Small Wars Journal

Toward Operational Art in Special Warfare

Fri, 02/26/2016 - 5:54pm

Toward Operational Art in Special Warfare by Dan Madden, Dick Hoffmann, Michael Johnson, Fred Krawchuk, Bruce R. Nardulli, John E. Peters, Linda Robinson and Abby Doll, RAND Corporation

Hybrid irregular and conventional military operations are playing an increasingly prominent role in international conflict, exploited by countries such as Russia and Iran. The United States requires new approaches for exerting influence, filling the "missing middle" — between the limitations of distant strike and the costly, indefinite commitment of conventional forces — to counter these increasing threats. Special warfare provides policymakers with an additional option that can help secure U.S. interests and manage risks. These campaigns stabilize a friendly state or destabilize a hostile regime by operating through and with local state or nonstate partners, rather than through unilateral U.S. action. Currently, there is no shared understanding of how special warfare campaigns should be designed and executed. This RAND study sought to fill this gap by (1) adapting conventional operational art to the unique characteristics of special warfare, (2) identifying the strategic advantages and risks associated with special warfare, (3) exploring how special warfare campaigns could be used to address challenges identified in strategic guidance, and (4) proposing a framework for military and civilian leaders to design and execute these campaigns. The research indicates that the U.S. Department of Defense should strengthen its special warfare planning capacity and culture, implement institutional reforms to facilitate unified action among relevant U.S. government agencies, and develop enhanced influence capabilities. An accompanying appendix volume provides additional context to supplement the analyses presented in this report.

Key Findings

Special Warfare Campaigns Call on Capabilities Across the Joint Force and U.S. Government to Advance U.S. Policy Objectives

  • Special warfare campaigns have a distinctive focus that could include stabilizing or destabilizing a targeted regime, employing local partners as the main campaign effort, and maintaining a small U.S. footprint in the targeted country. They also may employ political warfare methods to mobilize, neutralize, or integrate individuals or groups from the tactical to the strategic levels.
  • Special warfare campaigns are typically of long duration and may require extensive preparatory work better measured in months (or years) than in days.
  • Special warfare campaigns require intensive interagency cooperation. For example, the U.S. Department of Defense may be subordinate to the U.S. Department of State or the Central Intelligence Agency.

There Is a Need to Adapt Conventional Operational Art to the Unique Characteristics of Special Warfare

  • Commanders and planners must be proficient in all relevant forms of operational art, including special warfare, if they are to design successful campaigns across the full range of military operations in modern conflicts.
  • Keeping special warfare within the joint operational art construct will enable collaboration between special operations and conventional forces; the principles of operational art connect tactical actions and strategic objectives by supporting the design of successful campaigns.
  • Special warfare makes a unique contribution to operational art in terms of the mobilization of partners' strategic and operational centers of gravity, and the neutralization or integration of the enemy's, in the human domain.


  • There should be a joint effort to educate special warfare campaign planners as a way of strengthening special warfare strategic and operational planning capabilities. At the same time, because special warfare campaigns are inherently joint efforts, the special warfare community should help joint organizations develop a special warfare planning culture.
  • Special warfare commanders and planners should help policymakers explore the implications of particular strategic objectives. Policymakers, in turn, should strive to provide clear policy guidance to inform the development of campaign plans.
  • The special operations community should consider establishing a general officer–level operational headquarters element as a way to remedy the current ad hoc command-and-control architecture that has inhibited special warfare commanders' ability to participate in theater-level planning.

Read the entire study.


"Operational art" is said to refer to:

a. The military commander’s.

b. Employment of force.

c. In a theater of operations.

d. To (help) achieve the strategic objective.

In this light then, we must first, it would seem, articulate our strategic objective.

Which, writ large, is the transformation of outlying states and societies more along modern western political, economic and social lines. (Or, as Henry Kissinger once put it, the fulfillment of "the age-old American dream of peace achieved by the conversion of the adversary." In this regard, see his book, "Diplomacy," Chapter 18, Page 455.)

Considering, thus, that "conversion of the adversary" is the strategic goal, then the "operational art" question would now seem to become:

a. How might the military commander.

b. Employ force.

c. In a theater of operations.

d. To (help) achieve the "conversion of the adversary" (i.e., the transformation of an outlying state and society more along modern western lines).

GEN Votel, it would seem, has the answer to this question; this, given his recent comment below -- wherein -- he appears to point to the achievement of just such a "conversion" (at least for the time being):

"It is Somalia and they’ve had a lot of challenges for a lot of years. But, today, they’ve got an elected president. They’ve got a parliament. They’ve got a constitution. They are now establishing a national army. And those are all good and positive things."

Now the task would seem to be:

a. To glean from the general exactly how (1) the military commander, (2) employed force, (3) in this theater of operations to (4) (help) achieve such a strategic success? And to

b. Consider whether a similar application of this particular "operational art" might, in other areas of the world, likewise lead to satisfying our grand strategic requirements (see "peace achieved by the conversion of the adversary" above)?

(Note here that, re: "operational art," and unlike the authors of this RAND item, I steer away from the 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance and, instead, focus directly, as GEN Votel seems to do, on our grand strategic objective. Herein, the campaign that the general addresses re: Somalia appearing to be driven more -- and be defined more by -- this grand strategic imperative.)

Some background, I believe, is important here:

Post-the Cold War, we adopted a foreign policy, and a basis for military operations, that was largely based on the idea of "universal values," the "overwhelming appeal of our way of life and "the end of history" (the western version of these such ideas).

These such ideas suggested that there were, essentially, no populations who -- liberated from their oppressive regimes (the essential military task) -- would not move out smartly, and effectively, to embrace modern western political, economic and social norms, institutions and ideas, and to, thereafter, flourish accordingly.

Based on these such "universal values," etc. ideas, such things as political warfare, and unconventional warfare in the service of same, and similar concepts based on, as in the Old Cold War, the reality of differing state and/or societal organizing, ordering and orienting concepts and principles (like those associated with communism) -- these were considered unnecessary.

Now, however, and via our "school of hard knocks" learning of the last decade or so -- we have come to understand (much to our chagrin) that:

a. Differing state and societal organizing, ordering and orienting concepts and principles -- and goals -- (1) still exist and (2) still have power. And that, accordingly,

b. We will have to return to such things as political warfare, and unconventional warfare in support of same. This, so as to achieve , much as we sought to do in the Old Cold War,

c. Our goal of transforming outlying state and societies more along modern western political, economic and social lines.

With this (enlightening?) foundation now before us, how might we proceed "toward operational art in special warfare?"

This, in the pursuit of our ultimate goal -- outlined at sub-paragraph "c" immediately above?