Infinite Competition

Friend of the blog Cole Livieratos got there first.

As stated, another great episode from the Irregular Warfare Initiative – this one on the role of special operations forces in great power competition – with SOCOM Commander GEN Richard Clarke and Linda Robinson (RAND) as guests.

As an aside, I read and wrote a quick review of Robinson’s book 100 Victories back in 2014 in preparation for an Afghanistan deployment.

Will the role and capabilities required of special operations forces change in a geopolitical context characterized by great power competition? How will SOF balance enduring counterterrorism missions with new requirements to deter great power rivals? Episode 39 of the Irregular Warfare Podcast brings together the commander of US Special Operations Command and a leading researcher of special operations to dig into these questions.

SPECIAL OPERATIONS FORCES AND GREAT POWER COMPETITION

If you’ve been paying close attention to the IWI podcasts, especially when it comes to SOF and competition, there is a steady drum beat extolling the importance of influence and information.

And if you listen even closer, you’ll hear that in this next phase, we need to be leading with influence.

I enjoyed Cole’s thread on this episode. It’s a succint history of where PSYOP has been in the past two decades. With a lot of the internal drama out there on display.

But I heard the episode a little differently. I might just be more optimistic, but I think our senior leaders – especially, but not exclusively in the SOF ranks – get it.

PSYOP is great, but they don’t have a monopoly on understanding the impact of information. And scoring “wins” might be desireable to influence professionals, but it’s the senior leader who has to accept the risk.

And as GEN Clarke states succinctly in the episode, in leading with influence, “…this is an area where senior leaders, I believe, have to be able to accept more risk in the future.”

But don’t take his word for it (or mine), listen for yourself.

Things that captured my attention:

We expect every mission to go well.” Isn’t that true? Leaders don’t like signing off on anything too risky because a loss “looks” so much worse than a win. In fact, in GPC, we’re not going to even see the wins all that often. The problem is, if we actually want to move the needle in a meaningful way, we’re going to have to accept more risk. That inevitably means operations (especially non-kinetic) are going to be marginally successful, ineffective, and sometimes counter-productive. Until we’re ready to start signing off on those types of operations, we’ll be stuck in a reactive, “how do we counter this,” posture.

“Where do you think special operations forces are best equipped to integrate into this competition space?”

“I think that one area that is quite critical, for which SOF and particularly Army SOF, is suited is the information and influence realm. And I think that can draw on this competence that they have, generally speaking in this field. And it is the Army psychological operations forces, but it’s also more broadly this cultural knowledge that they gain and the understanding what messaging is and how it is being employed by the competitor, the adversary, as well as the ability to work among the population with both PSYOP and Civil Affairs.”

Linda Robinson, ~11:00

Where do we compete?

“It is quite clear that the Middle East is a critical arena for China.”

Linda Robinson, ~13:00

Competition is not a “phase” that happens before we shift into conflict.

“We’re in perpetual competition. We always have been and we always will be. And it’s infinite.”

GEN Richard Clarke, ~14:00

The return of political warfare.

“We are always struggling to find the right words to describe what we are talking about. Competition I think is an excellent, easily understood term. I understand the department may be working towards integrated deterrence as a term of art and to further enrich the word soup here I’ll just bring up the George Kennan term political warfare, which I think is an important term which shows our history with that.”

Linda Robinson, ~18:00

We don’t need no stinkin’ USIA.

“We no longer have a US Information Agency. Public diplomacy used to be a very strong discipline within our foreign service cadre.”

Linda Robinson, ~23:00

It’s not just Green Berets who can work with a partner force, you know.

“Most people when they think about this, they automatically go to ‘what’s the ODA Green Beret team that is going to be there or the SEAL team that is going to work in the maritime domain,’ but I think we have to think across all SOF functions. What is the best civil affairs team, and what does this country need and how can we train with their civil affairs, or potentially as Linda talked about, they also have information support teams.”

GEN Richard Clarke, ~36:00

Do we/should we promote for political warfare acumen? (what a great question!)

“Do you think the system is promoting the right types of leaders and talent to engage in political warfare or great power competition?”

