Small Wars Journal

Interoperability: Merging the Organizational Cultures of Special Forces and the Infantry

Mon, 04/22/2013 - 3:30am

Abstract: Combining two separate military units with different organizational cultures to operate as one is difficult and complex; however, Henry Mintzberg’s classic organizational design principles aid in anticipating friction points and identifying the governing dynamics of this action.  As we planned and observed 3rd BCT, 1st ID conduct Pre Mission Training (PMT) with 1st and 7th Special Forces Groups (SFG) in preparation for Village Stability Operations we noticed that interoperability, the aim of this training, is a function of leadership, hardship, and time.  Using Mintzberg’s framework with these three variables reveals the best practice to quickly and thoroughly achieve interoperability when combining units is to focus on individual personalities, understand that everyone has value, and to soundly exercise mission command.

Interoperability is the primary training objective for the Special Operations Task Force (SOTF) Pre-Mission Training (PMT) in preparation for Village Stability Operations.  This objective is essential in order for two units to optimally function as one for this specific mission.  As 1-26IN and both 1st and 7th Special Forces Groups began planning to achieve this objective our leaders posed a very important question:  What is interoperability?  Clearly, interoperability is not to turn infantrymen into Special Forces operators or turn a SOTF into an infantry battalion.  As we wrestled with forming a hybrid unit we turned to the standard definition: “the ability of a system to use the parts of another system.”[1]  This definition raised additional pertinent questions.  First, to what degree do these two organizations need to become interoperable?  Second, once we know the desired degree of interoperability, what must we do to achieve it?  This work seeks to answer these questions through classic organizational design principles outlined by Henry Mintzberg.  Using Mintzberg’s framework reveals that leadership, hardship, and time dictate the degree of interoperability.  This process demands leadership to focus on assessing personalities, finding value in each person, and exercising mission command to achieve interoperability in preparation for combat.

The first positive step toward interoperability involves conducting training together.  One system effectively integrating the parts of another system will not magically occur upon contact.  Shared experience in training creates the building blocks of mutual trust and understanding that is necessary to facilitate interoperability.[2]  In order for one system to incorporate the parts of another system requires early interaction and shared experience before arriving to combat.  Combining two units creates a new organization that ceases to act and perform like either of the units that combined to create it.  The new unit is unique and understanding the abstract principles of organizational design will help us understand interoperability.  

Organizational Design: Professional Bureaucracy or Adhocracy?

 As 1st and 7th SFG along with 1-26 IN battalion embarked to achieve interoperability in training, using organizational design principles revealed the VSO mission has characteristics of both a professional bureaucracy and an adhocracy.  The new organization evolves from a professional bureaucracy into an adhocracy and back, through the stages of training and deployment.[3]  A professional bureaucracy is characterized by standardization of skills amongst the members of the organization.[4] Standardizing skills is one objective of PMT where infantrymen learn to fire some of the specialized weapons of the SF community, establish and learn Operational Detachment-Alpha (ODA) Team SOPs, and become familiar with SF enablers, such as intelligence capabilities, civil affairs, and dog teams.  Ultimately, SF operators fold the infantrymen into the team and expand the team capability by adding leadership, infantry squad tactics, support capability, and additional fire support capability, which expands the capability of the team.

The increase in capability enables innovation within the new unit, the main characteristic of an adhocracy. Within the adhocracy the method of coordination between groups is characterized by mutual adjustment.[5]  An example of innovation is the manner in which the VSO force forms for a specific mission and then disbands once that mission is accomplished.  Evidence of mutual adjustment is embodied in the jointly drafted memorandums of understanding (MOU) between the infantry battalion and SF unit prior to PMT.  The SF ODAs adjust how they operate in terms of safety, logistics, and size of force.  The infantry battalion leadership agrees to relinquish certain levels of control to the SF command, while still maintaining administrative responsibilities.  

Besides the characteristics and methods of coordination in the evolving organization, an increase in size of the organization requires an increase in the support structure.[6]  The SOTF does not possess a large logistical element, yet when the infantry uplift doubles the size of the force the organization demands an increase in the administrative and logistical support structure.  During PMT we identified that deploying infantry forces with a SOTF requires a small infantry headquarters to maintain administrative control, assist with the logistical demand of the force, control personnel actions and movements, and maintain discipline.  This additional support structure is just one change in the natural progression of the new organization. 

The VSO team exhibits the characteristics of both a professional bureaucracy and an adhocracy because the training objective in VSO is to integrate the infantrymen into the SF system (professional bureaucracy) and once they are integrated, the systems combine to become a new organization (adhocracy).  We propose that over time the organization will move back toward a professional bureaucracy structure, a proposition that we will validate and record in subsequent work.

