“Asymmetric warfare is where we’re at and SOF is the perfect answer for it”

Another great episode from the Irregular Warfare podcast on SOF and civilian oversight. A wonky topic, for sure, but incredibly important.

In this episode, our guests argue that SOF is uniquely suited to address irregular warfare challenges in the era of great power competition. However, limited understanding of these threats among policymakers in Washington, DC, budget constraints, and outdated authorities hinder SOF’s ability to evolve. According to our guests, civilian leadership and oversight can help overcome these challenges.

The View from Washington: Sen. Joni Ernst and Former Asst. Sec. of Defense Owen West on Civilian Oversight of SOF – Modern War Institute

There’s lots of great stuff in this one, but I especially appreciated the short conversation on information warfare and the role of Army psychological operations. It starts around the 22 minute mark. Some choice excerpts below.

If we looked around the armed forces, [it’s] the Army’s psychological warfare wing, which really is the repository of our original talent and experience in information operations. And yet, when I visited a couple of times, it was apparent that structurally, this had not received the money, or let’s just call it prestige that others had…

Owen West

Very true. The talent and ambition is there, but the branch is so small and the issues incredibly wonky. Part of the conversation here is about the struggle to adequately explain to a non-IW/PSYOP person what the heck it is that you’re trying to do – as they mention in the podcast “in two senteces.”

And the explosion of information warfare challenges has lead to a “catching up” phase where structures and authorities are being rewritten to match the times. This is a slow process.

To put things in perspective, PSYOP didn’t become an official branch of the Army until October 2006. Special Forces, on the other hand, became a branch in April 1987. A colleague of mine once reminded me that PSYOP is today where SF was in the late 1990s / early 2000s. It’s not a perfect analogy, but there is something there.

In regards to prestige, there’s no surprise there. Over the past twenty years, SOF – jointly – was very much focused on direct action. There is a shift occuring now, and there’s no question that the weather is changing on the current fight (influence, GPC, etc.). It’s not going to be easy to point to the hard wins in IW when we’re really just moving the dial or changing the temperature of the water.

Also, it’s hard to make a Call of Duty video game or 12 Strong movie for information warfare.

And part of the problem, of course, is RULES:

But I don’t know that your audience knows the limitations on them [PSYOP] were pretty astonishing… I felt pretty much like the opponent was playing by different rules.

Owen West

Yup. Part of living a free country.

Moving way from PSYOP. On the comparitive advantage of the US military due to the NCO corps:

…what people haven’t pointed to is the comparitive advantage, if we level-set armies around the world and their special operations forces, and that is our NCO corps, and our senior NCO corps. No one can match the NCO corps of the United States.

Owen West

This is so true, and it is something that we don’t highlight enough. Our SOF NCOs are really that good.

I enjoyed this tongue-in-cheek quip on what civilan shops at the highest levels in DoD should not be doing:

“Part of my shop was too operational… really this was about policy making, and not helicopter bump plans.”

Owen West

Defense folks love being ‘operational’ and focusing on the tactical elements of things. There are some jobs, however, where this is no longer helpful. Unfortunately, this is a system which lauds tactical expertise and it is often those small skills that makes for a successful career.

And a quote to kind of wrap up the whole point, stated perfectly:

“Asymmetric warfare is where we’re at and SOF is the perfect answer for it.”

Senator Joni Ernst

And since we’re talking about irregular warfare, a quick remeinder: “Irregular warfare is the military’s contribution to political warfare.”

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