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National Defense > Blog > Posts > Adm. McRaven: You Can Learn a Lot From an Airline
Adm. McRaven: You Can Learn a Lot From an Airline
By Sandra I. Erwin

When the U.S. economy tanked in the 1970s, the nation’s top airlines sold off thousands of gates at major airports, betting that they would be able to buy them back when finances improved.

Scrappy startup Southwest Airlines decided to go against the tide, and went on a gate-buying spree. The rest is history.

Navy Adm. William McRaven, head of U.S. Special Operations Command, wants SOCOM to be smart that way as it plans its future.

“When I talk to my staff about how we want to operate in the next couple of years, [I tell them that] we have to buy up the gates,” McRaven said June 5 at a conference in Washington, D.C., hosted by the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis and the Fletcher School of Tufts University.

McRaven said he was inspired by the story of Southwest Airlines' founder Herbert Kelleher, who helped position the company to compete with the industry’s giants by making a high-risk gamble four decades ago. “Large airlines began to sell off their gates. They chose to protect the core by selling the gates,” he said. “Kelleher decided he would mortgage everything so that Southwest could buy up all the gates.”

The gates, in McRaven’s metaphor, are organizations called “theater special operations commands,” which report to the four-star chiefs of geographic combatant commands such as U.S. Pacific Command, U.S. Central Command, U.S. Southern Command and U.S. Africa Command.

With U.S. forces drawing down in Afghanistan, the nation might be inclined to “sell gates," which means bringing troops home and savng money. McRaven believes that would be shortsighted and a waste of SOF skills that have been accumulated over 12 years of war.

McRaven has spent the past 18 months promoting a plan he calls “The Global SOF Network,” which recommends reallocating existing SOCOM troops and resources from direct-combat operations to “soft power” roles such as training friendly nations’ troops and helping the State Department deal with transnational crime and other foreign-policy challenges.

McRaven’s talk about the lessons that SOCOM can learn from Southwest Airlines echoes comments he made last month at the command’s annual symposium in Tampa, Fla. He then cited FedEx as a model for building a globally deployed force. He said FedEx has created the type of logistics network that should serve as a model for SOCOM.

At the IFPA-Fletcher forum, McRaven insisted that his goal is to show that special operations forces can be “more valuable outside of the direct action missions” such as capturing and killing terrorists. He believes SOCOM has underappreciated skills that could help prevent wars, but worries that Washington has little appetite for committing troops, even if the missions that McRaven is suggesting only would involve small teams. Of the command’s 67,000-strong force, about 11,000 are now deployed in 80 countries. “That’s one hell of a network,” he said, “If we use it correctly.”

Photo Credit: Scott Rekdal/NDIA


Re: Adm. McRaven: You Can Learn a Lot From an Airline

Africa priority, Asia and Central/South America where we are loosing to China on every front.  SF troops need to go to start rebuilding everything that has been lost due to political incompetence.
bpsitrep at 6/5/2013 4:39 PM

Re: Adm. McRaven: You Can Learn a Lot From an Airline

Special Operatons is about operators, not gates. The obtuse ROE, appalling lack of leadership, and mission confusion that currently conspire to unnecessarily put the operators' lives at risk (see Extortion 17 for example), will cause the operators to "leave the reservation". Imagine Southwest Airlines' fleet flying off to a better corporate climate. The gates would no longer matter.

McRaven should focus more on his leadership job and less on his corporate job. A failure in the leadership job makes the corporate job irrelevant.

McRaven is the guy who told Billy and Karen Vaughn (parents of deceased Navy SEAL Aaron Carson Vaughn), there were no lies or coverup in the Navy version of what happened to Extortion 17. If he was not aware of the mountain of lies, he should not have made the assertion. If he was aware of it, he should resign because he's not fit to lead warriors.
Irv Lipshitz at 6/9/2013 2:13 PM

Re: Adm. McRaven: You Can Learn a Lot From an Airline

McRaven has hit the nail on the head.  Afghanistan wrapping up will cause most to withdraw entirely and waste years of lessons.  Put the folks out there to continue at the forefront.  While that location is unknown, we have to keep our folks entwined in global culture.  We need to continue to have both that knowledge and an ambassador-like relation while at the same time, keeping a proximity to future Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflicts.

Southwest Airlines past success is only a loose analogy of what can and should happen.

B-RAD at 6/15/2013 6:24 AM

Re: Adm. McRaven: You Can Learn a Lot From an Airline

I was at the SOFIC conference last month and its about maintaining a persistent presence and seeing were SOF can fit into helping the local stability of an area, rather then going away and coming back later on to re-establish relationships that have been abandoned. You cannot just walk away and expect a relationship to be maintained by wishful thinking. When you stay and create ongoing relationships and proactively prevent a situation which could later be forced to become a SOF kinetic event. This also plays into Vice Admiral Eric Olsen's comments in about 2007 when he said ” we are not going to kill our way to victory, we are going to behave our way to success”  Creating good will and maintaining a long term relationships also helps SOF to better understand the local situation so they can proactively: "observe, communicate, understand, move and engage. If this is done well with a persistent presence, the last part might not even have to be an offence kinetic event which frankly is success in itself. Not unlike community support and policing. Good value/lower ongoing cost and solid foreign policy image enhancement for the United States which allows one to do more with better co-operation and less chance of conflict in the first place. Why wouldn't you want this?
christopher Baxter at 6/17/2013 9:11 PM

Re: Adm. McRaven: You Can Learn a Lot From an Airline

Mr. Christopher Baxter is just brilliant with his response. If I may add to his comments - I will say that perhaps if the TSOC's collaborate with the Army National Guard State Partnership Program, the World Fair Trade Organization and the sundry of NGO's that engage in micro-enterprising in several dozen countries across the globe - it will prove to be a grand alliance. Promoting non-kintetic, people-centric endeavors such as cultural product development and Fair Trade in poverty-ridden countries helps to "drain the swamp."  The Civil Affairs Soldiers & the Cultural Support Teams did a wonderful job at this with the VSO's in Afghanistan (to my understanding).  I believe that this model can be replicated (with various modifications) in some countries/regions in the world.  Perhaps someone in the TSOC's can look into this??
From Connie Piper, Special Forces Gold Star Wife
Connie Piper at 8/28/2013 5:17 PM

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