An Army Special Forces Officer, having been embedded with a Ukrainian infantry company only days earlier, arrives at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California, to give a presentation to a conventional Army brigade preparing for a rotation to Europe. He lectures on the latest anti-tank tactics and counter-drone techniques being used against Russian proxy forces. Across the country, an experienced special operations Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) briefs members of the airborne community at Fort Bragg on the what he observed alongside French paratroopers in Mali, following up on the secure teleconferences that occurred previously while he was still in Africa. These scenarios are hypothetical, but plausible. The situations described are examples of “what could be,” if Special Operations Forces (SOF) were used as military observers in modern combat.
Once a widely practiced tradition, professional soldiers are no longer commonly embedded as official military observers during war. This discontinuation can be attributed to reasons ranging from risk aversion, to feasibility, to military culture. An overview of the insights (and the overlooked, potential indicators) from military observers during the last two centuries indicates that modern militaries may be denying themselves an opportunity for critical insight. By embedding officially sanctioned and uniformed observers with belligerents, countries have the opportunity to be at the cutting edge of conflict without being actively engaged in combat. The networked nature of modern militaries means that reports, pictures and videos can be beamed across the planet in near-real time. Special Operations Forces (SOF) are the best candidates to fulfill this overlooked, but not obsolete, practice.
Before expanding on why SOF can best fulfill this role, a better explanation of how military observers can contribute to increased effectiveness and preparation for future conflict must be offered. A military observer is different from an attaché, or a journalist, or a spy. A military observer is a professional military representative present at the conflict wearing the uniform of his own nation (which is not one of the belligerents). While an attaché could feasibly observe fighting, especially if they take the John J. Pershing approach to serving as an attaché, their primary role is to serve as a liaison with their host nation. The importance of having a dedicated observer in a conflict is their focus on the actual combat- issues ranging from technology, to the use of terrain, to tactics and strategy. An official military observer is typically an experienced soldier himself, and as such understands the trials of combat and the military culture overall.
In predicting future conflict, many strategists and leaders look to military histories, and for good reason. However, even the most ardent student of history would admit that the lessons of battles past cannot be taken as templates and placed on modern conflict with the expectation of identical results. Not only do conditions and technologies change, but even when military observers are employed, lessons are not always learned. To explore how some lessons are overlooked, and mitigate that possibility, it is useful to study military observers during their heyday in the 19thcentury and early 20th century, specifically Europeans in the American Civil War, and American observers in the Crimea and later during the Russo-Japanese War.
European Observers: Technical Focuses and Cultural Biases