The Building Blocks of a Special Forces Organism: Variation, Selective Pressure, and Replication
A Soldier’s Perspective
By Pierre Jean Dehaene
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policies or positions of any government entities.
What can military organizations learn from one of the oldest natural mechanisms of survivability? Natural selection has for millions of years determined the species that get to live on. It was commonly thought that survivability was a matter of strength and/or fitness, but these (brute) notions less accurately describe what is in fact the mechanism of adaptability. The “fittest” species is the one best able to adapt to its constantly shifting environment. Essentially being less prone to developing dangers and more efficient with energy. Organisms and organizations are not so different. They both compete and exist within dynamic and fluctuating ecosystems. Organizations must adapt rapidly, especially organizations that exist to protect their people and government. This essay will look at the building blocks of natural selection as a framework for thinking about organizations. I will concentrate on the special forces, but the claims and reasoning presented in this essay are applicable to any military organization. How must we integrate the qualities of organisms that are able to survive and thrive in a dynamic competitive order?
Variation, selective pressure, and replication are the building blocks of the evolutionary process known as ‘natural selection’[i]. The higher the degrees of each, the more likely the species will adapt at the speed of change, symbiose with its environment (constantly changing threats and opportunities), make more efficient use of limited resources (key to strategic ascendency), and out-match competitors. SF is – or rather should be – a highly competitive/adaptive (here, in an evolutionary sense) organization. This is our highest obligation, our constant endeavour, and our raison d’être for our government and the people they represent. I submit that everything else is (must be) peripheral.
A Natural Institutional Tendency: Process Determining Purpose
Taking each of these points separately, SF organizations should look closely at how they foster (or not) a favourable environment to promote these “fitness building blocks”. The word special in special forces has more to do with unusual (whatever is needed) utility and the special processes that allow for this utility. It goes without saying that SF should operate differently than the conventional army as its purpose/utility is different (note: if they start looking the same, SF must begin to rethink/reinvent itself in-line with the idea of “special purpose”.) SF must be allowed to design itself towards achieving its ‘particular’ purpose, as described in the paper ‘Defining the Special in Special Forces’. Process is key to purpose. If organizations have a different purpose – yet “the system” demands identical processes; there is serious disjunction. Inevitably, in institutions lacking low-level stressors (in the military context: actual threat), process begins to control purpose. This may be one of the primary explanations for the “conventionalization of SF” we have been seeing over the past decade in many western militaries. Purpose must determine process, not vice versa.
As mentioned, purpose must be clear to all in the SF community, and it begins by defining special. It is advisable that every unit work out and propose their purpose to the wider organization with clear and precise definitions. No one within an organization should not be able to answer the question of their purpose; just like no one in an SF team is unable to cite their given mission word per word. With this clarity – it may be the secret for unlocking procedures that enhance purpose rather than restricting it.
Variation, Selective Pressure, and Replication
How can SF be like an organism with high variation? As in all academic discussions concerning the handling of complexity, navigating uncertainty, and/or coping effectively with unknowns, diversity inevitably surfaces to the top. In evolutionary terms, organizations with more diversity represent a larger trait-pool which results in a higher rate of mutations. In other words, the more traits you have – physical (more important in an organism) and cognitive (more important in an organization) – the wider the scope of thought. More ideas, more challenges to status quo, more innovation. Tactical surprise (50% of victory) and innovation (in method or technology) are intimately connected throughout history. SF needs high variation within all its ranks. SF needs to set a culture where people learn new things all the time. Where differing ideas are encouraged, embraced, and promoted (lip service can do nothing against entrenched culture). Where and when “non-typical thinkers” are shunned or promoted “alternatively” (read lesser importance), it takes the SF another level down in its ability to out-match competitors. The moment organizations reflexively punish error and failure, they degrade the power of variation[ii].
It is noteworthy that the military, with its rank/promotion-culture (which greatly incentivizes “looking-up” and being primarily concerned about saying and doing the “right” things in order to receive the resulting cultural and institutional advantages – present in almost every military school for officers, NCO and soldier alike) has a “design flaw” in regards to stimulating variation/diversity. It remains, by and large, a deep entrenched culture of uniformity.
