Combined/Joint SOF Panel at West Point--Your Thoughts?

Marauder06

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Because the below post is TL;DR, here’s a short summary: There was a Special Operations panel held at West Point today. Below are the questions that were asked of the panelists (ARSOF, NSW, AFSOF). If you’re interested, pick one or two questions that you’d like to answer, and copy/paste the question and your response below. Also, feel free to critique the responses that I gave (at the end of this post). I’ll share the best responses with the instructor who teaches the class that this panel talked to today.

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Today I (former SOF and current West Point instructor) participated in a Special Operations Forces panel organized by an SF officer assigned to West Point and presented to an audience of cadets in the Special Operations elective taught here. It included participants from the Army, Air Force, and Navy SOF communities, US and allied, officer and enlisted, operator and enabler, male and female, current and former SOF, in-person and virtual, as shown below (names are fictitious):

LTC A: Ranger Regiment, CAG (operator)

LTC B: 5th Group, 160th, JSOC (enabler)

SGM C: SOF operator from a NATO country

SFC D: 18-series SF

MAJ E: Air Force SOF

LCDR F: Navy SEAL

The way it worked is that each panelist provided a short background to include their name, current position, and experience/background in or working with SOF. Then the moderator introduced a cadet who asked a pre-determined question to a specific panelist. The designated panelist responded to the question, then, the floor was open for any comments or follow-on questions by students and panelists related to that question.

Below is a list of the questions that were asked, and the participants to which they were directed. Because the “Chatham House Rule” was in effect, I’m not identifying any of the participants, including the instructor or the cadets. Nor am I including any answers from any of the other panelists other than to say I thought they gave some amazing and insightful responses. Towards the end of this post were the responses I gave during the panel, which I modified after the panel to provide some additional context. The lengthier responses were the ones given to questions I was directly asked, and the shorter ones were follow-up comments to the responses of other panelists.

My responses reflect my opinion and experiences only, and are not official positions of West Point or the Army.

If you’re interested, copy/paste one or more questions and provide your own answers. I’ll share the best responses with the cadets in the SOF elective. And feel free to critique the responses that I gave (at the end of this very long post)

Cadet:
Designated Panelist:
SFC D:
Question: What is the most important trait (character, professional, or otherwise) that you want to see from an SF officer?

Cadet:
Designated Panelist:
Maj E:
Question: How has the environment changed when you first entered the SOF community as a woman until now? What drew you to the SOF community and did you have any female role models or mentors that you talked to prior to your decision to join?

Cadet:
Designated Panelist:
LTC A:
Question: Do you think that different units within SOF have overlapped with each other too much, and by doing so have lost what made them unique and special?

Cadet:
Designated Panelist:
LCDR F:
Question: SOF can be sent all over the world and often to locations where the U.S. strategic interests are not as clear as they might be in locations where large conventional forces deploy. Have you ever questioned the necessity of a mission/deployment that you were sent on?

Cadet:
Designated Panelist:
SGM C:
Question: What are the differences between the recruitment process for special forces in your home country and the US, and how is your Ranger course similar/different from the US Army Ranger School?

Cadet:
Designated Panelist:
LTC B:
Question: How soon can an officer can get involved with support to SOF, and how did you get involved with SOF intelligence?

Cadet:
Designated Panelist:
SFC D:
Question: What is the Team Room environment like, and what type of relationship do SF NCOs have with officers compared to the conventional army?

Cadet:
Designated Panelist:
Maj. E:
Question: How do you think the use of social media and constant surveillance given our phones (GPS and audio/visual recording) will affect how we fight wars, especially for SOF?

Cadet:
Designated Panelist:
LTC A:
Question: What caused you to join SOF and made you want to join your specific SOF community, and what advice or encouragement do you have for someone who aspires to be a part of a SOF unit?

Cadet:
Designated Panelist:
LCDR E:
Question: Do you think SOF have a designated role in the potential great power conflicts with Russia or China, or is this fight mostly reliant on existing conventional forces?

Cadet:
Designated Panelist:
SGM C:
Question: Can you describe the variety of SOF forces in NATO, and what are the strengths of working with NATO SOF partners?

