Small Wars Journal

Advancing a Strategic Theory of Special Operations

Fri, 05/13/2016 - 2:04am

Advancing a Strategic Theory of Special Operations

Joe Osborne

Special Operations: Operations requiring unique modes of employment, tactical techniques, equipment and training often conducted in hostile, denied, or politically sensitive environments and characterized by one or more of the following: time sensitive, clandestine, low visibility, conducted with and/or through indigenous forces, requiring regional expertise, and/or a high degree of risk[1].

We have a problem. We have a responsibility to equip decision makers at the highest levels of our government with the intellectual tools and academic foundation to make decisions and implement policies that lead to positive outcomes when special operations are employed; and we have fallen short. We are both victims and perpetrators of the “I was there” phenomenon. A proclivity to off-ramp our attempts at intellectual discourse by defaulting to story-telling about those things – our people, and their adventures, that make up the outward facing exemplification of our community.

Consequently, at the national security and policy level of the United States government there is a gap in the theoretical underpinnings of special operations. At the core of this gap is the absence of a strategic theory that informs decision makers and planners at the policy and strategy level and connects national interests to policy implementation and execution.  As a result, the concept of special operations remains suspended in a perpetually imbalanced paradigm that is both pervasive in all military domains while simultaneously misunderstood and mismanaged in terms of informed strategic employment – think of it like that distant family member that comes to Thanksgiving dinner every year but always has to sit at the kid’s table. More importantly, this also causes a significant void in understanding the strategic factors, those actions and conditions that are implemented and set at the highest levels of government, the national command level, that influence the success or failure of special operations.

To fill this void, we must articulate and embrace a strategic theory of special operations that recognizes, and in some manner, states that: national level conditions must be established for special operations to achieve desired policy level outcomes.  This theory recognizes and ultimately addresses the factors at the national command level that determine, or at least influence, the success or failure of special operations. In so doing it meets a critical requirement of theory by placing the specific phenomenon of successful special operations into the broader category of causal relationships that are framed by the “conditions” and “factors”. This includes special operations conducted as part of a larger, conventionally flavored campaign, an independent special warfare campaign – a long term series of actions and activities employing dedicated special operations forces conducting multiple special operations core activities, or as  independent actions – discrete special operations such as raids or hostage rescues usually of limited duration and highly specific objectives. This theory is also squarely anchored at the strategic paradigm by focusing on explaining phenomena that are framed by U.S. national interests, the international arena, defined outcomes and are driven by policy or law.  Finally, as a strategic theory it must also serve as an umbrella for the various theories that address aspects of special operations at the operational or tactical level and serve as a link to broader theories of warfare and strategy that inform policy makers. 

The target audience for a strategic theory of special operations is the national command authority, considered the statutory members of the National Security Council, the Director of National Intelligence, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the White House Chief of Staff and the National Security Adviser.  This is not an exclusive audience: there are other decision makers and influencers in the target audience but many hold their station through appointment, informal relationship or by simply being anointed as a “trusted adviser”. This lack of statutory position should not be perceived to not have real power or influence.  While the actual conduct of special operations is generally perceived to be the purview of the Department of Defense, in reality, this theory must also encapsulate special operations led, sponsored, or independently conducted by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). 

There is significant literature that points to tangible characteristics such as setting tactical conditions, recruiting top flite personnel, unique equipment or technology to explain success.  There is no question that these factors are valid. Special operations personnel are screened and selected for a proven set of physical, intellectual and psychological characteristics. They are also trained to levels that exceed conventional counterparts and are better resourced. However, these factors fall short in informing and educating the decision makers and strategists at the national command level.  Essentially, there is no linkage connecting the dots between the factors that make tactical raids and rescues successful, and the policy level actions that also contribute to that success. 

In the context of the strategic decision making process, generally centered on the National Security Council, there is an established baseline of understanding with respect to general military theory and strategy.  This baseline supports the concept of operating domains that align a military service with predominant capabilities and establish the responsibility for establishing doctrine and operating principles; essentially, making the rules for how military power is applied.[2] Currently the Department of Defense recognizes five domains: Air, land, sea space and cyber.[3] Domains also help justify the existence of the services and the development and acquisition of resources. For example, the requirement to operate in the air domain both justifies the existence of the Air Force and their further acquisition of platforms and capabilities such as aircraft and satellites.  Notably, there is no special operations domain.  

The Role of Theory

As an initial step it is important to review a sampling of the literature on military theory and theorists as well as the concept of grand strategy and strategy.  This serves the dual purpose of illuminating the interrelationship and offering an overview of the evolution of thought regarding military theory.  As a final step it is appropriate to focus specifically on existing theories of special operations and highlight the gaps that exist in the present body of scholarship.

Military Theory and Strategy

Military theory provides the intellectual foundation for planners and offers a menu of largely timeless principles that are easily applied in a modern context. Ideas such as massing power against an enemy’s weakness or maintaining the initiative were equally relevant to Napoleon or Schwarzkopf.  More importantly, these principles can be applied from the tactical level – a Company Commander in direct contact with the enemy, all the way to a strategic planner or policy maker. 

Military theory also informs the paradigms that in turn influence the crafting of national level security objectives, supporting strategies, campaign design and operational and contingency planning. Theory, what it means and its relationship to strategy formulation has evolved over time.

Sun Tzu wrote The Art of War in the 6th Century B.C. and arguably established the discipline of Military Science.[4]  In his 16th Century work The Five Rings, Miyamoto Musashi, a Samurai and philosopher used a combination of teaching and philosophy of individual combat to serve as allegories for a broader understanding and consciousness of warfare. Musashi may also be the first on record to assert, an often repeated complaint, that very few actually understand strategy.[5]

Modern theory is generally anchored on the work of classic theorists and strategists such as Carl von Clausewitz and Antoine-Henri Jomini. Both of these theorist/practitioners are unique in the enduring quality of their concepts and principles and that they successfully articulate notions that bring theory into the practical realm of strategy and policy.

Clausewitz is the rare example of a military theorist, strategist and practitioner; he was a General in the Prussian Army from 1792 to 1831.   He is the military philosopher that laid the foundation of strategy in the modern era.  He introduces us to the paradigm that "war is a continuation of state policy by other means"[6]; a concept that remains a philosophical anchor that ties warfare to politics, statecraft, and grand strategy.    Clausewitz’s theories and philosophies provide much of the scholarly foundation for modern theorists and he also sits in the unique position of bridging the gap between theory and strategy.

Among the most demonstrable and enduring principles that Clausewitz established was in framing the nature of war with a trinity of violence/hatred/passion; chance/ probability/chaos; and reason.[7]   His understanding of the friction in warfare, which he describes as the thing that occurs when theory meets the reality of warfare, is often cited as "Clausewitzian friction".  He also frames the relationships of warfare with politics. This is a critical distinction that elevates what essentially was a discussion of tactics to a more intellectual understanding of all the factors in the environment.

This linkage to strategy in the literature is important because in practice, strategy is complex and confounding. Strategy and grand strategy are often misinterpreted concepts. Grand strategy is best understood in the framework provided by Liddell Hart as the conceptual guidance that coordinates and directs the resources of a nation towards a political objective.[8]  An example of this was the U.S. approach in containing the Soviet Union that characterized the cold war era – a rare example of the U.S. articulating, and then operationalizing, grand strategy.  

In practicality, strategy is the mechanism that allows military planners to set conditions for an employment of force, and it is the link from national objectives to strategic and operational planning. While this concept seems fairly straight forward, the complexities of strategy are limitless. Colin Gray, one of the most well respected Strategic Theorists of the last half century introduces some of his thoughts on strategy by appropriately noting that those who do not have to actually “do strategy” in the real world, seem to come up with an endless list of solutions.[9]  Gray also offers a series of reasons that explain the difficulty of putting strategy into practice; what he calls "doing strategy well".[10]  Among these are the enduring nature of strategy, the volume and variety of friction and an inability to guess correctly when planning for future events.

