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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”

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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

1947Professor 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.

Whole of Government.  Recognizing that the expression “whole of government” is quite popular within the SOF community (or at least said a lot), it too often begs the question as to whose government, and worse, it assumes because the US government has embarked somewhere militarily, that somehow all parts of the government are morally obliged to give a damn, much less participate.  They are not.  Many of us want our federal tree surgeons working on our federal trees, not helping abroad.  Still, any aversion to the forced recruitment of government ‘partners’ aside, the various agencies should not work at cross purposes overseas, and their efforts are likely to be more effective when common goals are revealed, and perhaps when commitment of scarce resources is coordinated.  That makes sense, but even our use of the passive voice in so saying betrays uncertainty as to who exactly should do all the coordinating and revealing.  We have, as a result of many pressures natural and un-natural, evolved a byzantine set of institutional territories, the result being that people yell out ‘whole of government’ and ‘joint’ as if they are Rodney King-like pleadings that we all get along.  One thing seems safe to assert: to whatever extent promotion of the ‘all-of-us-together’ ethos makes sense or does not make sense, the advantage provided by collaboration or synchronicity should not be forfeited to a tangle of time- and morale-killing meetings, negotiations, deals and misunderstandings.

Mish Mash of Authority and Permission.  Much of a SOF campaign planner’s energies these days are wrapped up not in measuring relative strength, timing, logistics and the like, but rather in what surfaces in semi-doctrinal jargon as ‘authorities and permissions.’  A perennial form of grousing accompanies those terms, which is to say, with the time and social skill expended to negotiate the institutional barriers that the terms reflect.  For efficient planning, if not the conduct of operations, authorities and permissions have become like barnacles on a ship’s hull.  In the context of any given mission, at any given bureaucratic level, in any given office and in front of any given executive, commander, director, chief, secretary, supervisor or representative who has some sort of veto or influence (or who thinks he should), the expenditure of resource that SOF planners have to make is fascinating.  At first it is fascinating, anyway, after which it is disturbing.  It is disturbingly counterproductive, and for years now the emphasis seems to have been on training and educating SOF planners and leaders in the social skills, institutional legal knowledge, appropriate jargon, and Zen needed to successfully package and pitch an operation.  In a sense, it is a beautiful thing.  As libertarian would be glad to see that the application of American military force requires that a plan suffer passing through an elaborate and painful gauntlet of persons both knowledgeable and ignorant (regarding either the world or the essence of strategy).  Looked at in greater detail, however, it appears that many parts of the authorities and permissions gauntlet have little to do with efficiency, effectiveness, validity of objectives, moral compass, or the contemplation of unintended consequences.  Much of the gauntlet seems related to nothing better than protection of rice bowls and individual status.  Furthermore, the only way to ameliorate the costs and vicissitudes of the authorities and permissions challenge is to simply make many of the current steps in that challenge moot -- to obviate them – to make them disappear.  

Winning, Mens Rea, and Our Recurrent Crusade on Impunity.  America interacts with the world in sundry ways, and even applying our purely military resources the ways include diplomatic, humanitarian, reconnaissance or training efforts, or a combination of these.  The activities that most demand the prudent employment of coercive force, however, incline toward three categories of unacceptable foreign behavior:  those that happened in the past, the on-going and the feared.  Maybe the President of the United States orders the apprehension of perpetrators of some heinous act (a bombing, kidnapping, massacre); perhaps he orders various institutions of the federal government to suppress the slave or illicit drug trades, or perhaps he sets out to alleviate public fear of a dangerous behavior that has not yet occurred, such as the use of a nuclear weapon.  At issue in all three tenses is a foreign entity that would enjoy impunity if we were to not respond.   We engage our SOF when a foreign organization tries to get away with what to us is intolerable.  The prevailing vision of our future operating environment predicts an increasing amount of such intolerable foreign behavior to which our country’s leaders may want to respond with coercive force, or with a broad range of elements of power that includes some amount of coercive force.  In other words, we will observe increasingly more perpetrations for which some foreign entity is culpable, for which it seeks impunity, which we intend to negate.  Accordingly, our country’s leadership will want the option of applying coercive force to deny impunity across an increasingly large global geographic extent.  Nevertheless, our predictions regarding the future also feature increased expectations regarding the rule of law, and heightened public sensitivity to what might be considered disproportional application of force.  We also anticipate decreasing overall material resources for our application of that force.  In view of such a combination of trends, increasing recourse to SOF is predictable.

The Other Guys.  The United States armed forces transformed in the past ten to fifteen years with a seemingly exponential expansion of special operating units.  The rest of the world is imitating.   We impelled a new game, a new challenge, a new threat; and are compelled to play, to meet the new challenge, and confront the new threat.  Countering and defeating other peoples’ use of elite units is now necessarily a central mission for our elite units.  Once the bomber was invented, someone tried to shoot them down with a smaller, faster plane; then someone tried to shoot that small plane down with even faster plane; and so it went.  This next decade of SOF development will see a rise in SOF-on-SOF combat.  We have to dominate that combat.  Existential competition maybe.  The conventional force structure will be hard-pressed to help.

SOF of the SOF and SOF on Patrol.  It seems an historical continuity that whenever an elite force is established it is not long before a more elite force pops up, and then an even more elite force until, well, Team America, hell yeah.  Meanwhile, especially when regular infantry or mechanized units are somewhere deployed, commanders decide to commit a SOF unit to do something of a relatively mundane nature, in spite of the fact that a regular combat unit is immediately available and supposedly able to do the job.  This because the commander concludes, not without reason, that the SOF unit might do it better, and he wants to maximize the chances of success (or maybe he just wants to give the regular units a break and spread out the combat risks).  Both these recurring phenomena -- the constant re-assertion of the elite, along with a tendency among conventional force commanders to use elite units as they would any other -- argue in favor of forming a separate service.  A separate service would probably be in a better position to rationally orchestrate the invention, identities, preparation and employment of elite units.  Hopefully, it would also economize and appropriately use elite units according to their unique contributions and comparative advantages.  Some military leaders, raised within the confines of special operations, may be ill-prepared to properly employ regular combat formations.  The panorama of warfare facing us, however, is one in which the requirement to employ regular formations is rare, and sufficient time will be available to deploy the correct mix of regular units and leaders if the need should arise.  The opposite problem -- leaders who are not educated in unconventional warfare misemploying SOF is the recurrent and predictable error that the creation of a new service might alleviate.

Not Killing People.  Our military is asked to do many things abroad, to include occupying territory, although we might not want to use the word occupation.  We are often asked to help foreigners help us, which could, for instance, mean directly or indirectly deterring or suppressing insurgents, gangsters or separatists.   Conversely, it could entail opposing a government.  SOF planners are apparently more likely to remember that the most appropriate methods in a given case might include only a minor coercive ingredient.  Our regular army is not optimally formed to accomplish missions that call for finely measured or sprinkled quantities of physical coercion.  It is less well equipped to observe, analyze, and design an appropriate mix of measures in the context of most environments that feature such things as insurgents, revolutionaries, mafias, and so on.

Ambitions and the Cutting of the Pie.  It is time to stop shrinking away from what bothers us.  There are many officers in Army who see and feel the career stakes of this conversation.  If a separate service were created in the midst of a tightening overall defense budget, the heavy (legacy, conventional, regular, combined arms maneuver?) portion of the Army would almost surely be slashed along with command structures which have so long been taken for granted as immutable, natural elements of the institutional environment.  If those officers’ resumes are too tightly bound to the conventional structures, they might be seen as un-competitive and their prospects for promotion and senior rank could disappear.

Part of the American security budget pie, the ‘defense’ portion, has been seemingly forever divided into three more-or-less equal shares  --  the Navy’s, the Army’s, and the Air Force’s.  The overall security expenditure of the US government also includes the portion spent by the Intelligence Community, with the whole thing made more opaque by the rise of the Department of Homeland Security.  How a new service would look in terms of funding share is probably to be reflected by the parts and pieces it would acquire, but one would suppose that the greatest divergence of budget into the new service would be suffered by ‘Big Army’.

What’s in a Name?  We are not stuck on ‘The Common Service’ as a name for the new service.  It is just a suggestion and here is why we like it:  The word service will help underline its autonomy.  The word common plays to the preference of Special Forces folk to cultivate an attitude of quiet professionalism.  That is as it should be, especially since the advantage in risk distances owned by Special Forces is greatly due to discretion, small footprint, political inoffensiveness, and even deniability.  The adjective also subsumes the ideas of ‘jointness’ and ‘interagency’ so that those boring terms might never again have to be inserted perfunctorily into briefings.  Another term, ‘unconventional warfare’ is heard often these days, with its meaning apparently undergoing changes.  Shooting people and blowing things up might remain a strong connotation, as opposed to Foreign Internal Defense or COIN, but it appears that unconventional warfare is being moved toward a denotation of support to insurgency.  At the same time, ‘irregular warfare’ seems to be the prevailing umbrella term for all that is not nuclear war and state-on-state tank maneuver.   Notice that whatever envisioned missions ‘unconventional’ and ‘irregular’ convey, the conventional force and the regular units are not seen to be doing them.  To us, irregular warfare will be the central activity of The Common Service.

End Notes

[i] David Maxwell, “Thoughts on the Future of Special Operations: A Return to the Roots - Adapted for the Future,” Small Wars Journal, October 31, 2013.

[ii] Joint Publication 1-02 Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, defines strategy as, ‘A prudent idea or set of ideas for employing the instruments of national power in a synchronized and integrated fashion to achieve theater, national, and/or multinational objectives. (JP 3-0)’.


About the Author(s)

Geoffrey Demarest is a researcher in the US Army's Foreign Military Studies Office at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas. He holds a JD and a PhD in International Studies from the University of Denver, and a PhD in Geography from the University of Kansas.  He is a graduate of the US Army War College at Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania, and of the School of the Americas at Ft. Benning, Georgia. Demarest's latest book is titled Winning Irregular War.

