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

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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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Taking care of our own

I said everything I need to say about this in the below tweet.

In this episode, COL Eric Kreitz, the 1st SFC(A) Director of Information Warfare sits down with the 1st SFC Chaplain COL Chris Dickey. They discuss COL Kreitz’s very personal story – one of fear, addiction, and hitting rock bottom…but also one of resilience, support, and overcoming adversity. 

The Indigenous Approach – Caring for Our Most Important Resource

The audio is a little off, but it’s worth it.

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IW: Confronting Chinese info-ops in the Pacific

Things are happening. Things have been happening. They don’t always get attention.

In case you missed this from last week.

The Joint Task Force Indo-Pacific team will be focused on information and influence operations in the Pacific theater, a part of the world receiving much the military’s attention because of China’s growing capabilities.

Special Operations team in Pacific will confront Chinese information campaigns

Good.

The team is poised to work with like-minded partners in the region, Gen. Richard Clarke, commander of Special Operations Command, said before the Armed Services Committee. “We actually are able to tamp down some of the disinformation that they [China] continuously sow,” he said of the task force’s efforts.

And finally:

The forward defense concept isn’t just applicable to cyberspace. Clarke described Special Operations Forces, specifically Military Information Support Operations professionals, that are deployed forward and work closely with embassies around the world.

“By working closely with those partners to ensure that our adversaries, our competitors are not getting that free pass and to recognize what is truth from fiction and continue to highlight that to using our intel communities is critical,” he said.

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Masters of Irregular Warfare

Garibaldi, Mosby, Rogers, Lawrence – this episode is about masters of irregular warfare, old and new.

This episode explores the capabilities that irregular warfare practitioners bring to bear. Our guests discuss how irregular warfare integrates into—and often plays a pivotal supporting role in—broader conventional conflict. The conversation ends with recommendations for how to prepare and employ irregular warfare capabilities to address the major threats to US national security, to include great power rivals, rogue regional powers, and violent nonstate actors.

How Small Wars Fit into Big Ones: Lessons from the Masters of Irregular Warfare – Modern War Institute

There were a lot of gems in this one. Here’s what stood out:

MG Brennan on Robert Rogers and John Mosby as irregular warriors:

True innovators that bucked the system… and I think they also played a great part in the psychological aspect of warfare against their enemies that the conventional folks didn’t, they [the conventional forces] tried to do it with mass and cannons and these guys did it by being sneaky and moving around at night.

MG John Brennan, Commander, 1st Special Forces Command (~4:30 mark)

I love that first part. “True innovators that bucked the system.” Innovation is not going to look normal the first time you see it. Leaders have to take a deep breath and let things play out every now and then.

“A sideshow of a sideshow.” On losing at the tactical level but achieving strategic success.

Look at T.E. Lawrence and what he was able to do, really with a handful of tribesmen. He struck at the infrastructure of the Turkish force and and the German Asien Korps… with tiny resources Lawrence made an 800 mile advance that was closely integrated with General Allenby’s conventional forces.. [this] took a lot of pressure off fo Allenby and allowed the conventional offensive to move forward.

Dr. John Arquilla

Yes, absolutely. Dr. Arquilla goes on to discuss how many irregular warriors lose over and over at the tactical level. But they know that winning the battle isn’t important. They are playing the long game. He cites Mao and Ho Chi Min as examples.

Back to Lawrence. There is so much to study in the case of the Arab Revolt. The way the Arab Revolt served as a shaping operation to Allenby’s decisive operation is textbook. But there is so much more here. Lawrence knew it was a sideshow and that his revolt didn’t even matter. He knew he didn’t even have to fight anymore. He had “arranged in the minds of others” a new reality that achieved his aims.

Lawrence and Allenby understood the war and understood each other’s roles. Here is Lawrence:

His words to me were that three men and a boy with pistols in front of Deraa on September the sixteenth would fill his conception; would be better than thousands a week before or a week after. The truth was, he cared nothing for our fighting power, and did not reckon us part of his tactical strength. Our purpose, to him, was moral, psychological, diathetic; to keep the enemy command intent upon the trans-Jordan front.

T.E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom

On innovation, talent management, and finding the right people.

