Night has closed in over the Zagreb Mountains of northern Iran. The sound of a plane is heard. Inside the plane Iranian Special Forces paratroopers prepare to jump into a maneuver area. There is a sense of urgency as last minute commands in Farsi are given by the lone American among them, a United State Army officer. How this officer, Captain Paul Wineman, is trained in the military and language skills needed for his urgent task overseas is the subject of this week’s documentary, “Special Forces Advisor.”
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 However, limited understanding of these threats among policymakers in Washington, DC, budget constraints, and outdated authorities hinder SOF’s ability to evolve.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.
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…
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
On the fact that political warfare is “standard operating procedure” for Russia and China:
The operational differences, for all their practical implications, may be less important than the simple recognition that Beijing and Moscow both approach influence operations and active measures as a normal way of doing business.
On the different approaches Russia/China take in regards to political warfare:
Undoubtedly, more can be said about how to understand the distinctions between Chinese and Russian influence operations and political warfare. Perhaps the best way to describe the differences between the two approaches is that the Chinese are human- or relationship-centric while the Russians are operation- or effects-centric.
Looking at the PLA in strictly military terms lacks a true understanding of their purpose:
When analysts look at the PLA, they are looking at it as a military — at its warfighting capabilities and the resulting security implications. It is a purely military view that lacks a clear concept for appreciating political warfare.
Influence operations are directly connected to political power:
The party leads, the PLA follows. The purpose of influence operations is political power.
Lessons learned from watching the US in the Persian Gulf war (emphasis in bold mine). I’d love to see more on this, by the way:
The Persian Gulf War to expel Iraq from Kuwait taught the PLA the value and power of information in the modern context. Most obviously, precision-guided bombs blowing out buildings on CNN cameras demonstrated the value of targeting intelligence and guided munitions. However, the PLA also drew lessons from the George H.W. Bush administration’s diplomatic effort to paint Iraq as the aggressor and to rally an international coalition, including Iraq’s Arab neighbors. They also admired the psychological warfare efforts to induce Iraqi commanders to surrender or retreat without fighting.
Related, a short (and kind of choppy) article in Small Wars Journal that couches China’s approach as war, not competition. The author seems to be inferring that we should not be using the “great power competition” construct because our adversaries aren’t.
Image at the top: “The Boss” mentoring “Naked Snake” (MGS3).
Enjoy these posts? Follow me on Twitter and sign up for the monthly newsletter.