“There is no universal algorithm for human behavior”

black screen red images depicting the konami code

Two things clicked in this short episode from the Indigenous Approach.

First, there is no “universal algorithm.”

There is a desire [for] a physical formula that can explain everything. We will never know all the variables…

…all of the algorithms and all of our data analytics, what they give us is how we got to where we were in the past.

Brig. Gen. Derek Lipson, Deputy Commanding General – Support

He’s talking about the recent shift to all things data, all things analytics, and how that may be a trap. Fans of the blog will know that I’ve become increasingly skeptical of anyone claiming to have the answers, especially the answers to complex social phenomena.

Specifically, he references the book “The Eye Test,” which I haven’t read, but is now on the list.

Second, this leadership maxim that ends the episode: 4+1 – the four things leaders do and the one thing to keep in mind.

  1. Allocate resources – “There’s never enough radios for the number of people that need a radio.”
  2. Provide commander’s guidance – “Guidance gives us left and right limits.”
  3. Report to higher – “Reporting to higher creates freedom of maneuver for subordinates.”
  4. Keep higher out of your business – “If we’re on line with the first three, higher will stay out of your business.”

And the plus 1?

Maintain relationships outside of the military.

Staying inside the bubble can get real toxic real quick.

The episode concludes with a powerful anecdote that illustrates this. And if you have been in the military for any period of time, it will resonate.

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GWOT War Stories

night vision afghan commando raid with special forces

This is an addendum to this morning’s post.

Sometimes it is easy to get excited about some new term or piece of information. I had never heard the term “grammando” before but it instantly clicked.

That’s how you get a new post.

But the rest of that episode is terrific. It’s a long war story.

The GWOT is over, right?

Maybe.

I’m continuously struck by the numbers of folks who are still around with incredible stories of heroism, triumph, and tragedy.

We are fortunate to have such people.

Click through and listen to this setup:

“We got into a big firefight, our dog handler got shot in the head, he lived, some of our commandos got killed, our Echo (Communications Sergeant) took a machine gun round to the chest plate and it exploded his magazines, destroyed his M4, so he took an AK from a guy he shot earlier that day and used it for the rest of the mission, and at one point… their snipers were shooting at those explosives…”

Brackforce #1, ~18:50

We are very fortunate indeed.

Image Source: New York Times

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The Banana Spider at Face Level

a banana spider on a web yellow

Another episode from the Pineland Underground. This one discusses Robin Sage, the boss level of the Special Forces Qualification Course.

On today’s episode we are joined with the SWCS Chief of Staff COL Stu Farris, and MSG (Ret) Chris Rogers. We discuss unconventional warfare and how it applies to the Special Forces culminating exercise known as Robin Sage. We address some common misconceptions that typically are associated with military exercises that occur within the local population to help inform and educate the public.

Robin Sage and Unconventional Warfare | The real story of the Special Forces culmination exercise (YouTube / Apple Podcasts)

If you’re curious about what this thing is and why it is so important (or why it seems to always surprise the media), the episode is worth listening to.

Did you ever wonder where the name Robin Sage came from? It’s in the episode.

Robin Sage, derives its name from the town of Robbins, N.C., a central area of operations for the exercise, and former Army Colonel Jerry Sage, a World War II veteran and an Office of Strategic Services, (OSS) officer who taught unconventional-warfare tactics. Steve McQueen’s character Hilts in the film “The Great Escape” was based on Sage. Sage was an OSS operative, the forerunner of today’s Green Berets and CIA.

Robin Sage: Why The Final Test For US Army Green Berets Is Truly Unique, 1945

There’s a great vignette deep in the episode (~40:00 mark) that highlights how the ethical dilemmas leaders face in training can emerge years later in very similar ways during actual operations. This one features an NCO spending a little too much time with one of the indigenous partners and finding himself at the center of an ethical dillema that includes a potential forced marriage.

Yikes.