Lieutenant Colonel Ivan Welch, U.S. Army, retired, is currently an analyst at the Foreign Military Studies Office at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He served as a US Army Foreign Area Officer for South Asia and continues to work on geostrategic issues.



Sun, 11/02/2014 - 6:13pm

In reply to by Move Forward


The SA-7s were weapons from a stock captured by the IDF in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. They were complete junk. Many of them had parts actually missing and all of the power sources were long kaput (as you'd expect from captured weapons that were at least 12 years old.) All the units I handled were unfit for service and destroyed.

I would suggest the weapons responsible for the peak loss-rate in 1984 & 1985(prior to the Stinger) continued to have the same effects after the Stinger arrived. IMO like the ISAF losses, the chief cause would be accident, followed by HMG, followed by 7.62 followed by a lucky RPG strike.

I would argue that the list you posted represents all losses - not just shoot-downs. Like today the enemy is always keen to claim a crash as a kill.

A figure of 300 total losses is often mentioned for the entire war but the one or two a month is the number reflected by AAPs at the time.


Move Forward

Sun, 11/02/2014 - 4:46pm

In reply to by RantCorp

<blockquote>If you take the Soviet losses as 200 to 300 all up and the ISAF number as 127 all up the parallels are far more informative. 27 of the ISAF losses were from enemy fire i.e. about a quarter. Apply that to the Soviet losses and you get about 80 losses to enemy fire – that’s assuming Soviet helicopters and their pilots are on equal of the Western counterparts (which I seriously doubt).

Half of the losses occurred before the Stinger got there and you are down to 40. Obviously they were not all shot down by Stingers – my experience would indicate less than a quarter (10) but let’s say half and you get 20 helicopters shot down by Stingers.

The notion that the Red Army would abandon the field of battle because of the introduction of a weapon system responsible for the loss of 20 helicopters over three years sounds as absurd today as it was 25 years ago.</blockquote>

Well using a combination of the Wikipedia and a Russian blog site (at bottom of Wikipedia references) figures, they show helicopter <strong>shoot-down</strong> losses (excluding many more accidents and indirect fire losses on the ground) of:

1979: 1
1980: 14-18
1981: 9-11 and one hit a mine
1982: 11-18
1983: 11-14
1984: 20-28
1985: 24-36
1986: 16-28
1987: 17-26
1988: 9-13
1989: 0-2

These numbers show serious losses began in 1984, continuing to increase through about 1987. Most were due to small arms and 12.7mm, however in 1985 the Mujahedeen started using <strong>SA-7s</strong> downing 6 aircraft of which 4 were helicopters. In 1986 there were 8 Stinger losses of which 4 were helicopters and Stingers were not even delivered until the Sept. 1986 timeframe. There also were SA-7 losses earlier in 1986. In 1987 the Stinger losses increase to 30 with 17 being helicopters. In 1988 the Soviets apparently fully adapted reducing Stinger losses to 11 with only 1 loss the final year in 1989. As Bill M points out they probably learned to fly lower in helicopters and higher in fixed wing aircraft but you can't fly high when you land a fixed wing.

The higher per year totals above add up to 195 helicopter shoot-down losses not counting the crashes/accidents with most to small arms and 12.7mm (.50 cal). I didn't even count the fixed wing losses to shoot-downs of which there were numerous. The cargo planes must have been particularly damaging with multiple personnel on board coming in to land or on take-off.

It also should be noted that the Soviets lost at least 23 Su-25 ground attack planes as well, with many lost to Stingers. The point remains that Stingers were a step up from the early use of SA-7s and more modern MANPADs exist today. At least 74 Mi-24 Hinds were lost and they are heavily armored. The state of the art continues to evolve and we must strive to keep up lest we experience losses like the 14,500 troops that the Soviets lost with helicopters and fixed wing losses being only a smaller part of an overall disheartening experience.


Sun, 11/02/2014 - 2:25pm

In reply to by Bill M.

It is surprising how the narrative has changed since a greater number of US personnel have had experience fighting it this part of the world. 30 years ago any suggestion that the US was being blindsided by various state actors in the region was basically a hanging offense. My argument is holding people in the region to the truth would probably have prevented 9/11 and Iraq and more importantly will advert a rogue nuclear attack on the West in the future.

The Muj were a good ally and working will them was never a problem. They were brave, steadfast and loyal. What they could not understand is why we seemed to have so little influence over the Pakistani actions towards the war against the Soviet occupation. It was obvious to them that the amount of supplies provided by the US was much greater than what was getting thru and basically the Muj effort (and by default the US) was being strangled by a Pak choke-hold on the supplies getting thru.

Eventually they came to believe our primary obligation was to accommodate Pakistan’s political ambitions and AF was expendable. This obviously was not a sympathy supported by the vast majority of Americans but it was hard to deny the implications of the reality on the ground.

I remember an illiterate mountain-man telling me we were going to live to regret turning a blind-eye to the Pak’s duplicity.

IMO the importance of an accurate assessment of the anti-helicopter war is that it acts as a touch-paper for a re-examination the conventional wisdom pertaining to our approach to the war against the Soviets in AF and wars in general. The Stinger-effect is also undergoing a transformation and once again the sheer numbers of US personnel who have experience in close combat and the relevance of RMAs is injecting an important caveat into our current approach to warfighting now and events from the past.

The helicopter losses were obviously tiny compared to the 5000 lost in Vietnam. Add the flying hazards posed by the enormous mountain ranges of AF and the amounts are minuscule. However the ISAF losses lends a more meaningful benchmark to the calculation of Soviet losses. Back in the day when we were trying to argue our position the massive losses of VN rendered the Soviet losses s meaningless. It was if trying use the WW1 losses to explain Desert Storm.

If you take the Soviet losses as 200 to 300 all up and the ISAF number as 127 all up the parallels are far more informative. 27 of the ISAF losses were from enemy fire i.e. about a quarter. Apply that to the Soviet losses and you get about 80 losses to enemy fire – that’s assuming Soviet helicopters and their pilots are on equal of the Western counterparts (which I seriously doubt).

Half of the losses occurred before the Stinger got there and you are down to 40. Obviously they were not all shot down by Stingers – my experience would indicate less than a quarter (10) but let’s say half and you get 20 helicopters shot down by Stingers.

The notion that the Red Army would abandon the field of battle because of the introduction of a weapon system responsible for the loss of 20 helicopters over three years sounds as absurd today as it was 25 years ago.

During the Battle of Lam Son US/ARVN helicopters destroyed or damaged was nearly 800 in a battle that lasted 40 days.


Bill M.

Sat, 11/01/2014 - 4:53pm

In reply to by Move Forward


Addressing the Stingers specifically. Did some research, will send you the source later. The Soviets adapted their flight TTPs, and within 18 months of introducing the Stinger to the resistance, the loss of Soviet aircraft was the same as it was before introducing the Stinger. The Soviets adapted their tactics by either flying below or above the kill radius of the Stinger. They did lose quite a few aircraft during the adaption period. Regardless, the Soviets wanted out with honor as soon as possible. Not unlike us, they realized within their political and military circles that it wasn't winnable, but just pulling out was not politically acceptable.

Reminds of LBJ's statement in Vietnam when he said, "I Know we can't win this thing, but pulling out would be worse." Several thousand Americans died and maimed since he made that comment because he didn't have the political courage to make the right call.

Move Forward

Sat, 11/01/2014 - 3:39pm

In reply to by RantCorp

<blockquote>So rather than an aberration the quantity of supply was as good as it had ever been and as history has revealed, 1986-7 was the peak of Muj supplies.</blockquote>OK, I'll bite in assuming you are saying the money for supplies was being pocketed by the Pakistan Army or ISI and lots of other mujahideen and middlemen along the way. My question then is what supplies were killing 14,500 Soviets and bringing 500 aircraft out of the sky? I have no doubt the Stinger's effectiveness was exaggerated in Afghanistan primarily because it probably brought the aircraft down lower into the machine gun envelope.

So who then was supplying the 12.7mm that you say was not getting there? Could your embedded sources have been incorrect or feeding false or made-up information? Also let's remind ourselves that the Soviets, unlike NATO/ISAF had a great deal of heavier armor, and no repulsion against causing civilian casualties through artillery and airpower. So what explains the extraordinary losses of the Soviets and the relatively minor Western losses in both men, CIVCAS, and aircraft?

Sounds like someone's moral compass and warfighting capabilities were up to par given a probably at times overly restrictive ROE and the distance for <strong>our</strong> supplies to travel. Or should we congratulate and try to mimic Soviet disregard for their own troops and opposition civilian and military lives exemplified in Afghanistan and Chechnya and stretching all the way back to WWII and their 20 million lost.

Going back to the Stinger, how do you explain the grave numbers of Ukrainian aircraft brought down by MANPADs curing current hostilities? A recent SWJ article about a battle in Georgia mentions, and historical losses appear to confirm, that great numbers of aircraft on both sides were being downed by MANPADs. This quote is from "The Battle of Tskhinvali Revisited" published here earlier in October.

<blockquote>On 10-11 August, 1966 troops from the 1st Brigade arrived in Gori from Iraq to be reunited with Major D.’s tank battalion.[lv] Upon disembarking, it seemed to Maj. B.A. that the sky was swarming with airplanes. “All one had to do was point a man-portable air defense system (MANPAD) skyward and pull the trigger for the missile to find a target”[lvi] he claims. Until then the Russian Air Force had been concentrating on targets deep in the Georgian rear. But now it seemed the Georgian skies were filled with airplanes searching frantically for artillery positions and other tactical targets. According to Maj. R.B., batteries were so well concealed that the Russian air force did not score any hits.</blockquote>

Why haven't we experienced the same numbers of lost aircraft to MANPADs in Afghanistan and Iraq? Could it be that money spent on U.S. aircraft survivability equipment was well spent? Shouldn't fighters experienced in two wars have had greater success against NATO/ISAF lighter ground forces and less armored aircraft? If conversely you claim them now to be lousy fighters, why are they having greater success against ANSF forces as we bow out? Likewise, with an ISIS force comprised of many Sunni fighters and leaders from OIF, why have they been so successful currently and so average against our earlier coalition?