In a subsequent work Gray offers a comprehensive analysis of the future of warfare, the unchanging nature of strategy and a strong argument that much of the future will look like the past.  He uses five themes to bring together his argument: strategic history, the role of politics and technology, symmetrical versus asymmetrical conflicts, shifting relations and the enduring human dimension[11].  Perhaps most relevant for this article, Gray sees a “golden era” for special operations in the coming century.  He notes that the increase in special operations employment and perceived effectiveness in the post 9/11 era is compelling and has led to many accounts of dramatic and inspiring operations.  However, Gray also makes particular note of the absence of literature and discussion on the strategic value of special operations forces.[12]

Harold Winton’s examination of the utility of military theory to individual practitioners and military organizations sees the first task of theory as defining the field of study.[13]  Milan Vego does just that in an article written for Joint Forces Quarterly. He defines military theory as: a comprehensive analysis of all the aspects of warfare, its patterns and inner structure, and the mutual relationships of its various components/elements. Military theory also “encapsulates political, economic, and social relationships within a society and among the societies that create a conflict”.[14] He also categorizes and identifies theories on specific types of hostilities, such as insurgency, and the air, land and sea domains.[15]

Both Winton and Vego rely heavily on Clausewitz and Jomini to illustrate an underlying friction that exists among military theorists; the question of “is it more art or more science?” Not unsurprisingly, they are consistent with the majority of the scholars in the field in agreeing that the answer is generally preceded by “it depends”.  Winton generally finds Clausewitz to be a philosopher without strong ties to fixed rules.  Essentially identifying an underlying theme that runs throughout Clausewitz’s work that creativity should not be stifled as long as adherence to principles is maintained. Jomini, on the other hand, took a very scientific approach to theory; generally believing in a more systematic approach and adherence to fixed principles.[16] Vego had similar findings and even called out Jomini’s belief in principles that could be applied with mathematical certainty.[17] Vego also emphasizes that military history, with a cautionary note, has to be the foundation of military theory. Historical examples can support an idea or a theoretical statement. They can also be used to understand the intangible aspects of warfare theory that are often the most enduring (leadership, unit cohesion, tactics, etc.)  His cautionary note recognizes the significant danger (my emphasis) in cherry-picking historical examples.[18] Most importantly, Vego emphasizes that military theory must be grounded in the reality of war.

Special Operations Theory

William McRaven’s Spec Ops - Case studies in special operations warfare: theory and practice is an appropriate introduction to the literature on special operations theory. McRaven offers a theory of special operations which he readily admits, scopes special operations to a much narrower category that more closely matches the special operation core activity of Direct Action, raids or strike type operations of limited duration, often conducted during a single period of darkness, with very specific or limited objectives.[19] He develops the concept of relative superiority, an effect achieved early in an engagement, as a necessary condition for success. The methodology for this research is historical case studies of eight special operations raids[20] ranging from the 1940 German assault on the Belgian fort at Eben Emael, to the 1976 Israeli raid on Entebbe.

McRaven’s methodological approach falls into one of the typical traps associated with historical case study analysis – selection bias.  His use of a relatively small number of nonrandom and successful operations, allow him to build a case that supports the idea of relative superiority.  He does add significant depth to his case studies by a combination of interviews with participants and site visits to the location of the actions. 

Similar to McRaven’s approach to a specific subcategory of special operations, Abigail Linnington’s dissertation focuses on the special operations core activity of unconventional warfare; operations that enable a resistance movement or insurgency by providing highly specialized advisory, logistic and training support to proxy forces attempting to coerce, disrupt or overthrow an occupying or illegitimate regime, in the context of U.S. Foreign Policy. Linnington’s central question is: what factors best explain the success and failure of U.S. campaigns in support of insurgencies?[21]

Linnington develops four independent variables framed from a national security objectives perspective and derived from three theoretical paradigms. From a broad overview of international security studies literature she examines the various theoretical underpinnings of insurgency, wars of independence in grand strategy and special operations in covert action.  She also incorporates a review of various perspectives on measures of effectiveness used to gauge outcomes in insurgencies and wars of liberation.  Finally, literature from the field of international conflict management such as Durch’s, the evolution of U.N. peacekeeping: case studies and comparative analysis, is included to provide alternative paradigms regarding solutions to issues of intervention, governance and end-states.

James Kiras also approaches special operations in the context of strategic outcomes. He offers that in contrast to notions put forward by annihilation, or strategic paralysis theory – that call for attacking an enemy indirectly and causing moral damage or destroying an enemy center of gravity, special operations is best viewed through the theory of strategic attrition.[22] This is an approach that leads him to conclude that special operations achieve the best outcomes as part of an overall campaign and that they that require integration with conventional capabilities.[23]

With some similarity to Kiras, but with a much broader range of case examples, John Arquilla uses a series of readings ranging from ancient Homeric tales to Chaim Herzog's account of the raid on Entebbe to tease out observations relevant to special operations.  Among them, the somewhat recurring concept that integration of special and conventional operations leads to success.[24] His case studies all focus on highly tactical operations that have both operational and in some cases strategic impact. Arquilla also touches on a broader theme that has been at least implicit in much of the writing on special operations; the role of personalities and the unique nature of the people that fit into the profile of special operations soldiers. 

Robert Spulak also addresses this concept when he asserts that special operations personnel possess unique attributes that include qualities such as flexibility and creativity.[25] He argues that these attributes mitigate the “Clausewitzian friction” that occurs when theory meets reality. Overcoming these risks requires a greater density of attributes in the population of SOF personnel. The right "warrior" attributes in a much higher density of the population of SOF units is a necessary condition while operational characteristics are sufficient to explain how SOF works through the friction that hinders many conventional units.[26]  

Ultimately, the wealth of existing literature establishes significant scholarship on general military theory and has solid value in informing and educating decision making processes.  There is also significant theory that explains the success or failure of discrete mission sets built around the special operations core activities.  While much of this writing relies on anecdotes and shallow historical analysis, there has been some significant effort to elevate the discussion.

From Theory to Application

Having walked the dog from military theory “writ large” to special operations theory “writ not so large”, the gap in strategic special operations theory becomes evident; whether through omission or benign neglect. Regardless of cause, it begs the question of what we should expect from a strategic special operations theory.  Recalling the target audience mentioned in the introductory paragraphs it is important to clarify that each of those members of the national command authority are supported by a staff that with rare exception, will base their understanding of special operations on “what they have read”.  This theory, and subsequent scholarship testing and debating its merits, must be part of the reading list.  To meet the standards of intellectual honesty and academic integrity necessary to be part of the standing literature, it is important to comply with generally accepted standards for any theory; it must provide a body of statements that systemize knowledge and explain phenomena; concepts must be well defined; assumptions must be realistic; there must be readily available empirical tools for researchers and most importantly, specific conclusions must be testable and an increasing number of observations must further confirm the theory.[27]

Testability of a theory is critical.  Without a reasonable methodology to validate the concept that a theory is trying to explain, it is no more useful as an explanatory tool than philosophy. With the framework of a theory, and a reasonable understanding of what we want to explain, the next logical step is the development of hypotheses that explain the relationship of the high level factors that impact success or failure of a special operation.  Fortunately, there are plenty of possible hypotheses to construct.  Broad topics include the structure of the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD), the relationship between DoD and the CIA in the context of a particular case, the degree of convergence of interests with of a particular host nation, and the density of Officers on the Joint Staff with special operations experience.   There are also factors that have been identified in the existing literature that apply broadly across multiple special operations and can serve as the basis for additional hypotheses. Teasing these factors out of the literature and then eliminating those that are distinctly tactical or attributable to some other aspect such as emergent technology, helps to screen for strategic applicability.

