Small Wars Journal

Special Forces as Military Observers in Modern Combat

Special Forces as Military Observers in Modern Combat by Captain Rick Chersicla, Modern War Institute

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…

Read on.



Tue, 09/20/2016 - 9:55am

While I believe that we should be more aggressive and systematic in doing something along these lines, I'm not sure that SF is the appropriate tool.

There was a great monograph out of CGSC in the 1970's which listed most all of the recognized "military observer" activities of USMA grads between 1815 and 1975 (

While they don't have the dedicated capacity, this task clearly fall within the mission set of the various Defense Attache Offices, which is significantly more dynamic than the author suggest in his paper

I, too, feel this to be a very good read and a very good idea. This has been addressed in the past on SWJ as well. I also agree that using SOF in this role makes sense on occasion but feel that conventional forces, particularly mid/ senior grade officers and senior NCOs, would be better choices. Why?
1. There are simply more conventional officers and NCOs to choose from (volunteers only please). SOF bubbas are few in number and seem to be engaged somewhere doing the "real thing". We get a bigger "bang for the buck" by keeping them out there creating a bit of havoc.

2. Despite what the author says about SOF being the preferred choice because they are "less likely to harbor cultural or organizational biases", I have to disagree based on my experience with US Army SF in particular and SOF in general (admitedly limited experience). It was my observation that, among US Army SF, both active and retired, there exists a strong cultural & organizational bias in favor of SF/ SOF methods of operation which I suspect might color their observations of foreign conventional units conducting combat operations.

Most foreign military organizations (and even US ones) don't have the kind of money, assets, & resources available that US SF/ SOF organizations do. Conventional troops serving as observers, probably of foreign conventional units, would bring with them experience and knowledge that would likely be far more relevant in assessing and reporting on the units they observe.

The idea of US forces serving as observers (with foreign military organizations and even NGOs) sounds like a great idea. Using SOF troops in this role also makes sense but only on occasion as noted above. This concept would serve as a great opportunity for "career broadening" for officers and NCOs.


Mon, 09/19/2016 - 2:29pm

Well worth reading the entire article. I have added a comment which is 'awaiting moderation'.

I do wonder if SOF are the best personnel to fill such posts.