A little later, they discuss the ways that war gets “harder” after the bureaucracy sets. It’s an interesting conversation, and one that I’m accustomed to hearing, but don’t necessarily agree with. The reason we get “worse” at doing things isn’t always because of additional bueracracy or pedantic military systems. It’s often (and mostly) the fact that the strategy is flawed. The whole thing is an exercise in futility. There’s only so much you can do with what you have.

If only they loosened restrictions. If only they let us do our job.

“Well if they sent us some more guys and bombed the hell out of the north, they might, uh, they might give up.”

-Animal Mother, Full Metal Jacket

As the saying goes, “we can’t kill our way out of this.

But that will never stop leaders who are committed to winning from trying to find ways to win. It’s a Kobayashi Maru and it’s how you get the GWOT effect.

Two closing thoughts: there is a quick mention of Yuri Bezmenov, the former KGB defector who many people will know from his interview where he discusses Soviet ideological subversion efforts. Interestingly, portions of that video found its place in the Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War trailer a couple of years ago which spurred some informative articles exploring that video in a wider context.

And finally, I appreciated the recognition that one of the most terrifying things in the world is walking face-first into a banana spider while doing land navigation in the woods at night.

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SOF Superpowers

Another episode of the Pineland Underground. This one was focused on the academic program at the Naval Postgraduate School and what that program could do for the force.

Here’s the line that grabbed my attention and inspired the headline:

“Special operations students have a superpower here – it’s not that these guys are going to split the atom or invent the longer lasting light bulb, but through their capability of navigating different cultures, navigating different groups of people, and [it’s] bringing them together around a common problem.”

Applied Design for Innovation | Graduate Program for Warfighters and Innovation Brokers, Pineland Underground

I’d argue that the superpower extends well beyond graduate school.

That’s really it, isn’t it?

“Can you get the State Department person on board? Can you get the tech startup founder on board? Can you get the neuroscientist from Stanford on board?”

Go on.

“Can you navigate all of these personalities, all these cultures, all these people, and mobilize them, understand their incentives, understand their identity, can you mobilize them around an innovation challenge?”

That’s the superpower right there. It’s less about having the power yourself, and more about unlocking it around you.

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Picking up brass with a Green Beret

soldiers picking up shell casings while wearing gloves

The first time I met someone from special forces was on a MOUT site at Fort Bragg back when I was a Private. We were the OPFOR for some green berets.

They had simunitions, we had paintballs.

There are three things I remember about that training:

  1. They were good – all of their movements were crisp and professional (I kept getting shot before I event saw anyone)
  2. They were older – like, way older. I was probably 19 at the time. They all looked to be in their mid-30s or early 40s.
  3. They were humble – story below.

At the end of one of the training days, we were under the stars with white lights picking up brass from the exercise. We had a platoon of infantrymen from the 82nd there, but every member of the SF team was out there picking up brass with us.

I remember plucking brass off of the concrete and dropping it into my helmet while a Segreant First Class next to me told me about Special Forces, the training, and the mission. He told me about the different schools he hasd gone to. He told me how he speaks a foreign language as a job requirement. He told me about trips to South America and working with partners.

All of that was cool, but it’s not what struck me.

The thing that struck me was the fact that he was out there picking up brass. He wasn’t above it. It displayed a professional maturity I wasn’t accustomed to yet – my experiences to date had been infantry training and being a new soldier in the 82nd.

Picking up brass was something privates did while the platoon leadership waited.

This was something different.

Something to admire.

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Voyevoda

colonel volgin holding missile with boss in the background

I recently finished Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, a game I began in 2004 and never finished.

It fills in much of the story I’ve been missing in the saga. I’m not done yet though. I still need to finish MGS 4 / Portable Ops / Peace Walker.

Then, I really owe myself another playthrough of MGSV – so much more will make sense (hopefully – I know that’s a stretch).

Whenever I’m engrossed in a game, I tend to write about it. MGS3 inspired a few posts on the blog.