How can SF be like an organism with high selective pressure? Generally, weaker sides in war – irregular or regular – adapt faster because stronger sides (in number and material) apply a greater selection pressure on them than the other way around. In war or competition, selective pressure is natural; as it is in any animal ecosystem where survivability is consistently tested. Businesses, especially start-ups, feel a tremendous amount of selective pressure obliging adaptation, re-evaluation, re-marketing, scaling up or down etc. How can a SF organism create similar selective pressure without necessarily having to be at war? This is an open question, but one that merits attention. Perhaps for SF in peacetime, this competitive playing field must be simulated/stimulated. Having skin in the game, is central to the idea of selective pressure. The more there is skin in the game, the more the organism/organization is molded by selective pressure; a pressure which is always reflective of current events/circumstances. Tactically, increased training with an OPFOR[iii] that actually fights, that actually has time to build up defences, that can use similar technology as those used by contemporary adversaries is a (simulated) step in the right direction. (Strongly consider the development of a specialized OPFOR platoon – or private company service – that studies adversaries of all kinds to replicate their fighting methods.)
Much wisdom falls into line with this logic: difficulty wakes up the genius; sophistication is born out of hunger; necessity is the mother of invention. All these aphorisms reveal the cognitive nature of humankind – we do not change unless we must. If it’s not broken, why fix it? The further problem in many organizations is that of seniority. This tends to propagate the logic of yesterday into the present. The danger of being an organization without competitors (so to speak), is that selective pressure will only surface in war. As this paragraph is one of aphorisms – militaries tend to fight the last war for a reason. Imagine a car manufacturer with no competitors, no obligation to be constantly re-making itself or… perish. Of course, the military cannot be this or do much about its monopoly on the use of external force. What it can do however is counter as much as possible the decline of organisms that do not have any selective pressure. Pressure is a good thing for organizations – it should constantly seek it out. Asking external organizations[iv] to stress-test military/SF procedures, should be a standard operating procedure. Because we cannot always have adversaries keeping us on our toes, we must artificially create them. We must embrace that these things will bring-out weaknesses and dysfunction in our procedures and methods. In the SF, we must push to failure, we must learn to fight a stronger adversary; not a weaker one. This will all come down to our culture of training.
How can SF be like an organism with high replication? Experience with adaptation (agility), and matured knowledge (a knowledge that tends towards caution and guile) needs to percolate/spread throughout organizations. In an irregular warfare context, weaker sides are exposed to combat for longer as they fight on their home territory for years at a time[v], which generates increased survivability and learning. While stronger sides constantly rotate soldiers on tours to various regions and battlefields, staying for a short hand-over periods to rapidly pass on their 4-6 months of gained experience. This is an example that demonstrates the advantages of insurgents fighting on their home front – they stick around; their skills remain in the battlefield; and all those who join the fight learn from them replicating their survival mechanisms and effective lethality. Replicating behaviours and traits in western terms (where forces are mostly expeditionary) comes down to lesson identified and lessons learned. A more serious and concerted effort to document and disseminate lessons learned from missions and exercises is needed. Not only documenting them but finding methods/tools that encourage engagement. These documents must be living documents, constantly updated by new experiences gained by teams or individuals. We must find structural ways of passing on tactical DNA. Doing so will allow organizational growth not dependent on the tacit experience of a few individuals with years of operations (albeit incomparable with an insurgent fighter whose battlefield is his or her life). Documented errors and successes are of course entirely contingent on the unique context in which they occurred; but they do feed the imagination and provide reflection for improved planning and preparation.