The framework of organizational design reveals that no variable affects interoperability more than leadership.  As the newly combined unit mutually adjusts to one another and the environment, leadership is of premium value.  Both the SF team leader and the uplift squad leader must adjust the manner in which they lead, based on the environment.  Small unit leadership is more important than ever as the US Army continues to tailor packages based on the demand of the mission.[7].  The ODA team must enforce standards because many of their uplift force are lower enlisted soldiers.  The uplift force squad leader must enforce standards of his squad, especially when the decentralized mission prevents customary supervision from higher levels.  In our observations, strong and agile leaders coupled with clear and enforceable standards created teams with the highest degree of interoperability. 

On the other hand, there are negative and difficult aspects of the VSO mission that puts a strain on leaders.  Some ODAs sense a loss of autonomy and flexibility with the additional uplift forces.  Special Forces begin to have a more conventional feel, with larger elements that demand larger support structures and a larger headquarters.  In the mind of some leaders this expansion may lead to micromanagement.  This may be true, but wallowing in the difficult aspects of a mission will lead to marginalizing the force and failing to realize the full potential the additional forces bring to the mission.  Marginalizing forces will decisively work against any increase in interoperability, driving the teams apart.

In addition to leadership, interoperability increases as the team spends more time together through the hardship of austere conditions.  This time spent in a difficult environment helps the team learn about the different personalities in the formation.  The leaders learn about the character of each individual in the team, what they are capable of, and who has the personality to endure through the mission.  These variables of interoperability are important for designing PMT.  As leaders create training events that quickly increase interoperability they are thus able to maintain flexibility in the further development of training.  Both 1st and 7th SFGs designed PMT that combined the teams for a continuous 30 days.  The teams spent extended periods in the cold under simulated combat conditions.  The time in hardship exposed the personalities within the team, knitting them together for future combat operations.

The three variables dictate the degree of interoperability of the teams, but how do the leaders in SF and the infantry know when to adjust or when to expect others to adjust as the team progresses toward interoperability?  In the initial formulation of the current VSO team three salient aspects deserve mention when coordinating through mutual adjustment. Namely, that personalities matter, everyone has value, and mission command is essential to achieve interoperability.  This next section describes practical application to increase interoperability through the three variables: leadership, hardship, and time.

Personalities Matter

Making mutual adjustments to achieve interoperability involves finding common ground to accelerate trust.  Finding common ground is vital when multiple organizations form to accomplish a unique problem set.  Central to this evolution are the personalities within each organization.  The environment and unique VSO mission dictates creating an interdependent team that is more capable that any single organization within the team.[8]  The VSO teams must attune to personalities in the formation because of the close nature in which they work.  “As forces and agencies, redeploy, budgets constrict and mission sets evolve, leadership across the network will be required to … enlighten or marginalize biased or corrosive personalities that threaten complementary and integrated effects.”[9]  This quotation refers to the lessons learned from operating with a joint, interagency, and multinational force when conducting counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations.  However, the advice also applies to the VSO team.  Corrosive personalities will always be in the formation, but the first enlightening step is to find what the combined group has in common.  It is imperative to find the similarities amongst the SOTF/Infantry uplift formation. 

Finding the similarities entails getting to know those within the SOTF and infantry uplift force on a personal and individual level.  The fact that most SF soldiers begin their careers in the General Purpose Force (GPF) is a good place to find common ground.   Individuals in both groups must engage in frank dialogue about background, upbringing, experience, and current life to further in understand the players and decision-makers in the formation.   During 1-26 IN PMT with both 1st and 7th SFG, the common ground was ubiquitous.   Both of us went to graduate school programs that each SOTF commander had attended.  Immediately we began talking about people we both knew, classes we had both taken, and common ideas we had learned.  The infantry battalion commander and SF Operations NCO grew up only 30 miles apart in Oklahoma.  Soldiers in both formations had served together, had been involved in fire-fights in the same conflict areas, and knew the same people.