<blockquote>The notion of having a long hard look at our moral compass is never mentioned let alone questioned.

I had always hoped the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan was the nadir of our problem but 6,000 KIA, 30,000 WIA, 600 Vet suicides a month, 5 trillion dollars and 20 years later it appears I was completely deluded. As it happened the cancer so obvious in 1986-7 had only just started.</blockquote>
How does someone else's pilfering of our coalition supply money indicate a lack in the West's moral compass? Considering that over a decade of war we lost 58,000 in Vietnam, how do you explain the far lower losses in Iraq and Afghanistan? Remember that many of the suicides are older Vietnam vets who saw a lot of bad stuff, but probably only once as draftees compared to the repeat tours of our volunteers. My father-in-law got fragged by a Willie Pete grenade in Vietnam as a 1SG and I've read little of that in current wars and the dress code and vehicular and dismounted protection for individual servicemen was somewhat better enforced to say the least. We also spent more in Vietnam adjusted for inflation compared to current wars.

I would argue that many current problems have resulted from Clinton's procurement holiday while insisting the Army endure many Balkans deployments coupled with the repeated tours of our current Army caused by trying initially to fight on the cheap and cut taxes during a war. When only 1% of the population serves and the Veterans in Congress have disappeared, the understanding of what right looks like in war has long been depleted. As you mentioned, it will take a loose nuke in the U.S., an invasion of a NATO country, or missiles flying in the Pacific to force us into doing what is right on the ground, in the air, and at sea.


Sat, 11/01/2014 - 10:36am

In reply to by Bill M.

This failure to learn from our past mistakes is a habit that has not gone unnoticed by those who wish us great harm. It is not lost on them that we gravitate towards charismatic figures who say what we want to hear and how easily we are led to ignore reality. To get the ball rolling our enemies (both foreign and domestic) only need to arrange a photo-opportunity for our leadership to ‘strike a pose’ in front of some gun-porn or a line of bombed out refugees. If they can arrange a backdrop with a few jets and/or armour roaring around the enemy strategy seems unstoppable.

Those who wish to harm us are amazed how easily our massed resources can be refracted down a proverbial path of ‘good intention’ that ends in military and political failure. Alarmingly this phenomena appears to be getting worse despite an exponential rise in our blood and treasure spent and the feebleness of successive opponents i.e. NC/NVA vs Taliban vs IS.

You have to ask yourself if 9/11 or Iraq has not given cause to see the err of our ways – what will?

Many of our enemies are convinced we are incapable of implementing change and as such are emboldened to press even harder. IMO the AF/PAK region offers the best insight into the nature of our problem ( sorry Outlaw but my Ukie buddies can learn little from us, but keep punching anyways) as the conflict has been a bleeding sore for us for more than 30 years and the unique danger posed by the controls on region’s nuclear weapons.

In the war against the Soviets in AF alarm bells started ringing in the 1985 that situation on the ground was not what we were led to believe by our ‘allies’. It was decided a thorough assessment of the effort going into the Muj was needed to answer some puzzling questions provoked by a Western mole in the Kremlin (20 years later the identity of the mole was revealed). Teams were clandestinely embedded into the logistic chain of all the major Muj commanders in the east of the country and tasked with compiling accurate figures as to what was happening on the ground and to what extent our military assistance was getting to the fight.

After only a month it became obvious that the resources going in-country were minuscule. Where hundreds or even thousands of ammo-laden pack-animals were expected (ala. the hundred thousand VC cadre and their reinforced ‘Hero’ bicycle-based hauls) the caravans consisted of mere tens of individual pack-animals. Nonetheless the mission pressed on for an entire year and all supplies were monitored from the AfPak border to their final destination incountry. Sometimes this shadowing took a few days sometimes more than 2 months.

What was learned was the most powerful commander in the Muj received no more than ten ton of military supplies in an entire year. It would be nice to assume the ten ton was all high speed kit but most of the tonnage was 107mm rockets followed by 12.7mm ball, RPG grenades and 82mm mortar bombs.

Think how much a battalion of US light infantry would use in an entire year just zeroing their weapons and you get the picture. This figure did not allow for losses to enemy action, avalanches, disease or accidents. The Soviets tended to ignore these miniscule amounts unless there was a chance to capture MANPADS or ATGMs, in which case they would attempt to interdict, collect what they found interesting in man and equipment and destroy who or what remained.

Needless to say it was a shock. The massive discrepancy between what was regaled by all manner of national security and public figures and the numbers on the ground had strategic implications that IMHO continue to have dangerous strategic implications to the present day.

It was suggested that perhaps 1986-87 were slow years but from the outset of the mission it was obvious that the traffic we were observing trundling past was above normal if anything. The erosion by the footfall of man and beast along narrow paths (many of barely used for hundreds of years) was obviously heavier than the norm and likewise the wear and tear on bridging infrastructure over streams and rivers. Furthermore the amount of food for man and beast available along the trail was hard- pressed at these modest levels. In other words the supply pipeline was operating at near maximum capacity. So rather than an aberration the quantity of supply was as good as it had ever been and as history has revealed, 1986-7 was the peak of Muj supplies.

When the Pak’s got wind of the program and the nature of the feedback they went completely ape-shit. Extreme pressure was applied on both sides of the border - KGB/Khad on the AF side and ISI/Wahhabi on the Pak side in an attempt to thwart the mission itself and the implications posed by the collected data. Many a bewildered captured Muj suffered a slow painful death at the hands of KGB/KHAD/ISI captors barking unfathomable accusations in English as to who they were and the location/identity of the teams.

To discount the information every Pak/Afghan/Arab/American asshole who could be relied upon to discredit the findings was hauled out and given privileged access-all-areas. Photo-shoots within the Tribal Areas or just across the frontier in AF were festooned with all manner of exotic equipment and splashed over the media.
By the time the Soviet’s withdrew the findings of the review had largely been negated by a combination of charismatic types and RMA wonder. In 1988 the Soviets withdrew and the rapid fall of the pro-Soviet Najibullah regime was eagerly awaited by all but a few in the US. As Bill M pointed out to the world’s amazement the opposite happened. The great Muj offensive in the spring of 1989 was an unmitigated disaster.

A significant number of folks in military intelligence were aware of the inevitability of the Muj disaster. It was estimated a few thousand Soviet support personnel would be able to sustain the Najubullah regime.

After a few awkward years and much hang-wringing as it became apparent how badly trained and equipped the Muj appeared to be, the USSR collapsed and spared our enemy’s blushes.

As the nefarious nature of the Peshawar-based Alliance began to destroy Afghanistan our leadership decided it was a historical problem and we should all move on. This jaundiced view was at pains to point out very few Americans had been killed so it was best to ignore the implications and move on. ‘I mean what harm could come from letting sleeping dogs lie?’

So what?

Our enemies are contemptuous of how easily our oft-heralded credibility and determination is squashed by their Machiavellian approach to military and political strategy. At worst there appears no end of folks within the US political and military establishment who are more than willing to champion their cause. At best those who recognize our failures attempt to recify the problem by suggesting creating a new service arm, new domains, new networks, new promotion paths, new entitlement packages etc.

The notion of having a long hard look at our moral compass is never mentioned let alone questioned.

I had always hoped the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan was the nadir of our problem but 6,000 KIA, 30,000 WIA, 600 Vet suicides a month, 5 trillion dollars and 20 years later it appears I was completely deluded. As it happened the cancer so obvious in 1986-7 had only just started.

IMHO on this trajectory a rogue nuke on the West is unavoidable and our enemies know exactly how to make it real.

Happy Halloween,


Bill M.

Wed, 10/29/2014 - 5:06pm

In reply to by Madhu (not verified)

Funny thing about history, people can cherry pick events from it to support their pre-existing narratives. Our ability to learn from history is tied to our ability to look at history as honestly as possible. The military too often uses history to promote myths. Myths serve a purpose, national identity, unity, and all that, BUT we can't learn pragmatic lessons if we fail to put the myths to the side and embrace hard truths.

As for the Stinger, I find it difficult to believe that the introduction of it did not further influence the USSR's decision to pull out of Afghanistan. They were having significant trouble justifying the war already, and now more casualties and expensive air craft are being lost. Nonetheless, I agree with the comments that the introduction of the Stinger did NOT win the war. That is a myth we created to support the myth that the U.S. beat the USSR in Afghanistan, or specifically that Charlie Wilson beat the USSR.

The reality is that the U.S. contributed to USSR's decision to withdraw their combat forces from Afghanistan, as did Pakistan, Iran, Saudi, and most of all the Afghan people. Our existing narrative is similar to the narrative that "we" beat the Nazis. We did it almost single handedly if you only get your WWII history from Hollywood. It is possible that the Russians would have been defeated by the Germans if we (US, UK, Canada, etc.) didn't open the second front, and it is possible we would have been defeated if the Russians surrendered and freed multiple German divisions to fight in Europe. There was no single victor, and while I don't think it is wrong to take pride in our significant contributions, real strategists understand how essential the Russian contribution was to winning the war. Real strategists (if we have any), don't seem to be able to separate myth from fact for the Afghanistan War.