All in all, variation, selective pressure, and replication largely determine an organism’s adaptability potential. Augmenting variation can take many forms in an organization, but this essay proposes a larger trait-pool which results in a higher rate of mutations – in other words, more types, more ideas, more challenges to status quo, more innovation. Things are changing too rapidly; the war being fought in Ukraine requires a thorough (re)analysis of SF capability in terms of heavy and light material, sensor integration, and detectable/detecting technologies (commercial low orbit satellites). Relevance should be a daily pondering for all military organizations, despite the entrenched institutional and historical culture of uniformity that surrounds us. High relevance must be the SF’s sword of Damocles. The idea of this sword is one of ceaseless pressure; difficult when the enemy we train against is most often designed to lose. Selective pressure has honed organisms to be survival machines for millions of years. Pressure forces organisms to adapt, to gain slight advantage as conditions change. Organisms that can detect and most rapidly make advantage of changing circumstances thrive. For the SF this is also understanding political and social shifts in our home nation and internationally. We must never be afraid to reinvent ourselves.
Selective pressure can be simulated in training, stress testing standard operating procedures and tactics, techniques, and procedures by external organizations or by replicating, as closely as possible, the full power (and even more) of possible adversaries. Finally, replication can be enhanced by improving structural ways of passing on tactical and operational DNA – throughout the entire chain of command. Lessoned learned must become an SOP before training (planning, preparing, actions on objective) and after training. Not as a nice-to-do (if logistics and maintenance have been completed on time), but as absolutely mandatory.
These three building blocks serve as an interesting basis of reflection for organizations who also must maintain the edge. The transferable logic between an organism and organization is very relevant. Military organizations are in a complex ecosystem where advantage should be a never ending pursuit. The characteristics that enhance adaptability must be thought of as pillars upon which an organization builds itself. Enhancing the mechanisms of variation, selective pressure, and replication should provide a constant bearing for organizations. It is a question of culture but also of selection, education, and even organizational design – the ultimate factor. More and more I am convinced that our military design is at the source of our difficulties in being able to convert tactical success into strategic victory. It is hard to separate design from result – if for decades Western forces have failed at winning wars with lasting favourable conditions as a result (for ourselves); and if for decades we have been looking at how our political or military decision-makers confuse policy with strategy or are not schooled enough in the changing characteristics of war; perhaps we are looking in the wrong places.
Further Personal Reflections on Pressure, Purpose and Process:
Naturally, in times of extended peace (cognitive ease), with little to no selective pressure, process tends to rule purpose. This brings attention to the relationship between process and purpose, spotlighting the need to inverse the tendencies of organisms and organizations lacking a good level of stress or threat in perception or reality. All organisms and organizations need pressure to remain alert. Without it, process (and navel gazing) will dominate concentration and effort. Empires have always fallen – since the dawn of time. Complacency and demise are inseparable partners. Keeping complacency at bay is not feasible when there is no perception of challenge or threat. Which is why, when there is no pressure, it must be simulated, it must be created, units must push to failure, pick themselves back up, learn, and push again but this time harder. There are real adversaries out there, our safe little world is not safe, it is challenged and will continue to be challenged. We protect it. The true reality of this duty is not felt enough, or at all, in our culture, at any level[vi]. This is dangerous, this is complacency.
The SF – and many other organizations – have (necessary) diverging purposes, “the system” must recognize this and facilitate the realization of these purposes with corresponding processes. While organizations themselves, and this is just as important, must sit down and precisely define their (specialized or special) purpose.
(See endnote ii and the upcoming article titled ‘Defining the Special in Special Forces’.)
[i] Dominic Johnson, “Darwinian Selection in Asymmetric Warfare: The Natural Advantage of Insurgents and Terrorists,” Journal of the Washington Academy of Arts and Sciences 95, no.3 (Fall 2009): 89-112.
[ii] This can easily be misunderstood. The purpose is not to reflexively punish/discipline errors, one must bear in mind “the first penguin” award. Some errors help the organization – and new discoveries without trial and error are impossible in the domain of warfare.
[iii] Opposition Force - Acting enemy force for animating training scenarios.
[iv] Eventually national private companies with veterans with whom strategic relationships are built or close allied nations – “fight” them, stress-test, see what happens when the simulated adversary is strong, creative and technologically advanced.
