Small Wars Journal

U.S. Special Ops Planning for Action in Globe’s ‘Dark Areas’

Wed, 03/26/2014 - 1:59pm

U.S. Special Ops Planning for Action in Globe’s ‘Dark Areas’ by Mark Thompson, Time Magazine

The U.S. military is always busy planning for war pretty much everywhere, but some places are tougher nuts to crack than others. That’s why the U.S. Special Operations Command is seeking “Geospatial Data on Countries of Interest for Which There is a Critical Need But Non-Existent Data.”

Just who might those countries be? According to a USSCOM announcement posted Monday, the “initial dataset” consists of “Jordan, Djibouti, Burma, Honduras, Iran, Morocco, Nigeria, Trinidad & Tobago, Burkina Faso, S. Sudan, N. Korea, and China (Guangdong).”  …

Read on.


Robert C. Jones

Wed, 04/02/2014 - 12:20pm

Using poetic language, such as "Dark Areas" to advance strategic themes can lead to confusion.

When reporters translate and pass along such themes the confusion grows.

The simple reality is that the US is a nation with vital national interests that manifest around the globe in locations of geopolitical/geostrategic importance. There are systems of governance in those places and there are many diverse populations in those places as well.

To become overly focused on a particular interest, or particular threat to interests, in any particular place or region is not healthy to the ability to best serve all interests, against all threats in every geostrategically critical location. One can shift and weight efforts for surge requirements, but one must once again their positions in a more balanced manner once that surge requirement resides. Or when one comes to realize they have become overly fixated on something that seemed more important previously.

All SOCOM is doing is seeking to become more strategically balanced. This is not just geographic, but it is also in terms of activity and purpose for action. We need greater understanding, influence and relationships. Not just with security forces who we partner with, but with the people who live in these important places. This takes time and is best developed across a wide range of benign, open individual and unit activities. We need to be postured, not just for speed of action, but for appropriateness of action as well. This is not a revolution of US SOF, only a much needed evolution for the world we live in today.


Fri, 03/28/2014 - 1:58am

In reply to by acraw

There are folks who have the responsibility finding this type of information, some permanently resident in US Embassies and some not. The issue is one of designated priorities, time, and willingness to actually properly submit the gathered information when its found.

You are spot on with regards to the amount of time it takes to build the kind of data base that SOCOM wants (its highly debatable that we even have that level of granularity in AF/PAK after 12 years). You just can't go on an information gathering holiday for 20 years and expect it to appear.

One of the reasons these areas are "dark" is just that we haven't shown a light on them in a long time, if ever. Burkina Faso is a great example, we have only had a resident Defense Attache Office (the office which actually has the on the ground responsibility for this stuff) in place for two years or so, and I'll bet you that his/her priorities from Washington/AFRICOM was not this mission.

It's not clear to me that the article's author actually understands the vastness, the mind boggling hugeness of the "Dark Areas" of the world, as this applies to SOCOM MI staff.

The fact is, in most of the world, the neat National border lines one sees in an Atlas, or on the globe sitting on some wonks desk, are pure fiction. In the real world, life isn't like a Bugs Bunny Cartoon, where there's a dotted line denoting the Mason-Dixon line being patrolled by a Confederate Yosemite Sam. Moreover, Military Intelligence isn't generally a simple matter of superimposing bright green lines on top of a Google Maps view of thousands, or tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands of square miles of… wilderness, from space. Moreover, flying a drone over an area of jungle, or badlands, or brush land, or mountains, isn't a substitute for actual recon or an experienced guide (how many times do we have to learn this the hard way??).

This is a sizable problem for SOCOM intel officers, because (let's whisper this together) they're stuck holding a bag of s#*t due to the failure of the DoD's civilian intelligence counterparts. The Department of State types are the best in the world when it comes to telling SOCOM officers where to find the best restaurants, duty free shops, and brothels are in any given Country in the worlds Capital city. Lions, and Tigers, and Bears… HooRay! But does the embassy or consulate know who's smuggling what across their borders, or what the condition of the roads on the border are? For military readers, you guys would be absolutely horrified if you knew how clueless the Dept. of State's consular staff are regarding even accurate knowledge within their Capital (Because everyone in the universe 'knows' Americans are rich, so double or triple their rates when billing American officials for services… including CIA 'assets').

One might say, but knowing this sort of thing is the CIA's job, isn't it? HAHAHA. If the best brothel in town is charging triple it's normal rates to the DoS consular staff, CIA officers think they're very clever because they're SO CONNECTED, they're paying HALF what the DoS guy is paying! What a deal! Instead of paying 300%, the CIA 'officer' can hook you up for a mere 150% of the ACTUAL going rate, you soldiers sure are lucky you have that CIA guy's HUMINT at your disposal.

"What about the Intel I need about the 'dark area' away from the capital?" The odds are no one in the CIA station has ever SEEN the border with their own eyes, and if they have, they were escorted by a platoon of what passes for that Countries regular army (in other words, the people on the border have gotten the word, and have hidden most of what SOCOM actually wants in terms of 'intelligence product'). That's what comes from relying for so long on remote controlled airplanes (i.e. drones), the CIA's old hands used to spend years and years building relationships and tromping around the 'dark area' of their Posts territory, but the post 9/11 crowd is so addicted to modern gadgets and gimmicks, they get withdrawal pains if they're outside a wifi hotspot! lol.