Some examples of how broad categories, like the structure of the OSD, can transition from the intuitive – I think OSD’s structure may have a strategic impact on special operations – to a more refined hypothesis that attempts to explain relationships, are provided below. 

The National Security Council or NSC was established by statute in 1947.  The role of the NSC is to advise the President on policies related to national security, serve in a coordination role between various elements of the government and assess objectives, consider supporting policies and make recommendations to the President.[28] There is also significant latitude provided to the President in the catchall phrase “perform other such functions as the President may direct”. As a result, the role and structure of the NSC has shifted over time reflecting the desires of the President. Based on the shifting role of this central organization there is sufficient cause to hypothesize that a National Security Council with an increased role in an administration’s policy formulation will increase the likelihood of successful employment of special operations.

The broad spectrum of intelligence available to inform decision makers in the U.S. Government is provided by a variety of organizations and agencies commonly referred to as the Intelligence Community or IC.  Many of the capabilities resident in these agencies are controlled or allocated based on a process that loosely adheres to prioritization provided by the NSC and interpreted in the past by the Director of Central Intelligence or, more recently, by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence or ODNI.  Frequently the various agencies also inject their equities into the prioritization process.  The ability to apply these capabilities, ranging from satellite imagery to intercepted communications to human assets, leads to more informed planning and situational awareness during mission execution. Given the significance of national level intelligence assets it is asserted that dedicated support by national level intelligence assets increases the likelihood of successful execution of special operations.     

An established and clear objective is the first principal of war.[29]  For tactical formations, soldiers and leaders enter a battle with a clear understanding of their immediate objective and the objectives of higher units several levels up.  At the strategic level, the decision to commit force must have a clearly articulated objective that supports an overarching or “grand” strategy that also guides policy formulation and implementation that applies to all the elements of national power. Therefore, it is appropriate to hypothesize that special operations will be more successful when used to achieve an objective that is clearly linked to strategic outcomes and supported by policy that guides the supporting functions and roles of  other agencies and departments. 

Unity of Command – meaning that all participating agencies and organizations are subordinate to one responsible commander or leader, is another principle of war that helps to eliminate confusion, simplify communications and focus the attention and efforts of all participants to a single source of guidance and decision making.  For the military this is a principle that exists on a daily basis in the form of a chain of command and is easily understood in even the most ambiguous and temporary command arrangements. The same does not necessarily hold true for other departments and agencies within the federal government. As a result, in a complex, potentially volatile and often fast paced scenario where a special operation is a consideration for achieving a national security objective, the role of lead and supporting organizations may be unclear. The significance of a unifying principle to focus efforts and eliminate confusion justifies a hypothesis that formal designation of a lead agency or department and the supporting agencies and departments and defining their roles will contribute to overall success of special operations.

Methodological Considerations

The trend in special operations related scholarship has been to conduct qualitative research focusing on historical case studies.  There is a good reason for this. History provides us the benefit of complex and deep analysis of an event while also catering to the general readability standards of the target audience; most military types love history.  However, as previously discussed, there are problems with using a small number of cases to try and explain a phenomenon that is intended to be universally applicable.  There is also the issue of selection bias; cherry-picking cases to buttress a position or theory while discounting cases that might point to alternate outcomes. 

On the other hand, quantitative research assigns numerical measures and presents findings in mathematical statements. Like qualitative research, the quantitative method also has advantages and disadvantages.  By utilizing a large number of cases the issue of universal applicability is mitigated.  Quantitative analysis is generally considered more rigorous, substantiated by data and statistical analysis and comes closer to meeting scientific standards. However, this method also narrows the scope of the phenomena being studied and tends to utilize significant energy to address bite-sized chunks of a greater problem.  This approach accepts the concept that knowledge is accumulated and advanced in small steps over time. It is worth noting that the quantitative methodology is currently the predominant research technique among political science scholars and in the social sciences in general.   

With respect to a strategic theory of special operations, both approaches are viable. Quantitative analysis of a large number of cases can help inform qualitative analysis of historical case studies and vide-versa. The use of varied research approaches also takes advantage of the strengths offered by the different methods; deep analysis expected of a qualitative approach and the mathematical rigor of quantitative methods.    

Where to go from here….

Regardless of methodology, once hypotheses are selected, research will require selection of variables, valid assumptions, data sources, clear definitions and expectations. Any dependent variable testing a hypothesis supporting this theory will likely be linked to the success or failure of a special operation (the effect). The independent variables (the causes) will be more complex and varied but will require solid explanation of how they affect the dependent variable and an operational definition to measure the effect of interaction. 

The case population associated with this theory provides a rich data field.  Additionally, by framing the population using the modern era of special operations it is possible to use a manageable number in the entire universe of cases while still providing adequate numbers for statistical significance.  The entirety of overseas U.S. interventions and conflicts since the establishment of the National Security Council in 1947, to a logical cutoff point such as the first iteration of the support to the moderate Syrian resistance movement commencing in 2014, provides a total of 83 U.S. interventions or involvements.[30] Obviously this number will be tweaked up or down based on special operations or CIA involvement and additional malleability is possible based on special operations used in support of other diplomatic or engagement activities; support to the State Department’s African Crisis Response Initiative or demining efforts in Africa are examples of these other activities. 

An abundance of data does not promise easy research. Regardless of methodology, there is a “scut work” aspect necessary to determine relationships between the independent and dependent variables.  The availability of data presents an additional research problem.  Many of the records associated with past special operations are available from various sources, but many remain classified.    This causes additional challenges and opens the door to creative use of open source information as well as document analysis from documents like the National Security Strategy, National Military Strategy, Defense Department Directives and unclassified issuances from the NSC to help fill this gap. 


This article lays out a working strategic theory of special operations and provides a road map for further research and testing.  In attempting to establish a bridge between strategic theories of warfare and the tactical and operational theories that explain successful special operations, it offers some initial ideas in understanding the strategic factors that may influence the outcome of special operations. Additionally, it aims to inform policy makers; providing a reference to answer the question, “what are the things we should be thinking about as we consider a special operations option?” Most importantly, it attempts to focus a broad scholarship that ranges from human characteristics such as “warrior attributes” to unique equipment and technology, to a much narrower examination of the role of strategic factors. A continued dialogue is critical.  Developing new hypotheses, examining ideas from different perspectives, countering ideas with different theories, criticism and counterpoints are all appropriate and necessary to continue to narrow the gap and achieve a more complete understanding of the interrelationship of all the factors that impact special operations.


Arquilla, John (Ed.) (1996) From Troy to Entebbe - Special operations in ancient and modern times. Lanham Maryland, University Press of America.

Best, Richard A. (2001) The national security council: an organizational assessment, Huntington NY, Novinka books.

Clausewitz, Carl Von, (1832) (Edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret) On War. Princeton University Pres 1989.

Drohan, Thomas A. (2011) Bringing nature of war into irregular warfare strategy: contemporary applications of Clausewitz's trinity, Defense Studies, Vol 11 No 3.

 Gray, Colin S. (1999) Why strategy is difficult. Joint Forces Quarterly, Summer 1999 and (2005) Another bloody century, London, Orion Books.

Grossman, Zoltan (2014) History of U.S. military interventions, available on line at, Evergreen State College, Olympia Washington.

Johnson, Janet Buttolph and Reynolds H.T. (2012) Political Science Research Methods (Seventh Edition), Los Angeles, SAGE.

Kiras, James D. (2006) Special operations and strategy, New York, Routledge.

Liddell Hart, Basil Henry Sir, (1967) Strategy. New York, Praeger.

Linnington, Abigail T. (2013) Unconventional warfare in U.S. foreign policy: U.S. support of insurgencies in Afghanistan, Nicaragua, and Iraq from 1979 – 2001. Doctoral dissertation, Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, ProQuest LLC.

McRaven, William H. (1995) Spec Ops - Case studies in special operations warfare: theory and practice. Novato CA, Presidio Press.