The “Mother of Special Forces” – There’s a fascinating cut-scene early in MGS3 where we learn a little bit about Snake’s mentor – the Boss. She is referred to as a the ‘Mother of Special Forces.’ The codename the Russian’s give her is Voyevoda – warlord. This was an opportunity to write about the actual “Father of Special Forces” – Colonel Aaron Bank.

“Toxic Mentorship” through Boss and Snake – Mentorship is such an important aspect of military life, but it is rare that we talk about “toxic” mentorship. The Boss’ defection to the Soviet Union and the way she tries to leverage her relationship with Snake as a mentor is a form of this type of toxic mentorship.

Some thoughts on Colonel Volgin – Colonel Volgin terrified me. The combination of ambition, impulsiveness, and brute physical power is frightening.

The saga of Tom Olsen – This is not necessarily tied to MGS3, but it took place while I was playing it so I was very Metal Gear-primed. It was fascinating to watch the Metal Gear fandom go bonkers for a small-scale deception operation.

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Language ability is what sets Army SOF apart

the halo jump wasn't the hard part knowing which arabic dialect to use when i landed was

This episode is for the SOF nerds who understand the importance of foreign language capability in special operations.

It is also for those who want to know a little more about the language and culture programs that make, train, and sustain Army SOF.

Language, regional expertise, and cross-cultural competency (LREC) don’t get the same attention as sniper teams in ghillie suits or a bunch of operators touching down on the roof of a house off of a little bird.

But have no doubt, as Special Forces officer Tim Ball says in the episode, it is language ability (and the cultural-competency that comes with it) that sets Army special operations forces (ARSOF) apart from its peers in the other services (Navy SEALS, Marine Raiders, etc).

The episode is a deep-dive on ARSOF language training, to include:

  • Language standards have increased over time (From 0+ -to 1+ on the Oral Proficiency Interview as a graduation requirement)
  • The numerous language programs inside of SOF beyond initial acquisition, including advanced unit training, foreign immersion, operational unit exchanges, and on-demand computer-based online training (with live instructors)
  • The use of virtual reality to enhance language ability and cross-cultural competency

I really appreciated some of the comments that Tim made. He highlights the fact that ARSOF traditionally works with a partner force, and that parternship inherently involves lots of face-to-face communication.

The ultimate aim of language training is to prepare the SOF soldier to instruct and communicate in the target language – to stand up in front of a tough, dedicated fighting force, and communicate to them what it is they need to do.

Tim admits this is hard – not everyone achieves that level of language fluency.

But some do. And in just about every SOF unit, there is “that one” who really gets the language and becomes the de facto communicator on the team.

At the very least, the fact that every SF/CA/PO soldier goes through significant language training provides them with the tools they need to exchange basic expressions and pleasantries. Like it or not, there is an “ugly American” stereotype that precedes us everywhere we go. If you can blast through that by demonstrating basic understanding of the language, it goes a long way.

Related, Tim also wrote a great article on War on the Rocks discussing the role of language in special operations – and the fact that we’ve gotten better.

If you’re not already a subscriber of the Indigenous Approach, you should be. It’s a must-listen for me and bumps my queue every single time.

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All the reasons we’re bad at irregular warfare

soldiers talking to civilians
Image Source: army.mil

The Irregular Warfare Initiative is back on its game and recently released episode 33 (AN UN-AMERICAN WAY OF WAR: WHY THE UNITED STATES FAILS AT IRREGULAR WARFARE).

Incidentally, they just released episode 34 as well (CHINA’S STRATEGICALLY IRREGULAR APPROACH: THE ART OF THE GRAY ZONE).

I haven’t listened to the latter yet, but I’m willing to bet it will feature a discussion about how sly and cunning the Chinese are at IW (as opposed to the US).

I’ll say up front that the reason our adversaries rely on irregular warfare is because they have to — they really don’t have many other options.