Finding the common ground is essential when there are times that the MOU will not aid mutual adjustment.  Before training begins, it is impossible to foresee all the situations that require a pre-agreement.  Oftentimes, one or both units will, of their own accord, decide to violate the memorandum in order to keep fulfilling the intent of both commanders.  For example, a delay occurred for delivery of ammunition to 1-26 IN at Yakima Training Center.  The ammunition finally arrived seven days into the training event.  In the meantime, 1st SFG supplied ammunition to the infantry uplift forces as they trained with ODAs; a necessity the SFG was not required to fill.  The SOTF made a big adjustment to enable training by supplying ammunition.  A few days later, with all ammunition finally delivered, another discussion identified a difference in live-fire exercise policies and practices of both units.  1-26 IN Live Fire Policy requires a blank fire iteration; the SFGs do not have that requirement and thought it was not necessary.  1-26 IN felt the need to compromise because of previous assistance with ammunition from 2-1 SFG.  Instead of immediately pointing out that the MOU required the SFG to adhere to the 1-26 IN Live Fire policy, further discussion resulted in a sensible compromise.  This allowed each unit to honor their policy and continue training.  After all, the live fire methodology of both units was similar.  The dry/blank/live methodology of 1-26 IN was just a different way to conduct the crawl/walk/run methodology of 2-1 SFG.  Each methodology is valid and effective but the mutual adjustment of both parties relied on personality driven relationships and not firmly structured agreements.  It is an exercise in compromise to make teams interdependent and interoperable and this cannot rely solely or predominately on formally structured agreements.

Everyone Has Value

These agreements are intended to overcome cultural differences, but recognizing the value of each individual in the team is essential to interoperability.  The value of individuals may not be obvious when personnel at the lowest level are less experienced and less trained.  Recognizing the value of each individual in the team is also difficult when the SF team is selected and the infantry unit is assigned.  The SOTF shifts from commanding small units that are highly trained to larger elements that increase capability by increasing the force.  The SF Team Leader and Team Sergeant must apply the depth of their leadership agility to find the value of each man in the VSO team.  Although each infantryman is trained to a similar standard, there are strengths and weaknesses in each individual soldier.  Commanders in both formations recognize that training together is an exercise in assessing the competence and character of each individual in the team.  Quickly, the SF leadership found that not all soldiers have the same level of competence but knowing the extent and limits of their competence is of infinite value when the team is preparing for combat.  The ultimate goal of leaders is to determine the level of trust between members of the team.  Trust is a function of competence and character; all are vital elements to build an interoperable team.[10]

An accelerator for the SF teams to find value in each individual is the organizational knowledge of the infantry company leadership.  The infantry company commander and first sergeant know the capabilities of the soldiers assigned to the SOTF.  The command team trained them before PMT, has seen how they interact in the unit, and recognized their value.  The infantry leadership is vital to aid the SF Company Commander and ODAs to identify strengths and weaknesses of the soldiers and to match up personalities within each element to maximize the capability of the organization.  On the other hand, during PMT the team leader and team sergeant may recognize in new ways how an infantryman may be valuable for a different mission set.  There may be special skills that an infantryman possesses not previously recognized.  For example, some 1-26 IN soldiers are licensed carpenters, small engine mechanics, and plumbers; others possess college degrees or speak multiple languages.  These are all skills that the SF team can leverage to ensure mission accomplishment in VSO. 

Mission Command

But leveraging skills at the tactical level was only possible when higher levels of authority soundly exercised mission command--disciplined initiative within the commander’s intent.[11]  For PMT, 1-26 Infantry Battalion, 3rd BCT, 1 ID was widely dispersed, with two companies and the BN TAC in Yakima Training Center and another two companies with the battalion command team in Fort Bliss Texas, while the BCT conducted training at JRTC in Fort Polk, Louisiana.  All command teams operated on the basis of mission command: mutual trust, shared understanding, and purpose.  Notice these three elements do not require the direct supervision of the commander but just the opposite.  Sound mission command expands control allowing 3rd BCT, 1 ID to conduct training 2,300 miles apart.  Furthermore, each training site was expertly designed by both 1st and 7th SFGs to disperse the ODA teams within the training area, requiring mission command from the SOTF and its supporting elements.  The VSO situational training exercise in Playas, New Mexico was a four hour drive from the 4/7 SFG SOTF HQ in Fort Bliss, while the VSO situational training in Yakima Training Center was approximately 90 minutes drive from the headquarters through difficult terrain.

Mission command provides more for merging units than command over geographical distance.  The basis of mission command is a framework for merging the leadership of the two organizations.  Operational control (OPCON) and administrative control (ADCON) are outlined to delineate roles and focus the responsibilities of the commanders in the new combined organization.  Mission command is central to maintain proper control, supervision, and oversight of the force.  The infantry commanders from company to battalion must focus on the intent of the SOTF commander and rally all soldiers around supporting the SOTF team.  For the SOTF, mission command changes as SF leaders increase personnel and must leverage the knowledge of the infantry leadership to support the force.  The infantry mission command structure changes drastically.  The focus is now to add value to the SOTF team by exercising administrative control over widely dispersed forces.