Musashi, Miyamoto, (1641) The Book of Five Rings. Translated from the Japanese by Victor Harris (1974), Woodstock NY, Overlook Press.

Spulak, Robert G. (2009) A theory of special operations - The origin, qualities, and use of SOF, Military Technology, MILTECH special edition.

U.S. Department of Defense, (2010 ), Department of Defense Directive 5100.01: Functions of the Department of Defense and its major Components. Office of the Secretary of Defense, Washington DC.

U.S. Department of Defense. (2006), Joint Publication 3.0, Joint Operations, Washington D.C. USG Printing Office.

U.S. Department of Defense, (2011) The National Military Strategy of the United States, Chairman of The Joint Chiefs of Staff, Washington DC

U.S. Department of Defense, (2014) Joint Publication 3-05 Joint Special Operations. Washington DC, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Vego, Milan (2011) On military theory. Joint Forces Quarterly, NDU Press Issue 62.

Winton, Harold (2011) An imperfect jewel: Military theory and the military profession. Journal of Strategic Studies, 34:6.

End Notes

[1] U.S. Department of Defense, Joint Publication 3-05 Joint Special Operations, Washington DC, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,  16 July 2014, I-2.

[2] U.S. Department of Defense, (2010 ), Department of Defense Directive 5100.01: Functions of the Department of Defense and its major Components, Office of the Secretary of Defense, Washington DC, 28.

[3] U.S. Department of Defense, (2012) Sustaining U.S .Global Leadership.  Priorities for 21st Century Defense, Office of the Secretary of Defense, Washington DC, 4.

[4] Sun Tzu, (CA 6th Centruy B.C. – 1983) The art of war, Delacorte Press, NY 15.

[5] Musashi, Miyamoto, (1641) The Book of Five Rings, translated from the Japanese by Victor Harris (1974), Woodstock NY, Overlook Press, 37.

[6] Clausewitz, Carl Von, (1832) (Edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret) On War, Princeton University Press 1989, 87

[7] Clausewitz, 89

[8] Liddell Hart, Basil Henry Sir, (1967) Strategy, New York, Praeger, 322

[9] Gray, Colin S. (1999) “Why strategy is difficult”, Joint Forces Quarterly, Summer 1999, 7.

[10] Gray, Colin S. (1999) 8.

[11] Gray, Colin S. (2005) Another Bloody Century, London, Orion Books, 23.

[12] Gray, Colin S. (2005) 252.

[13]  Winton, Harold (2011) “An imperfect jewel: Military theory and the military profession”, Journal of Strategic Studies, 34:6, 854

[14] Vego, Milan (2011) “On military theory”, Joint Forces Quarterly, NDU Press Issue 62, 60.

[15] Vego, 64

[16] Winton, 859.

[17] Vego, 61

[18] Vego, 63

[19] McRaven, William H. (1995) Spec Ops - Case studies in special operations warfare: theory and practice, Novato CA, Presidio Press, 2.

[20] McRaven, 22.

[21] Linnington, Abigail T. (2013) Unconventional warfare in U.S. foreign policy: U.S. support of insurgencies in Afghanistan, Nicaragua, and Iraq from 1979 - 2001, Doctoral dissertation, Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, ProQuest LLC, 44.

[22] Kiras, James D. (2006) Special operations and strategy, New York, Routledge, 3.

[23] Kiras, 5.

[24] Arquilla, John (Ed.) (1996) From Troy to Entebbe - Special operations in ancient and modern times, Lanham Maryland, University Press of America. xxi

[25] Spulak, Robert G. (2009) A theory of special operations - The origin, qualities, and use of SOF, Military Technology, MILTECH special edition, 25.

[26] Spulak, 25.

[27] Johnson, Janet Buttolph and Reynolds, H.T.(2012) Political Science Research Methods, Los Angeles, SAGE, 43

[28] Best, Richard A. (2001)  The national security council: an organizational assessment, Huntington NY, Novinka books, 8.

[29] Department of Defense. (2006), Joint Publication 3,0, Joint Operations,  Washington  D.C. USG Printing Office, II-1.

[30] Grossman, Zoltan (2014) History of U.S. military interventions. Available on line at , Evergreen State College, Olympia Washington


About the Author(s)

Colonel (Retired) Joe Osborne is failing badly at retirement. He is a Research Fellow with the Joint Special Operations University (JSOU), President of Osborne Strategic – a defense and security consulting firm, Co-founder of Other World Distributors, and a PhD Student.  He has also worked as Senior Director for Wittenberg Weiner Consulting. He retired in 2011 as the J3, Director of Operations at Special Operations Command Central (SOCCENT). He has held a myriad of the usual staff positions at USSOCOM and the TSOCs and did a 2-1/2 year stint as the Deputy Commander of 3d Special Forces Group.


Robert C. Jones

Fri, 05/20/2016 - 9:13pm

Ideally, SOF should be purposely employed tactically to produce strategic effects. That does not happen nearly enough, and SOF commanders are as guilty as their conventional counterparts, though doubly culpable as it is their duty to know better and to advocate for that role.

SOF should also be the principle voice in informing strategies that revolve around population based conflicts - the nuanced but related families of illegal political competition related to revolutionary insurgency internal to a single system of governance; resistance insurgency against some unwanted foreign influence or presence, and variations of unconventional warfare by some foreign party to leverage these forms of insurgency energy among populations governed by another to advance that foreign party's interests. This we have not done well at all, allowing the conventional force, academia, and think tanks to dominate this space.

But a SOF strategic theory? I will need to read Joe's piece in greater detail than a seat in the Atlanta airport allows to comment on that.

For those who continue to believe that:

a. The U.S./the West does not have a grand strategy.

b. That this grand strategy is not to impose U.S./Western values, institutions, etc., on the rest of the world.

c. That this grand strategy does not, thus, mirror, in many important ways, the grand strategy of the Soviets/the communists in the Old Cold War of yesterday. And

d. That this grand strategy is not exactly what our opponents are (1) reacting to and (2) using against us.

Then, consider the following:

First Item:

"The overt attack on Afghan social values was presented, by the resistance forces, as an attack on Islamic values. This was also seen as an attack on the honour of women. The initiatives introduced by PDPA to impose literacy on women and girls inevitably raised questions as to the potential role of women outside the home. This provoked defensive actions from men, concerned with protecting the honour of women with their families, and to also ensure that traditional roles of women within the domestic sphere continued to be performed. It also generated fears that the important roles of women, as the primary vehicles for passing traditional and Islamic values from one generation to another, would be undermined if they were exposed to external and, particularly, non-Islamic values. This enabled the exiled radical Islamic parties to claim leadership of the resistance and also declare a jihad."… (On Page 58, in Chapter 4 entitled "The Soviet Military Intervention."

Now consider the following from the "Color Revolutions" link provided to us the author of the current SWJ article entitled: "Imposing Cost by Other Means: Irregular Warfare Options to Counter Russian Aggression:"

Second Item:

"Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov ... argued that this was part of a (U.S./Western) global strategy to force foreign values on a range of nations ... "… (Look to the first paragraph of this article.)

Gals and guys:

How does one explain (a) the U.S./the West's similar efforts today to impose literacy on women and girls in such far away and vastly different lands as Afghanistan (note: there were no female -- or Afghan -- 9/11 hijackers) and (b) the ability of such vastly different and distinct entities as (1) the Russians and (2) the radical Islamists to use our such actions against us except via:

a. An understanding that the U.S./the West has embarked on a grand strategy, post-the Cold War, of "expansion" -- of our way of life, our way of governance and our values, attitudes and beliefs, etc. And that:

b. Our state and non-state actor opponents, understanding this explicitly, have (1) reacted to this existential threat by (2) embarking on a countering "containment"/"roll back" grand strategy which, in many ways (for example: pointing to one's opponents' "imposition of foreign values") mirrors our efforts during the Old Cold War.