And the reason they’re “good” at it is because they are not constrained by the same moral/ethical/legal boundaries that we are.

They’ll weaponize anything.

They also don’t have to contend with the political ramifications – as we do – of foreign exploits because of the authoritarian nature of their governments.

This doesn’t mean that we’re “not good” at IW, it just means we have to work a whole lot harder.

On to the podcast.

There were some great points made in the epsidoe and areas worth exploring further. These indlcude:

  • We never fight the war we want (tanks/troops in the open, fire for effect)
  • The difficulty training for irregular warfare (a day in the field represents a month 🤦‍♂️)
  • An argument to send military “observers” to other nations/conflicts to build knowledge
  • How personnel systems lose wars (this one is so true – and needs to more attention)
  • The importance of language skills for SOF personnel
  • The fact that SOF is and should be the primary actor in GPC – competing in the gray zone prior to conflict

Finally, towards the end there is a question posed as to what SOF should look like in IW. I’d offer it looks like a lot of things, but one of those is highly trained SF/CA/PSYOP forces out there doing there jobs. It’s the investment in human capital, not impressive tech, that will move the needle.

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Warfare of the Mind

Fantastic two-part series from the Indigenous Approach podcast on the concept of resistance and unconventional warfare.

Part 1

Part 2

Links:
Assessing Revolutionary and Insurgent Strategies (ARIS) Project
Resistance Operating Concept (ROC)
Gene Sharp’s “From Dictatorship to Democracy”


The concept of resistance is foundational to Army Special Operations Forces, as our mission is generally to partner with forces to either support or defeat resistance movements. In this two-part series, we pair experts on resistance with our forward-stationed battalion commanders in Germany and Japan to discuss what resistance is and how it’s applied in today’s operational environment.

‎The Indigenous Approach: Concept of Resistance: Part 1 – Resistance in Europe on Apple Podcasts

Special operations is inundated with terms that define gradations of warfare: unconventional warfare, irregular warfare, hybrid warfare, asymmetric warfare, information warfare, political warfare, and on and on. Some of these terms are written into doctrine, others are in popular use or academic and carted out to make a point.

The doctrinal terms have unique meanings, and those meanings are incredibly important to the planners and practicioners who see to their execution.

We’ve got squishier terms too, like resistance.

What does that mean in the context of warfare and special operations?


This was such an incredibly insightful two-part series which explains resistance in detail. And while this is a must-listen for folks in the special operations community, I think it is even more important for it to reach a wider national security audience to build an understanding of what special operations can do (and are supposed to do) in supporting resitance operations.

Future war is likely to feature conventional operations as the decisive operation and a resistance force as a shaping operation (or vice-versa, who knows?). It would be helpful for anyone who might have to participate in that future war to have a baseline understanding of resistance operations.

There are some real gems in this series, too.

Poor planning and friction can lead to “going with what you know.”

“When things get difficult, people tend to go with what they know. And what that ends up looking like, you have a defense capability that looks a lot like your military. If you find yourself with a resistance force or irregular defense force that looks exactly like your unit or exactly like your military, then you’ve probably lost your way.”

Part 1, ~29:30

Often, this comes down to equipment and logistics. The “tail” that makes our forces what they are is long (and expensive). Trying to replicate that in a partner force – especially a resistance force – just isn’t going to work. This is also true for tactics. The way we do things works for us – it might not work for them. There is a level of embracing this that is necessary to be effective.

Or to put it another way – it’s not going to feel great.

What does SOF do in a bar fight? They’re in the parking lot, pulling wires and cutting tires.

“I use this analogy of what SOF was created to do – of a bar fight. There’s a large bar, there’s a bar fight, the military decides they’re going to go in. The Marine Corps is there to punch the bouncer in the face and get us inside and the Army is supposed to run inside and plug the zone and make sure that the bar fight goes our way. What does SOF do? We’re in the parking lot, pulling wires, cutting tires, ambushing your reinforcements, and influencing the population to come join the fight who are friendly, and dealing with the ones who want to come and reinforce them.”

