The Premier Partnered Irregular Warfare Force

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

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.

Worst, 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

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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Language ability is what sets Army SOF apart

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

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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“Psychological” isn’t a dirty word

Really good thread on this the other day.

Friends of the blog Matt Armstrong and David Maxwell chimed in as well.

As a society (especially in the West), we have elevated anything having to do with the human brain to an almost sacred position. It is often said that it is easier to put a “warhead on a forehead” than it is to put an idea between someone’s ears.

My sense is that this aversion comes from a fear that attempting to influence using any kind of “technique” is somehow morally or ethically repugnant or dishonorable.

This, of course, is silly. We use these “techniques” every day. If we can use non-lethal methods to gain advantage in competition, change the tide in battle, or ultimately lessen suffering in war, shouldn’t we?

I also think there is an underlying fear born of conspiracy theory and pseudoscience that any form of influence is an attempt at ‘mind-control’ or ‘brain-washing’ – terms that have no basis in reality.

To Cole’s point, the constant word-shifting – psychological to informational – isn’t helpful. It’s an attempt to sanitize the effort, but only works to strip it of its essence. Everything we do is inherently a human endeavor. As such, there are psychological aspects at play and we should take them into account.

The more we try to avoid that, the less effective we will be.

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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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Our adversaries are paying close attention

dfdf

I’m a little late on this one. A couple of weeks ago, the Irregular Warfare Podcast sat down with Admiral James Stavridis and Elliot Ackerman to discuss future war and their new book 2034.

What would a conflict with China look like? How will irregular warfare fit into a conflict before and during large-scale combat operations? Retired Admiral James Stavridis and Elliot Ackerman join this episode of the Irregular Warfare Podcast to discuss the theme of escalation to large-scale conflict, which they explore in their New York Times best seller 2034: A Novel of the Next World War. In answering those questions, they emphasize the nature of human behavior in conflict and how escalation can get out of control.

Irregular Warfare in the Next World War – Modern War Institute

I haven’t read the book yet – but it’s on the list.

We’ve reached a place in time where technology is advancing so quickly that standard analysis isn’t enough to prepare for future war – we have to use our imagination.

There’s a short discussion towards the end of the podcast that caught my attention as prescient. The guests are asked to reflect on our current vulnerabilities and how our adversaries are working towards exploiting them.

“It would seem preposterous for us not to imagine that our adversaries are very much aware of our internal political dynamics and at every corner trying to take advantage and exasperate the divisions that exist within American society, and are paying close attention.”

Elliot Ackerman

It really does feel like we are living through an inflection point in American history. There’s a lot going on internally, but our adversaries are watching very closely – and the enemy always gets a vote.

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We’re going to need a slower plane

I’m not an airpower guy, but I enjoyed this episode on airpower in irregular warfare.

“…the effort is going to go towards training and developing partners in order to compete with Chinese influence in places like Africa and South America. That’s going to be role for SOF – the biggest role – in Great Power Competition for special operations.

Armed Overwatch: Airpower in Irregular Warfare—Past, Present and Future – Modern War Institute

During the episode, the guests talk about the fact that sometimes you don’t need the most technically-able aircraft. In fact, depending on the conflict, you might need something old and slow.

This reminds me of a conference I attended years ago discussing outfitting the Afghan air force. Really, what they needed was legacy aircraft from last century. Slow flying so you can actually see what’s on the ground. This makes sense to anyone who has played an air combat video game and tried to do a strafing run going mach 1.

As the guests indicate, there is a bias – especially in air communities – towards fast, more advanced, and newer.

I like the idea of pilots flying an F-35 one day, an F-16 the next, and then an F-4 the last, based on the need.

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