The other myth perpetuated by the Charlie Wilson story is if only provided the Afghanistan people aid after the war, the Taliban never would taken over. Fast forward to today, we have been providing a large volume of economic aid to the Afghan people for over 10 years, and the Taliban are still capable of taking Afghanistan over. Lets go back in time now, the USSR withdrew its combat forces in 1989, but the Afghanistan government that was supported by the USSR didn't fall until 1992. Unlikely we would provide support to a communist government, and most likely we had a deal with Russia that the government could stay in place. After the communist government failed, the country fell into a period of tribal warfare (we may see that again). The Taliban, supported by Pakistan, took power in 1996 and established order. An order that was very much welcomed by many in Afghanistan, at least until they showed their true colors. Just who were we supposed to give aid to that the Pakistanis, Saudis, etc. were not providing aid to already? Based on the points above, how would providing aid have changed anything?

Still we promote the same historical narratives as though they are lessons written in stone that we must adhere to our repeat history. I am very worried that we will repeat history, the history that we opted to ignore.

We can't learn from history, if we're not honest about it. I am no expert on the history of Afghanistan, but some of the timeline facts are irrefutable. Those facts undermine the mythical narrative we developed about how we defeated the USSR singlehandedly, and if we just provided economic assistance afterward to the Afghan people, then the Taliban never would have taken over.

When the USSR collapsed and quit providing aid to the Afghan government it collapsed very quickly in 1992, that should be the lesson for us. If we quit providing aid to the current government, then like unplugging the machine that keeps a patient alive artificially, it will die. We helped create a state that is only sustainable via foreign support. We failed to defeat the Taliban. Yet we continue to cling to our myths about the requirement to focus on economic development and democratic governance as the way to sustainable stability.

It is actually kind of comical in a sad way. We are through and through idealists, and our strategies are faith based, not evidence based, on our belief in free markets, democracy, and that everyone wants to be a mini-us.

Madhu (not verified)

Wed, 10/29/2014 - 1:09pm

So, this article in WaPo from 2007 is interesting (byline Ann Scott Tyson):

<blockquote>In the Pentagon's newly expanded Special Operations office, a suite of sterile gray cubicles on the "C" ring of the third floor, Assistant Secretary of Defense Michael G. Vickers is working to implement the U.S. military's highest-priority plan: a global campaign against terrorism that reaches far beyond Iraq and Afghanistan.
Vickers, a former Green Beret and CIA operative, was the principal strategist for the biggest covert program in CIA history: the paramilitary operation that drove the Soviet army out of Afghanistan in the 1980s.</blockquote>…

The title, "Sorry, Charlie. This Is Michael Vickers's War," which is interesting (reference to Charlie Wilon). Is it the U.S military wanting such a global force, so much as factions within?

Well, that puts a different light on the recent NYT article regarding the success--or relative lack of--of the US in its attempts at proxy war, and particularly at a time when the system is swinging back to old military intellectual sort-of containment modes, especially against Russia and China. And the contradictory and messy 'system' is moving to force the US into regime change mode in, perhaps, Syria, just years from now? Just like the old Chalabi plan from the 90s? First, get a foot in and then let natural momentum carry you forward?

Or is it just that big global forces require big global budgets?

PS: From the article,

<blockquote>But Vickers's greatest influence was in the clinically precise way he reassessed the potential of Afghan guerrilla forces and prescribed the right mix of weaponry to attack Soviet weaknesses. This brash plan to create a force of "techno-guerrillas" able to fight year-round called for exponentially more money, which through sheer force of logic Vickers was able to obtain.</blockquote>

Technoguerillas? Is this the Stinger controversy again, whether it really mattered or not?

Move Forward

Fri, 10/24/2014 - 8:14pm

In reply to by Geoffrey Demarest

<blockquote>There is no reason to assume that officers enter the new service at 22 or 23 years of age, or that most members couldn’t be drawn as volunteers from the existing services as they are now. Yes, perhaps we could see a transition period during the fielding of a separate recruiting command. Recruiting challenges for the more conventional units within the new service just don’t seem that onerous, however. If, for instance, the new service were to include the airborne corps, then that portion of the recruitment pool seeking the airborne option would continue to be inducted as it is now, but with initial entry into the new service.</blockquote>
I think you are missing the point that a cadet in Army ROTC has multiple branches he/she might enter which justifies a large college program. There would never be a Special Operations Academy or ROTC because SF/SOF does not need that many officers. Again, what happens if newly commissioned officers and enlisted don't make it through SF, Ranger, or SEAL schools? In addition, both Airborne and Ranger Schools are part of the Army at Fort Benning. They service both conventional infantry who want to be Airborne and Rangers for the badges/tabs (for promotion) and also support SF/Ranger Regiments/82nd Airborne/18th Airborne/173rd Airborne and other units who will use those skills more often. If the Army already supports those schools, skills, and Soldiers why create a different branch?

That raises another issue. Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines are what we call current members of SF/SOF depending on which branch they are part of so what would we call members of this new branch? Purples?

Ranger Regiment officers are infantry officers and may very well go back and forth between assignments in the conventional Army and SOF if I'm not mistaken. Robert C Jones started out as a mech infantry officer I believe and Bill M was an airborne Soldier who ultimately became an <strong>Army</strong> warrant and retired as a CW5 which is a very rare rank. Airborne is not SOF so 18th Airborne and 82nd Airborne would not be SOF. Enlisted Infantry Soldiers generally go to Ranger School after being leg or airborne infantry for a while. They get recruited for SF or ask to go to a Ranger Regiment through the Army and may stay in a Ranger Regiment for a while and then revert back to being regular infantry. Your method would force a branch transfer before going to 75th Ranger Regiment and another branch transfer to return to the conventional Army.

Likewise, an Army helicopter pilot who flies 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment aircraft does not start out there. He builds time in the regular aircraft and applies to become part of that Regiment. If accepted, you would be requiring him/her to change branches from the Army to SF/SOF (whatever they called it) and they would be stuck in that branch with fewer and fewer field grade slots available for commissioned officers and W4 slots for warrants.

In addition, the pay difference between an Army W4 over 14 and a Major over 14 who both fly is $97,829.28 versus the Major's $116,394.48 or a difference of $18,565.20. If you consolidated AFSOC with Army Special Ops Aviation in a new branch you would be saying that AFSOC pilots will be paid significantly more than their former Army warrant officer counterparts because only key leaders are O-1 through O-9 in Army Aviation and I don't think there has been an aviation O-10 yet although AFSOC did have one as part of the big USAF. The chances of making even O-7 in a Special Ops branch for an aviator would be very limited. TRADOC LTG Mangum was a Special Ops aviator, who commanded at Ft. Rucker as a two-star and made it to 3-star because big Army had more opportunities than a Special Ops branch alone would ever have.

Geoffrey Demarest

Fri, 10/24/2014 - 2:21pm

Move Forward lists some ‘elephants’ in the room, and while his questions are significant, maybe they are not that imposing as problems go. A call for a new service does not necessarily imply creation of a new academy. We don’t push the Air Force analogy that far. There is no reason to assume that officers enter the new service at 22 or 23 years of age, or that most members couldn’t be drawn as volunteers from the existing services as they are now. Yes, perhaps we could see a transition period during the fielding of a separate recruiting command. Recruiting challenges for the more conventional units within the new service just don’t seem that onerous, however. If, for instance, the new service were to include the airborne corps, then that portion of the recruitment pool seeking the airborne option would continue to be inducted as it is now, but with initial entry into the new service. The new service would also be able to apply broader and more creative methodologies and standards for talent acquisition. It could rethink the differentials between officer/warrant/NCO as they exist in the current service formats. I don’t want to appear to further ‘fantasize’ in suggesting a compound of big changes, but there is nothing sacred in the current rank structure or acquisition paradigms. Many adjustments have been made over the years, and the creation of a new service would open the window for a few that might be overdue. As for equipment acquisition, I think money attracts sufficiently that there is no reason to suppose that recurrence to the ‘Navy’ acquisition stream or to the ‘Army’ acquisition stream is imperative for getting a new piece of equipment into the new service’s hands. Defense contracting talent can be brought in quickly. Skunk Works exist. I guess what I am saying is that, OK, if Move Forward is implying that some money interests will not take kindly to the change, I suppose the elephantesque counter-argument is that there are plenty of military industrial money heads out there who will quickly seize on the change as an opportunity -- not to worry. In fact, getting the right kind of gear, big and small, into the hands of special operators more quickly may be one of the most attractive prospects for a new service.

By the way, you all may have seen the recent article in Defense One by Colonel Michael Rauhut under the assertive, definitive title, “The Army Wants to Fully Integrate Conventional and Special Operations Forces.” Here is the link: <…; Its timing pretty much answers why the timing of our own piece. Well written article -- I take nothing away from Col Rauhut -- but I believe the title and the article bespeak a particular and revealing form of argumentation. It’s a debate tactic in which a proposition is presented as a done deal, a fait accompli, a final judgment. I say the use of that argumentation is revealing because it is so often used in hope of quashing an opposing idea whose time might be nigh. It can be a dangerous argumentational path in that it might betray a fear of weakness as to the substantive argument, and more definitely reveals a worry that indeed the opposing idea is extant. I would like to retitle the article, “Most Current Army Chiefs Desperately Want to Avoid the Segregation of Conventional and Special Operations Forces.” Don’t know, but that might be closer to the reality of the thing.

Move Forward

Thu, 10/23/2014 - 2:11pm

Let me bring up multiple elephants in the room that I think have yet to be mentioned:

1) Leadership: Which military academy and ROTC sources will supply this brand new SF/SOF service? The Army and its ROTC sources has the overwhelming majority of SF/SOF and is the likely candidate for consolidating MARSOC, AFSOC, and SEALs. How would that go over in these other services? What other than language training for SF makes a cadet/recruit stand out to become an immediate SF/SOF leader/troop? What if they don't get through the SF course or Ranger school? Do they go back to the Army, Marines, and Navy and in what MOS or officer specialty?

