By: Andrew Smith
Approximate Reading Time: 12 minutes
Special Operations missions are rarely confined to a single domain of warfare, making Special Operations Forces (SOF) joint to a degree unseen across the DoD. From the cross-service interaction occurring at the individual level to the trivial but telling appearance of a “J-” (Joint) in their staff designations across all levels, SOF are experts at integrating across domains. In OTH, Chris Beets previously identified the SOF construct as a model for Multi Domain Operations (MDO) that applies even in conventional operations. However, in practice this application will not be as easy as porting the structure and procedures of United States Special Operations Command (SOCOM) into a conventional context. The SOF characteristics most applicable to MDO are not SOCOM’s formal structure or its focus on the individual but rather the organic network of relationships that have developed within the organization. I argue that the DoD should replicate the unique, earned trust that SOF commanders in the lowest level units enjoy with their superiors and cement pre-established relationships within multi-service clusters of units in order to realize the MDO vision.
Consider a typical SOF operation: a direct-action raid to capture a high value target. Prior to the raid, the targeted individual will have been under constant surveillance by assets such as airborne drones, whose video feeds, beamed around the world via satellite and computer networks, will have been intensively analyzed by the intelligence community. The supported SOF ground team in theater will use this information to optimize their scheme of maneuver, request additional forces, and plan for contingencies. All units supporting the raid will then meet, either in person or virtually, so that each party is prepared to operate on the ground force commander’s intent down to the minute. The mission will be rehearsed if time allows; if not, the teams can fall back upon a solid baseline of prior joint training. The day of the raid, the ground team will infiltrate via helicopters while a mix of rotary and fixed wing air assets providing reconnaissance, close air support, and casualty evacuation capabilities, among others, move overhead. Most importantly, all of these disparate elements, while centrally commanded, are expected to execute the commander’s intent with or without continuous communications. Joint Terminal Attack Control personnel for example (the primary link between ground and air elements) are often given wide latitude to act on individual initiative to great effect. On a successful mission, the target and his fighters will find themselves surrounded and massively out gunned by the time they are even aware of a threat.
The army’s Training and Doctrine Command defines convergence as “the integration of capabilities across domains, environments, and functions in time and physical space to achieve a purpose.” While the above is a simple example, it is nevertheless an example of multi-domain convergence in microcosm. The air, space, cyberspace, and land domains, as well as the electromagnetic spectrum, are all exploited seamlessly for intelligence, command and control (C2), maneuver, and fires functions. Dominance in the air, space, and cyberspace domains enables action in the contested land domain. Additionally, enabled by their team-based trust, the SOF construct is resilient to disruptions in almost any facet of the operation, including domain degradation or denial. If space-based communication becomes unavailable, intelligence from co-located, manned assets will replace that from drones piloted through satellite relays. If the cyberspace domain is denied, geographically dispersed units can use their in-place resources to simply move to meet in person and exchange information by hand. Even a degraded air domain, due to adverse weather or a loss of line-of-sight communications, will only shift priority towards the organic firepower of the ground team.
Multi Domain Resiliency
While resiliency across domains is the salient SOF characteristic applicable to MDO, the resiliency of each SOF unit itself is its primary cause. Why are these units so resilient? Contrary to pop culture (and the word “special” in their title), it is not superhuman strength, heroics, or even simple grit that makes the biggest difference, though these undeniably help. It has to be stressed that the entire US military already exemplifies the Napoleonic maxim to “march [toward] the sound of the guns.” As an example, General Petraeus’s 2010 guidance to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan concluded, “in the absence of guidance or orders, figure out what the orders should have been and execute them aggressively.” Even so, SOF display traits that are unique within the DoD.
Three of the main traits that lead to SOF success are will, appropriately scoped authority, and deep expertise. Will is almost a given, due to the relatively greater (though possibly declining) supply of high-quality personnel desiring to be part of elite units compared to the general recruiting pool. This makes it comparatively easy for SOF to select and train the highest-quality manpower. Almost by definition, conventional forces cannot replicate this, but as noted above, will alone is not the issue. The most challenging trait is appropriately scoped authority, which is an enduring military dilemma. It is extremely difficult for any higher-level commander to delegate enough authorities to ensure tactical flexibility for their subordinates but not so much that the broader strategic consequences become unmanageable. This makes moving authority to the optimal level extremely difficult.