Thus, to suggest that, without a doubt, for "A Strategic Theory of Special Operations" to be of any use whatsoever, this must somehow be able to (a) accommodate the clear and concise grand strategy of the U.S./the West today (see "expansion" above) and (b) overcome the "resistance" efforts (see "containment," etc. above) of our state and non-state actor opponents.

Outlaw 09

Sat, 05/21/2016 - 4:31am

In reply to by RantCorp

RC.....Germans tend to do their "thing" via economic power...not military "economics" and the rule of law/good governance are their strengths......

Goodbye Russia
Germany opposes returning Russia to G8 - Deutsche Welle

A clear response Putin fully understands........

BTW there is no "love lost" between Merkel and Obama as she felt that initially in the very first Normandy 4 meeting in France Obama basically declared Ukraine an EU problem and did not want to be part and parcel of any further Normandy 4 meetings PLUS Putin did not want the US involved.....BTW the Goldberg interview confirmed the Obama standoffness towards the EU...."so called freeloaders".....

Merkel refused Obama's request for US' becoming 5th member of the "Normandy Group" [overseeing Minsk "peace talks"] - @dt_ua Western source

Outlaw 09

Fri, 05/20/2016 - 2:19pm

In reply to by RantCorp

RC...this might not be the answer you would like to hear and or expect...BUT the US success in "shifting" the entire German "culture" at the end of WW2...meaning driving the "devil of war" out of Germans was extremely successful.

The generations of Germans educated after WW2 were trained that you do everything necessary short of war and you avoid war at all costs.

So if we see Germany not reacting the way we think they should "blame the US".

If you remember the Iraq beginnings Germany waved off in joining the US going into Iraq and "paid dearly" for that decision is you remember Bush's isolating Germany response to the NO. But they did participate in Libya....with air refuelers and intelligence....and they have their SF now in Iraq training Peshmerga.....and at least they were for a number of years in Kunduz AFG for NATO and have the largest EU military contingent in Mali.

Now they are slowly coming out of their shell especially on Russia and Putin and one hears many more comments against Putin now than say six months ago...and much more from their security services BfV and BND on the Russian activities....AND they have been highly successful in the last few months in watching and monitoring Salafist they are now adding more Army personnel for the first time in 25 years and more armor as they only have two tank BNs..... the latest NATO tank shoot off....the US has so lost it's tank maneuver skills they took 4th place..I think we have some room for improvement.....


Fri, 05/20/2016 - 3:45am

Nobody sensible disagrees with your observations regards the lack of Strategy. Some would perhaps weigh the blame more on our perfumed Generals rather than the WH, but there is plenty to go around. But I still want to know from our point man in Germany - why aren't the Krauts doing their own thing.
They are front and center on Putin's radar and their kids are being murdered.

Outlaw 09

Fri, 05/20/2016 - 3:40am

In reply to by Outlaw 09

Bill...this is the debate we as a civil society urgently need before we even get to the "strategy debate".......

Fact-checking in a ‘post-fact world’…

The constant growth of information may be undermining the effectiveness of fact-checking, too. As Jill Lepore of the New Yorker has written, the sheer quantity of facts now available makes people cynical about truth itself. Can anything really be “known” if Google customizes its searches for particular people and places? With so many sources of information available, isn’t it better to assume they are all wrong? If truth is passe — if we really do live in a “post-fact world” — then there isn’t any reason for liars to feel any shame, let alone worry about being “PolitiFacted.”

These may sound like philosophical questions, but in the campaigns of 2016, they are beginning to loom larger as a problem for democracy itself. Exhibit A is Donald Trump, who lies repeatedly and is fact-checked repeatedly, with no noticeable impact on either his own behavior or that of his supporters. Britain’s European Union referendum campaign is also plagued by deliberate misuse of facts. Over and over, the “Leave” campaign refers to the 350 million pounds ($511 million) that Britain supposedly pays to the European Commission every week. Over and over, that number is shown to be fiction, by (whose editorial board I am on), BBC Reality Check and others. The number remains painted on the side of campaign buses, and nothing changes.

These problems aren’t exactly new: The question of what is propaganda and what is truth has plagued politics since politics began. But the nature of information in the social media age means it keeps getting easier for politicians, partisans, computerized “bots” and foreign governments to manipulate news, and it keeps getting harder to correct this. Fact-checkers are, for the moment, one of the best solutions. But they work only for people who want them to work, and that number may be shrinking.

Based on this above...there is a serious question that needs to be urgently asked...can we even get to a national level strategic strategy on anything if in fact our own democracy is basically failing right now???

Statistic of the Day: 8 in 10 Republican voters say their leaders should support Trump even if they disagree w/ him on issues. (NYTimes)

THIS even in the face of constant lying and proven lying......have we now reached the level in our democracy of "a herd mentality (mobmocracy)" which is following the lead elephant that shouts the loudest even if he is going over the cliff in broad daylight????

Was this trend actually seen before in history?...commonly called "fascism"...

Outlaw 09

Fri, 05/20/2016 - 3:05am

In reply to by Bill C. and many others just keep on dancing around the core long as the DoD and Service senior leadership and the American civil society have not come fully to the realization that for the last almost 16 years we have had "smoke" blown in our faces and that is even worse under this WH...and that the last two Presidents literally ran from the word "national level strategic strategies" for anything

There will never be a clearly stated, concise and coherent UW strategy...maybe for mice but never for men....not even sure the next one will even be able to spell the word "strategy".....that is how bad it has gotten.

While your comments are nice to read and an intellectual challenge you simply never address the "smoke" we get daily from this current WH...

The following are the perfect examples of just this failed WH FP is there was ever one for Syria.....

Graphic footage
8 civilians killed, many more injured in Assad air strikes on Houla(Homs)

The Assad jet and heli that attacked Houla and killed 8 humans and a dog.

By the way....the eight killed humans and the dog have now been confirmed to have never been card carrying members of IS and or the anti Assad opposition.....just your basic normal Syrians and animals going about their daily lives being killed by Assad and the West says nothing.....

BUT WAIT now the Obama WH has a future Exec level genocide notification office....but starting in 2017 AFTER he leaves office and per Exec Order which can be/will be rescinded by the new incoming nice for his legacy....."he was deeply interested in preventing genocide and atrocities" is the narrative that counts.....

BUT notice he somehow missed the current war crimes and ongoing daily genocide and starvation in Syria and THAT for over five years now....


WHILE the West "fiddles" "Rome burns totally to the ground".........

And while JohnKerry & Germany FM FANTASIZED about a "cessation of hostilities", Assad continued his offensive and recaptured EastGhouta in a supposedly CoH covered area.

There is a growing perception in the key Sunni ME nation states that there is in fact a "golden handshake" between Putin, Assad and Obama to eliminate the anti Assad opposition and leave only Assad and IS as the only two choices for Syria thus fully rehabilitating a genocidal dictator......ACTUALLY one can now see just how the Sunni ME is coming to this conclusion after not really wanting to believe the "perception"....

The second perception is that the US together with Jordan are actually acting in full unison with Putin to also secure both IS and Assad by restricting the Sunni Southern Front Army as it is just sitting there and doing much of nothing...while the rest of FSA is deeply involved in a fight for survival against Assad, Iran, Putin and IS....

UNTIL we fully understand just how we are being blinded by this "smoke" nothing will ever move forward......

EU & US assessments of "partially working cessation of Syrian hostilities" is misinformation of the public to both appease and ignore their duty to act.

We beat up on Russian info warfare...but why is then the US WH info warfare being largely ignored even by US MSM......EVEN with two major interviews by Rhodes and Obama literally confirming "smoke and mirrors"?????

All we get for a true national strategic strategy MSM debate is....."the sound of crickets hard at work......"

We then expect a "strategy"...get real.....the last two Presidents have been winging it nicely and we the civil society have largely allowed it....

So while I beat up on this WH ARE we the civil society actually more at fault for this utter lack of any strategy to include a UW strategy...a very valid question.....

