“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 However, limited understanding of these threats among policymakers in Washington, DC, budget constraints, and outdated authorities hinder SOF’s ability to evolve.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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“We don’t need any more lines and arrows”

I’m thoroughly enjoying the 1st Special Forces Command new podcast – The Indigenous Approach. They recently wrapped up a 3 episode series on the Special Forces “identity crisis” which is fantastic.

There’s some great quotes throughout the series, but I’m going to pin this one from Special Forces SGM Dave Friedberg who jumps out first to answer the question “how are we going to address the SF identity crisis?”

We take the missions that our units are assigned, we come up with the training guidance, and then we train our units to accomplish our assigned missions. Period, end of story.

SGM Dave Friedberg, Alpha company 4th Battalion, 1st Special Forces group sergeant major

I love that. It cuts through all the nonsense and gets right to what is important – training for the assigned mission. If we’re doing that, the rest falls into place.

And then to add the flair you would expect from a senior non-commissioned officer, he closes with this.

I don’t think we need any more lines and arrows, I don’t think we need any more references to the NDS. I think everyone understands what the new threat is, and we just power it down to the companies and let the senior NCOs and Team Sergeants take charge of the training.

Perfect.

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