct action mission carried out by Rangers, SEALs, and Delta Force is a relatively easy and straight forward. These units are equipped with the best weapons and gear which is standardized across the force. Tactics, techniques, and procedures are also standardized and common to every soldier assaulting the objective. This is not the case in an Unconventional Warfare environment.
Special Forces are intended to blend in with the local culture, working by, with, and through the indigenous people to fight a guerrilla war, or to stabilize a faltering government, in furtherance of US foreign policy objectives. As the Green Berets become more high tech the question becomes, how will they be able to relate to indigenous populations? Granted, Special Forces trains alongside and works with many host nation partners, not all of them are Afghan tribesmen. This huge gap in military and social culture does not exist when we work with the German, Colombian, or Israeli governments but is encountered when Special Forces engage in unconventional warfare in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia.
One problem is compatibility, or to use a doctrinal term, inter-operability. How does a high-tech American force work alongside a low-tech indigenous force? The 5th Special Forces Group soldiers who rode horses into combat showed us how it can work, with a mixture of high technology and low. In this case Green Berets with modern M4 rifles, night vision goggles, and encrypted radios rode on horseback with the Northern Alliance as they battled the Taliban. This was a positive example, but all circumstances may not reflect Afghanistan in 2001 from a military, political, or cultural point of view. At that time, the Afghans were just happy to have American help. As the years went on, Special Forces operations have not always been so successful.
In current and future operations, the indigenous people may be in awe of American technology, but it will not help solve their problems. Even if the United States government decides to transfer these military technologies to foreign forces we want to work with, that is no guarantee that those forces will properly and effectively employ those systems. America has a middle class and a public education system, and our military has a corps of non-commissioned officers. Many countries to do not, and it would be wrong to assume that the level of education in foreign countries is adequate to support a functioning western style military. Creating a mirror image of US Special Forces, to include Oakley sunglasses and velcro patches, is not the goal or desired end state.
To be clear, it would be foolish to even propose that our soldiers have their weapons and equipment taken away from them. America owes our troops the best gear that we can possibly outfit them with. For a Special Forces team, their technology is another way to gain an asymmetrical advantage over the enemy at the end of the day. What could be argued is that there are times when Green Berets should set aside their fancy web gear, tricked out rifles, and radio systems, particularly when training indigenous forces.
The local militia or military units simply will not have that type of gear, and like the soldiers who rode across Afghanistan on horseback, their American trainers will have to improvise solutions. The locals will have to be trained using old school tactics, techniques, and procedures. Since they won’t have radios in many cases (certainly not down to the individual soldier) the indigenous forces can be trained to communicate in a firefight using whistles. Tactics and mission planning will have to be kept simple and tailored to the local culture. Special Forces soldiers should look at what current tactics and methods are used by their partners, and then use a similar methodology to begin nudging the needle in the right direction, not showing up in country and trying to force guerrillas to fight the same way the 82nd Airborne does, which will ultimately be self defeating in this context.
Technology creates a wall between American Special Forces soldiers and their partner force, making it harder for them to relate to each other as well as complicating training and combat. To give up on technology and “go native” is one option (which may be necessary at times) but that also has significant drawbacks, reducing the soldier’s capabilities in combat. The solution is most likely a mixture of high tech and low tech as mentioned above. Today’s Green Berets need to take some lessons learned from their predecessors and figure out how to shoot, move, and communicate the way it was done 50 years ago, not for themselves, but so they can teach the locals how to do it effectively.
From there, they can then take the technology organic to their team and discover creative ways to embed that technology into their over-all force structure and operations. Perhaps a Weapons Sergeant uses his laser range finder to range targets for a team firing a dingy Russian 82mm mortar system or a Special Forces Communications Sergeant places himself at a critical node in the friendly chain of command where he can relay messages to the front lines. These types of things are nothing new, and Green Berets have done them in the past but now we are at a point in history where we need to stop having arguments about old school versus new school or high tech versus low tech.
The bad guys have cell phones, better comms than the radios carried by SF teams. Get used to it and improvise solutions because if you don’t, the enemy will be running circles around you. The past is the past, but by merging old methods with high technology, and then further blending it with the innate innovation and creativity that American soldiers carry with them; it is possible for Special Forces teams to create new ways of fighting with lateral thinking, something completely different than what we had in the past or what we used to envision for the future.
Featured image courtesy of 20th SFG Illinois National Guard.