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.