We are trying to pulse the force to get those innovators to come to the surface so that we can put them in a pipeline that sets them up for success both academically and to get those experiences where it matters.

MG John Brennan (~21:00 mark)

This is a real challenge in the Army. Innovation is easily stifled in a hierarchial and traditions-based organization like the Army. Even in special operations communities, it is still the Army. Innovation, by it’s nature, is going to look different. It is going to “buck” the status quo. Leaders need to be able to widen the aperture and accept that something that doesn’t quite look or feel right just might be the next big thing. Instead of squashing it or shutting it down, embracing it might be the right move.

And it will mostly fail.

Great innovation doesn’t happen the first time. I’d love to see some “failures in innovation.” Folks who tried, but it didn’t work. Most importantly, where the command applauds that failure. People have to know it is okay to experiment. Otherwise, the incentives are misaligned.

This goes to the concept of top cover.

When this mystic, Orde Wingate came along and said ‘I can do deep-penetration operations to upset the entire logistics of the Japanese in the Burma-theatre,’ Churchill got very enthusiastic and gave him the top cover to do this…

Dr. John Arquilla

For every military innovator, there is a champion somewhere higher in the chain of command who has to smile and answer questions from higher. Leaders do not need to be innovators themselves, but they have to enable it.

Loved these throughts from MG Brennan on military reporting and the tyranny of too much ISR (around the ~31:00 mark).

I’ve seen intelligence, surveillance, and reconaissance aircraft used as ‘combat voyeur’ tools to make sure formations are doing the right thing.

Oof. The worst.

I remember as a Captain not seeing my company commander for months and months on end. The weekly SITREP was all he got and that was coming over HF [high-frequency radio].

There is so much to discuss here (but not today). No one joins the Army thinking about how good they’d be at writing SITREPs – but boy has that become a discriminator. And we know we’re heading to a future where permissive communications will not be a given. SITREP-bloat is a real thing. And there is value to painting a good picture for higher. But there is a conversation to be had concerning re-aligning reporting expectations and mission command.

On where irregular warfare expertise lay at scale.

It’s in the special operations community that you see capabilities for engaging now.

Dr. John Arquilla

The episode concludes with an interesting converstion on the concept of the “hybrid leader.” That is, someone who is both an irregular warfare thinker and practicioner.

I think that starts with the recruiting – recruiting from the right talent pools, and part of recruiting the right people is providing the right message about what we do.

MG John Brennan (~42:00)

Yup.

You say SOF and they think door kicking, they think Zero-Dark Thirty – that’s just a very small aspect of what SOF does. So we are trying to help recruit people by showing what SOF does in a much more holistic spectrum, not just DA [direct action], we do COIN [counter-insurgency], we do FID [foreign internal defense], we do information warfare, we do civil affairs/civil reconaissance, we work with hundreds of different partners.

We typically recruit people that are adventerous, they’re problem solvers, and as part of their training, we want to make sure we’re enhancing that, and that we’re recognizing it, and making it flourish.

MG John Brennan (~42:00)

A great episode – and a great lead off for IWI. The episode left me feeling good both about the conversation surrounding irregular warfare and the future for special operations.

This field is littered with jargon and buzzwords that are incredibly confusing. But these words matter and behind them are important and nuanced concepts. These episodes (and articles) have an important ‘inform’ component to them. They get the word out. They let people know what’s out there.

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Institutionalizing Irregular Warfare: Introducing IWI

Very excited to see this initiative.

To help bridge this gap, the Empirical Studies of Conflict Project and the Modern War Institute at West Point are proud to announce the launch of the Irregular Warfare Initiative (IWI). IWI is designed to support the community of irregular warfare professionals, to include military and interagency practitioners, scholarly researchers, and policymakers, by providing a space for accessible, practically grounded discussions of irregular warfare policy and strategy.

Introducing the Irregular Warfare Initiative – Modern War Institute

The Irregular Warfare Podcast has quickly become one of my favorite. Like many of you, my podcast queue is infinite. I never get to anything, but their podcast aligns perfectly with with my interests – and it is actually good. It bumps everything out of the way and becomes a “listen to now” podcast.

Looking forward to seeing how this shapes up over the next year.

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