For higher echelons of command, mission command is an important subject to the VSO mission when facilitating the temporary merging of two units.  Since a temporary merge causes a major adjustment for both units, a habitual relationship between elements will further enable flexibility for potential missions in the future.  VSO is a great building block for creating a unit for the mission vice a mission for the unit.  Military leaders have identified the problem and fashioned a unit to address that problem vice arbitrarily applying structured units to diverse problem sets.  This idea is not new.  In 1983, Edward Luttwak argued in his work “Notes on Low Intensity Warfare,” that the military has an “exceedingly complex internal structure…[that] will further inhibit adaptation” to low intensity conflicts.  We customarily will apply a rigid structure to a complex problem instead of adjusting the structure of the force to best address the problem.[12]  Luttwak’s proposed solution is a light infantry force fashioned to fight low intensity conflicts or irregular warfare.  Implied in this force are habitual relationships with Special Forces units. [13]  As the conventional force regionally aligns Brigade Combat Teams, is it too difficult to create habitual relationships with regionally aligned Special Forces Groups?


Habitual relationships are just one way to continue to develop a VSO-type model for dynamic and quickly changing missions.  As GEN Odierno suggests, we “must be able to rapidly adjust our units and capabilities to meet the unique requirements of any situation, delivering precision results through the most capable, discriminate weapon system ever fielded -- the American soldier.”[14]  For now, our observations of PMT have revealed that the governing dynamics of interoperability are leadership, hardship, and time.  These are the components that determine how quickly two groups will cohesively form one unit, where the system of one group is folded into the system of another.  As modern wars unfold we must understand the dynamics of interoperability for combat.  PMT has revealed that the initial stages to achieve interoperability display principles of an adhocracy, but as interoperability increases the newly combined organization settles back into a professional bureaucracy, where skills are more standardized and the two groups form their own system.  The tale of interoperability between 1-26 IN and the SOTFs across Afghanistan is just beginning.  But for certain, interoperability of the two units has increased rapidly and continues to test leaders and improve with time and shared hardship.  In reflection, if we are incapable of operating together during PMT, how well are we going to operate with Afghans?  As 1-26 IN moves into deployment as part of the CJSOTF-A, subsequent work will cover the intricacies folding another group into the organization: the Afghan Security Forces.

[1] Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, Interoperability, accessed on 12 March 2013 at

[2] Army Doctrinal Publication 6-0:  Mission Command, 17 MAY 2012, 3.

[3] Henry Mintzberg’s article Organizational Design: Fashion or Fit?, outlines the characteristics that create five basic parts of an organization and five organization configurations.  Professional Bureaucracy and Adhocracy are two types of these organizations.   Of note, using the organizations characteristics is the best way to discover its configuration.

[4] Henry Mintzberg, “Organizational Design: Fashion or Fit?” Harvard Business Review, January – February 1981, 6.

[5] Mintzberg, Organizational Design, 6.

[6] Mintzberg, Organizational Design, 3.

[7] GEN Raymond T. Odierno, “The Force of Tomorrow,” Foreign Policy, Feburary 4, 2013, accessed on March 5, 2013 at

[8] This idea stems from the previously cited Mintzberg article that adhocracy and professional bureaucracy structures best fit within a complex environment.  Exhibit 3 on page 7 clearly explains Mintzberg’s idea.

[9] William B. Ostlund, “Irregular Warfare: Counterterrorism Forces in Support of Counterinsurgency Operations,” Institute of Land Warfare Paper No. 91, 9.

[10] Stephen M.R. Covey, The Speed of Trust: The One Thing That Changes Everything, (New York: Free Press, 2006), 30.

[11] Army Doctrinal Publication 6-0:  Mission Command, 17 MAY 2012, 1.

[12] Edward Luttwak, “Notes on Low Intensity Warfare,” in Parameters, Vol. XIII, 4, 1983, 15, accessed on 12 March 2013 at

[13] Luttwak, “Notes,” 16-17.

[14] GEN Raymond T. Odierno, “The Force of Tomorrow,” Foreign Policy.


About the Author(s)

MAJ Michael Eliassen is currently the Battalion Executive Officer for 1-26 Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division.  He served in Iraq (27 months) and Afghanistan (12 months).  He is a graduate of the Australian Command and Staff Course, Maneuver Captain's Career Course, US Army Ranger School and the Officer Candidate School.  He holds a BA from Washington State University, a BA Ed from Eastern Washington University, a Master of Arts in Military Studies from American Military University, and a Masters in Military Studies from the Australian National University.

MAJ Matthew Myer is currently the Operations Officer for 1-26 Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division.  He graduated with distinction from the Naval Postgraduate School where he earned a Masters Degree in Defense Analysis specializing in Irregular Warfare.  Previous assignments include company command in the 173rd ABN BDE that included a combat tour in the Kunar and Nuristan Provinces of Afghanistan.