Bill C.

Thu, 05/19/2016 - 11:40am

In reply to by G Martin

Edited and added to a little bit:

G Martin:

Below I have suggested that there is, in fact, and indeed has been, a grand strategy of the United States/the West post-the Old Cold War. This such grand strategy being articulated as early as 1993 and in the Clinton Administration. Therein, then-National Security Advisor Anthony Lake helped us understand this new grand strategy with such clear and unequivocal illustrations as these:

"During the Cold War, even children understood America's security mission; as they looked at those maps on their schoolroom walls, they knew we were trying to contain the creeping expansion of that big, red blob. Today, at great risk of oversimplification, we might visualize our security mission as promoting the enlargement of the "blue areas" of market democracies." (From Containment to Enlargement.)

This being the case (that there DOES appear to be a clear and concise grand strategy of the U.S./the West post-the Cold War), then (and as you state above):

a. Should not the "inability of SOF to get their tactical action to mean anything 'strategic'" -- should this not indicate that there is, indeed,

b. A real problem with SOF theory? (And/or, by extension, and as you suggest, a real problem with associated doctrine)?

This, rather than this "inability of SOF to get their tactical action to mean anything 'strategic'" actually indicating that a clear and concise U.S./Western grand strategy does not exist?

In this regard, I am looking at the following 1962 paper by COL Bjelajac entitled: "Unconventional Warfare: American and Soviet Approaches."

Therein, at the first full paragraph of Page 80, COL Bjelajac observes/states the following:

"The offensive employment of unconventional warfare to extend political and strategic positions this has been almost solely a weapon of the Sino-Soviet bloc in the Cold War. It can be generalized that the communists follow a pattern of active and aggressive promotion of their goals, while the allied countries have used unconventional warfare primarily for the protection and safeguarding of their interests."

If we are ones who have gone on "offense" today, if we are the ones today needing to "employ UW to extend our political and strategic positions," and if we are the ones today that need to "actively and aggressively promote our goals," then should not SOF theory (if it has not already been) be made, developed, trained, deployed, etc., so as to adequately accommodate this new requirement; this, in the New/Reverse Cold War of today?

Bottom Line: Re: our problems, have we confused (a) a lack of grand strategy with (b) a lack of SOF theory, and/or related doctrine, necessary to accommodate the (otherwise alien and unsavory?) requirements (we're on offense now not defense) of our 180 degree strategic turn (from Containment to Enlargement) post-the Old Cold War?

(Note: If one believes that the Clinton Administration's "Enlargement" initiative was a flash in the pan, and that it is not STILL the item that actually underpins the grand strategy of the U.S./the West in the New/Reverse Cold War of today ["we" are the ones now doing "expansion;" "they" are now the ones doing "containment"], then one need only look to the following -- current and up-to-date -- U.S. State Department document to dispel such a notion. Excerpt:

"Over the past quarter-century, a large number of nations have made a successful transition to democracy. Many more are at various stages of the transition. When historians write about U.S. foreign policy at the end of the 20th century, they will identify the growth of democracy--from 30 countries in 1974 to 117 today--as one of the United States' greatest legacies. The United States remains committed to expanding upon this legacy until all the citizens of the world have the fundamental right to choose those who govern them through an ongoing civil process that includes free, fair, and transparent elections."

Sound like "enlargement," "expansion," "world revolution-Western-style," "offense," etc., to you?

If so, then should we say that our doctrine/SOF theory, etc., may simply have not "gotten with the program?")

G Martin

Tue, 05/17/2016 - 12:45pm

Historical case studies and regression analyses are not the only two methods available. There are HUGE issues with using regression analysis ( ) and the bottom line is that 80% or so of social scientists misuse data analysis and 99% of the military does.

Regardless, a theory of SOF should not require a theory of strategy first. A theory of SOF should be able to stand on its own. When there is a lack of strategic objectives, then SOF theory should point to some obvious consequences (inability of SOF to get their tactical action to mean anything "strategic"). When there are strategic objectives, then SOF theory can cover how best to meet those objectives (one part of the theory could cover long-term, emergent methods more closely related to UW).

I agree with the notion that a theory of Special Operations would cover a lot- since the U.S.'s notion of SO is pretty broad. A theory of UW might be more prescient and feasible.

But, I'd say we already have a theory of SOF and a theory of UW. It is found in our doctrine. Unfortunately we do not look at doctrine as theory and thus never test its implicit assumptions.

In terms of "testing," however, regression analyses are problematic. As one poster states, controlling for variables is impossible. We would do better to "test" very explicit and scoped assumptions instead and leave our theorizing for two things: 1) what to do when there is no strategy, and, 2) what to do when there is one. I submit that the implications of 1 and 2 are fundamentally different for our forces and we are currently assuming away most of the differences.


Mon, 05/16/2016 - 2:06pm

"Testability of a theory is critical. Without a reasonable methodology to validate the concept that a theory is trying to explain, it is no more useful as an explanatory tool than philosophy"

Unfortunately, when we get the foundation of theory incorrect what follows generally tends to be incorrect. Testability of theory is critical, if you are confused between hard sciences and the strategy which is the expression of strategic theory. So many theorists have fallen into the same trap as expressed here....this is not science. Special Operations Theory is art, just as every aspect of strategy is art. Theory explains phenomena, it guides us, but no theory about art is testable, because the end result is never going to repeat. The author is mistaking testable with statistically verifiable, and sadly "no more useful as an explanatory tool than philosophy" with explanation being existentially linked with a lack of usefulness. If his logic is applied to strategy than no strategy is actually testable and is therefore without the merit of use. And for those saying wait a minute a strategy can be testable, no, it can not because no two situations are ever the same in context and variables; it can only be tried, in one unique circumstance at a time.

Outlaw 09

Wed, 05/18/2016 - 3:46am

In reply to by Outlaw 09

AND the current pied piper of the moment that the US civil society is following seems to be.....and totally unchallenged by US MSM.....

Martin Wolf lays into Donald Trump in 50 words nothing more, nothing less than 50........…

Strategy discussions coming from a Trump WH....will be non existent......


Mr Trump is a misogynist, a racist and a xenophobe. He glories in his own ignorance and inconsistency. Truth is whatever he finds convenient. His policy ideas are ludicrous, where they are not horrifying. Yet his attitudes and ideas are less disturbing than his character: he is a narcissist, bully and spreader of conspiracy theories. It is frightening to consider how such a man would use the powers at the disposal of the president.

BUT remember there was a time in US politics that the KKK was an extremely widespread political movement throughout the entire US....just not in the South...we tend to forget that.

Outlaw 09

Wed, 05/18/2016 - 3:14am

In reply to by Bill C. are missing a massive piece of the puzzle that no one in the US really wants to talk about and SWJ does in fact often dances around.

I would argue that since before Kuwait and Desert Storm there has never been a clear, coherent and concise US FP stated by any WH for ANYTHING...therein lies the current problem...all Presidents starting with say Clinton all basically "winged it" on just about anything.

Whether is was NAFTA, now TTIP and TTP or an active FP for the ME or the Dayton Accords which is slowly but surely unraveling right now to the Palestinian question which is really at the core heart of the ME problem and EVERYONE knows now with eastern Ukraine with an reemerging and rearmed and aggressive Russia to finally making the US energy independent.

Example....the US talks a lot about energy dependence but in fact does very little to implement anything..a lot like their FP....almost all German farmers have solar panels on their barns but in a state such as CA with over 300 days of sunshine....virtually nothing is seen.

THIS weekend in Germany...for the first time since Germany announced they were coming off nuclear power and the entire world laughed at them....EFFICENT clean alternative energy COVERED the entire needs of Germany for a full day......AND the US has far more wind and sun that Germany does......