2) Recruits: Does anyone believe a 160th SOAR or AFSOC aviator comes straight out of Warrant Officer and Flight school or the USAF Academy/ROTC to be an instant candidate? Does that not imply some time learning as an Army or USAF Aviator and proving themselves? The same applies to infantry before turning into Rangers. Will we have some Rangers who are Army and others in a different SF/SOF branch for Ranger Regiments? Are we going to require a branch transfer before becoming SF/SOF? Will SF/SOF have their own Ranger and Airborne school separate from the Army?

3) Equipment: How much emphasis will the Navy put into subs and their support of SEALs (LCS?) if they are in a different branch? Same for AFSOC and their aircraft? Will this mean an entirely new acquisition community in SF/SOF to argue with the Navy/Marines, Army, and USAF regarding which conventional weapons, aircraft, and ships to modify or procure for SF/SOF?

4) Support: The Army provides most of the support to SF/SOF? How will a new branch affect funding for that support? Will we dedicate and move logistics to SF/SOF and shortchange Army General Support funding and units for sustainment, intelligence, engineers, communication, MEDEVAC, EOD, etc? Why would such support be allowable "boots on the ground" for SF/SOF but not for the Army? Will support recruits start out in the Army, etc. and then branch transfer?

Let me come at this proposal in different way:

The significant (and, from a historical perspective, unusual?) employment of our special operations forces in recent years would seem to be occasioned by:

a. The unwise overthrow of regimes and

b. The unwise reliance on populations (rather than on regimes) to achieve our enduring political objective (the transformation of outlying states and societies more along modern western lines).

We would seem to have learned from our such mistakes of the recent past and have, accordingly, determined not to make these same mistakes again.

This being the case, why would we want to consider concepts (such as the Common Service?) which are, more or less, based on (1) these mistakes and (2) the resulting unusual employment of our special operations forces occasioned by same?


a. If we have determined that we going "back to the future" to achieve our political objective (relying more on the established regimes -- and less on the unreliable populations -- to get the state and societal transformation jobs done),

b. Then why would we want to look too hard at concepts (such as the proposed Common Service) which seem to find their roots in the "here and now" (adverse consequences of regime change and reliance on the populations); i.e., approaches that we (1) now consider to be grave mistakes, (2) intend get out of as quickly as possible and (3) have determined that we will not to repeat again?

Geoffrey Demarest

Tue, 10/21/2014 - 2:28pm

This seems to be going well. Ivan and I owe the conversation some restatement and clarification, for sure. A few of the commenters are explicitly exasperated by my writing style (and the byzantine thought process causing it!) I’ll try harder to trim out some of the tangents. Maybe the definition of victory in irregular war is one of those tangents, so I plan to offer a short comment or article on that topic specifically. The theory of ‘risk distance’ is not tangential to our point, it is central, but it is difficult for me to express efficiently. I’ll submit a separate article on that as well. Herein, I will just restate a few points we were hoping to convey with the article, and answer a few of the salient doubts and assertions from the comment thread as it stands now.
A. Intent of the article. Our paper is not a call to create new capacity. It is an encouragement to take the next step toward command and bureaucratic autonomy. US SOF capacity has been growing for decades, as have the command and bureaucratic structures that would give SOF autonomy. Among the many sources that might satisfy to trace this development, a couple of the most accessible and comprehensive are a 2003-2004 SAMS monograph by then Major Douglas G Overdeer titled Special Operations: Reexamining the Case for a Sixth Service; and a 1991 US Army War College Paper by then Colonel William G. Boykin titled Special Operations in Low Intensity Conflict Legislation: Why Was it Passed and Have the Voids Been Filled. The 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review Report is an interesting milestone in that it suggests a baseline of US SOF order of battle as…

“Approximately 660 special operations teams (includes Army Special Forces Operational Detachment-Alpha[ODA] teams; Navy Sea, Air, and Land [SEAL] platoons; Marine special operations teams; Air Force special tactics teams, and operational aviation detachments [OADs]); 3 Ranger battalions;165 tilt-rotor/fixed-wing mobility and fire support primary mission aircraft.”

OK, I said just above that our paper was not a call to create new capacity. We do think, however, that there still exists a requirement for a somewhat increased Special Forces capacity. We also think that the Common Service would have a bit broader range of capacities than what is currently tagged as SOF. The 2010 Quadrennial asserted “Although special operations forces will be able to meet some of this demand, especially in politically sensitive situations, U.S. general purpose forces will need to be engaged in these efforts as well.” We see that statement in the context of the challenges presented in Iraq and Afghanistan -- challenges that have dramatically changed since, and the likes of which we do not see returning for some time. We also read into the 2010 statement something that is, we admit, perhaps not there: An underlying attitude that if we had enough special operating forces, then conventional operating forces would not need to be retrained and warped in order to meet the requirement.

Having stated the above, I return to, “Our paper was not a call to create new capacity.” It was an observation that we are about to see another more dramatic step in the process of separation of the SOF capacity we currently have (enhanced by some capacities that are not now taxonomically placed under SOF) from what is generally regarded as the general purpose forces. Yes, we would like to encourage that the step be taken, would like to see the process accelerated, and believe that creation of an autonomous Common Service is the best interests of our country’s security and the expression of our national will in foreign lands. We think that the step will be taken quickly, as a result of civilian initiative, soon after the professional argument for the creation of such a service is well made and accepted. Obviously, we want to make that argument well, and in that spirit are open to all counters and cross-examinations.

B. Need for a Common Service. Bill C. asked in the first comment to our article, “Is there a need for a currently unavailable military force -- to ‘reach into the vast areas of the earth’s land surface and to do so independently of standard Army formations or commands’…” (Quoting from our article). Our answer is yes, exactly, that’s the point. It is not, however, so much a new ‘force’ (as most of the necessary force structure already exists), but rather a new service, because the contraption of commands and authorities in their current condition is not as efficient or effective as an autonomous service would be. There leaps from a number of places in the comment thread a feeling/assumption/fear/ supposition that quality would be subtracted from the conventional force if such a new service were to be created. We agree that such a degradation of quality is a likely negative effect of birthing a new service, at least in the short run. We counter by pointing out that the conventional forces are and have been degraded by participating in missions for which they are not optimally suited. In balance, over time, a segregating of general purpose forces from other-than-conventional warfare duties might serve to improve the general force’s readiness to perform in its core function. Moreover, the Common Service would have as its job the fighting of current, on-going, immediate irregular conflict. Our idea is that we are at war, now, albeit irregular war, but we are at, or very soon to be at war someplace all the time. The conventional force structure would be stabilized to be employed with months of anticipation, upon congressional deliberation, resolution or declaration, in the face of a patent conventional military challenge from another state. We see such a situation as unlikely to happen. The Common Service would be the deploying and fighting-now force. The general purpose units would compose the contingency force.

C. Doing good around the world. Bill C. also poses a rhetorical question in one of the latter thread comments on October 17: “…will the bringing forward of a new military service -- specifically the so-called "Common Service" -- help us to (1) re-organize, re-order and re-orient these states and societies so that they might (2) better accommodate our trade and investment (and, by extension, our national security) needs?” Our answer is no. We think our country will do the things Bill C. lists with little help from the US government at all. Our opinion in that regard is an aside, however. We envision the Common Service as an armed service. We are of a mind that it must be equipped with a high degree of cultural acuity, a heightened ability to complement and conform to subtle efforts of diplomacy (to the delicate balances of power, enmity and good will), to be able to mix and orchestrate, on occasion, those activities that fall short of simple bullet delivery (We see these activities mentioned at various points in the comment thread, and they are well-listed in FM 3-05). However, the Common Service would be an armed service the purpose of which would be to bring physical coercion to bear at distance. It would, for instance, not be a USAID with pistols. It could provide a convincing expression of American might in case the USAID needs that might nearby. We think it goes without saying that American overseas military presence can take the form of or be accompanied by a constabulary, civil affairs unit, graves registration team, engineers or whatever -- but these would not constitute the reason-for-being of the Common Service or do they provide the reason for its birth.

In summation -- special operating forces can be prudently used where and when general purpose forces cannot. As a result, SOF are being used continuously today, as we write, because general purpose forces so often cannot be prudently employed. General purpose forces are being used today as the exception, not the rule. The notion that SOF is somehow a force enhancement, or a force multiplier, or a value added -- is to us the anachronism. To respond to the irregular warfare challenges actually confronting our country, strategic military prudence demands SOF. At times, on exceptional occasions, general purpose forces will be needed to augment or multiply the force that we as a country exert through our application of SOF. Most of that augmentational, emergency amount of conventional force structure can be placed within the Common Service. The global military strategic challenge has changed in the past thirty years in a number of ways and for a number of reasons. To help put the change in perspective, we recommend a recent SWJ post by one of America’s best experienced and educated strategic scholars, Kevin Benson. That article is titled “A Kuhnian Moment Approaches for Military Art and Science.” Ivan and I are not sure that Dr. Benson shares our enthusiasm for the birth of a new SOF-based armed service, but we agree that there is something distinct about the historical moment.

BTW: I made a mistake on my own bio. The latest book is not Winning Insurgent War. It is Winning Irregular War. It should be available on line within a week or so.

Madhu (not verified)

Sun, 10/19/2014 - 3:27pm

Huh. I read this article in a completely different way. I thought maybe the authors were anticipating a variety of trends, including the following:

<blockquote>Then Clinton, wearing pearls and a silver and black blouse, climbed the stage and began to speak. And soon it all made more sense. She had an idea to sell — and to defend — to some of the people she’s counting on to make it happen.