Kyle Atwell, ~42:00

I really liked the above question, and I’m not sure we got a good answer on it. For all of the good things that are happening in talent management (and I’m speaking mostly about the Army here), promotions are still tied to an archaic system of hitting wickets in key positions in order to move up. The types of attributes that would make a SOF soldier “good” at political warfare may have absolutely no bearing on their ability to get promoted within the system.

This is part of a much bigger discussion on how we could retool promotions. What if, for example, we didn’t have centralized promotion boards, and instead let each branch promote internally based on their own needs and understanding of skills required?

The future of SOF is not landing on the roof from a little bird.

“What I think the coin of the realm is in the future, are really those who want to work with populations, and those who truly understand the strategic impact of developing partners in other countries. Also, I think we have to have SOF leaders who are comfortable operating in the policy environment and in the diplomatic environemnt.”

Linda Robinson, ~46:00

I agree. The thing that brings a lot of folks to SOF is the idea of doing the “cool” job. Well, in this environment, winning requires a SOF operator who can do those jobs, but also has the cultural, linguistic, diplomatic, and policy chops to move things along. That’s a lot to ask. But it is completely doable.

And it is a “cool” job.

It’s about assessing, selecting, and training the right folks – and incentivizing the behaviors we want.

Fantastic episode.

Enjoy these posts? Follow me on Twitter and sign up for the monthly newsletter.

Information Warfare Leadership: Less Don Draper, more Colin Powell

I shared this great article from Matt Armstrong yesterday:

Matt, who has been researching and working in this field for decades, focuses his attention not on the tools of “information warfare” but on the policies and goals that drive it. His analysis (and I’m in agreement here) argues that it’s not about “crafting combinations of nouns and verbs for some medium,” but instead about crafting the right policy and setting a course for others to follow.

Much of the discourse on information warfare/political warfare is centered on mediums, means, and platforms. That misses the point. As Matt writes, this stuff changes all the time and there are plenty of experts out there that now how to use it.

When dealing with massive bueracracies, it is critical to staff key positions with effective managers and leaders – not flashy pitch-men or media stars.

The article focuses on the post of Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs and the fact that since 1999, the position has been vacant for 41% of the time. While I’m not an expert on the workings at State, if it’s similar to the military, we know that there’s a sense of “that’s not my real boss” when a position is held by a temporary (often junior) place-holder.

And that place-holder doesn’t carry the same weight in the rooms where decisions get made.

What should this leader look like? Matt writes:

In my opinion, the right person for the job is a leader, manager, facilitator, and integrator with experience in government and at least practical awareness of the realities of foreign policy on the ground abroad. A focus on platforms – an expert in social or broadcast media, for example – is wrong, not just because every “market” is different but because there are professionals within the department (the number of which must increase) and agency partners, in addition to ready access to the private sector, to advise or handle the specifics of how to engage.

W(h)ither R: a marquee failure of leadership in foreign policy – MountainRunner.us

I joked on Twitter that this person would be more Colin Powell than Don Draper. Colin Powell, although well-known as a military leader, was actually most effective as a Washington-insider. He spent most of the last decade and a half in and around the White House. He understood how the system worked, and people trusted him. Even as Secretary of State, he admitted in his most recent book that he often felt like he needed to stay in Washintgon (as opposed to constantly traveling) to make sure he could get things done.

My sense is that many folks think we need Don Draper in this position. A flashy ad-man who understands the media and can brief well. Don Draper needs to be way further down on the food chain – making ads.

It’s exciting to be living in a time where information warfare/political warfare is gaining attention, but I can imagine this can be frustrating to those who have been deep in the research and work for decades. Too much attention on the tools – the nouns and verbs – and not enough attention on the staffing and strategy.

Enjoy these posts? Follow me on Twitter and sign up for the monthly newsletter.

“It is happening right now”

Another good episode from the Cogntivie Crucible. And the second podcast I’ve heard featuring LtGen Lori Reynolds (first here, from the Irregular Warfare Initiative).

LtGen Lori Reynolds leads the Marine Corps’ modernization efforts related to operations in the information environment. During this episode, our wide ranging discussion covers competition, professional military education, authorities, technology, and partnerships.

The Cognitive Crucible Episode #38 Reynolds on Operations in the Information Environment

LtGen Reynolds does a great job wrapping up the totality of the world we live in today, especially as it relates to media literacy and the fact that we’re all “in the game” when we have a smartphone in our pocket.

