The Special Operations community under their command element at USASOC were developed back in the 1990s. The joint command looked to define what was a successful Special Operations mission and what factors played a key role in the conducting of their missions. They published a list of 12 SOF (Special Operations Forces) Imperatives to aid in the operational planning of SOF missions.

Before some people get too wrapped around the handle about the word itself, the word imperative comes from the Latin word of the same name which means, “specially ordered.” Oxford’s English dictionary lists it as an adjective meaning “of vital importance,” or a noun that means “an essential or urgent thing.”  So there’s that.

While one may not need to accomplish each one of these imperatives for every mission as they will vary, however, they are the guidelines that invaluable during the planning phase of the operation that addresses most, if not all of the issues that need to be planned for.

So, let’s look at the first one and for those of our readers who are aspiring SOFs troops, the one with perhaps the most misunderstood meaning.

“Understand the Operational Environment”:

Unfortunately, many of the young troops especially coming from a conventional forces background think of this as strictly knowing the terrain of their specific operational area. And yes, while this is part of it, in the UW (Unconventional Warfare) environment it is a small portion of the #1 imperative.

The understanding of the environment for the SOF operator involves both internal and external factors. While on the tactical/internal side of things, as with any military operation the operators must know the METT-TC factors of their operational area. But that is where it gets deeper for the SOF troops.

This also includes the UW target audience. While most resistance leaders come from the civilian populace of the operational area, they will know, better than the SOF operators what the customs, culture, beliefs, taboos, goals, and needs of the civilian populace are. But the successful operators will be able to influence the actions of the target UW forces that will not only further the US’ goals of the area but help the target audience succeed in what their ultimate goals are.

The external side of things entails knowing and understanding all aspects of the operational area. That includes the political, economic, sociological, psychological, geographic, and military aspects of the area.

Special Operations Forces must know how the civilian influence on the area will impact operations. Both toward friendly and enemy situations. SOF operators must identify the friendly and hostile decision makers, their objectives and strategies, and the ways they interact. They must know the strengths, weaknesses, vulnerabilities, and power centers of friendly, enemy, and neutral groups and how these groups will interact with mission success.

The conditions of conflict can and will change, as we’ve seen in many of the wars facing us today and SOF must anticipate these changes in the environment and exploit any and all opportunities. Plan for the unexpected and be prepared to see through with a plan that will help the target UW audience reach their objectives.

SOF has been doing these things and that is one of the reasons that they’ve been so successful in the past half-century. The US Army’s Special Forces groups have traditionally been area oriented to their base of operations. Navy SEAL Teams have traditionally been area oriented to allied nations in the Persian Gulf. It has been an invaluable asset that has resulted in far greater situational awareness, battlefield preparation, cross-cultural communications, and cultural sensitivity in the operational areas.

Operators learn the language, the culture, and the ethos of the target audience by being immersed in it. Knowing both the target audience and that of an enemy was exhibited during “Operation Just Cause” in Panama. Retired LTG, then Major Charles Cleveland, the Operations Officer (S-3) of the 3rd Bn. 7th SFG stationed in Panama saved untold lives of the Panamanian Defense Forces by knowing their culture and having interpersonal relationships with many of their leaders.

He arranged for many of them to surrender without firing a shot or having a loss of life by knowing how to communicate with their leaders in a way that wouldn’t upset their traditional “machismo” that they were known for. They were facing an unwinnable situation and the results were never in doubt. He saved the Panamanians in certain units from being virtually annihilated for no reason.

Not only did he save lives but it paved the way for bridging the relationship quickly from enemy combatant to back to being an ally in very little time. The transition affected by the 7th group was remarkably quick and much of that credit should go to Cleveland. Because of that, our follow-on mission, “Promote Liberty” was much more successful and many of the Panamanian soldiers turned National Police involved in it, would not have been there as a result.

The imperative we’ve touched on here is well-known to Special Operators who have been down range and have been on many deployments overseas. To the young aspiring operators, this is something that may sound simple to you but requires a ton of work, study, and preparation before ever deploying. Call it an enhanced Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield.

Special Operations Forces are not only the premier light infantry experts in the world but they must be experts in language, tradecraft (more to that in the upcoming days), area studies, survival medicine, engineering, and weapons.

And they’ll serve as the primary and very touchy proponents of our national strategy within our own military, which frankly is awful at anything above the battalion level. Our troops continue to win the battlefields at battalion level and below but why are these conflicts dragging on and on?

Our national political and military leaders don’t understand the nature of the wars we’re embroiled in nor will they overcome the biases they have, to these wars. Our leaders continue to push forward with the way they want to fight the current wars rather than the ways the wars need to be fought. It has been that way since Vietnam and the fact that Afghanistan and Iraq continue to drag on is proof that the strategy isn’t working. We could speak for days on this subject but we’ll leave it there.

Photo courtesy DOD