In a 30-minute speech preceding a dinner of beef tenderloin and roasted red potatoes, Clinton first heaped praise on Adm. William McRaven, chief of Special Operations Command and her host at the conference. Then she described a vision in which shadowy U.S. and allied Special Operations Forces, working hand in hand with America’s embassies and foreign governments, together play a key role preventing low-intensity conflicts. And where prevention fails, the same commando-diplomat team goes on the attack, combining the Special Operations Forces’ fighting prowess with the language and cultural skills of State Department officers.</blockquote>

Eleanor Roosevelt likes the Special Forces and thinks she can turn you all into the ultimate force for good, if by good, you mean the western interventionism of the upper middle class feminist of privilege and Council on Foreign Relations. Some of the auditioning for a future Clinton administration in the pages of Foreign Policy is pretty funny. Keep scribbling op-eds, all while you underpay the maid and nanny, so you can get that government appointment. That's some real feminism, the feminism of "this woman schtick is good for my career." Aw, I like feminists, just not the Slaugher/Powers version. Half of Camille Paglia's disgust at those attitudes is just a class critique, the same class snobbery they show to the military is the attitude they have toward feminists that come from a different tradition.

OTOH, maybe I got it wrong. Winds are blowing from more than one American domestic source for the great interest in what you all can do. People like the old Bill Clinton "wouldn't it be cool if ninjas could drop down and nab OBL...." stuff.

PS: Eh, I consider myself a feminist and am blown away by what some women do. It's just that the upper middle class feminism of ye olde Harvard and connections and money and power looks down on any woman that doesn't buy their line. Some sisterhood.

As to the need for the suggested Common Service, let us view that question through the lens of the rationale provided in the U.S. State Department's Strategic Plan 2014-17:

-- "Increasingly, foreign policy is economic policy. To maintain American leadership, in an era defined by economic power, we need to (1) shift economics from the periphery to the center of U.S. foreign policy and (2) keep driving the economic agenda that confronts the major economic challenges of our time."

-- "In a world where 95 percent of consumers live outside the United States, American prosperity depends on strong demand for our goods and services and the free flow of goods and capital. While the private sectors does the trading and investing, the government has an important role in strengthening America's economic reach."

-- Strategic Goal 2.1: Build New Stability in the Middle East and North Africa."

So here is the question:

Will a new military arm, configured along the lines of the "Common Service" suggested by the author, help the United States to, for example, "build new stability in the Middle East and North Africa;" a stability which must -- as per the rationale of the State Department Strategy above -- be made to be much more conducive to, and much more friendly re, American trade and investment needs?

This question stated another way:

Given that America's "economic reach" (and, by extension, its national security) is presently hindered/compromised by states and societies (such as certain of those in the Middle East and North Africa) that are not organized, ordered and oriented to optimally accommodate our trade and investment needs.

Given these adverse arrangements, will the bringing forward of a new military service -- specifically the so-called "Common Service" -- help us to (1) re-organize, re-order and re-orient these states and societies so that they might (2) better accommodate our trade and investment (and, by extension, our national security) needs?

Instead of a "Common Service" of SOF, should we look at going the other direction and truly "go purple" by fusing all services together as the "Common Service" or "US Defense Force"? This would reduce redundancy between services, potentially reduce the number of headquarters & flag billets, and join all SOF (as well as GPF air, ground, and naval) elements under one umbrella. This seems to be the direction we are (and have been) travelling. I believe the new Army Operating Concept emphasizes "jointness" as well. The logical end to more "jointness" would be the US Defense Force which would result in a joint SOF "branch", yes?


Fri, 10/17/2014 - 10:28am

In reply to by Sparapet

Sparapet: Relating to your statement:

<BLOCKQUOTE>My last OIF rotation is a perfect example of this mismatch where my (CF) Scouts pulled cordons and QRF for SOF HVT raids in our own troop AO (which to be frank, my Scouts could have probably done) but neither our Brigade nor our Squadron could meaningfully integrate SOF (MISO, CA) into our operations. A capability created as a tactical enabler was almost comically unfamiliar to the officers in the brigade, myself included. (Incidentally, the only HVT captured in our Sqdrn AO that deployment was by one of our line troops).</BLOCKQUOTE>

To back that up, I quote from page 45 of Dr. Mark Moyar's 2011 report "The Third Way of COIN: Defeating the Taliban in Sangin", published by Orbis Operations LLC and hosted here at SWJ:

<BLOCKQUOTE>The resource augmentation did not include additional special operations forces (SOF). Morris believed that his Marines had the intelligence information and operational capabilities to handle the enemies they faced. The Marines cooperated with SOF that worked in the area, but 3/5 ended up eliminating more high-value individuals (HVIs) in Sangin than SOF did because they interacted more frequently with the population and conducted more operations that either eliminated HVIs or garnered information that led them to HVIs. Most of these HVIs were members of the Quetta Shura Taliban, but a small number belonged to other Islamic militant groups based in Pakistan. Although no Al Qaeda were present in Sangin, they easily could have gone there from Pakistan and operated there as easily as the other HVIs prior to the arrival of 3/5.</BLOCKQUOTE>

To pull from a couple of more popular sources, both Chris Kyle and "Mark Owen" spend significant portions of their respecive books discussing how much time they and other SOF units deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq spent on direct action (DA) missions, as opposed to FID, UW, and other SOF-specific missions for which they were uniquely qualified. I remember another documentary from '02/'03 timeframe that followed an Army SF team in Afghanistan as they searched compounds for weapons. Such missions are within the doctrinal and tactical capability of CF units, and it does a disservice to both CF and SOF units to continue tasking SOF units with DA missions for which CF units are competent or even better prepared for than their SOF counterparts.

To relate this point back to the "Common Service" argument, one of the biggest controversies between the Air Force and the joint force at the moment is that the Air Force appears poised to let its capacity to perform CAS and other joint force support capabilities atrophy in favor of stealth air supremacy platforms, which the Air Force sees as their future, but for which a clear and immediate need may not exist. (Air Force advocates will make an argument, somewhat legitimately, that their ability to circumvent emerging area denial capabilities to establish air supremacy supports the joint force; such arguments are accurate, but ignore other obligations for which the Air Force is uniquely capable.) In the event that a "Common Service" is established, I don't think it's outside the realm of possibility or even likelihood that the "Common Service" would begin to neglect such missions as amphibious demolitions, FID, or UW based upon the argument that "DA (or any other single SOF-specific capability) is where the 'Common Service' sees its future". I question whether there is any better way to prevent such conflicts of interest from arising than to leave current SOF units nested with their current parent services.


Thu, 10/16/2014 - 12:08am

In reply to by Bill M.

BillM, I appreciate the reply. I don't mean my reductionism of SOF to deep infiltration to imply a misunderstanding of the range of capabilities resident in SOF. Indeed, its as much a rhetorical device as a statement of a single fact. I did emphasize it to draw attention to the genetic origins of SOF that created their predecessors in the first place, and the role that capability plays in enabling the existing services in their domains. That they have evolved since is beyond dispute. What i contend is that the very evolution has begun impacting the availability of those original missions to the Services' core organizations and therefore their core missions, a problem a SOF service would greatly exacerbate. My last OIF rotation is a perfect example of this mismatch where my (CF) Scouts pulled cordons and QRF for SOF HVT raids in our own troop AO (which to be frank, my Scouts could have probably done) but neither our Brigade nor our Squadron could meaningfully integrate SOF (MISO, CA) into our operations. A capability created as a tactical enabler was almost comically unfamiliar to the officers in the brigade, myself included. (Incidentally, the only HVT captured in our Sqdrn AO that deployment was by one of our line troops).

As you rightly point out, the mission Venn diagram between CF and SOF intersects more than not. And while the political and mission risks are lowered for many of those missions by using SOF in many operating environments, the capacity for those overlapping missions cannot be permitted to exit the CF, as there are plenty of environments where SOF simply cannot meet that demand or is regularly misused (e.g. OIF). This may happen by better training of CF or by better integration of SOF as enablers at the tactical and operational levels below the TSOC stratosphere.

Indeed, the advocates of SOF at the expense of CF have a rather narrow view of history and purpose of warfare; and the creation of a SOF Service can only be imagined at the budgetary and capability expense of the CF (especially the Army). Perhaps its driven by some nostalgia rooted in the good old OSS intel+ops model, but it is an anachronism in today's conversation.

Where i think we part ways is on the authorities question, which i have heard brought up in several different settings in the field and from my current perch in the Pentagon. Its a question that is always asked with the same aspirations of efficiency. Law enforcement type authorities are only relevant if there are domestic laws that the nation would benefit from SOF enforcing (which is an argument that is downright dangerous). I also subscribe to the idea that our republic benefits from Title 50 type intelligence and Title 10 type operations being segregated. That is simply and unequivocally too much power for any one organization, efficiency be damned. All this philosophy brings me squarely back to the purpose of SOF and therefore SOCOMs organizing logic being rooted in the tactical and operational worlds of the Services. That their expert capabilities can and will be used strategically and independently of CF is an added bonus to the national arsenal, not a handicap that needs a remedy. What efficiency remedy can be applied should be applied at the GCC and JTF levels, which govern the operational use of SOF and CF, as they should.


A somewhat modified doctrinal definition for Special Operations:

Special operations can consist of unique modes of employment, tactics, techniques, procedures, and equipment. They can be conducted in hostile, denied, or politically and/or diplomatically sensitive environments, and are characterized by one or more of the following: time-sensitivity, clandestine or covert nature, low visibility, work with or through indigenous forces, greater requirements for regional orientation and cultural expertise, and a higher degree of risk. Special
operations provide discrete, precise, and scalable options that can be synchronized with activities of other interagency partners to achieve U.S. objectives.

While not limited to core activities, our core activities are: direct action, special reconnaissance,countering weapons of mass destruction, counterterrorism, UW, FID, security force assistance, hostage rescue and recovery, COIN, foreign humanitarian assistance, military information support operations, and civil affairs operations.