Delegation and Trust
The SOF model is a way out of this authority-scoping dilemma. The high risk SOF operating environment has naturally led to a culture emphasizing risk mitigation via mission-type orders rather than attempting to eliminate risk altogether via micromanagement. Moving from a centralized to a distributed control model of air power is conceptually closely related. This manner of relinquishing power will only work, however, if there is genuine, reciprocal trust that the commanders at the lower levels can make decisions with the bigger picture in mind and that the upper level commanders will support them. Importantly, it is not enough to merely declare that such trust exists – it must be consistently demonstrated, especially when the stakes are high. While joint doctrine does assert that “successful teamwork requires delegation of authority commensurate with responsibility” (emphasis in original), this is nonetheless much easier said than done. Without strong trust, there is always a personal incentive for higher level commanders to consolidate power at their level, eroding away any delegation that is not intentionally prioritized. SOF have been able to develop high caliber leaders at all levels by doing exactly that – prioritizing real decision making of consequence for subordinates, both in training and in combat.
This deliberate development, which allows for delegated authority, dovetails with the need for cross-domain expertise in MDO. The scope of control that is delegated within SOF is almost never “stove-piped” by domain. For example, the commander of the earlier vignette, controlling assets from (at a minimum) two of the military services and working closely with other governmental organizations, will typically be a field grade officer. The junior troops under that officer’s command will be pushed to exercise multi-domain skills both within and across their different domain-specialized units during the raid and thus gain the ability to eventually reason at their boss’ level of responsibility.
Contrast this with the alternatives. Suppose a lower level commander cannot be given substantive authority because of risks that the higher-level commander determines must be held at his level. There are two ways to address this. The first is to increase the ability of the higher level commanders to concentrate data and to respond with orders quickly, likely through tools enabled by an advanced network system. The second is to attempt to reduce the risk of delegation by increasing regulatory control on the lower levels. The first solution creates a target so tempting it must be assumed an enemy will degrade it for significant periods of time, no matter how secure the network. The second solution will necessarily constrain initiative, possibly below the level required to capitalize on fleeting windows of advantage against such an enemy. Investment in human capital, on the other hand, cannot be degraded.
Team of Teams
SOF human capital investments are not limited to their leaders. One of the most remarked on aspects of the SOF model in recent years is expertise at the level of teams and above. This deep expertise is the last of the three traits leading to SOF success and is the most easily replicated. SOF are doctrinally organized into “small, flexible, and agile self-contained teams” which deploy as part of a single, joint SOF C2 structure. They therefore train jointly while at home station in order to hone the exact, cross-service and cross-organizational relationships that they will rely upon in combat. The net effect is a powerfully adaptable Team of Teams.
As described by General McChrystal, a “team,” as opposed to a “command,” trades off efficiency in order to gain resiliency. The multi-directional lattice of personal relationships which makes up a team is complex and messy by nature, but when stressed it can adapt much faster than can a traditional organization with top-down lines of control only. At a larger scale, similar dynamics are true of organizations that are made up of a diversity of teams. This makes it ideal for MDO against a near-peer, whose first order of business will be to deny domain-specialized units communication with their higher headquarters or regional Multi Domain Operations Centers (MDOCs).
Figure 1. Interconnected Modularity Network
The sometimes-informal networks arising among SOF units are relatively simple to create within SOCOM. Mostly, this is a function of the small but diverse number of units. Less important, but relevant, is the consistency in geographic areas and timing of deployments, as well as the simple fact of a common chain of command. As an example, there are only so many ground SOF teams deploying to the same areas at the same times as Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) squadrons. This makes it possible to identify not only the unit, but the exact voices that each side expects to hear on the other end of their radio during deployments while still at home station. This allows relationships to develop between those units at an interpersonal level. Even without the maximal level of shared consciousness, this still reaps dramatic increases in joint mission effectiveness downrange via investment in lateral connectivity. Imagine the difference between wondering who will answer this time at “the Unit 1234 watch desk” vs calling “Joe” who you know well from your last joint exercise and who made sure to give you his direct line.
