“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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“If you have a phone, you can be a resistance fighter.”

cyberpunk reaper mural art

Episode 50 of the Irregular Warfare Podcast.

In Episode 50 of the Irregular Warfare Podcast, our guests discuss the history of technological innovation, examples of current and burgeoning technologies that will impact future warfare, and how governments can (and sometimes cannot) regulate the development and distribution of potentially dangerous technologies to malign actors.

Power to the people.

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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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Another definition of irregular warfare

washington dc at night

Recently, I pulled out the books to define irregular warfare.

There’s more than one definition, as it turns out.

Courtesy of Dave Maxwell who flagged this.

From the 2018 NDAA.

(i) Irregular Warfare Defined.–In this section, the term “irregular warfare” means activities in support of predetermined United States policy and military objectives conducted by, with, and through regular forces, irregular forces, groups, and individuals participating in competition between state and non-state actors short of traditional armed conflict.

If I am reading this correctly, the key element of irregular warfare (as defined here) is the use of a partner force.

Gone is the emphasis on “violent struggle” – instead we have “activities.”

Additionally, these activities occur in “competition between state and non-state actors short of traditional armed conflict.”

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The Premier Partnered Irregular Warfare Force

group of egyptian soldiers and an orange flag

Super-short episode from the Indigenous Approach (16 mins) that lays out the command’s new vision.

It’s all in the title: “We are the premier partnered Irregular Warfare force.”

I like it. It’s simple, short, and has enough meaning baked in without making me scratch my head.

And like many mission or vision statements, the words might mean nothing to some but everything to others.

I didn’t quite get the true nature of the ‘indigenous approach’ until I had a boss who told me just before a deployment:

“You won’t be graded on the things that your team does – you’ll be graded on the things that your partner does.”

That’s when it clicked for me. This is different.

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Neurowarfare

jack from mass effect charging for a punch

This is an interesting one that is kind of flying under the radar.

SOF operators do not currently receive any direct training on neurowarfare (indeed, most are unfamiliar with the concept entirely), and published research is strikingly limited. Of the small number of academic publications on the topic, only a handful directly address neurowarfare. Special Operations Forces (SOF) are uniquely positioned to confront the complex and dynamic threats neurowarfare poses but is currently under-prepared to take up the challenge. Part of the reason is a lack of general awareness. Although US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) prioritizes neuroscience research and innovation, especially for cognitive enhancement, comparatively less is known about neuroweapons that cause cognitive degradation.

CHANGING HEARTS AND BRAINS: SOF MUST PREPARE NOW FOR NEUROWARFARE

Admittedly, I don’t think I’ve ever heard the term “neurowarfare” before, but I understand the concept. This is how the authors define it:

Neurowarfare is the strategic takedown of a competitor through the use of neuroweapons that remotely “target the brain or central nervous system to affect the targeted person’s mental state, mental capacity and ultimately the person’s behavior in a specific and predictable way.

Ok, but wait a minute, isn’t this kind of like psychological operations?

Psychological operations share similar goals but achieve them through communication, typically over the long-term. Neuroweapons physically manipulate the brain and achieve immediate effects.

Right – these are the things that physically affect the brain. This is tough stuff. Ouch.

It’s an interesting article and I agree with the authors that we need to be accounting for this. Our adversaries do not share the same ethical concerns regarding the use of new technology to gain advantage. This is not a domain that we want to show up blind in.

The authors make three key recommendations:

  1. Train and educate the SOF enterprise on neurowarfare
  2. Conduct research (cognitive degredation research)
  3. Develop doctrine

The authors rightfully acknowledge the biggest challenge we face in this realm regards the ethics of it all.

The most difficult—and likely to be the most contentious—are the serious moral and ethical concerns of whether the United States should consider pursuing offensive neuroweapons. Should the United States pursue an offensive capability, even if only discovered accidentally through private sector research? If so, what sort of weapons would be morally acceptable to use and how should they be employed? Should these weapons be reserved for high-priority targets or will we get to a point where neuroweapons are routinely employed in conjunction with more traditional forms of warfare?

I have two chief concerns with this. One, anything “neuro” will likely be thought similarly as “psychological,” which people tend to treat as a “dirty word.” Second, when we “split” instead of “lump” the work becomes so specialized so as to be difficult to explain – or use.

And as always, Small Wars Journal continues to publish interesting things that remain on the margins of debate. This is another one that deserves discussion.

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“Getting after it”

I don’t have much to say about this, other than I’m not a fan of the phrase “getting after it.”

I’ve seen it used too often in briefs as a cheap way of not explaining what is actually happening and instead leaning heavily on an inference that good work is being done, but it’s just kind of hard to explain.

Worse, I’ve seen commanders watch someone brief them, seemingly perplexed or confused, and then have that confusion wash away when the briefer attests that they’re “getting after it.”

Getting after what?

It’s a term that seems to make more sense describing a fitness enthusiast’s zeal for exercise than a complex military operation.

This is also a relatively new term. I don’t know if it originated in the military, but it’s all over the place now.

It’s only a matter of time until someone makes a military movie titled “Getting After It.”

You can add this to other terms that stand in for things that require nuanced explanations, like “setting conditions.”

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Infinite Competition

washington dc at night

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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