Small Wars Journal

SOF Operational Design and Strategic Education for the 21st Century Warrior-Scholar

Mon, 06/12/2017 - 1:25am

SOF Operational Design and Strategic Education for the 21st Century Warrior-Scholar

Tony Rivera and Robert Schafer


In August of 2011 a special working group was assembled at the Pinewood Campus of the Joint Special Operations University (JSOU) on MacDill, Air Force Base in Florida. In attendance were “Eleven participants from various SOF and academic backgrounds... the SOF Chairs from PME institutions; Senior Fellows from the JSOU Strategic Studies Department; and other academic and strategic thinkers with an interest in SOF’s strategic utility.”[1] The attendees were given three very difficult questions to answer: What is Special Operations Forces (SOF) power? What is the theory and art of SOF power? How can SOF power be better implemented by civilian leadership? “The workgroup confirmed the Special Operations community lacks a unifying theory and associated literature on how Special Operations fit into national security policy even as preference for their use as an instrument of national policy increases.”[2] The recommendations were thoughtful, serious, and worthy of further consideration. What was striking, however, was the virtual absence of the mention of SOF Operational Design.

The United States Army Special Operations Command (USASOC) has been taking the lead in answering some of these questions through their development of SOF Operational Design. SOF Operational Design emerged from the work done by the J-7 Operational Design Planner’s Handbook[3] and the School of Advanced Military Studies’ Art of Design curriculum—a curriculum that embraces the complex adaptive nature of the battlefield and the operational environment. “These continually emerging realities require adaptive leadership techniques, new strategic and tactical cognitive approaches, and organizational learning methodologies to keep pace with the multiple adversaries who are confronting our country. These lethal assemblages have a strategic perspective and are using asymmetric approaches to leverage the seam between traditional warfare and law enforcement activities of the United States and her allies.”[4] This approach is captured in the SOF Operational Design Planner’s Handbook, v. 1.9 issued the 27th of August 2013. It echoes ARSOF 2022 in saying, “Operating in the Human Domain is a core competency for SOF and we are uniquely suited for successful operations or campaigns to win population centric conflicts.”[5] Understanding that the Human Domain is a core competency of SOF and that the Human Domain is a complex and adaptive environment, SOF Operational Design articulates a methodology for designing operations and operational campaigns that fundamentally transforms the ways in which SOF designs, plans, and engages in operations.

SOF Operational Design articulates that SOF power is the ability to understand and influence change in the Human Domain. “The Human Domain is about developing understanding of, and nurturing influence among critical populaces.”[6] SOF Operational Design also has a theory and art for doing so—operational design is history, philosophy, theory, practice, and art. Yet, while expertly solving two of the major problems the workshop attendees addressed—what is SOF power and what is the theory and art of SOF Power, SOF Operational Design, being appropriately focused on operations, does not account adequately for bridging operational design and strategic design, which means that the civilian leadership are not made adequately aware of the true nature of the force they are relying upon more than ever. Further, it is a SOF truth that SOF require non-SOF support.

The more SOF moves toward operational design, the farther SOF moves away from traditional education. In doing so, however, SOF has, as an unintentional consequence, distanced itself from the training that most people in higher education receive today. This suggests to the authors a bifurcated solution: First, design methodology must be taught at the strategic level. This means standard strategic programs must adapt to 21st century realities. Curricula in strategic studies must embrace complexity in curriculum development if they are to help their students grapple with the real-world, non-linear conditions they face. Second, this education cannot be delivered through traditional methods; it requires a newly adaptive education program also pitched at the strategic level.  

The Human Domain as a Complex Adaptive System

ARSOF 2022 defines the Human Domain as “the totality of the physical, cultural and social environments that influence human behavior in a population-centric conflict.”[7] Yet, this deceptively simple formulation reveals myriad levels of intertwined human experience. The physical can include geographical, infrastructural, and economic productive factors that define large swaths of the human experience. Culture includes such difficult to grapple with realities such as languages and dialects, religions and sects, ideologies and narratives. The social includes the political, the religious, issues of gender, human sexuality, and so on. To imagine being able to make this totality a core competency is staggering. The enormity of the task is mitigated by two factors: 1) the ability to properly characterize the phenomena in question and 2) developing the right tools to engage the phenomena.

The terminology and concepts of complexity science are used throughout the literature describing the current and future operating environment (FOE). ARSOF 2022 states that “As a force, we must continuously learn, anticipate, and evolve in order to defeat an adaptive enemy and the uncertain threats of the 21st century. Without question, over the next decade, we will face complex challenges that will test the mettle of our force.”[8] And from U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), “Given the increasing complexity and uncertainty in the global environment, it is imperative USSOCOM become more agile, even more flexible, and ready for a broader range of contingencies.”[9] Furthermore, the National Military Strategy states that “In this interdependent world, the enduring interests of the United States are increasingly tied to those of other state and non-state actors. The complexity of this global system and the challenges therein demand that we—the Joint Force—think anew about how we lead.”[10] Thus, there is a clear need to develop innovative leaders and optimize human performance. The U.S. Training and Doctrine Command understands this gap and claims that “decentralized operations in complex environments require competent leaders and cohesive teams that thrive in conditions of uncertainty”[11] (emphasis added).

