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Special Operations Forces: Lessons Learned

The article in May 2013, ”Special Operations Missions to Require New Doctrine,” raises awareness of a very important issue. But I think it is important to correct one major inaccuracy and to further this valuable discussion.

The assertion that the Army Training and Doctrine Command “shot down” the seventh war-fighting function is simply not true. TRADOC is partnering with Army Special Operations Command and the entire Army on numerous efforts to institutionalize hard-earned lessons learned from more than a decade of war. One of the most significant is the importance of conventional/special operations force interdependence.

More importantly, the discussion about these lessons spotlights two critical ongoing TRADOC initiatives. First, what can we do right now to improve how we fight modern wars? Second, how do we create, in the words of TRADOC commander Gen. Robert Cone, “a structural imperative that ensures we do not lose the lessons of the last decade of war?” 

A potential seventh war-fighting function is a major subset of these efforts and is very much alive in the concept and doctrine communities of the Army. In the near term, TRADOC and a number of partners are moving out to improve interdependence between special operations and conventional forces as well as inculcating some fundamental lessons we learned about influencing people.

We have published both an Army doctrinal publication and an Army doctrinal reference publication on special operations as part of Doctrine 2015 efforts and are developing two field manuals to provide greater detail on both Army special operations and special operations forces.

Conventional SOF interdependence is now part of the curriculum at the captain’s career courses and in the Command and General Staff College. The mission command training program is establishing an operations group to specifically support Army Special Operations Command and allow it to join sophisticated division, corps and theater-level exercises while SOF units are increasingly being integrated into “dirt” combat training center rotations.

Finally, the Asymmetric Warfare Group, the Army’s global scouts, collects lessons learned on six continents and regularly shares best practices with both communities. They also have trained instructors at every Center of Excellence in the adaptive learning techniques pioneered by Army Special Forces.

Many of the concepts proposed by the special operations community in the war-fighting function concept-development process are already threaded throughout our profession. This year we released the “decisive action training environment” that focuses heavily on the human aspects of warfare. This environment is used to drive training from basic combat training to combat training centers. Not only did it receive wide external praise, the United Kingdom and several allies have adopted it.

The training brain operations center specializes in taking real world data and turning it into complex scenarios that are much more elaborate than bare-knuckle brawls between conventional forces. Finally, from initial entry military training to the war college, students are immersed in studies and skills that help them employ brains and bayonets to influence people.

Still, none of these fully meet Cone’s requirement for a structural imperative. When you dramatically alter the way you conduct land warfare, you must ensure the new concepts, constructs and doctrine are right. The only thing worse than no solution is an incomplete solution fraught with internal inconsistencies producing unintended negative consequences.

Building common understanding and visualization is critical because, as the National Defense article pointed out, Army doctrine affects much more than the Army. TRADOC’s work cannot be untethered. Pushing forward a concept without bringing all of the major players on the ground — Army, Special Operations Command, the Marine Corps and close allies — is a sure path to failure. Solutions must also fit within our current national strategy and the recently released “Capstone Concept for Joint Operations: Joint Force 2020.” Furthermore, the debate must be focused on future conflicts, not the last war. 

Developing the right results begins with looking at how military force is used to influence and compel people, their governments and their militaries. This year’s campaign of learning examines that question in great detail.  A combined effort, the Strategic Landpower Task Force, is bringing together the sharpest minds from the Army, SOCOM and the Marine Corps to study how land forces deliver strategic results in future conflict. Collectively, they have outlined the importance of influencing and compelling human behavior and the centrality of land forces in both efforts.

The objective now is translating those results into action. Again, there are many questions to answer. Army Special Operations Command is leading a team to explore ways in which a new war-fighting function might improve how we account for human factors in war. They examine how the function would answer questions such as: How do SOF and conventional forces interact in various types of conflicts?  What tools and systems are needed to integrate unified action partners? How do we build battlefield visualization of environmental components, such as political, economic or informational variables, with those partners?

In the end, the answer goes beyond special operations. The good news is that the team’s paper is out for review among our three-star leaders.

At the Combined Arms Center, we are analyzing whether other doctrinal solutions, such as modifying our model for Decisive Action, meet the identified gaps more effectively. Some believe there should be a human domain on par with land, sea, air, space and cyber. All of these debates will be informed by our ongoing efforts in combat, at our combat training centers, experiments, war games and, most importantly, by the deep running debate between those who operate primarily in the land domain. Shifting our culture and truly evolving our profession is broader than adding a few words to a doctrinal manual.

Once we gain clarity on the right answers, doctrine should drive the understanding of the ideas and describe them to the force in a manner that can be easily and completely comprehended and implemented.

As Lt. Gen. Dave Perkins, commander of the Combined Arms Center, observed, “TRADOC needs to be the holistic thinker and guardian of the consistency of our logic and thought processes.” Resourcing the implementation will be essential. Creating the programmatics to resource the variety of initiatives that turn ideas into training, leader development and organizational structure will be a critical feature of any doctrinal proposals.

In summary, TRADOC did not kill a seventh war-fighting function. Instead, we have embraced it and are expanding it beyond a few word changes to a complete structural imperative. We are working with a broad coalition to implement immediate, obvious improvements in our training and leader development.  However, deep thinking and debate about how ground forces impact the human aspects of warfare and how we permanently capture their implications will drive the true cultural change. On both accounts, we are moving forward, together.

Brig. Gen. James E. Rainey is the director of the U.S. Army’s Mission Command Center of Excellence, Fort Leavenworth, Kan.
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