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Special Operations 

Special Operations Missions to Require New Doctrine (UPDATED) 


By Stew Magnuson 

U.S. Navy SEALs talk to local Afghans while conducting a mission in the Jaji Mountains

Whether it is called “soft power,” or the latest buzzword, “the seventh warfighting function,” special operations forces are entering a new chapter in their storied history, senior SOF leaders said.

The “dead of night” direct-action operations will be fewer in number, while the more touchy-feely missions “by, through and with” partner nations will increase, Navy Adm. William H. McRaven, commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, said recently.

“Their missions are not secretive. They are not sexy. Nor do they involve low flying black helicopters in the dead of night.” Afghanistan is winding down. This “will give us an opportunity to do more in places we have neglected,” McRaven said at the National Defense Industrial Association’s Special Operations/Low Intensity Conflict conference in Washington, D.C.

The question is whether all of the command’s components are ready to take on these missions that have more to do with breaking down cultural barriers in a village than breaking down an insurgent’s door. Each of the four services contributes personnel to SOCOM. Each comes with its own skill sets, doctrine and history, said Gordon Potter, president of Practical Defense Training Technologies, and a 15-year veteran of Army Special Forces.

For example, Navy Sea, Air, Land (SEAL) teams historically have not conducted foreign internal defense missions, whereas Army special operators have done so for years.

Special operations forces are serving in about 70 countries and very few deployments involve commando missions. Most are supporting U.S. embassies, training foreign forces or strengthening bonds with allied militaries.

The ultimate goal is to prevent conflict before it happens or to nip terrorism in the bud before it spreads.

“It is hard, slow and methodical work that does not lend itself to a quick win,” McRaven said.

Potter until 2012 served as a military adviser in Afghanistan, where he worked on socio-cultural, village stability and psychological operations programs.

He witnessed first hand a SEAL unit’s ham-handed attempt to engage in a village stability operation. Untrained in how to work in the complex cultural environment, the team picked a man whom they believed should be the police chief. The choice caused a great deal of discord in the area, and the man and his brother were assassinated, Potter said in an interview.

“It’s not their fault,” he said of the SEAL team. “They should have never been tasked with that because they don’t have the doctrine.

“How many Navy SEALs have worked with [military information support operations] or psy-ops elements?” he asked. “Not many. Usually they are door-kickers.”

Army Special Forces, meanwhile, have been doing these operations since it was established six decades ago.

“They have a much more comprehensive approach because they have the doctrine to support it,” Potter said. The problem is that there aren’t enough of them. Army Special Forces are spread thin, and the other three services are lagging when it comes to “indirect action” skills, he added.

William Wechsler, deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations/low intensity conflict, said there will always be the need for direct activities.

“But by and large as we look forward, it is more likely than not that the geographic places in the world and the types of adversaries that we are going to have to confront are going to require us to use more indirect means than direct means,” he said.

SOCOM is going to have to operate more in the “human terrain,” he added. The command will have to understand the gaps it needs to fill to effectively operate in that domain, he added.

Who is the adversary? “What is the socio-political, economic and cultural environment that we are going to have to deal with?” he asked.

Rear Adm. Sean A. Pybus, commander of Navy Special Warfare Command, said at the conference that he wanted to change SEAL training and emphasize “brain over bicep.”

“We intend to make more investments in their mental capacity, their ability to focus, their ability to relax, their ability to memorize, to have a better understanding of human and physical terrain,” he said.

“We have for many years now invested in physical fitness and rehabilitation. We’re very strong there. I want to do the same with our mental abilities so we can not only be resilient, but improve our capabilities in that realm.”

At the root of this is the belief among many in the military that the era of state-on-state warfare is coming to an end. Unstable, developing nations will be the battlegrounds of the future and the opponents will more than likely be what Potter described as “thugs” — religious extremists and criminals who are trying to impose their will on a local population.

The January 2012 “Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense” strategic guidance document said U.S. forces will no longer be sized to “conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations.”

They “will nevertheless be ready to conduct limited counterinsurgency and other stability operations if required, operating alongside coalition forces wherever possible,” the paper said.
These “small-footprint” missions are the heart and soul of special operations.

The summer before the new strategic guidance emerged, Army Special Operations Command officials went to Training and Doctrine Command with a proposal to add SOF as a “seventh war fighting function” to the Army.

It would follow mission command, movement and maneuver, intelligence, fires, sustainment and protection.