[v] David Kilcullen (2020), The Dragons and the Sakes (New York: Oxford University Press), p. 50.
[vi] When staff support refuses to send an armoured vehicle in an operation because the logistics is too “complicated”, you have understood well the rulership of process over purpose.
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Hey Steven, Thank you for…
Thank you for your comments/remarks and questions.
Will be difficult to go through all of them!
6. Ref Spec Ops (Macraven) - provides multiple examples of combining innovation with tactical surprise. WW2 - radios/tanks. Infact, it is hard to not think of a major victory in history where one side didn't bring in an "innovation"... which generated situational (even fundamental) surprise.
7. For sure these ideas apply far beyond SF.
9. Selection requirements in some SF organizations are high indeed. The idea in this essay is more concerned with the training and thinking post Q-course. The Q-course just ensures the right "raw material" but this is insufficient. Converting this raw material into a capable and especially "special" warfighting entity is what this essay is concerned about. Q-course is just the beginning, it is internal/isolated selective pressure. It must become external/adversary selective pressure post-Q-course.
10. Common aphorisms I have picked up left and right. Taleb mentions a few in Antifragile.
Not sure RIO? ROI?
I have never heard of quiet quitting - tell me more? :)
I think - based on several articles I have come across and people I have talked to - that most burn-outs are due to poor bosses/poor leadership. People need to feel validated, feel like they are bringing something, making a difference. If they do, they can work endlessly - my take ;)
Hi Pierre, After reading of…
After reading of your essay, few remarks/questions
1/ "Organizations must adapt rapidly, especially organizations that exist to protect their people and government" Isn't it applicable to most organizations? Eg the last 2 years: COVID, ever green blocking Suez, war, energy crisis, inflation, war for talent, CSR - ESG, etc.
2/ FYI "constantly changing threats and opportunities" Defining threats (> risks) and opportunities is since 2015 a requirement within ISO certification. > risk based thinking, how to deal with uncertainties. 3/"Purpose must determine process". ie start with why > how > what?
4/ "No one within an organization should not be able to answer the question of their purpose; just like no one in an SF team is unable to cite their given mission word per word." This is a problem within business, often the employees don't know the purpose, values, ...
5/ "it may be the secret for unlocking procedures that enhance purpose rather than restricting it." Procedures? Quid: relatedness?, etc.?
6/ "Tactical surprise (50% of victory) and innovation (in method or technology) are intimately connected throughout history". Source?
7/ "SF needs to set a culture where people learn new things all the time." Only within SF? Competence is one of the bars psychological needs in motivation.
8/ "The moment organizations reflexively punish error and failure, they degrade the power of variation" > psychological safety.
9/ "How can a SF organism create similar selective pressure without necessarily having to be at war?" Is selective pressure necessary within SF? Maybe it is necessary on a lower level? You already have a Q-course, last year only 3 people terminated, this year none has completed. After Q-course you already have one year of further training, and refresher courses, etc. Within SF you keep the standards instead of lowering them due to the fact of lack of people. Within SF you already have a culture of high performance, .... Compared to companies SF has ... high level of training, alignment, procedures, a clear purpose ...
10/ "difficulty wakes up the genius; sophistication is born out of hunger; necessity is the mother of invention" Source?
11/ "While stronger sides constantly rotate soldiers on tours to various regions and battlefields, staying for a short..." Quid: organizations > continuous changes in management. New CEO brings with him a new CFO, COO, etc.
12/ "A more serious and concerted effort to document and disseminate lessons learned from missions and exercises is needed." define serious and concerted? Within SF you already make After actions reports ... How much time is spent on preparation within SF? 30%? Compared to organizations ...
13/ "interesting basis of reflection for organizations who also must maintain the edge." Quid: are the success factors (clear vision, keeping the high standards, etc.) possible within organizations?
14/ What is the RIO?
15/ "All organisms and organizations need pressure to remain alert." Within organizations the number of dropouts (burnout, bore-out, stress, ...) was never that high. What about the new "hype" of quiet quitting?
Looking forward to read the next essay!