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 Airlinesechoes 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.”

Topics: Special Operations-Low Intensity Conflict, SOF Training, Logistics

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