Cadet:
Designated Panelist:
LTC B:
Question: Do you think our military has become too dependent on massive levels of intelligence to conduct operations during the GWOT? What will happen when we must conduct operations with limited, constrained, or “fake” intelligence during a near-peer competition.

Cadet:
Designated Panelist:
SFC D:
Question: SOF operators are sometimes viewed as renegades. Is there an ethics problem in SOF?

Cadet:
Designated Panelist:
Maj. E and LCDR F:
Question: What is your perspective on how Navy and Air Force SOF view Army SOF

Cadet:
Designated Panelist:
LTC A:
Question: With the system of rotating officers back and forth from conventional forces back to the 75th, what are of the challenges with the transition back into SOF? Do you see the method as worthwhile?

Additional Questions if time permits:

-Do you think we will see an increase or reduction in SOF personnel over the next decade with a drawdown in Afghanistan and the middle east in general?
-How does a Junior Officer decide if they are cut out for SOF? What motivated you to ‘take the leap’?
-What was the biggest leadership challenge you faced in SOF?
-How well do joint teams work in the operational military?


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My portion of the panel:

Good morning everyone. My name is <name and current assignment> In terms of SOF experience, I commanded the Group MI Detachment and the Group Support Company in the 5th Special Forces Group, I was the S2 in 2nd Battalion of the 160th SOAR, and was a plank holder in the Joint Exploitation Squadron at JSOC, where I was the first commander of the CI/HUMINT Troop and the second person to serve as Squadron XO. I also co-authored a book about the Ranger Regiment and this year I’m advising a capstone team that has the Ranger Regiment as a client. I completed seven combat tours to Afghanistan and Iraq, all with SOF units.

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Question: How soon can an officer can get involved with support to SOF, and how did you get involved with SOF intelligence?

The short answer to the first part of your question is, “almost immediately,” and that could be good or bad depending on the officer and the conditions in the unit. Some SOF organizations take very junior officers. For example, as I was leaving 5th Group in 2005 or so, we were getting our first batch of brand-new 2LTs straight out of the school house at Fort Huachuca to serve as assistant battalion S2s. I thought that was a terrible idea, and I hope that they’re not doing it anymore. To me, the problem is that these LTs know very little about their profession, and they lack the professional foundation to deal with not only their responsibilities in support of SOF, but also “life after SOF.”

Coming in to SOF so early on, they develop bad habits that don’t fly in conventional units, like over-familiarity with subordinates and superior officers, things which make sense in SOF but that will get you in a LOT of trouble in the conventional Army. They also get accustomed to the high level of professionalism from those whom they support, and they get spoiled by the prestige of the unit and the material resources available. And more importantly, they can contribute very little to the organizational mission, which is frustrating to the operations types and reinforces negative stereotypes of support personnel. It’s a bad practice, in my opinion.

A better model, again in my opinion, is what the National Mission Force does with its Quick Start program. In this program, augmentees are selected from the school house or in the operational force to go forward to a combat zone for 4-6 months in support of the SOCOM mission. This gives them a good grounding in SOF but also puts them back into conventional units after, which allows them to cross-level best practices very early in their careers.

Now, to address the question about how I got into SOF intelligence. My experience in SOF started with the 5th Special Forces Group. The way I got into 5th Group as an enabler was that I commanded a company in the 2nd Infantry Division in Korea prior to going to the advanced course. Since I was already “branch qualified” coming out of the advanced course, and had served a hardship assignment in Korea, MI Branch basically allowed me to let me pick my next assignment. I saw on the assignments list that 5th Group needed two MI captains. My father had been a team leader in 5th Group back in the 1970s, and 5th Group seemed a lot more attractive than, say, 10th Mountain. So I said I wanted a slot, and MI Branch gave it to me.

So it was totally a “needs of the Army” assignment, with no assessment, training, or selection whatsoever. I simply received my orders, bought a snappy maroon beret, and reported to Fort Campbell. That was good for me, but not so good for the unit. Because if you contrast the way that people like me come into Group with the care and detail that goes into producing 18-series professionals like Sergeant Patton or Major Snyder, then you can anticipate the difference in skill sets and professionalism on the ops vs. intel sides. It’s a problem. And the more junior the enabler, the bigger the potential problems.

