Small Wars Journal

US Special Ops Are Starting To Look A Lot Less Special

Thu, 09/26/2013 - 6:43pm

Navy SEAL: US Special Ops Are Starting To Look A Lot Less Special by Brandon Webb, Business Insider.

… McRaven has done a great job managing DC politics, but has the Admiral set up the necessary framework, and culture within SOCOM to ensure that innovation and the ability to act fast are not being marginalized?  Are core SOF values around, unconventional thinking, and innovation instilled in the soul of SOCOM? Everything I’ve seen so far does not indicate that this is the case. I’ll only point to the current Rules of Engagement in Afghanistan to make my point. Conventional rules puts SOF in a very vulnerable position when fighting an enemy with no borders or play book. I can’t help but think that it’s very similar to how the American revolutionaries defeated a much larger British force who expected “civilized” warfare, and got unconventional instead.

On the larger scale, we’ve become good at winning battles but terrible at winning wars in the 21st Century. One of the reasons for this, and what SOFREP contributor Peter Nealen has pointed out, is that we’ve adopted the philosophy of “Limited War,” and its a fools strategy at best…

Read On.



Tue, 10/01/2013 - 11:58am

In reply to by Bill M.

Bill M:

I disagree that no one should go further than the author did, strongly. He suggested that a culture exists in the Tier 1 units where anything goes, to include drug use and violent crime. These are the favored units, the go-to guys that every politician, uniformed and civilian, says are going to be more and more important in the future. They can't get a pass. The author says that guys who have tried to do something about this suffer career punishment. This isn't a simple matter of ill discipline. It seems a matter of an institutional culture of impunity growing in some of the most critical of our military forces. This is the kind of thing that cries out for public exposure; or it won't get fixed. To say that it shouldn't be gone further into seems to me like the Catholic Church saying in the 70s that "We have a little problem with some of the priests, but we'll take care of it so it's best to keep it quiet."

The problems the author cited are part and parcel of the problem you view as a greater one, for the problem that you cite is typical behavior of a mature bureaucracy, micromanagement and career preservation at the expense of the putative mission. Part of that behavior too is hushing up severe problems that might make the organization, and the bosses, look bad. That is bad for careers you know. I don't see fixing the one problem without publicly exposing and fixing the other. They are both metastasizations of the same disease.

The businessman vs leader argument has been going on for as long as I've been reading about military matters. I would have hoped that argument would have been settled but I am very sad to see that it hasn't. Forrest didn't have an MBA, nor did Chamberlain nor Flukey nor Zemke nor Greene.

The larger point that occurs to me is the SOF looks to have the same big problems as has big military, it is mature bureaucracy more concerned with its survival and prospering than with the fate of the nation.

Bill M.

Fri, 09/27/2013 - 2:55pm

In reply to by carl


No one should go further than what the author wrote for Tier 1 units. That doesn't mean the issues surfaced shouldn't be addressed, plus he did identify some of the issues: violent crime, failed drug tests, and broken Non-disclosure agreements (which is already all over the press due to unauthorized book releases, sharing TTPs with video game producers, etc.).

These discipline issues can be fixed fairly easily, the real cultural issues that put SOF at risk strategically is the growing culture of micro-management and risk adversion that has impacted several SOF units. Micromanagement is everywhere, and SOF can't function as effectively as they are capable of in that type of environment. Risk adversion is how many our senior SOF leaders became leaders (playing it safe) in grade only, not in actually providing leadership. On the other hand it is important to point out that not all of our leaders have embraced this mentality, some actually push ODAs to take more risk than they're comfortable with.

I know many think I'm close minded when I complain about too many officers with MBAs leading the military, yet I think blindly adapting current business best-practices is far from innovative. The people who do this are simply mimicking what others are doing. It is only innovative if it adds value, and of course many current business management practices do, so I'm not advocating throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Let's look at a practice that doesn't work for the military and especially for SOF. While it is true for a public business that if you're not growing you're dying, but too many senior SOF officers have adopted this same mantra. This is a perfect example of taking a business buzz phrase/objective out of its intended context and misapplying it to SOF (or the military at large). You can't continue to be a specialized, adaptive, and agile force if you keep growing. The author was right, the bigger you get the more bureaucratic you become out of management necessity. We're becoming less SOF like as each year passes, but so far our technological advantage has masked a lot of the cultural rot within the organizations, so far.......

The article speaks of psychological issues and a culture of anything goes existing in certain tier 1 SOF units. It states further that this will not end well. Those are disturbing words to say the least but the article goes no further than that. Can anybody provide further details as to what they are speaking of? This seems to be very bad.