As you can see, many of the SOF core activities such as COIN, FHA, Civil Affairs are not unique to SOF. Historically, non-SOF forces have conducted all the activities listed above to varying degrees. I would propose that special operations is a joint function that can be conducted by the joint force, but SOF is uniquely selected, trained, and equipped to do these missions to a much higher level than conventional forces. Asking a Marine or Army infantry platoon or company assumes more risk physically and politically (situation in the Philippines as a current example of the strategic impact of young soldiers and Marines misbehaving a politically sensitive environment). The opposite is also true, SOF employed to conduct major combat operations have a high risk of failure, we can't replicate the fire power and man power conventional forces have. Conventional forces and SOF are often interdependent, and there are situations where we can operate apart from each other. Bottom line is our nation needs both capabilities. A lot of SOF operators, at least the ones who have been around the block, are concerned about the future of our CF. It is a myth to assume SOF can do it all, but it is a myth that seems to be increasingly perpetuated by some advocates (so far all of them are non-SOF qualified).

Just wanted to correct the misperception that SOF is only about going deep behind enemy lines. SOF conducts special operations in peace, conflict, and war behind friendly lines, on the front line, and deep behind enemy lines. It is the activity, not the location that defines SOF.

As for authorities, I didn’t mean to imply SOF should work in the U.S., unless a particular crisis drives a requirement. That would have to be authorized the President or his designated representative. I only used the Coast Guard as example of an organization that has dual authorities. In my view, SOF could be more effective if they had some dual authorities (or expanded Title 10 authorities) that are better aligned with our current and projected missions. It is beyond this site to go into the details, but right now we can't move at the speed of the problem. The Cold War is over, we need to build a new structure and enable it with the right authorities.


Wed, 10/15/2014 - 12:25pm

Ivan here.

Long ago in a faraway place a grizzled NCO told me, “Don’t jump if you are not manifested.” I took it to mean that no matter how bullet proof youth made you feel, don’t tempt fate. If you make yourself available through training, education, and association in due course you will find a spot in the arena. This was before Special Forces was a branch in the US Army. It was when all my airborne mentors warned me away from “those profiling sons-of-bitches” they remembered from Vietnam. It was a time that when a young officer went to 5th or 7th Group from the 82nd, he was burning bridges.

However by 1986 civilian leadership in the US Congress felt a need to direct the DOD to act in a comprehensive way to reform the organization, command and control of SOFs. “This was accomplished by attaching an amendment to the Defense Authorization bill for FY 1987 which became PL 99-661 in November 1986. Its effect was the restructuring of not only the Unified Command Plan, but also the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the National Security Council.”[1]

Ultimately the shape of our military force will be in the hands of civilian leadership and fate. After a decade of proving itself as the premier “go-to” for critical operations, SOF is now postured to become the Common Service, independent of the others. It will be manned, supported, and lead by soldiers of that ilk. It is up to us, those who serve or served, to create the dialog that informs the policy wonks that feed the political leadership that ultimately cast the die.

[1]William G. Boykin, <i>Special operations and low-intensity conflict legislation: why was it passed and have the voids been filled?</i> Carlisle Barracks, PA: U.S. Army War College, 1991. p. 5. Reprinted as, The Origins of the United States Special Operations Command, Colonel William G. Boykin, available from accessed 14 October 2014.


Wed, 10/15/2014 - 8:54am

In reply to by Sparapet

<BLOCKQUOTE>what you are basically proposing is a total subversion of established oversights for a marginal gain in efficiency.


And even SOF can be adapted to with a good counter intel effort, which we will force many states to rely even more on once they figure out that SOF is our favorite party trick. Which, incidentally, sucks for the people that live there.</BLOCKQUOTE>

Bingo. These are two of my biggest concerns with the concept of making SOF an independent branch. The first is that such a move would involve a disproportionate expenditure for a marginal gain, the latter of which has not been sufficiently characterized in the first place. The second goes back to the USAF/SOF corollary, which ignores the history of theory (Massive Bombardment + atomic/nuclear weapons) that justified the Air Force's genesis as an independent service, only for enemy forces to adapt in one way or another. The Air Force has had to continually reinvent itself, often putting it at odds with the other services (consider the A-10/F-35 controversy), because the theoretical advantages driving its devolution from the Army failed to pay off.

Your observations about the posse comitatus concerns with blending military SOF with law enforcement are right on target, and particularly poignant given the continuing debate over NSA surveillance programs' cooperation with law enforcement (whether justified or not, the controversy remains). Your observations also highlight, albeit indirectly, the remaining issue that Navy SEALs and USMC Force Recon are optimized for naval missions, Army SF are optimized to fit into the Army's order of battle, Air Force PJs are optimized to support USAF missions, and such. So, why would we segregate those units from the parent services whose specific missions they were literally designed to enable?


Tue, 10/14/2014 - 9:48am

In reply to by Bill M.

Interesting parallel between logistics and SOCOM. I made a similar analogy in my earlier reply, though with a different bend to it. One comment on the authorities issue (and any JAGs here feel free to fire for effect on my logic):

The issue with authorities usually comes down to institutional misunderstanding of why they are what they are, and how some authorities trump others. In order for SOCOM to have USCG-type powers its subordinate elements would have to be removed from under Title 10 of the US Code. The reason there are any restrictions on Title 10 in the first place is because of post-Civil War Reconstruction blow back and the use of Federal Troops as military government in the southern states. USCG functions under Title 14, CIA and some various Defense enterprises under Title 50, neither under Title 10 (except in war time for the USCG). In other words, under various laws that target Title 10 (e.g. Posse Comitatus, etc), troops organized trained and equipped under that authority cannot be used for domestic law enforcement. enforcement. This obviously exempts the national guard when they are under Title 32 authority, which, though still a federally funded Army or Air Force component, does not limit their ability to conduct domestic law enforcement under gubernatorial authority. Note, when these same troops come under Presidential authority by becoming Title 10 troops, all of the same restrictions apply.

In other words, authorities for SOCOM aren't an issue per se until it starts to detain Americans and enforcing civil laws or becomes a full fledged intel collection agency that can conduct covert actions...which, incidentally, brings in all kinds of fun Law of Land Warfare issues into the conversation. saying that SOCOM should be a blend of Title 10, 14, and 50, what you are basically proposing is a total subversion of established oversights for a marginal gain in efficiency. In other words, the total opposite of how defense powers have been historically managed in this country out of fully justifiable fears of executive and defense abuses. Think about that for a second...

As a side note, I also go back to my earlier argument as to the purpose of SOF. The distinct feature at the core of SOF is the capacity for deep infiltration. Everything else stems from that. But that is also a limitation. It is also easy to guard against. The only places SOF will be able to do their mission with the same high speed record as in OIF and OEF is places that have no modern central authority opposing our end state. And even SOF can be adapted to with a good counter intel effort, which we will force many states to rely even more on once they figure out that SOF is our favorite party trick. Which, incidentally, sucks for the people that live there.

As an example of this look at the Ukraine. There is an obvious reason why the new head of the Donestk province appointed by the Ukrainian government is also the former head of the MVD (Ministry of Internal Affairs). Hint: something to do with Russian SOF and some recent troubles.

Outlaw 09

Tue, 10/14/2014 - 4:51am

In reply to by Bill M.

Bill's comment below is telling---the officer crossed arrows career field came into being as a way to give SF officers a chance for a SF career without hurting their overall careers as it did in the 60s thru to mid 70s when it was a career killer as an officer if you joined SF.

The problem now is that there is a cross arrows officer bubble at the LT COL and COL levels where there are far more officers than positions available for them to reach their 20 years.

Turn back the clock and build strictly NCO/WO teams and keep officers at the various staff levels and when they hit senior MAJ have them move back into the mainline Force structure--a win win for both sides.

"It gets a little old when a wise E-7 or E-8 is ignored, so to be heard he needs to use an O-3 as a puppet. That indicates we still have deep flaws within our culture, and we tend to evaluate people's credibility by their rank instead of their knowledge. Special Forces lost a lot its creativity when it became officer run under a couple of its senior leaders some years back. SF works best when it is officer led, and run by the NCOs. The difference isn't a nuance, it is significant."

I struggled with the article also, and request the authors actually state their argument clearly and not lose the audience with inappropriate metaphors. Nonetheless, the subject of created a new service is an old one that has been much debated. The one point that was clear in the article is that the authors claimed 2014 is pivotal moment institutionally for SOF, much like the Air Force's pivotal moment in 1947. USSOF actually had many pivotal moments throughout its existence (now in all four services), but the most significant moment was the formation of USSOCOM in 1987. USSOCOM and the SOF units in the services never remained static, and constantly evolved to meet current and projected security challenges. If this is the case, then why should America assume the costs of developing a separate service? A separate service with its own bureaucracy to manage personnel, etc. could not be done on the cheap, so while it is always worth considering new ideas, regardless of how radical they may sound it is also prudent to consider return on investment when recommendations are made.

Looking back at by time in SOF, our linkage to the services was mostly positive, but positive in a way that logistics is positive. You don't appreciate what logistics does for the force if you're an operator, until all the sudden you have a logistical shortfall. It isn't an invisible hand, but it often invisible to those they support. The services provide a lot of support to their SOF units that like logistics isn't appreciated until it isn't there.

Prior to USSOCOM forming there was a serious issue with services funding their SOF units, but this has been resolved. It could re-emerge in the current fiscal environment, but it is unlikely that SOF will be unfairly targeted for cuts in most of the services. The biggest issue with being tied to the services that impacts SOF is the personnel system, but this is an issue that the Army as one example also wrestles with. We certainly need a more flexible system and different career tracks if we're going to maximize the utility of SOF in the future. Maybe that ultimately is a different pay structure independent of rank based on an individual's skills and knowledge such as foreign languages? It would also be desirable in some cases to focus a SOF soldier (and I suspect conventional soldiers also) on a particular country for years, but to do without hurting his or her career. These individuals are probably not being developed to be future commanders within SOF, but they need to be compensated fairly for their knowledge. They also need to be recognized as experts despite their rank. It gets a little old when a wise E-7 or E-8 is ignored, so to be heard he needs to use an O-3 as a puppet. That indicates we still have deep flaws within our culture, and we tend to evaluate people's credibility by their rank instead of their knowledge. Special Forces lost a lot its creativity when it became officer run under a couple of its senior leaders some years back. SF works best when it is officer led, and run by the NCOs. The difference isn't a nuance, it is significant.

