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.

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The End of War Reading List: One Hundred Victories-Special Ops and the Future of American Warfare

quote-for-to-win-one-hundred-victories-in-one-hundred-battles-is-not-the-acme-of-skill-to-subdue-the-sun-tzu-188541.jpg (850×400)

This is another book that wasn’t on the original list, but it’s relevant and was recommended to me by someone on the ground. One Hundred Victories (by Linda Robinson) is about ‘Village Stability Operations‘ (VSO), which is one of the principal missions of special operation forces in Afghanistan. The author tells the story of the VSO mission in Afghanistan and in an attempt to make the book more palatable to generalists, she wraps it all up in the final chapter on what the future of war might look like.

One Hundred Victories will appeal to anyone interested in what special operation forces are currently doing in Afghanistan, classic Special Forces missions, and to those who may interact with the VSO mission at some point in the future (SFAAT staff, infantry uplift personnel, CA/MISO, etc.). Outside of talking to those who have done a VSO mission, there really isn’t much else to read on the subject other than some articles on Small Wars Journal or whatever is out there in open source (not much). Right now, this is the definitive book on the VSO mission.

In terms of narrative, the author bounces around from team-level stuff outside the wire to big boss decisions being made at headquarters. With the exception of some of the notable Generals, there are no ‘characters’ that are followed from start to finish. The bulk of the research comes from team embeds and interviews that the author conducted over the course of a few years. There are some familiar names that pop up through the book who are associated with the VSO missions. Notably, MAJ Jim Gant, the author of ‘One Tribe at a Time’ and profiled in the just-released book ‘American Spartan’, and SSG Robert Bales, the American soldier who murdered 16 Afghans in 2012. SSG Bales was assigned to a VSO team as part of the aforementioned ‘infantry uplift,’ the pairing of conventional infantrymen to a VSO team to augment security.

I only highlighted three things as I read through the book. The first, mentions a friendly-fire incident:

“A US soldier from a conventional unit was killed at Sar Howza one night in a friendly-fire incident. He approached on of the local police checkpoints and was mistakenly shot by an ALP policeman.”

The Afghan Local Police (ALP) is the program that the VSO mission is all about. It is a ‘bottom up’ recruitment, training, and fielding program that develops a local security platform. It is separate from the Afghan National Army (ANA) or other security programs.

The second thing I highlighted was in reference to MAJ Gant:

“Finally, a young conventional infantry lieutenant attached to Gant’s ad hoc team decided to blow the whistle after being asked to falsify a situation report. “This is just not right,” he told Gant’s superiors, adding that things were out of control in the camp. The command ordered a “health and welfare” inspection of Gant’s camp in early March 2012. It appeared that Gant had been living out some kind of a sex-, drug-, and alcohol-fueled fantasy, becoming, as one officer put it, “a legend in his own mind.” Alcohol and steroids were found in his hooch, along with large quantities of Schedule II, III, and IV controlled substances and other drugs. Classified material were also found unsecured in his quarters, a violation compounded by the fact that Gant had been keeping a reporter-turned-lover at the camp, moving her around to prevent his superiors from learning of her presence.”

Lastly, on human terrain:

One special operations officer confided his dismay at seeing a terrain model in a senior general’s office in Afghanistan that was festooned with labels such as “block,” “attrit,” and “isolate” — a pretty clear indication that the general viewed the contest as a fight over physical terrain that could be addressed with a conventional scheme of maneuver.”

For a review of the book in the New York Times, click here.

The End of War Reading List

Into the Land of Bones (gift from a friend) – done (Dec. 31, 2013)
One Hundred Victories (recommended by a guy on the ground) – done (March 2014)
The Defense of Jisr Al-Doreea (recommended by a couple of friends)
The Massacre at El Mozote (recommended by Matthew Bradley)
Every War Must End (recommended by Jason Lemieux)
Black Hearts (recommended by “Jim”)
Can Intervention Work (recommended by “Lincoln”)
A Question of Command: Counterinsurgency from the Civil War to Iraq (recommended by Robert)
Blink: the Power of Thinking without Thinking (recommended by Laura and a friend)
Friend by Day, Enemy by Night: Organized Vengeance in a Kohistani Community (recommended by Laura)
War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (recommended by Joao Hwang)
Romance of the Three Kingdoms (recommended by Joao Hwang)
The Forever War (recommended by Shelly)
How Wars End: Why We Always Fight the Last Battle (recommended by Tim Mathews)

“On Deck”

The Operators (recommended by Nathalie)
The Liberation Trilogy (recommended by Allen)
The Village (recommended by Robert)
Koran, Kalashnikov, and Laptop (recommended by “Kyle”)
The Junior Officer’s Reading Club (recommended by “Kyle”)
The Enlightened Soldier – Scharnhorst and the Militarische Gesellschaft in Berlin, 1801-1805 (recommended by Laura)
Storm Troop Tactics: Innovation in the German Arm (recommended by Laura)
Utility of Force; Art of War in the Modern World (recommended by Laura)
The Sling and the Stone: On War in the 21st Century (recommended by Laura)
Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise to Western Power (recommended by Laura)
Brave New World (recommended by a fellow infantry officer)
Sympathy for the Devil (recommended by Wesley Morgan)

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