BUT back to the problem...the US civil society absolutely has no idea which direction to go....the 2008 financial mess was never fully resolved and NO one went to jail and BILLIONs disappeared into someone's a growing labor market that is basically low paying service focused going nowhere TO a reemerging housing crisis that again is threatening the markets and banks and little is being said about to a totally failing healthcare system and retirement system...let's not even get into the school systems.

NOW add the concept of "strategy" to the mix and yet you wonder where the US public sits...they are as confused as we are on what it is we actually want.......

We the US have never really truly addressed the full blown issue of racism and that it is still deeply ingrained, not addressed in an honest fashion immigration without blaming Mexico and the Muslim world.....we have never addressed a lot of other problems....we have become as a civil society much like Putin and his ain't is someone else's fault...Europe takes in over 1.2 million Muslim refugees and the US debates 10K and only 1.2K have actually been "selected and screened".....

Remember the military is just a subset of society and reflects our total overall society as a whole...when the public is confused so is the military and it's leadership.

I once had a true blue collar working German Student Communist leader in 1971 here in Berlin tell me...."man you Americans could be the powerhouse of the world for generations if you could only fix the three core problems that you run from",

1. you have a fear of growing old
2. you have a fear of getting sick
3. you have a fear of getting old

"Fix them and led the world"...and that from a convinced Communist telling me in English....

Think he was right or wrong in 2016 and was he right in 1971???

Yet we assume the senior leadership of the military and DoD can supposedly get it "right" in the face of major civil society problems.

Right now we debate UW, strategies or lack of them and those effects on US FP.....but do we have in the end the right WH leadership to address them?

Not really why...the US public really does not want a clear, coherent and concise leader.....why...then decisions might be made that causes pain and the US public is tired of "perceived pain" after 30 odds years or so of various degrees of "pain" because it has been the military carrying the delivery burden not the civil society as a whole BUT is it the civil society that feels it has been carrying the burden.....BUT our current civil society is so disconnected from the military it is getting to a dangerous point of isolating the military. BUT maybe that "perceived pain" is not so "perceived" WHEN 5T US taxpayers dollars are funneled into the largest scram run by defense contractors, and the governments of Iraq and AFG and the US military throwing money out by the fist full over the last 13 years.....when bridges are falling apart and the pot holes cannot get filled.....

How bad has it gotten.....the current US civil society seems to be willing to follow any pied piper who comes along and "sells" a great story.

They simply do not "question anything anymore".

Why is a valid question...because it requires a certain amount of thinking clearly and critical thinking.....and that is to much for the civil society right now....and that is really that same German Communist student leader also said..."you Americans have a propensity towards fascism" under the guise of "democracy".....". LaRoche once said in the 1980s that one "does not have to wear a brown uniform to be brown"....and he is still active in the his wife is here in Europe.

BTW....this is just not a US problem...a similar trend can also be seen in Germany right now.....Germany has always mirrored the US just with a 10-15 year delay.

BLUF....USA SF must drive their own ship when it comes to UW and then let the results speak for themselves when the DoD/WH leadership finally catches up.....BUT in the meantime we are simply wearing them out and achieving little to nothing early into the 21st century and the global problems are only getting worse not better.

As for the US civil society....I am not so sure it knows where it is going and that ride is going to get rough over the next year or so.....what is interesting is that the Europeans and Russia BOTH see this clearly and are concerned for different reasons and Putin it playing it to the hilt as he senses it might change soon. and flow against him.

My concern is that the senior leadership and upper management of USA SF is not capable of that leadership due to their own "cultural problems" that have surfaced internally since Iraq and AFG.

Bill C.

Tue, 05/17/2016 - 6:45pm

In reply to by G Martin

G Martin:

If one had any doubts as to what the grand strategy of the Soviets/the communists was, in the Old Cold War of yesterday, one need only look, I suggest, to (a) what state and non-state actors felt threatened by the Soviets/the communists during this time, to (b) why these such diverse entities felt so threatened and to (c) what actions these state and non-state actors took to deal with this threat.

Thus, in the Old Cold War of yesterday -- when communism was on the march and the Soviets/the communists were promoting same -- one might see:

a. Such state actors as those of the U.S./the West, and such non-state actors as those of the conservative elements of various populations,

b. Both understanding that they would lose power, influence and control if their preferred ways of life, their preferred ways of governance, etc., were replaced by communism. And, thus,

c. Taking action to counter this threat via (1) an appeal to the "traditional values" (these such "traditional values," in some cases, actually being "weaponized" -- see the Islamic world) and via (2) generally adopting a strategy of "confrontation," "containment, "roll back," etc.

Today, if one has any doubts as to what U.S./Western grand strategy currently is, then, likewise I suggest, one need only look to (a) what state and non-state actors feel threatened by the U.S./the West today, (b) why these state and non-state actors feel so threatened and (c) what actions these state and non-state opponents have taken so as to deal with this contemporary threat.

Herein, in the New/Reverse Cold War of today -- a time when market-democracy is on the march and the U.S./the West is promoting same -- one finds:

a. Such state actors as Russia, China and Iran, and such non-state actors as the conservative elements of various populations,

b. Each understanding that they will lose power, influence and control if their preferred ways of life, their ways of governance, etc., are replaced by a continuing spread of market-democracy and, thus,

c. Taking action to counter this threat via (1) an appeal to "traditional values" (certain of these "traditional values" actually being "weaponized" as in the Old Cold War) and (2) generally adopting a strategy of "confrontation," "containment," "roll back," etc.


As the continuing "countering" strategies of its state and non-state actor opponents might indicate, "advancing the spread of communism" appears to have remained the grand strategy of the Soviets/the communists throughout the Old Cold War.

Likewise, as the continuing (and increasing) "countering" strategies of our state and non-state actor opponents might indicate, "advancing the spread of market-democracy" appears to remain the grand strategy of the U.S./the West in our New/Reverse Cold War of today.

G Martin

Tue, 05/17/2016 - 12:56pm

In reply to by Bill C.

Bill, disagree that our grand strategy is to create democracies- market driven or not. First, there is huge disagreement among the people and the two parties on what we should be driving at- what a future world should look like.

Second, currently both parties seem to have significant numbers who favor dismantling the current global economic system and scaling back on free trade.

Instead I'd say that we currently don't really have a guiding, over-arching concept influencing our operations. We generally want to free the oppressed--- but defining who gets that label and what "freeing" entails is largely context-dependent and always-changing...

The starting place must be "grand strategy;" thus, from our author above:

"Grand strategy is best understood in the framework provided by Liddell Hart as the conceptual guidance that coordinates and directs the resources of a nation towards a political objective. An example of this was the U.S. approach in containing the Soviet Union that characterized the cold war era – a rare example of the U.S. articulating, and then operationalizing, grand strategy."

As the grand strategic concept that replaces "containing the spread of communism" of the Old Cold War, let us agree that the U.S./the West has adopted, re: the New/Reverse Cold War of today, the political objective of "advancing the spread of market-democracy."

This being the case, then what we are talking about -- re: U.S./Western grand strategy in the New/Reverse Cold War of today -- is the U.S./the West being engaged in what is appears to be called "revolutionary warfare;" this, so as to transform outlying states and societies more along modern western political economic and social lines.


"In other words, revolutionary warfare is much more than just guerrilla warfare. Revolutionary warfare has a political goal or objective and seeks to completely overthrow the social, political, and economic order. Guerrilla warfare is but one tool used by revolutionaries to gain their objectives."

"Revolutionary warfare is never confined within the bounds of military action. Because its purpose is to destroy an existing society and its institutions and to replace them with a completely new structure, any revolutionary war is a unity of which the constituent parts, in varying importance, are military, political, economic, social, and psychological."


Thus, as is painfully obvious, the above ("destroy an existing society and its institutions and replace them with a completely new structure) is the political objective of the U.S./the West today.