I think the best rank to go to SOF support is as a midgrade or senior captain. At the same time, though, I can’t fault a young officer for wanting to go SOF as soon as they can. In fact, my advice to any officer is “get to the most elite unit you can, as soon as you can, and stay there for as long as you can.” I’m sure that if I could have gone to a SpecOps unit as a 2LT, I would have done it. But I’m not sure it would have been good for me, or for the unit, for me to have done that prior to gaining a lot of great experience in the conventional force first.

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Question: Do you think our military has become too dependent on massive levels of intelligence to conduct operations during the GWOT? What will happen when we must conduct operations with limited, constrained, or “fake” intelligence during a near-peer competition.

I don’t think we have too much “intelligence,” I think we have too much “information.” Commanders on the ground, and the intel officers who support them, are often overwhelmed by the amount of information that comes in, that has to be processed, analyzed, and synchronized before it can become useful intelligence. But I’ll tell you, that’s actually a good problem to have. I remember the bad old days of the early 1990s when we as intel professionals really had very little we could contribute at the lower tactical levels, even in SOF. This was before the days of smart phones and Google earth and drones and everyone having a SIPR feed on their desk. We had a map, a radio… that usually worked…a roll of acetate and some map markers. And that’s OK when that’s all you’ve got, but it’s not the best way to do business.

These days “every Soldier is a sensor,” and all of those sensors are sending back information all the time, which may or may not be good to use for intelligence. So it takes good intel professionals—and good commanders—to sort through the noise and discern the useful signals, especially when it comes to “deepfakes” and other very intricate deception operations.

One problem I found early in my SOF career is that many people, including, unfortunately, some intel professionals, don’t really understand the capabilities and limitations of intelligence. They underestimate how hard good intel really is. Many SOF operators don’t see the work that goes into intel, and assume it’s easy and that anyone can do it. That’s not accurate, especially in the upper tiers of the SOF organizational structure. There’s a lot more to intel than doing arms rooms inspections and handing out maps. The more we deal with adversaries whose capabilities approach our own, the more important the intel infrastructure is going to be.
This brings me to my next point: in my opinion, as a whole, SOF is doing itself a disservice by not investing more in the assessing, selecting, training, and retention of its support personnel, especially in intelligence. Some units, like JSOC, have a very detailed process. But others have a very limited one, or, as I related in an earlier personal vignette, have nothing at all for their enablers.

So if we are concerned about intel operations in large scale combat operations, then the focus needs to be not on information flow, but on talent flow. After all, the first SOF truth is “humans are more important than hardware.” But especially in Army SOF (ARSOF), I don’t think that carries over on the support side. For example, on my desk I have a copy of the brand-new FY2021 Academic Handbook produced by the JFK Special Warfare Center and School, which lists the courses available for ARSOF.

In a quick read through that publication, which is very slickly produced and includes things like the Civil Affairs Assessment and Selection and the SF Qualification Course, I did not see a single course explicitly for assessing, selecting, or training enablers. Not one. In fact, most of the courses specifically exclude support personnel from attendance due to MOS requirements. Now, enablers probably don’t need combat diver or HALO or to go to the Q Course. That’s not what I’m talking about. But if ARSOF is a team effort, where are the courses and programs that ensure that “the world’s best special operations” (as claimed on page 3 of the Handbook) are supported by the world’s best enablers? Isn’t the whole of the support side of the house worth at least ONE course? Maybe it isn’t. But the fact that it apparently isn’t means, in my opinion, ARSOF will never reach its full potential. At the 160th and JSOC, I’ve seen what it’s like when enablers are screened, assessed, trained, and employed in a manner comparable to that of the operators, and that’s a MUCH better model for all involved.