The effort was instigated by then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey, who wanted to see what Army SOF and general-purpose forces learned after serving in Afghanistan and Iraq together for 10 years, wrote Army Lt. Col. Jan Kenneth Gleiman in a monograph that was produced for the School for Advanced Military Studies at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.

A working group comprising members of Special Forces, TRADOC, general-purpose and other Army organizations looking at the question ultimately recommended that SOF and its special skill sets be considered as an essential part of the Army core capabilities, he said in the paper, “Operational Art and the Clash of Organizational Cultures: Postmortem on Special Operations as a Seventh Warfighting Function.”

As the title suggests, when Army Special Forces went to TRADOC with the final proposal, it was shot down.

Potter said the idea was well received, but there was no doctrine to support it.

“They technically couldn’t support it. Doctrine always comes first,” Potter said.

At the heart of the seventh warfighting function concept is the acknowledgement that forces must also engage in a war of ideas with adversaries, he said.

General-purpose forces still have to be prepared to take on conventional and hybrid threats, he said. But the second part of a conflict — stability operations — is where the battle for hearts and minds are won. If that goes badly, then things go south.

This need “is not foreign to special ops. This is something they can address very well,” Potter said.

Gleiman wrote that there was broader resistance to the seventh warfighting function concept than simply the lack of doctrine to support it.

It was a true “clash of organizational cultures” between the big Army and SOF, he said. Its failure may have had more to do with this clash “than anyone cared to admit,” he said.

“The sudden death of the idea was puzzling to members of the SOF community who had worked on the proposal and viewed it as a critical first step in ensuring that commanders and staffs of the Army’s major formations understand and integrate the capabilities of SOF in their plans and operations,” he wrote.

Potter said the will to change Army doctrine that will allow the concept to move forward must come from the top down, rather than bottom up. U.S. Army Central Command will have to drive the idea, and go to political leaders to get them on board first.

“It was technically impossible to do without making wide, sweeping changes to doctrine on how forces were used, how forces were deployed and so forth,” Potter said.

Linda Robinson, a public policy scholar at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., noted that Army elements comprise half of SOCOM. The debate over its place in the larger Army is significant.

“If [Army Special Operations Forces] doesn’t get its future right, it will have a great effect for the entire community,” she said.

“There is an argument for institutionalizing some of this so it isn’t lost,” she said, referring to bringing the Army SOF and general-purpose forces closer together.

“You need to have the human domain in doctrine.”

The seventh warfighting function concept has one important proponent outside the special forces community. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno, spoke in favor of it in a speech at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., a year after TRADOC rejected the idea.

“Leaders must consider the second- and third-order effects of their actions ... but they must also appreciate how others interpret, evaluate and understand them,” he said during an Association of the United States Army conference in June 2012.

“In my mind, this may either require a seventh warfighting function to capture the set of tasks related to working with foreign cultures that has become so integral to our current and future fights. Or as a minimum, it demands that we fully reflect the human aspects of this environment within each of our existing six functions,” Odierno said.

Army Special Forces have the unique skills and doctrine that allow it to carry out missions that require interaction with indigenous cultures, Potter said.

Most of these skills are resident in the civil affairs and psychological operations specialties, which are often misunderstood and poorly resourced, Potter said.

Indeed, during two-days of panels and keynote speakers at the SO/LIC conference, civil affairs and psy-ops were only mentioned once.

“We pair these two capabilities together like they’re brother and sister. In fact, they are uniquely different capabilities, but both great enablers for us on the ground,” said retired Army Lt. Gen. Frank Kearney, former deputy director of strategic operational planning at the National Counterterrorism Center.

Civil affairs works to build governments and infrastructure. Military information support systems (MISO), the newest term for psy-ops, works on messaging and understanding the human terrain.

Civil affairs can open doors where the regular military are not welcome, he said.

They, and the MISO teams, “are sought after probably more than our operational forces, in a soft way, to assess what is going on and help people do things,” Kearney said.

“I think they’re under resourced. I think they’re under appreciated. And I think they are under employed in what they can do best,” Kearney added.

Army Lt. Gen. John F. Mulholland, SOCOM deputy commander, said there have been more resources to make the civil affairs and MISO communities more robust. Civil affairs, once staffed mostly by reservists, now has a more permanent presence in the active duty force.

“They are very important tools in our toolkit,” he said.

Potter, who specializes in MISO, said that community needs to adapt as well.