Applying the SOF Model
In order to capture those dynamics, conventional units must become similarly networked. The desired end state is multiple subordinate joint forces that can operate fully autonomously in response to an attack on C2 at any level. The current status quo is for all forces to be consolidated by functional component at the theater level, which makes it difficult to establish connections between domains. The MDO clusters of units should therefore be designed at a smaller scale, although the exact cocktail of subunits in each must be custom-tailored to the specific problem-set they face. As a rule of thumb, any C2 linkages that can be made into lateral relationships should be maximized, and those through vertical chains of command should be minimized. It is possible to implement this today via specialized Joint Task Forces (JTFs) assuming no changes to the Goldwater Nichols structure of the DoD, although there will undoubtedly be service resistance to the idea of committing their units to additional training that is outside of their control.
Advancing the concept beyond implementing standing JTFs and corresponding associations between units while at home station will require significant organizational or legislative action. For instance, reasoning along similar lines has suggested that these unit clusters might look like Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF)-esque joint units, or even the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) mosaic warfare concept, which would definitely be a bridge too far for the current structure.
Again, consider the alternative. Simple cooperation or even deconfliction between domains will become nearly impossible under near-peer MDO attack with today’s military organization. Implementing any centralizing solution will only rectify the situation if the central nodes are both operating and able to effectively communicate. If a future C2 system were instead a network of networks in the radically decentralized model of teams of teams, perhaps utilizing secure mobile mesh networks (MMNs), which lack central nodes, then that system would absolutely be a welcome, complementary capability. The Air Force’s Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS), as currently envisioned, seems to be headed in exactly that direction. It is important to note while a fully platform-agnostic C2 network would include human-centric instantiation. This can be implemented at the low-tech level of org-charts and relationships and is an already available capability.
According to the NATO definition, the well-publicized SOF activities over the nearly 20 years of the War on Terror have largely occurred within permissive environments, especially in the air domain. This will not be guaranteed for conventional forces engaged in conflicts with more capable nation-states. SOF have absolutely capitalized on the benefits of air dominance and unfettered access to the electromagnetic spectrum. When the enemy inevitably takes these things away, however, the advantage of the SOF construct will become more pronounced – not less. GPS usage in aviation provides an excellent analogy. A good pilot will take full advantage of the precision afforded by satellite navigation, if it is available. A better pilot will simultaneously maintain the ability to “downshift” and navigate solely via unjammable “mark-1 eyeballs” whenever necessary. Similarly, SOF will adjust and then continue to seamlessly operate in all required domains when their C2 linkages are cut off. The human capital that staves off operational collapse is their competitive advantage. Not surprisingly, this is the stated guiding principle in AFSOC’s current Strategic Guidance1.
None of this should be taken as an argument that the DoD needs to literally become SOF. It is a truism that SOF cannot be mass produced. SOF will have their own niche role in future high-end fights as Beets rightly notes. However, specific qualities of SOF, especially their authorities and deep expertise, are perfectly suited for conducting MDO in a broader conventional context. Taking the lessons of successful employment within the SOF community, the DoD should be able to avoid over reliance on communications infrastructure on the one hand and demanding too much from their lower levels on the other. The solution will be twofold. First, the vision behind mission-type orders must be brought to life by pairing maximally delegated authority with earned trust between commanders of units at all levels. Second, those units must be embedded within joint-service clusters that can operate effectively in a C2-denied environment due to their pre-established lateral relationships. Depending on the DoD’s ability to catch up to this requirement, a future multi domain attack on our C2 networks will either represent the ineffectual flailing of a dying enemy or the prelude to allied catastrophe.
Andrew Smith is a U-28A instructor pilot with multiple deployments to US Central Command and Africa Command. He is currently an instructor at Air University’s Squadron Officer School.
1. AFSOC Strategic Guidance. Air Force Special Operations Command, 2020.
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Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the U.S. Government.