The nightmare quote:

“This whole idea of algorithmic warfare, it can be benign, or it can be malign, but it is happening right now. And it’s happening on your personal device.”

Following up.

“If we think that our adversaries are not going to come after the United States military and impact our will to fight, we’re wrong.”

It’s refreshing to know we’re taking this seriously. The tough part is building the education, infrastructure, and systems to be ready before the “Pearl Harbor” of this style of warfare occurs.

Enjoy these posts? Follow me on Twitter and sign up for the monthly newsletter.

Masters of Irregular Warfare

Garibaldi, Mosby, Rogers, Lawrence – this episode is about masters of irregular warfare, old and new.

This episode explores the capabilities that irregular warfare practitioners bring to bear. Our guests discuss how irregular warfare integrates into—and often plays a pivotal supporting role in—broader conventional conflict. The conversation ends with recommendations for how to prepare and employ irregular warfare capabilities to address the major threats to US national security, to include great power rivals, rogue regional powers, and violent nonstate actors.

How Small Wars Fit into Big Ones: Lessons from the Masters of Irregular Warfare – Modern War Institute

There were a lot of gems in this one. Here’s what stood out:

MG Brennan on Robert Rogers and John Mosby as irregular warriors:

True innovators that bucked the system… and I think they also played a great part in the psychological aspect of warfare against their enemies that the conventional folks didn’t, they [the conventional forces] tried to do it with mass and cannons and these guys did it by being sneaky and moving around at night.

MG John Brennan, Commander, 1st Special Forces Command (~4:30 mark)

I love that first part. “True innovators that bucked the system.” Innovation is not going to look normal the first time you see it. Leaders have to take a deep breath and let things play out every now and then.

“A sideshow of a sideshow.” On losing at the tactical level but achieving strategic success.

Look at T.E. Lawrence and what he was able to do, really with a handful of tribesmen. He struck at the infrastructure of the Turkish force and and the German Asien Korps… with tiny resources Lawrence made an 800 mile advance that was closely integrated with General Allenby’s conventional forces.. [this] took a lot of pressure off fo Allenby and allowed the conventional offensive to move forward.

Dr. John Arquilla

Yes, absolutely. Dr. Arquilla goes on to discuss how many irregular warriors lose over and over at the tactical level. But they know that winning the battle isn’t important. They are playing the long game. He cites Mao and Ho Chi Min as examples.

Back to Lawrence. There is so much to study in the case of the Arab Revolt. The way the Arab Revolt served as a shaping operation to Allenby’s decisive operation is textbook. But there is so much more here. Lawrence knew it was a sideshow and that his revolt didn’t even matter. He knew he didn’t even have to fight anymore. He had “arranged in the minds of others” a new reality that achieved his aims.

Lawrence and Allenby understood the war and understood each other’s roles. Here is Lawrence:

His words to me were that three men and a boy with pistols in front of Deraa on September the sixteenth would fill his conception; would be better than thousands a week before or a week after. The truth was, he cared nothing for our fighting power, and did not reckon us part of his tactical strength. Our purpose, to him, was moral, psychological, diathetic; to keep the enemy command intent upon the trans-Jordan front.

T.E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom

On innovation, talent management, and finding the right people.

We are trying to pulse the force to get those innovators to come to the surface so that we can put them in a pipeline that sets them up for success both academically and to get those experiences where it matters.

MG John Brennan (~21:00 mark)

This is a real challenge in the Army. Innovation is easily stifled in a hierarchial and traditions-based organization like the Army. Even in special operations communities, it is still the Army. Innovation, by it’s nature, is going to look different. It is going to “buck” the status quo. Leaders need to be able to widen the aperture and accept that something that doesn’t quite look or feel right just might be the next big thing. Instead of squashing it or shutting it down, embracing it might be the right move.

And it will mostly fail.

Great innovation doesn’t happen the first time. I’d love to see some “failures in innovation.” Folks who tried, but it didn’t work. Most importantly, where the command applauds that failure. People have to know it is okay to experiment. Otherwise, the incentives are misaligned.

This goes to the concept of top cover.