One of its important functions is to poll populations to reveal attitudes toward operations, local governments or extremist ideologies. It normally uses nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to carry out these surveys.

The MISO community has to change. NGOs can only do surveys where their workers are safe. Then they do one at a time, every six months, he noted.

How do you build data sets in remote, or unsafe locations, where there are no nonprofits? Potter asked.

In Afghanistan, Potter developed a program called passive gathering, where attitudes about local messaging are monitored nonstop.

Taking the pulse of local populations and crafting messages to counter extremist ideologies are not traditional “commando” skills. Nor is learning how to navigate the complicated structure of a local village and learning local languages.

“Those skills sets need to be fully developed and appreciated and they need to be tied into areas of low-developed countries,” Potter said.

Maj. Gen. Mark Clark, commander of Marine Corp Special Operations Command, leads the newest SOF element. MARSOC was activated in 2006.

“When you think of SOF you think of direct action, but it really is a ying and yang of direct action and indirect action. … We want to push that line more to the right where it is more indirect,” he said.

He suggested that MARSOC is still looking for its place in SOCOM.

“What is our best niche without us being duplicative of what the SOF components provide to our nation?” he asked.

Pybus said he wants Naval Special Warfare elements to return to “serious engagement” with partner nations.

“Prior to 9/11 we did this. But we didn’t do it properly enough. We need persistence,” he said.

He has received the authority to allow teams to increase their normal six-week engagements with host-nation forces to six months in order to gain more in-depth understanding of local cultures, and to strengthen ties. Once that deployment is over, another rotation will come immediately in to replace them. “Then you can persistently engage and properly select partners to improve their game. So they can take care of potential or real threats to the United States,” he said.

Robinson said the SOF community must mature from a largely tactical force to one that really understands what it means to have strategic impact.

Correction: In the original article, the name of Practical Defense Training Technologies was incorrectly stated.

Photo Credit: Navy, Army, Defense Dept.
Reader Comments

Re: Special Operations Missions to Require New Doctrine (UPDATED)

In this article there seems to be a bit of confusion over direct and Indirect activities as discussed in the IW Operating Concept version 2 (2010)and soft power or smart power as discussed by DOS and academics. In an article like this information that is misleading could cause a number of problems. it would be wise to do better research on your content.

richard campbell on 06/12/2014 at 19:44

Re: Special Operations Missions to Require New Doctrine (UPDATED)

Adm McRaven and SOCOM should leverage the assets and relationships of the State Prtnership Program. Jellyfish is doing this with host country governments and the private sector. We can be helpful in showing SOCOM how to engage in "Smart Power" to help meet the SOF Mission.

Michael Bagley
Washington DC

Michael Bagley on 05/15/2013 at 18:16

Re: Special Operations Missions to Require New Doctrine (UPDATED)

Gentlemen, Good Day, and here is a Zeroday Vulnerability being exploited and to be further exploited?

The abiding enigmatic dilemma for Military Command Controllers and SOF is that to have an Advanced Intelligence Program and Projects which work to provide and develop peace and stability, prosperity and harmony, puts one in direct conflict and competition with and in opposition to civil and political organisations/dark and psychotic forces engaged in creating wars in which to profit from escalating spend spreading misery, mayhem and madness.

And it helps to remember and never forget that behind every such organisation, is the driver just one
head making all the decisions, no matter how big be the executive board, which is always just a collective of other beings to hide the true leadership behind and give the impression that it be a vast collective decision-making body rather than a private empire builder's passion at work, rest and play.

And Advanced Intelligence rules the roost absolutely in those .... well, let us call them Power Elite Circles/Circuses/Round Tables, and if the Military does not have Command and Control in, and/or of such Power Elites, then be military force and personnel their power and control puppets?

Does the Department of Defense lead nations with intelligence supply or simply follow and carry out civil and political party orders which puts all following such instruction in profitable harm's way?

amanfromMars on 05/14/2013 at 01:08

Re: Special Operations Missions to Require New Doctrine

Potters got it wrong. Doctrine doesn't come first, concepts do; which get tested, explored, experimented against, refined and eventual becomes doctrine. And the 7th Warfighting Function hasn't been killed. But what do you expect from a contractor who needs to build animosity within the ranks to make a buck.