There ARE people who do things the right way, and who actually have the information MI officers need, depending on what part of the world one is laying the ground work in, but actually collecting that grade of "HUMINT" requires much more lead up time than SOCOM is currently being led to believe… moreover, if SOCOM isn't prepared to PAY and protect these people from reprisals, it should buy civilian clothes for the Intel officer who's going to be holding the bag of S#*t, and send him out in the target area in person to confirm second hand HUMINT intel others have collected WITHOUT telling anyone that's what he's doing. If that officer doesn't confirm with his own eyes and ears that his second hand intel is acceptable, he and his boss need to rethink and revise potential operations or deployments that were cooked up when said second hand intel was taken for granted.

Writing this from the prospective of a former journalist, and auditor with experience in the five most corrupt Countries on the Planet… (more or less successfully, I might add), if one needs to figure out what the field conditions are in the 'dark places', don't look to the Embassy's or Consulates, or even tell them you're in Country. Have a clear understanding of what intelligence/information you're going to need, and then figure out some pretext (or hire an experienced mercenary), load up on antibiotics and inoculations (one of my guys is just getting over a dose of Dengue Fever), and go get it first hand. THEN and only then, ask the usual suspects at the DoS or CIA for what you need (don't tell them you've already been in Country)… don't risk you mens lives to HOPE.

A. Scott Crawford

Dave Maxwell

Wed, 03/26/2014 - 4:40pm

In reply to by davidbfpo

David: I think you are right about north Korea for sure. We certainly do a lot of mapping of it (though what we cannot see are what are in all the 5000 so underground facilities). As an aside one of the best products on north Korea was produced in a joint project between USAID and DIA based somewhat on open source reporting of the Korean Buddhist Sharing Movement who conducted extensive interviews with border crossers from north Korea in China and they were able to map out in detail the effects of the famine in 1994-1996 and as well as the state of existing infrastructure (roads, industry, power grid, etc). It was unclassified and extremely well done. I would think we could be doing the same today.


Wed, 03/26/2014 - 4:18pm

There is something decidedly wrong with this press report or the actual DoD requirement for acquiring remote mapping of geo-spatial data.

Why? The cited report refers to 'Jordan, Djibouti, Burma, Honduras, Iran, Morocco, Nigeria, Trinidad & Tobago, Burkina Faso, S. Sudan, N. Korea, and China (Guangdong)'.

The USA and others have long had an on the ground presence in five of the twelve places. Both civil and military activity either permanently or temporarily in Jordan, Djibouti (an AFRICOM base), Honduras, Morocco and less so Trinidad & Tobago. Leaving aside that all these nations IIRC have good, if not excellent relations with the USA.

Dave will know better, but surely North Korea has been an intelligence target for a very long time? There is insufficient imagery, mapping and data?


Tue, 04/01/2014 - 3:18pm

In reply to by Dave Maxwell


You've brought up some good points.

Let me ask you this; Hypothetically…

A friend and associate of mine married into a 'clan' in S. Sudan. He contacted me via satellite phone from S. Sudan, saying the information that'd be coming out of that Country wasn't accurate, and that there were deeper issues at play. He wants to cooperate with US authorities in order to address apparent misinformation regarding the "human Geography" of the conflict in that "dark area", and asked me to help him.

Here's our problem. Neither of us know what liabilities both the CIA and Department of State have in that Country and the region overall, but we both already know there ARE liabilities enough to convince us it'd be CRAZY to trust them. It's my opinion that he should make a good faith attempt to contact the appropriate military intelligence office at SOCOM, in order to see about getting an appointment with an intelligence officer, who could then listen to what my friend has to say, and then make a determination about whether a fuller debriefing would be productive. Maybe the MI officer will say, "thanks for the effort, but we already know all that.", or maybe not… not being trained in Military Intelligence gathering myself I couldn't judge.

So what would you recommend is the best way to go about contacting and conveying this to USSOCOM with the understanding that both my associate and I have, in the past in other "dark areas" found our lives were in danger because we'd been betrayed by US Intelligence "officers" in the CIA, as well as Dept. of State crooks? My, hypothetical, friend is willing and able to fly to the US and cooperate with SOCOM, but neither of us want to do so if the end result is that he and his family get murdered for trying to do the right thing.

Please advise:


A. Scott Crawford

Dave Maxwell

Wed, 03/26/2014 - 2:12pm

Some interesting information here. Amazing what kind of information can be gleaned from contracting documents. I think the last excerpt below is especially telling: other government agencies have not yet gathered data on some countries of interest where there is a critical need.

QUOTE Just who might those countries be? According to a USSCOM announcement posted Monday, the “initial dataset” consists of “Jordan, Djibouti, Burma, Honduras, Iran, Morocco, Nigeria, Trinidad & Tobago, Burkina Faso, S. Sudan, N. Korea, and China (Guangdong).”

That sounds a story list on a cover of an old National Geographic(Guangdong—formerly known as Canton—is a province on China’s South China Sea coast. It is the most populous and richest of China’s 22 provinces, and its two leading cities, Guangzhou and Shenzhen, are among the largest and most important in the country).

“USSOCOM has a mission for Special Operations Forces (SOF) to prepare and operate in dynamic and diverse environments,” the announcement says. “Commercial sources and other government agencies have not yet gathered data and information on some countries of interest for which there is a critical need.” END QUOTE

I would take exception to this excerpt as well:

QUOTE “DigitalGlobe has a unique satellite constellation for collecting data in areas not available through commercial means…The human geography field is in its infancy and data is non-existent for ‘dark areas’ of the globe and of interest to SOF.” END QUOTE

It seems as if they are unaware of what the CORE lab does for SOF at the Naval Postgraduate school where there is a heavy emphasis on human geography. (And they should also read John Collins work on military geography - it is only in its infancy to those who do not study it.)