When this mystic, Orde Wingate came along and said ‘I can do deep-penetration operations to upset the entire logistics of the Japanese in the Burma-theatre,’ Churchill got very enthusiastic and gave him the top cover to do this…

Dr. John Arquilla

For every military innovator, there is a champion somewhere higher in the chain of command who has to smile and answer questions from higher. Leaders do not need to be innovators themselves, but they have to enable it.

Loved these throughts from MG Brennan on military reporting and the tyranny of too much ISR (around the ~31:00 mark).

I’ve seen intelligence, surveillance, and reconaissance aircraft used as ‘combat voyeur’ tools to make sure formations are doing the right thing.

Oof. The worst.

I remember as a Captain not seeing my company commander for months and months on end. The weekly SITREP was all he got and that was coming over HF [high-frequency radio].

There is so much to discuss here (but not today). No one joins the Army thinking about how good they’d be at writing SITREPs – but boy has that become a discriminator. And we know we’re heading to a future where permissive communications will not be a given. SITREP-bloat is a real thing. And there is value to painting a good picture for higher. But there is a conversation to be had concerning re-aligning reporting expectations and mission command.

On where irregular warfare expertise lay at scale.

It’s in the special operations community that you see capabilities for engaging now.

Dr. John Arquilla

The episode concludes with an interesting converstion on the concept of the “hybrid leader.” That is, someone who is both an irregular warfare thinker and practicioner.

I think that starts with the recruiting – recruiting from the right talent pools, and part of recruiting the right people is providing the right message about what we do.

MG John Brennan (~42:00)

Yup.

You say SOF and they think door kicking, they think Zero-Dark Thirty – that’s just a very small aspect of what SOF does. So we are trying to help recruit people by showing what SOF does in a much more holistic spectrum, not just DA [direct action], we do COIN [counter-insurgency], we do FID [foreign internal defense], we do information warfare, we do civil affairs/civil reconaissance, we work with hundreds of different partners.

We typically recruit people that are adventerous, they’re problem solvers, and as part of their training, we want to make sure we’re enhancing that, and that we’re recognizing it, and making it flourish.

MG John Brennan (~42:00)

A great episode – and a great lead off for IWI. The episode left me feeling good both about the conversation surrounding irregular warfare and the future for special operations.

This field is littered with jargon and buzzwords that are incredibly confusing. But these words matter and behind them are important and nuanced concepts. These episodes (and articles) have an important ‘inform’ component to them. They get the word out. They let people know what’s out there.

Enjoy these posts? Follow me on Twitter and sign up for the monthly newsletter.

Post Platoon Leader Series: Buy the unit coffee mug

Unit Coffee Mug

This post is part of a series that attempts to add something to the “platoon leader advice” category beyond the typical “be good at everything at all times and you’ll be fine” variety. The intent is to provide more specific (and obscure) advice.

An interesting aspect about military culture is the zeal commanders have for their current unit. While it’s always a little tongue-in-cheek (because how can it be possible for each successive unit to be the BEST they’ve ever served in), when done well, it really is internalized. You can tell when a leader really loves their unit and is giving it their all. That leader wants their subordinate leaders to share that same enthusiasm.

Which is why you should buy your unit coffee mug.

One of the first things I did upon arriving to my last unit was visit our museum (which is good advice in its own right). At the gift shop, I bought a stainless steel coffee mug. pictured above and on the right, nestled gently into a space in my MRAP during a mission in Afghanistan in 2014.

From day one in the unit, I had that coffee mug, emblazoned with our unit logo. It went with me to the field, to the National Training Center, to Afghanistan, to Dallas-Fort Worth for funeral honors, and I still drink out of it every day.

On multiple occasions, officers and NCOs would ask me where I got the mug. They liked it, and were always surprised that it was sold at our very own gift shop.

Besides the fact that carrying a coffee mug is good Army practice ( if the Army is there, coffee is too), choosing to identify further with your unit beyond what is required sends a signal to your soldiers, peers, and leaders that you support the unit. Simply buying the mug doesn’t necessarily “do” anything – you can buy all the unit swag available and be a terrible leader.

But, buying the unit coffee mug is a very simple way of displaying that “you’re in.”

You have to drink your coffee somehow, you might as well do it with a purpose.

Enjoy these posts? Follow me on Twitter and sign up for the monthly newsletter.