Part 1, ~38:00

On the role of PSYOP through the continuum of resistance operations:

“PSYOP has the role to assist with the strategic messaging – to assist with the messaging during peacetime now to increase the resiliency of the population and perhaps to warn them, to some degree, against the adversary, and then they also have a role to play if there is a takeover of a nation.”

Part 1, ~41:00

Have you ever heard the term ‘digital standoff’ before? I haven’t.

“If you look at the Jedburghs back in WWII, they show up in a village, and there’s a parade, and people celebrating their arrival because they know they’re going to assist the resistance. That played pretty well back then. But if you did that today, a picture of that would be around the world in three seconds. So I think what that causes is a belief that maybe you can achieve far enough standoff from a digital means or achieve a digital safe haven where the human-to-human piece of this is no longer necessary, or at least that that connection can be made digitally…”

Part 1, ~45:00

The above was super-insightful. Resistance and support to resistance is going to look a lot different in the future. America is not the same. The world is not the same. Additionally, the fact that the picture would make it around the world in three seconds, to me, isn’t a bad thing. It is going to be nearly impossible to prevent that – so you have to embrace it. This is incredibly uncomfortable for a force that is accustomed to operating in the shadows.

GPC and LSCO are not the same.

“Most people when they talk Great Power Competition (GPC) – at least most of the stuff I’ve read – people have a tendency to equate it to Large Scale Combat Operations (LSCO). So, is that a piece of competition? Is it the most of competition? How does LSCO fit into GPC?”

Part 2, ~8:00

Say it once, say it twice, third time’s the charm.

“Irregular warfare is the military’s contribution to political warfare.”

Part 2, ~13:00

It’s just true – SOF NCOs are the ones who maintain the long term relationships. Much of this has to do with the fact that officers don’t spend as much time on teams as NCOs do. This isn’t a bad thing – this is the way it is and should be exploited.

“The Philippine generals, three or four of them said ‘Joe how are you doing? It’s been a couple of months since I’ve seen you! How’s everything going?’ More general officers knew him as Joe the Sergeant First Class Special Forces NCO than they knew the PACOM staff senior officers. And that’s really a testament to the relationships that our NCOs have.”

Part 2, ~21:00

The below is a good recruiting line.

“The meme is the new PSYOP leaflet.”

Part 2, ~27:00

I cannot stress the below enough. Our risk aversion in the IE stems mostly from fear of embarressment. How silly is that? No one wants to be dragged through the mud digitally – but it happens all the time, and it’s fine. The day moves on. We’re unwilling to try because we’ve see what happens when someone makes a mistake. We should be making many, many more mistakes and living with it. That’s how we achieve success. Frequency of a theme over time. Not by crafting one, super-polished message.

“The tragedy is if we make a mistake in a kinetic operation, you know, it is unrecoverable. Somebody dies. But if we make a mistake in the information environment, in today’s world, the news cycle is going to move on. And yeah, it might me embarrassing, it might have an effect for a short term, but we can recover from information mistakes, so we should be aggressive and allow our teams to seize the initiative in the information space.”

Part 2, ~28:00

We keep hearing it – PSYOP and influence operations as the desicive operation. The more we embrace this, the more successful we’re going to be.

“It’s a little bit of a culture shift for an ODA to be like ” Hey MIST (Military Information Support Team), how can I help you?”

Part 2, ~35:00

What are we really assessing/selecting for?

“One common trait of special operations is, I think, we select for life-long learners.”

Part 2, ~41:45

This is so true. After assessment, selection, and qualification, you have not arrived. You have just begun. The continuing education – both through PME, unit training, and I think more importantly, self-development, is critical to actually getting good at this stuff.

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Jump Commands in Farsi

two special operators standing next to one another

Credit to SOF News Update for finding this gem.

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 States 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.”

Special Forces Advisor – The Big Picture – YouTube

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