EShaw on 04/27/2013 at 16:56

Re: Special Operations Missions to Require New Doctrine

So the battle for survival during a drawdown begins. Supple and flexible, the SOF community attempts to secure its position primarily through civil affairs and IO-type missions as a new component of doctrine, so far unsuccessfully. As a USAR officer whose CA time started when we were SOF and ended when we were normal Reserves under USARC, I saw both advantages and disadvantages to our association with the Special Operations community. Granted the expertise of SF teams in the human terrain, and the proponency of Civil Affairs within Special Ops, can the SOF community take over this mission doctrinally in order to weather the long drawdown ahead of us? In the end, it all comes down to dollars and preservation of the organization.

Mike Finn on 04/22/2013 at 13:50

Re: Special Operations Missions to Require New Doctrine

Sounds much like Information Operations or Inform and Influence Activities - while a component of SOF it is also, like the author of the above stated - "poorly resourced and under manned." Additionally, it is not fully understood. The above tends to support the argument for merging MISO and IO, maybe public affairs, and possibly civil affairs (all housed under SOF), then expanding and blending the training. The new doctrine just sounds too familiar to what we already have, but is under-utilized and misunderstood. Regional alignment really means treating our conventional forces like SOF units, they have done this since the beginning of SOF. But we have to fully and effectively use what we have, especially is the coming years due to downsizing and budget constraints. Understanding the human dimension, messaging, culture, and remaining in Phase 0 of operations is what IO/IIA (using various information related capabilities) does in addition to supporting combat operations and others.

BL on 04/21/2013 at 11:01

Re: Special Operations Missions to Require New Doctrine

I agree that our SOF capabilities are an important force multiplier (I served in PSYOP for three years myself), but I'm not sure we need to add them as a seventh warfighting function. They are an important enabler and force multiplier, not a separate function. Like many specific functions and branches, I think their capabilities fit within several of the WFFs, including Intelligence, Fires, Protection, and Maneuver. I do agree that the "soft power" capabilities need to be more thoroughly absorbed throughout the SOF community. In fact, our line forces have gotten pretty good at those functions over the past ten years, and we need to retain that in our doctrine and training as well. As Field Marshal Slim learned years ago, SOF is very important, but you are only as good as your line forces.

Nathan Hoepner on 04/18/2013 at 11:44

Re: Special Operations Missions to Require New Doctrine

As I read the comments from the various SOCOM Commanders I cannot help but feel the pain of years gone past and conjure up a large amount of sympathy for the decades of dedication that the Marines of Force Reconnaissance Community. The hard work and dedicated service of men who have been left to the devices of poor decisions and lack of commitment by anyone other than the 0300 who has had to fight to survive in an environment where the true division of leadership is based upon experience. After 7 years these professionals are still trying to find a mission that is suitable to themselves and SOCOM as stated by their leadership. This is for some reason a problem that Recon Marines; the base unit that MARSOC was formed from, never had a problem with in the past. Recon Marines have always treaded lightly in the Special Operations Community as no Marine is special. “okay I get it”, there are a lot of lessons to learned from the so called straight leg infantry, but times have changed. The abilities of the Reconnaissance Marine were never in the past questioned, in the world of the Navy SEALS, Special Forces or the Special Tactics Squadrons. SOCOM and Marine Recon units have trained, deployed, fought and live in and around each other for decades. So where exactly is this learning curve in finding a mission? What skill sets have truly changed? Other than having a source capability into equipment and a few advanced training compliment courses, what has the Marine on the ground and the commander gained in all these 7 years other than the ability to attack and control a larger AO. What have they lost in this 7 years of trying to find a place at the dance? What was wrong with the former Reconnaissance Mission - the plank owners of MARSOC. If you ask me, I will tell you nothing was wrong. Ground Reconnaissance takes disciplined hard men who are willing to engage everything that mother nature and the enemy has to throw their way. They make the impossible easy and pride themselves in doing a job that is only talked about among those who know. They come with all the requisite skills of a door kicker, but the brains and brawn to deliver, “the most cherished commodity on the battlefield” and that my friend is information on the enemy. It almost sounds to me as if the Marine Corps are in need of a true Capabilities Based Assessment that pulls from the past and leans to the future. I am not talking about a CBA that allows some non 0300 who comes from a place where the Marine Corps is the most important thing in the room. I am talking about folks who place the mission and the troops first. Take the cost of the endeavor, the concern with whom am I going to upset and what will it do to our beloved careers and toss that completely out the window. A strategic thought process in a special group of Marines who have the tenacity to volunteer, not just once but twice. All too often we choose people to shape and direct who just happened to be there.

James Johnson on 04/13/2013 at 20:34

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