There are a lot of issues that restrict SOF from performing at its peak, issues I don't think creating a separate service would solve. One of the challenges in my view is that we increasingly recognize we live in world with a wide range of hybrid threats that should blur the lines on what falls within the responsibility of the CIA, law enforcement, and the military. It is cumbersome to deal with the wide range of authorities each organization has, and it creates unnecessary seams. One way to consider addressing this challenge is not to create a new service, but to give USSOCOM a Coast Guard like authority (law enforcement and military blend). This one should address military operations, law enforcement, and intelligence authorities. It would enable more effective teaming in support of the globally integrated operations concept. Furthermore, we should be able to bring others into the SOCOM on a temporary basis from the conventional military, and even the civilian world, to work under this authority to accomplish a specific mission. Congress can still maintain its oversight through an approval process for these operations, but once approved the hybrid SOF team would have the authorities needed to develop a flexible approach, and keep adapting to reality on the ground at the speed of the problem.

Just some thoughts for consideration.


Mon, 10/13/2014 - 6:15am

In reply to by Morgan

I don't actually think the idea of a SOF service, even a reorganized Marine Corps, is the right way to go; that said, your argument is a good one. The Marine Corps has also traditionally been the DoD's SME branch for COIN, and the Marines have performed better than the Army in our recent COIN missions. This is significant because many SOF units saw their genesis and attribute much of their operational lineage to COIN operations. A very interesting suggestion and one I'll be pondering today, thanks for sharing it.

Instead of a new service that does “SOF”, why not reorganize an existing service, the US Marine Corps, that already does some SOF missions. The USMC has for years had “special operations capable” elements….MEU (SOC)….and now has MARSOC. Pare down the Marines to 100,000 or less, roll all Navy SEAL capabilities into the USMC, and make the Marines the primary US SOF organization (our own Marine commandos).

They provide their own air & own support; have a history of doing “special operations” whether with the Marine Raiders (direct action) or operating in Dom Rep / Haiti / Vietnam CAP (foreign internal defense) or Afghanistan village stability operations (FID / UW), and are routinely positioned across the globe in preparation for quick-reaction missions (global reach-DA/ hostage-rescue/ special recon/ etc). No need for a new service….use what we already have.


Sun, 10/12/2014 - 5:31pm

I'm going to be quite honest: I started attempting to read this on Friday morning, and I still can't tell whether this is meant to be a serious article predicting/advocating for a newly independent SOF branch, or some sort of parody. Below are some of my concerns about the authors' contribution.

- It's borderline unreadable. There are several sections that I've read several times, and still have no idea what point the authors are trying to get across.
- It attempts to prevail upon an unclear corollary between the United States Air Force and the notional "Common Service", but ignores the numerous differences between SOF's supposed "institutional moment" in 2014, and the wealth of historical and theoretical factors (many of which failed to pay off) that led to the creation of the United States Air Force in 1947.
- They seem to make no case for why, in a time of contracting defense budgets, a supporting establishment requisite for establishing an entirely new branch of service should be funded.
- They mention "classic strategic principles" and "strategic/geographic imperatives" without citing a single strategist or strategic concept - for example, I hold a master's degree in strategy and have never once heard of "strategically prudent risk distance". The closest they come is a quote that they think may be from Oliver Wendell Holmes, but they appear unsure even of that.
- What is the Common Service's alleged domain of strategic effect? What independent strategic mission does it serve? How is the Common Service uniquely situated to operate in this unique domain, or to accomplish this unique mission? Is the establishment of an independent SOF service the only way whereby these missions can be accomplished? These questions - certainly the foundation of any case for a new uniformed service - are nonethless ignored by Mr. Demarest and LtCol Welch.

At the risk of being undiplomatic (and leaving their maps that were "precision crafted using PowerPoint and some images stolen off the intergoogle" alone for the time being), I find myself siding with Sparapet in the conclusion that a "SOF Service" belongs in the realm of fantasy. At best, the "Common Service" is a prospect worthy of further discussion, but for which a cogent case has yet to be made.

Geoffrey Demarest

Sat, 10/11/2014 - 10:17am

Thanks for the excellent comments. They seek a response, which Ivan and I will work on soon. For now, however, a bit of bureaucratic -- I forgot to submit the disclaimer that our gov relationship requires, so here it is:

The opinions, observations and advice in this article are the author’s alone. They are not the policy, opinions, observations, advice or practice of the United States Army or any other part of the United States Government and do not represent or reflect US Government policy, observation opinion, advice, or practice.

We will, however, answer the comments and, no, we don't think we're started delving into fantasy.


Sat, 10/11/2014 - 1:15am

A "SOF Service" fantasy must be getting traction if it starting to find non-SOF advocates. But lets ask a simple set of questions to disabuse ourselves of the notion that such a thing is in anyones interest outside of Tampa.

1. What is "Special" about SOF?
---to be special one must be special relative to something that is not. Lets call that other thing "conventional". So, SOF offers something that conventional isnt tasked to do takes smarter folks? Maybe it takes stronger folks? Perhaps it takes fewer folks? Well, none of those require anything special that cannot be found and tasked in the conventional force. The specialness of SOF is in the training and equipment that is so specialized as to render the SOF operator unprepared for the conventional training and equipment, requiring him to focus. The special training and equipment is optimized for raising an insurrection (or FID if raising a defense militia), and sabotage, which carry with them a critical requirement: the capacity for deep infiltration. Everything else that isnt FID/insurrection and sabotage that SOF do is conventional by definition except for the SOF capacity for deep infiltration.

2. What drives the current need for service specialization? Why cant we have just one "purple" service?
---in one word: Domains. What are domains? They are the highest class of distinction in classifying operational environments that require specialization e.g. dirt, clouds, waves, and asteroids. Yet, all of the services so organized operate in all four domains, they are just optimized to one. Thus the Army has ships and aircraft and even satellites, but they are all optimized in support of dirt, which is the Army's home turf. So....this brings us to the next question....

3. What operating environment will a SOF service specialize in?
----well, humans are the objects and subjects of war, so it cant be that. Deep infiltration is a capability, but air vs land vs sea versions require domain-specific specialization, so that would bring it right back to the original services. So it cant be that. FID/insurrection and sabotage are tactical mission sets, not operating environments, so that cant be it, if that were sufficient then Army Logisticians could ask for a different service on the grounds that their training and missions are so distinct from the infantry as to even have missions (e.g. HADR) where the combat arms arent even present. isnt any of these....

4. Does SOF have a tactical role in the traditional services?
----SEALs have a shore/port mission in support of naval operations. MARSOC has a recon mission in support of amphibious assault. USASOC has a recon and disruption (FID...sabotage) missions in support of land operations. USAFSOC has a recon mission in support of air targeting. The distinguishing feature of all of these is deep infiltration. The fact that SOF has been tactically abused and pressed into conventional tactical missions(e.g. capture/kill) because of the incidental skills deep infiltration requires (e.g. Small units, small logistics train, high physical endurance, broad weapons/equipment mastery) is a reflection of command decisions that are mostly domestic political, enabled by a relatively specific set of circumstances in Iraq and Afghanistan. In other words, these forces are special in their designation for types of tactical duties that are relevant to their service. Their repurposing as a CF with a low cost foot print is a sign of an operational environment that was permissive enough to allow it.

5. SOF are smarter on average?
---i guess, but so is any manpower pool that can afford to be selective. Problem is, as is everything in SOF, small units and small numbers are what allow deep infiltration and high SPECIALIZATION in the first place. If CF officer commissioning sources got more selective all of a sudden then the average intelligence of the CF would meet SOFs very quickly. Problem is, its hard to do when you have numbers to meet. A super extra special service would grow fast while requiring the services to replicate all of the deep infil skills that are still needed to support their tactical....and the original...special operations missions. Net result...avg SOF guys dumber....cost to the nation higher. And if the congress fails to fund then service tactical SOF organizations then they will have to be recreated when the need is dire...e.g. During war time.

Point is, SOCOM's divorce fantasy is just that and needs to stay that. The nation and national strategy has no need of a purple service of elites. What it does have a need for is for special operations capabilities in the services organized for the domains. SOF mission need will never be so great as to strain the services, and if the mission need is that great then small teams of high speed dudes is probably not the appropriate solution, since being small enables deep infil and disables the ability to sustain contact from regular or large enemy forces. As for using SOF for direct action...the current Administration love affair with high skilled assassins is degrading SOF fundamentals in favor of ultra sexy versions of conventional capabilities.

From a defensive perspective, our national command authority often wants our military forces to operate -- in unison with our other "instruments of power and persuasion" (think "whole of government" and non-governmental organizations) -- to protect and defend our civilization's homelands, our allies and our other interests and "reach."

In their offensive/expansive role, our national command authority often wishes our military forces, acting in unison with our other instruments of power and persuasion, to "open up" other states and societies -- to our ideas, to our values, attitudes and beliefs and to our investments and business interests; this, so as to advance and expand our civilization's political, economic and social "reach."

Relevant question re: Mr. Demarest and LTC Welch's article here:

Would the bringing forward of a new military service -- specifically the new Special Operations force named by the authors as "The Common Service" -- significantly assist (by bringing to the table new, needed and relevant capabilities)) our national command authority in the achievement of its defensive and/or offensive tasks (noted above)?

My question here stated in a somewhat different way:

Is there a need for a currently unavailable military force -- to "reach into the vast areas of the earth’s land surface and to do so independently of standard Army formations or commands" -- this, so as to achieve (or better achieve) our national command authorities' defensive and/or offensive responsibilities? (The item in quotations here to be found in the authors' first paragraph.)