The Common Service: A Response to David Maxwell’s “Thoughts on the Future of Special Operations: A Return to the Roots - Adapted for the Future”
by Geoffrey Demarest and Ivan Welch
Journal Article | October 10, 2014 - 12:27am
jrnl/art/the-common-service-a- response-to-david-maxwell%E2% 80%99s-%E2%80%9Cthoughts-on- the-future-of-special-operati
The Common Service: A Response to David Maxwell’s “Thoughts on the Future of Special Operations: A Return to the Roots - Adapted for the Future”[i]
Geoffrey Demarest and Ivan Welch
1947. Professor Maxwell’s article is good, but we think he danced around something, and it is not corralling foreigners. We arrive in late 2014 at a 1947-like institutional moment. By then, a separate US Air Force had been in the offing for years, and although many senior officers resisted its creation, birth of the new service was, to all who could see straight, inevitable. Timing of the birth is hard to precisely predict, but we are facing a similar inevitability, an inevitability (of a new uniformed armed service) that springs from a change in a basic input to classic military strategy, rather than from lesser variables like cultural acuity or political appropriateness. These latter attributes are advantageous and to be prized -- inputs to the larger truth -- but they inputs. Stated curtly, US SOF provides US strategic leaders a larger playing field, just the air corps did before 1947. It gives our national command authority a way to prudently reach into vast areas of the earth’s land surface; and do so independently of standard Army formations or commands. Yes, it is coarse of us to blurt this out, but that is what is happening. Some sage (Oliver Wendell Holmes, maybe?) advised that it can be unwise to play midwife to an idea yet in the womb of time. But the time is near; hot water and towels. Forgive us for mixing family metaphors, but following the last few years of conversation on the subject of conventional force/special force relations has been like listening surreptitiously to a conversation in a marriage counselor’s office. The couple is recanting their abiding love for one another, the memories and triumphs they share and all that they jointly own. They are promising to find work-arounds for their incompatibilities, make accommodations to each other’s needs, spend more time together, plan trips together. Meanwhile, the counselor is scribbling some notes to himself. He writes, “Well, this one’s about over. They should get a good lawyer and divvy-up the stuff.” And so we thought about why our institutional lives got to this point.
The Essence of Strategy. In the minds of competent leaders there exists a sense for what is known as the ‘culminating point’. We are not using the term to refer to the termination of something or when something grinds to a halt, but rather to that theoretical point in time and space beyond which it would be imprudent to proceed or to remain in place. It is not just any somewhere, but that place on the map or that moment when a unit will run out of water, or bullets, or into a much larger enemy force -- the bridge too far. The distance to the culminating point is an activity’s risk distance -- the practical, worldly, geographic translation of strategic prudence. It is the physical, temporal, earthly difference between a good idea and a bad one, success and failure. The prudent leader mixes his sense of the culminating point with the intuitively weighty and experientially painful truth that if he is to engage a foe who has greater strength at the point and time of engagement, then he had better have secured a route of withdrawal. This imperative of armed competition gets spun up by multiples, combinations and re-combinations, convoluted geographies, and changing temporal pace, but it is an imperative. A strategist in violent armed competition, or in competitions that might become armed and violent, has to remain cognizant and respectful of the practical correlations of force at distance.
Breadth of Continents. In the real world distance and strength are intimately related. The farther from home we might send our armed athletes (especially across land), the weaker they are likely be relative to what and who might confront them, and the harder for the rest of us to maintain their strength over time. It is the way of things -- what Kenneth Boulding called the loss of strength gradient. Classic principles advise that one not engage a stronger force, willfully or unwittingly, without having secured a route of withdrawal. We do not send our champions on one-way missions, except perhaps in the most extreme exceptions. For Americans, the planet’s military distances, measured as costs and risks, are round trips. Most of the world is far away, and the farthest points are on land, and so the upshot is transparent: In order to reach into the far-off portion of the continental world, certain ancient, obvious measures must be taken. A smaller force can travel on faster vehicles, more kinds of vehicles, can hide more easily and requires less logistic support. If it cannot hide completely, it can remain anonymous, discretely unassuming or at least un-annoying to the local sovereigns. It can move further faster and stay longer before reaching its culminating point or the culminating points of its bosses’ bosses. A small force, well built, can go where a larger force cannot. A simple proposition, it means that the extent of the earth within strategically prudent risk distance is far larger for that leader who can wield such small, well-built units. Or, restated over once again, the SOF world is a much larger world than is the world of conventional forces, especially for the application of landpower. Our SOF can go and stay where our regular formations cannot. The strategic world for our regular forces, seen in terms of strategic and political prudence, in light of classic strategic principles, respecting the immutable law of geography, is a much smaller world than it is for special units.[ii]
Map of the World. Further below we list some additional reasons why we will see the birth a new armed service. The first two, about the essence of strategy and its geographic translation, set at the heart of the matter. The rest is accessory. Rendered below are two maps of the world. They were precision crafted using PowerPoint and some images stolen off the intergoogle. World ‘A’ shows how we divide the globe into military domains. World ‘B’ is another way of considering the globe, but, unlike A, it is informed directly by the strategic/geographic imperatives of risk distances noted above and the nature of comparative institutional advantage. Map ‘B’ diagrams why, ultimately, will have a new armed service.
(Continued at the link below)