One final note on this topic: if you really want to understand the interplay between intelligence and operations in a SOF construct, and what can happen if you invest in intelligence enablers, pay particular attention to your lesson on F3EAD. F3EAD: Ops/Intel Fusion “Feeds” The SOF Targeting Process | Small Wars Journal

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Question: SOF operators are sometimes viewed as renegades. Is there an ethics problem in SOF?

I don’t think there is an ethics problem in SOF per se. I do, however, think there is a culture problem, and the internal cultures of some SOF organizations can lead to ethical problems down the road, and unfortunately we’ve seen a lot of that lately. I also want to make a comment on the concept of “Big Boy Rules,” a version of which exists in all of the SOF units I was in, or supported during my time downrange. Big Boy Rules don’t mean that “there are no rules.” It means that you know what the rules are, and we trust you to follow them, and to deviate from them only when it’s necessary for the accomplishment of the mission, and only then within the bounds of what’s legal, moral, and ethical. It also means that if your break the rules and get called out on it, you own it, and that you hold yourself and others accountable.

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Question: How do you think the use of social media and constant surveillance given our phones (GPS and audio/visual recording) will affect how we fight wars, especially for SOF?

The thing that you need to remember as a leader is, “if it can emit, we can target it.” All of these gadgets and gizmos that make our lives and jobs easier can be used against us when we face an enemy whose technical capabilities are more than ICOM radios and off-the-shelf drones. Our adversaries can take advantage of our digital signatures in ways most of us don’t even think about. I recall an incident from a couple of years ago when someone’s smart watch app mapped out their entire FOB in Syria, which was then blasted all over the Internet. The next big war we fight might not have us on big, comfy FOBs with tech support and endless electricity and climate control. We need to make sure we stay up on the basics, in case we need to go back to the days of acetate, maps, and dry erase markers to do intelligence.

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Question: SOF can be sent all over the world and often to locations where the U.S. strategic interests are not as clear as they might be in locations where large conventional forces deploy. Have you ever questioned the necessity of a mission/deployment that you were sent on?

I never questioned the reason we did any particular mission tactically, or what the bigger plan was operationally. I understood the wisdom of sending guys out in black helicopters every night, and why the Task Force was so heavily invested in doing what it was doing in Afghanistan and Iraq and elsewhere around the world. But the main reason I’m teaching at West Point now and am not still at JSOC, is that I began to have major questions about the wisdom of what we were doing strategically overseas in the GWOT, particularly in Iraq, on about my fourth deployment.

One of the things that being deployed gives you, is a lot of time to sit and think. In fact, even in the National Mission Force, there was a lot of down time for various reasons. I remember someone making the observation that if one were to make an accurate video game about what it’s like to be on deployment, it would involve a lot of sitting around waiting for a mission that never happens.

At any rate, the vehicle graveyard at Balad Airfield, Iraq was located very near to the compound that 5th Group stood up, and ultimately shared with the National Mission Force, there. I remember seeing the hundreds of blown up and burned out vehicles that accumulated at Balad and thinking that every one of those vehicular corpses probably meant one or more US soldiers or contractors whose lives were ended or irrevocably altered because of the fighting we were doing there.

Because of the information I had access to in the course of my duties, and because I’m just kind of interested in that kind of thing naturally, and because I had the time to do so, I started to dig down and ask some hard questions—mostly to myself—about what we were doing, and why. It particularly frustrated me to make the realization that, in my opinion, we were never going to be allowed to do what it took to win on the ground in Iraq, and that in fact some national-level politicians were counting on us failing in order to score political points and advance their careers. That was a hard pill for me to swallow.

After two of my former Night Stalker comrades, Dan “Yardbird” McCants and John “Irish” Quinlan, were killed in a crash in Afghanistan I started looking at doing something different. Why was I bouncing back and forth between Iraq and Afghanistan, risking my life and health, adding stress to my family, in support of something that I didn’t understand, and thought we couldn’t win, strategically? And I had a very safe job on the FOB, I wasn’t risking my life on ops every night like my colleagues were. I thought the best way to understand how we got to where we were in the GWOT, and to help future leaders not make the same mistakes, was to go back to school and teach at West Point. So that’s what I did, and that’s why I’m here now.

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