This being the case, then would not a "Strategic Theory of Special Operations" somehow need to be (a) generally folded into the new grand strategy of the U.S./the West post-the Cold War (advancing the spread of market-democracy) and (b) specifically be made to accommodate the "revolutionary warfare" concepts/requirements which appear to underpin same?

Bottom Line: Given the seemingly similar "revolutionary warfare" imperative of (a) the Soviets/the communists in the Old Cold War of yesterday and (b) the U.S./the West in the New/Reverse Cold War of today -- and specifically re: a "Strategic Theory of Special Operations" -- should we not review/learn/study/evaluate what our enemies did back-in-the-day; when their job then, like our job today, was, throughout the world, to -- one way or another -- achieve total, comprehensive and complete state and societal transformations?

J Harlan

Sun, 05/15/2016 - 1:10pm

One should start by listing all- DOD and CIA- special operations launched since 1941 and the results. I expect the overwhelming majority have failed outright with many of the rest being tactically successful but without any exceptional value at other than at a temporary tactical level.

Most of what is now considered special operations could and should be done by conventional elements. Most of the SOF recon and sabotage missions of the past can now be done from the air. Assassination by air is the preferred method.

There may be a role for smaller SOF in very specialized fields such as diving, mini-subs or hijacked aircraft assault but it has expanded far beyond what is really required- assuming you have a professional army with skilled and well motivated infantry.

Bill M.

Fri, 05/20/2016 - 4:31pm

In reply to by Outlaw 09

Any military action requires an overarching strategy to enable the application of national power to achieve strategic ends. I agree this administration is completely lost, but so was Bush junior and Clinton, and the future doesn't look much brighter. Where does this leave us? Will tactics continue to be a substitute for strategy? Unfortunately our adversaries have not neglected the art of strategy. Even worse their strategies and doctrines would not be difficult to neutralize, but we continue to fail to act in a reasonable manner, and that means we're voluntarily forfeiting our interests.

Outlaw 09

Tue, 05/17/2016 - 2:35am

In reply to by Bill M.

Bill...herein lies the current problem for SF and SOF in general....the use of UW always and I underline the word always...always demands a strategy and via that strategy one can easily define then the tactics needed.

Right now the Obama WH is "gun shy" from Iraq and AFG as it came into power on the running narrative we will end those wars and is super "gun shy" of having to explain the "deaths" of personnel thus the constant debate used "messaging" of "no boots on the ground".....then the great attempt to camouflage the term "boots on the ground" when in fact "boots on the ground" is a given right now with ever increasing numbers of SOF and SF ODAs/Delta.

The Obama WH is literally wearing out both SOF and SF by throwing them into the fight in order to avoid sending in larger US ground forces.

As long as SOF and SF are being worn down with this ever increasing deployment cycle against will never get the peace and quiet needed to thoroughly shift to UW.

The sooner this WH finally and truly declares it is at "war" and acts as if it is at "war" with IS the sooner all of this will end....BUT you will never see that "word" used by this WH.

In some aspects USA SF needs to be taken back under the wing of the CIA and back under DoS as it was in the 60s/70s and the rest of the SOF community remains in their respective services as it was in the 60/70s...then and only then will USA SF be able to get back to true UW.

That shift then allows USA SF to respond to the demands set by FP strategies and DoS demands in following those strategies and many forget that CIA has their actions focused on "outside" the US territorial boundaries.

BUT here is the big BUT...this WH has never had a set of coherent strategies for virtually anything other than "their own legacy" and the senior leadership of the other services and BIG army will never turn lose of USA SF after they acquired complete dominance over it in the mid 1970s.

While VN still to this day haunts the US Army so does the fact that during VN SF did in fact belong to the CIA......and had major successes during that period even when VN fell in the end which BTW BIG Army always attempted to take credit for.

Perfect example....I sat in a major briefing when Nha Trang with the Commander of 5th SFG when a SF camp had been encircled by major NVA forces and the NVA was pushing for a complete overrun of the camp....SF had asked General Abrams for 1st Cav the camp was actually hard to defend and the Abrams response was....."you can get nothing from is your damm camp take care of the problem yourself....."

Remember this was 1970 after the US had announced the draw down and the 173rd was in the process of leaving to prove to the US public the draw down was occurring....

SF Commander response was to throw all Mobile Strike Forces ie National B55 and the Corp MSFs into the fray and presto the NVA took a beating and withdrew.....

BUT then BIG Army announced major wins to the US press during the Saigon press briefings never mentioning it was strictly a SF run operation.....nor did BIG Army ever admit that over 90% of the "hard intel" outside of SIGINT was being delivered to BIG Army came via SF MACV SOG and other project teams and CIDG camps.

BTW most of those operations are still highly classified and many of the still US VN MIAs come from those SOG teams.

We still need to analyze just how did BIG Army actually lied to the US general public and to it's own was not just political leaders who made mistakes in VN.

I remember one incident to this day....on the evening 1800 TV news out of Saigon via AFN the announcer was reading the reports of a major combat operations in 2 Corp and telling of major successes...then he put the script to the side and stated..."now I will read what the MSM combat field reporters reported about this battle" and then read off the loses....TV screen went black and it the announcer found himself carrying a rifle on the DMZ and it took his Senator to get him back to the US.....

In VN I often met and took combat reporters with me a couple of times on ops.....including Michael Herr and Sean Flynn...and what do we get today...nothing of the sort from US MSM...except for one lone former USAF SOF member who has being reporting from eastern Ukraine straight from the contact front line and who is now reporting from the Peshmerga side front lines and his stories get very little attention outside of Newsweek from US MSM.

That is why it is so important to fully understand just why we have had virtually now going on nearly 16 years a total lack of any national level strategies on just about anything other than "legacy".....

I don't disagree with Dave that we have insufficient strategic theory for unconventional warfare, but that is far from the only shortfall in SOF strategic logic in war and that space between war and peace. I read ADM McRaven's book, very well done, even if it cherry picked case studies (much like our COIN studies). However, it isn't strategic logic for SOF, instead it identifies some factors that should be present or established to effectively conduct a direct action that achieves a tactical through strategic effect. Joe's article, at least based on my first read, focused on strategic factors within our government that must be acted upon to enable successful SOF operations. I agreed with those, and while his article wasn't intended to be holistic, it simply provided a valuable framework for further study, I would like to see further study on strategic factors external to the U.S. government we can and should act upon to advance U.S. interests.

IMO, it would be helpful for those failing at retirement to work on identifying the strategic factors SOF can influence in the environment (external to the U.S.) to advance our national interests. I think the world has changed significantly due to globalization and that means something. A networked approach is essential, but we throw that term around loosely and really don't identify the strategic logic that underlies it. Power shifts create opportunities and challenges, and these should identify where and how SOF should be applied to advance U.S. interests. We then need to put that in clear prose to explain the strategic logic of SOF to shape the environment. This should inform GCCs and national policy makers on how to effectively employ SOF to set conditions that advance and protect U.S. interests in the gray zone (no matter how problematic the phrase and concept, the SOF community generally understands what it implies) and in support of high end conflict. I think operational concepts from FID and UW can inform this, but I think it is larger than that, and arguably more complex.

Dave Maxwell

Fri, 05/13/2016 - 6:39am

Excellent essay from my SF brother and former fellow 1st SFG team leader. I am glad to see Joe is "failing in retirement." I hope he keeps failing.

Though not directly stated he recognizes what is lacking in special operations theory is sufficient emphasis on unconventional warfare. The only specific mention is a reference to Abigail Linnington's doctoral dissertation.

UW is the foundation for special operations, it is the reason for which modern special operations was founded. Psychological warfare, political warfare, foreign internal defense, support to resistance and insurgency, working "through, with, and by" indigenous forces, and special warfare all rest on the foundation of unconventional warfare. Yet there is no theory of special operations that includes sufficient reference to and emphasis on unconventional warfare. But perhaps instead of a theory of special operations which has been coopted by other activities and forces there should be a stand alone theory of unconventional warfare.