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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“Asymmetric warfare is where we’re at and SOF is the perfect answer for it”

Another great episode from the Irregular Warfare podcast on SOF and civilian oversight. A wonky topic, for sure, but incredibly important.

In this episode, our guests argue that SOF is uniquely suited to address irregular warfare challenges in the era of great power competition. However, limited understanding of these threats among policymakers in Washington, DC, budget constraints, and outdated authorities hinder SOF’s ability to evolve. According to our guests, civilian leadership and oversight can help overcome these challenges.

The View from Washington: Sen. Joni Ernst and Former Asst. Sec. of Defense Owen West on Civilian Oversight of SOF – Modern War Institute

There’s lots of great stuff in this one, but I especially appreciated the short conversation on information warfare and the role of Army psychological operations. It starts around the 22 minute mark. Some choice excerpts below.

If we looked around the armed forces, [it’s] the Army’s psychological warfare wing, which really is the repository of our original talent and experience in information operations. And yet, when I visited a couple of times, it was apparent that structurally, this had not received the money, or let’s just call it prestige that others had…

Owen West

Very true. The talent and ambition is there, but the branch is so small and the issues incredibly wonky. Part of the conversation here is about the struggle to adequately explain to a non-IW/PSYOP person what the heck it is that you’re trying to do – as they mention in the podcast “in two senteces.”

And the explosion of information warfare challenges has lead to a “catching up” phase where structures and authorities are being rewritten to match the times. This is a slow process.

To put things in perspective, PSYOP didn’t become an official branch of the Army until October 2006. Special Forces, on the other hand, became a branch in April 1987. A colleague of mine once reminded me that PSYOP is today where SF was in the late 1990s / early 2000s. It’s not a perfect analogy, but there is something there.

In regards to prestige, there’s no surprise there. Over the past twenty years, SOF – jointly – was very much focused on direct action. There is a shift occuring now, and there’s no question that the weather is changing on the current fight (influence, GPC, etc.). It’s not going to be easy to point to the hard wins in IW when we’re really just moving the dial or changing the temperature of the water.

Also, it’s hard to make a Call of Duty video game or 12 Strong movie for information warfare.

And part of the problem, of course, is RULES:

But I don’t know that your audience knows the limitations on them [PSYOP] were pretty astonishing… I felt pretty much like the opponent was playing by different rules.

Owen West

Yup. Part of living a free country.

Moving way from PSYOP. On the comparitive advantage of the US military due to the NCO corps:

…what people haven’t pointed to is the comparitive advantage, if we level-set armies around the world and their special operations forces, and that is our NCO corps, and our senior NCO corps. No one can match the NCO corps of the United States.

Owen West

This is so true, and it is something that we don’t highlight enough. Our SOF NCOs are really that good.

I enjoyed this tongue-in-cheek quip on what civilan shops at the highest levels in DoD should not be doing:

“Part of my shop was too operational… really this was about policy making, and not helicopter bump plans.”

Owen West

Defense folks love being ‘operational’ and focusing on the tactical elements of things. There are some jobs, however, where this is no longer helpful. Unfortunately, this is a system which lauds tactical expertise and it is often those small skills that makes for a successful career.

And a quote to kind of wrap up the whole point, stated perfectly:

“Asymmetric warfare is where we’re at and SOF is the perfect answer for it.”

Senator Joni Ernst

And since we’re talking about irregular warfare, a quick remeinder: “Irregular warfare is the military’s contribution to political warfare.”

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A few thoughts on cynicism

I recently lamented on not having read the piece on SOF cynicism sooner.

From Small Wars Journal:

After 20 years of teaching SOF O3s and O4s at the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS), what struck me hardest was that students weren’t just willing to openly acknowledge that they were cynical, but their cynicism didn’t seem to faze them.  Instead, they were quite accepting of it. 

CYNICISM: A brief look at a troubling topic | Small Wars Journal

There are articles that show up in Small Wars Journal from time to time that strike a chord. They’re a slow burn, seeping through the force. This happened much more frequently a decade ago when we were mired in Iraq and Afghanistan, and intelligent and dedicated men and women were looking for a way – any way – to win.

There’s so much more content out there these days – great articles can easily be over-looked or lost.

The SOF cynicsm article was posted in the middle of February, and as readers of my newsletter will know, I was otherwise occupied, so I initially missed this.

I finally read it over the weekend and was thoroughly pleased. It captures, I think, a real trend – a growing cynicism, especially among SOF officers making the move into the field grade ranks.

It is something I’ve noticed, and tried my best not to fall victim to. Until I read the article, I chalked up most of the cynicism to generational differences. And I still think that may be the case, but not so much due to just age – but to military experiences.

The thing that strikes me, though, is that the author shows a lot of data for even more senior officers (O5 and above) demonstrating a similar cynicism.

I don’t have too much to add to the piece – the author does a good job weaving experience and data together and laying it out in a compelling way.

However, I was struck by the cross-over between cynicism and toxic mentorship.

What is stoking this cynicism?

If, meanwhile, you were to ask defense intellectuals and others familiar with the military for their take on what has stoked cynicism recently, most would likely cite: the ‘forever’ nature of today’s wars; the lack of consistent policy; the lack of an overall strategy; the ground hog day nature of deployments; and/or time away from family.  I do not want to minimize any of these, since they have been among officers’ concerns, too, but I would now say that what overarches everything else is loss of faith in senior leaders.  Senior leaders’ inability to change – or to seem to want to change – how (and for whom) systems internal to the military work is corrosively demoralizing.

