Small Wars Journal

Special Operations Forces in Unlit Spaces

Tue, 06/24/2014 - 3:07pm

AUSA’s Institute of Land Warfare recently published a Land Warfare Paper titled “Special Operations Forces in Unlit Spaces: Understanding the World's Dark Spots in the Context of SOF Operational Planning.” This paper should be of great interest to those who would like to better understand what defines the unlit spaces of the world and the implication of that definition for Special Operations Forces (SOF).

“Special Operations Forces in Unlit Spaces: Understanding the World's Dark Spots in the Context of SOF Operational Planning” by Joseph A. Royo (Land Warfare Paper 101, June 2014) begins by examining how certain characteristics of unlit spaces impact SOF operational planning. These five characteristics—pertaining to aspects such as the stability of a nation’s governing body, internal infrastructure and overall development—occurring in varying degrees and combinations, are described in detail in the Framework for Unlit Spaces. Depending on the nature of any given unlit space, SOF operational planning and engagements will be affected in different ways and will have to be conducted with malleable methods. Finally, the author looks at two case examples—Afghanistan and Somalia—to demonstrate how the political environments in conjunction with the physical environments during two different time periods present altogether different planning considerations. Because of the potentially wide variance of circumstances within unlit spaces, SOF planners must fully understand the physical and cultural nuances of their operational environments if they wish to conduct successful operations.

Special Operations Forces in Unlit Spaces: Understanding the World's Dark Spots in the Context of SOF Operational Planning.”



Mon, 06/30/2014 - 2:01pm

In reply to by Bill C.

Bill C,

Having read over this… introductory paper… a couple of times, it's clear to me that the Major is really just trying to get the ball moving in terms of clearly defining notions/terms for use and common understanding within the USSOCOM community (and associated partners), especially with regards to operational planning and preparation. I understood the paper to be a starting point, intended to solicit input and commentary from other involved parties, and to represent a sharing of the 'orientation/definitions' currently in use in order to improve and 'reorient' said terms/definitions so that planners could better execute their duty/mission. Which I consider very laudable, and am spending time annotating currently in order to make guys like the Majors lives a bit easier… lol.

Without going into exhaustive detail, I think the answer to your second question is: Yes. Assuming this is correct, the guys at USSOCOM are currently being asked, in my opinion, to plan operations within a very flawed and limited… even naive framework. Even the 'Countries' (SOCOM probably would call them, "failed States") used as examples show how problematic outmoded definitions can be for planners: For political/forms sake, SOCOM has to consider National borders that don't, in practice, exist… Afghanistan and Somalia. Yet in truth, the adversaries that operate in and around those 'Countries' don't think the same way Colonial Map makers or U.N. stuffed shirts think, and regularly take advantage of jurisdictional 'red tape' to frustrate their 'high tech' opponents (much like the Ho Chi Mihn trail did). So to imagine they're thinking in terms of National borders as OTHER than a means of exploiting these imaginary lines of jurisdiction and authority, is to be at a disadvantage from the start.

Personally, I don't think SOCOM thinks in terms of 'expanding' civilization in the old Victorian missionary sense, but rather is concerned with executing it's missions and duties more effectively. Moreover, I'm fairly sure that the political and social reform view points widely held in the Beltway and by the international community, which they seem to want to impose/spread everywhere on the planet, are NOT viewed with great seriousness over at USSOCOM (what can one do? Orders are orders…). But again, for forms sake, the SOCOM brass has to parrot the politically correct catch phrases in public, and seem to pay attention to the secular humanist 'Holy' mass, and SEEM to their political 'masters' like True Believers… or they risk getting the boot like Gen. McChrystal. In this sense, the author/Major is just trying to make the best out of an already rotten situation for himself and his bosses.


A. Scott Crawford


Sat, 06/28/2014 - 9:10pm

In reply to by Bill C.

Likely Answer to your question.

I think the answer to your first question is "No", because the US was willing to pay as high a price as necessary to both subdue to the continent and to retain the union of all states.

The Plains Indians of the American West did have access in many instances to individuals weapons that were superior to what was fielded by the US Army at the time. In the end, it was the near total destruction of their major food source and economy (centered on the buffalo) which doomed their way of life.

While the mid 19th Century American South was still inferior to the northern States in terms of industrialization, it was still one of the top 10 industrialized nations in the world at the start of the War. The US was willing to lose several hundred thousand men to keep these states in the unions, and was more than willing to occupy and subjugate the population, indefinitely if necessary.

We are historically less willing to pay that type of price when a clear and convincing threat to the country is not present.

When we talk about operating in unlit spaces, the question that we then need to ask is what do we hope to accomplish and is that goal congruent with a price we are willing to pay?

I might define the World's Dark (Unlit) Spaces as follows:

As the places which are not, as yet, adequately oriented, organized, ordered and developed so as to allow for optimal access, optimal penetration and optimal use by the states and societies who operate within, and depend upon, the global economy.

The World's (En)Light(ened) Spaces, in sharp contrast, being those places which are, in fact, so oriented, organized, ordered and developed.

Places such as Afghanistan and Somalia?

Here they cling to -- and defend to the death -- (much as did the Plains Indians and the Southerners of mid-19th Century America) to earlier, more primitive ways of life and ways of governance.

In mid-19th Century America -- and so as to achieve greater access, penetration and use of these "dark" places -- we, in effect, outlawed and destroyed the way of life and the way of governance of the American Indians and the American Southerners.

Likewise today this is, in general terms, our goal re: the "unlit" places of the world.

Today, the urban areas of the American South and the American West are pretty much "lit up" and look much the same as other places in the United States.

This is our long-term goal, also, for "the World's Dark Places."

And "the enemy" (those who desire a very different way of life and a very different way of governance) (1) know this and (2) have (as best they can) organized and deployed their forces accordingly.


a. Given the weapons, technology, etc., available today, might the American Indians -- and the American Southerners -- have been able to (1) prevail against those who sought to "change" them and, thereby, (2) been able to retain their preferred way of life and their preferred way of governance; at least for a somewhat longer period of time?

b. Is this, again in general/generic terms, the problem-set that our special operations forces, et al, must deal with?


Thu, 06/26/2014 - 2:54am

Thought provoking article...One of the reasons why I like the blog so much.

I think that we tend to view "unlit space" through our own western bias, which tends to drive us to categorizations that may limit our understanding or that are down right unhelpful.

Specifically as we think of "ungoverned" and "under-governed areas", just because the central national government does not have day to day control of local affairs and public services does not mean that the area has no functioning governance, at least on the local level.

My experience in two African countries which habitually topped the Fund for Peace Failed State Index (rebranded just yesterday as the "Fragile State Index") were rife with examples of rather robust and organized local governance exercised either through tribal/traditional conduits or through highly autonomous sub-divisions of the nation or a combination of the two.

To the westerner with limited experience, this initially appeared as a "failed" situation but was in fact highly organized and functional.

Thanks for the link and ref. I look forward to reading the paper with great interest.


A. Scott Crawford