Sunday, June 1, 2014

Adapt or Die: Special Operations in Uncertainty

This is a research paper by COL Bob Wilson (soon to be commander of 3d Special Forces Group) while a student at the The Dwight D. Eisenhower School for National Security and Resource Strategy National Defense University. It can be downloaded at this link:

This should contribute to and inform the debate on the future of special operations.

Excerpts from the introduction are below.

AY 2013-2014
Research Fellowship Paper

Adapt or Die: Special Operations in 

Robert L. Wilson
Colonel, U. S. Army
April 27, 2014


Special operations Forces, or SOF, play a growing role in the United States’
pursuit of its interests abroad. Special operations unit capabilities have increased
considerably in the past decade, as have their formations and budgets.1 Funding and
personnel growth aside, however, SOF have continued to exhibit one inherent, critical
trait in the modern security environment, an attribute that will grow increasingly more
important as the US approaches future challenges: adaptability. Special operations forces
can rapidly adapt to a broad range of emerging challenges, many of which are altogether
unanticipated, and provide effective ways and means for the US to confront them. SOF
have proven multiple times that they respond to strategic and operational change much
faster than other military elements or government agencies. And much like enemies the
US has faced over the past two decades, SOF have proven adept at transforming
themselves, iteratively at times, to achieve strategic effects.

Adaptability is recognized as an increasingly important trait of the US foreign
policy establishment, particularly in the Department of Defense, though DOD’s inability
to rapidly adapt and innovate has been particularly apparent of late. After he left the
Pentagon, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates remarked that when it came to
identifying future threats and resourcing requirements, the United States “has never once
gotten it right”, and often fails to appropriately prepare for future conflicts.2 A recent
Defense Science Board study also concluded that the Department of Defense lacks the
capacity to foresee change and respond effectively to it.3

Predicting the future is very difficult. Likewise, the failure to respond to change
can lead to strategic deficiencies and excessive cost, since the nation must either abandon
objectives or ultimately invest in the appropriate resources to achieve them after
shortfalls become apparent. Thus, although the ability to project power and mass effects
are critical to national defense, the ability to rapidly adapt to the environment is
increasingly important.

While the United States has faced challenges responding to change, many of the
adversaries the US has faced over the past decade have been extremely adaptable, and
have proven adept at rapidly changing strategies, tactics and even their very structure to
considerable advantage. Al Qaeda attacks in New York and Washington were low cost
and forsook expensive technology. Nonetheless, in executing their attack, the terrorist
organization achieved significant effects against the country with the world’s highest
defense budget, driving it to spend trillions more over the next decade in conflicts around
the world and on domestic security here. The threat of Islamic terror organizations
continued to evolve yet further, becoming even more difficult to detect and deter; the
most recent terrorist attack in the US was planned by two legal immigrants in their
Cambridge, Massachusetts apartment.4

Unlike many other military units and government agencies, special operations
forces have demonstrated considerable adaptability in the preceding twelve years. SOF’s
ability to innovate tactically is often the most visible manifestation of this trait. Prior to
the invasion in Afghanistan, special operations units staged aboard an aircraft carrier and
from there directed the actions of personnel on the ground, a decidedly unconventional
command and control platform.16 Those special operations forces on the ground fought
alongside Afghan militias while mounted on horseback, often guiding high tech fires to
decisive effect against the Taliban in an unorthodox mix of 19th and 21st century tactics.
Special operations forces also honed their ability to identify and target threat networks,
and dealt impressive damage to al Qaeda as well as the insurgencies in Iraq and
Afghanistan. Later, SOF units dramatically changed their approach and even their
organizational structure to more effectively combat insurgent and terrorist networks
during the course of the war.17 Finally, a decade into the Afghan war, SOF units proved
adept at operating in austere rural areas, effectively combining security, governance and
development operations via their village stability operations model.18

Recent experience and future projections indicate that adaptability and flexibility
will remain critical components of our national security. The Secretary of Defense, noting
this, placed a priority on ensuring that the military has “ the maximum possible flexibility
to deal with the widest possible range of scenarios and conflicts."19 However, as
discussed, adaptability is not an inherent trait of the defense establishment, and no major
initiatives are underway to increase its ability to respond to change. Additionally, while
the Department of Defense has developed some new doctrinal approaches to employing
joint forces, much of the Defense Department’s efforts are instead on focused upon
budgets and narrow debates about force structure requirements.20 Air Sea Battle has been
the most ambitious operational concept proposed in the post 9/11 military, and most
would argue it is not a dramatic advancement of previous military thought. Ground
forces, emerging after carrying the lion’s share of the burden Iraq and Afghanistan, have
not proffered a new paradigm for more effective future employment; if anything, their
efforts have largely been defensive, attempting to demonstrate relevance in their efforts
to maintain force structure.21

Conversely, special operations forces are advantageously poised to achieve
decisive effects in an uncertain future. The force’s culture, size, networked structure,
personnel force and leadership lend it to be much more adaptable than service
counterparts. Moreover, some of its recent, dramatic successes have increased policy
makers’ confidence in the force, and endeared it with the American Public.22 If there
were ever a time for United States Special Operations Command and its advocates to
present a bold vision for the future, one that increases the national security
establishment’s ability to anticipate change and respond to or preempt emerging threats
altogether, this is it. A highly adaptive, globally networked special operations capability
would dramatically enhance the United States’ ability to anticipate and respond to threats;
it would have, at times the potential to diminish the requirement for costly, large scale
military conflicts, or obviate them altogether.

However, while the current force is highly capable, there are shortfalls that must
be addressed for SOF to truly achieve the vision outlined above. Special operations
leaders will need greater control over personnel policies, and they will also have to
address organizational challenges that impede the force’s effectiveness. Additionally,
many current USSOCOM initiatives designed to increase the force’s capabilities will also
have to overcome bureaucratic and political obstacles as well.

This paper will explore special operations’ current initiatives, suggest structural
and policy changes, and argue how such change will enhance the ability of SOF to
respond to complex, adaptive threats. It will also look at tradeoffs and risks associated
with many of the suggested organizational changes. In arguing to enhance the capabilities
of SOF, it will also suggest how the force can play a more useful role in the future as a
policy tool. It will also explore some of the forms SOF evolution may take in the future.
Overall, this paper will explore how bold investments and innovation today will make
special operations forces invaluable during the uncertainty ahead.

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