First, it is always easy to blame the “forever wars” on whatever administrative “garrison” problem we face. This same thing happened in the late 2000s as the Army was studying what was causing the rise in military suicides. The common line and working hypothesis was that it must be the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and all of the trauma and separation that comes with repeat deployments. The studies, however, showed a different picture. The majority of suicides (that were included in the study) were from soldiers who had never deployed or had a single deployment. Despite the data, this myth persists. And in fairness, one of the findings was that “perhaps it’s not being deployed so much as being in a war during a high-stress period.” That is, being in the military during the “forever wars” might be the grinder – not so much the deployments.

I commend the author for not falling for that old myth and going deeper. The crux of her article is precisely that – it may be the unique and ever-present demands on SOF that drives some of this cynicism.

“Isn’t cynicism being a realist?”

A response from an interviewed officer

No. Perhaps the most grating thing about modern cynicism is couching it as some kind of elevated expertise.

“There is no measure of accuracy for what is reported.” To which someone added, “maybe that’s why it is called a storyboard.”

A short back and forth on “metrics”

I loved the portion of the essay that featured snippets from interviews. I feel like I’m in that room, where one officer is lamenting at the seeming absurdity and inaccuracy of the modern storyboard, a snapshot of an event or mission that is often used to inform higher headquarters of what is going on. The other officer snaps back with a snarky – but true – reply. It’s easy to grow cynical about storyboards – and any military reporting, really. There’s a purpose for most of the things that are done, and part of the problem is a growing belief – as inidicated through the article – that those that are closer to the fight always know better than higher headquarters. See below.

In fact, as one widely revered (now retired) O6 and former CJSOTF commander put it: “As COs we’re allowed to push just beyond the bounds, but we’re not given the trust to push those bounds and reconfigure the strategy on the ground.”  Yet, he wondered, who was better positioned to understand what was required on the ground than someone who was on his fifth or sixth deployment, someone who has been interacting with the same local, regional, and now national leaders for years?

We’ve fallen for that folly before. Experience is important, but it is often mistaken for expertise. And in a culture that lionizes experience – especially combat experience – that can be dangerous.

I love this section below on what the author calls “happy warriors.”

‘Happy Warriors’ is my term for those who loyally help keep the system functioning.  Happy Warriors are individuals who may be cynical, but don’t feel disaffected enough to exit.  They include many O6s who are genuinely grateful to have made it as high as O6.  Maybe getting to be a company or battalion commander sufficed; maybe something happened along the way to make rising above O6 impossible; alternatively, other priorities (e.g. family) might have surfaced midway through someone’s career.  Regardless, all Happy Warriors (as I am using the term) remain dedicated patriots.  They are smart, highly capable problem-solvers, and while they haven’t lost their competitive edge, they just aren’t as driven to have to (still) be #1 as others are.  Two other features that distinguish Happy Warriors are that few seem to fall into the trap of regarding themselves as strategic thinkers or visionaries when they are not, and most prize loyalty.  Sometimes they are overly loyal to their bosses; more often their allegiance is to the enterprise.

If I had to, I’d count myself among these “happy warriors.” Without question, serving in the military over these past two decades prompts a lot of reflection. The advice I give to others (and myself), is you have to enjoy the life and the lifestyle, otherwise, you may find yourself growing very, very cynical. See the numerous references to “luck and timing” as well as this choice quote: “the system doesn’t care; it’ll keep using you until you’re all used up.”

As for solutions, there isn’t much offered other than better leadership. Talent management is mentioned, and I do think this will help move the dial. There is a role here also for self-awareness. My take is that a lof of the folks who were attracted to SOF in the first place want to believe that their personal contribution is or can be special/unique – and it can. But, it’s still the Army. And every individual is part of something bigger. That gets forgotten or lost somewhere, and contributes to this cynicism.

I’ve skipped a whole section on careerism and the drive to “make it.” That part makes up the crux of the author’s argument, and a lot of it isn’t wrong. It’s not very different though from what you would see in other parts of the Army or just standard careerism.

These are strange times, and cynicism is a simple defense mechanism folks can employ to get themselves through the day. While it can be discouraging to be around (it is), I’m not convinced that it means too much more than that. That is, I’m not sure most cynical officers would allow that cynicism to bleed over into anything of consequence (like carrying out orders). I could be wrong, but this may just be a passing trend.

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A House Divided: A Look at SOF Values | Small Wars Journal

A recent paper at Small Wars Journal discussing SOF ethics. The author leads off with the below:

SOF operators are selected for a willingness and aptitude to conduct traditionally immoral acts, trained to be proficient at the conduct of those acts, but then expected to refrain from those acts outside of approved operational circumstances.

A House Divided: A Look at SOF Values | Small Wars Journal

I’m not sure I necessarily agree with that, but there is certainly something there.

The paper is worth the read. I agree that operators need to be able to “flip the switch.”

However, I always felt that SOF imperative #1 (understand the operational environment) wrapped up everything I needed to know pretty nicely.

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The “Mother of Special Forces”

Photo of Col. Aaron Bank (credit: arsof-history.org)

Hm. This was a bit surprising. The ‘Boss’ is considered the “Mother of Special Forces” in Metal Gear lore.

“Voyevoda.” Relevant conversation between Johnson and Kruschev begins at 4:06

Fiction, of course. The actual “Father of Special Forces” is Col. Aaron Bank, who died in 2004. Anyone who has gone through special operations training has spent time wandering the halls of the building that carries his name – Bank Hall – at Fort Bragg, NC.

I love how the front door to Metal Gear lore seems legitimate, and then once you step inside it just gets bonkers.

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