To accomplish the goals that are clearly necessitated by this view of the world, there must be an understanding of complexity, not as metaphor, but as science, what Antoine Bousquet refers to as Chaoplexic Warfare.

The specific ideas brought to bear on military affairs have evolved alongside the theoretical developments of science, and four distinct regimes of the scientific way of warfare will be distinguished here: mechanistic, thermodynamic, cybernetic and Chaoplexic warfare. Each of these regimes is closely associated to a paradigmatic technology which dominated the contemporaneous historical period both as a tool and as a general explanatory model for the essential workings of the world—respectively the clock, the engine, the computer and the network.[12]

Bousquet is certainly aware of the network-centric approach to dealing with complexity that permeates the literature today. He makes the important point, however, that it is still largely tied to the previous cybernetic paradigm. That is, the linking of human to technology and the immensity of data available is seen by some as the way forward, while it is in fact, scientifically speaking, a relic of the 1970s and the cybernetic revolution. Data accumulation and sensor linkages can be as immensely helpful in the battlefield as in the Wall Street trading floor where the quality, quantity, and speed of information could make a huge difference between life and death and winning or losing millions of dollars. Yet, both Quantum and Complexity Sciences have proved that data cannot overcome non-linearity and emergence—critical components of complexity and complex adaptive systems (CAS).

CAS is an amalgam of theories such as self-organization, feedback loops, non-linearity, and emergence. Self-organization is the principle that the component parts of the system organize in a particular way, according to particular rules of the system and dynamics interior to the component, that attempting to manage or control that process from a central point is difficult if not impossible, and often counterproductive. Feedback from the system, from other component parts of the system, or from interior processes of the agent itself, create changes in the agent that can, in turn, create changes in the environment or network.           

Non-linearity is fundamentally a mathematical principle, but the idea is that small events can have seemingly disproportionate results, or that actions will have unintended consequences. An example being that a man setting himself on fire in Tunis seems to result in massive protests across North Africa and parts of the Middle East. These first three points are difficult to manage, predict, but then again, humans, as individuals or as groups, are not billiard balls, they think, react, and sometimes in unpredictable ways. The final point, emergence, requires careful consideration. There is a particular relationship among the components of a system. For example, assume a system is at equilibrium. The introduction of another element can be absorbed by the system with no change, produce moderate change, seem to produce no change, or serve as a catalyst for major change, this depends on several factors. What CAS research has revealed is that the non-linear effects of feedback loops often self-organize the system to produce new emergent properties that were not there before. These emergences often reshape the entire system. It is for this reason, primarily, that most scientists working in CAS use models to forecast events—the chimera of point prediction is often inaccurately ascribed to modelers; given the factors discussed above modelers generally eschew prediction for probability forecasting. Being able to understand and operate well within the Human Domain through these concepts will bring certain key advantages.

  • First, while networks are very important, not everything is a network or part of the network. CAS theory empowers seeing the whole environment as a system of systems and not just the interlinked parts.
  • Second, CAS are dynamic systems that are characterized by the above described processes and mechanisms. A thorough understanding of the whole system, and not just the linked parts, or not just the history, or not just the violent extremist organization, allows for influence in myriad ways. It is also important to note that a feature of CAS is that actions will have unintended consequences, sometimes dynamic, but this may not always be the case.
  • Third, the processes and system states of CAS are longitudinal. This is very apparent in the Human Domain. Sudden changes can occur with no seemingly rational explanation. Something we expect to have a dramatic change produces only a minor ripple, at the time, but later cascades.
  • However, the greatest advantage is that CAS science and theory is most efficacious in providing techniques for a) navigating in areas of dense information b) areas where information is missing, c) gaining more information about a system d) forecasting how the system will likely change over time, and e) reducing uncertainty in systems that display seemingly repetitive information.

CAS science emerged from the efforts of scientists attempting to grapple with the complexity of information in systems. Therefore, the central point of focus here is information. The term “fog of war,” controversially attributed to Clausewitz, captures the essential point. In strategy, the science of the application of power, there is always uncertainty. There is uncertainty about the other’s will, intent, and capability. There is, too, uncertainty of one’s own will, intent, and capability—especially over time. The better one’s information—the less one’s uncertainty—the greater is one’s chance of success, barring accidents and other unforeseeable events. The idea that the amount of information determines the complexity of the system is central to complexity science. For some complexity scientists, the very notion of complexity is about information, “The systems with which science deals differ in the amount of information required for their description. That is, they differ in ‘complexity.’”[13]

The Human Domain as CAS reveals itself in terms of dynamic social processes and mechanisms. It is through the understanding of the Human Domain as CAS that information is gained and processed. This is a necessary first step to execute the power of SOF: the art of influence to adjust, fine tune, disrupt, or break the processes and mechanisms of the Human Domain as CAS, with a light footprint. For example, think of a twelve man ODA as a complex adaptive system (a self-contained force) within a larger CAS (the Human Domain) that enables us to think about the feedback loops, non-linear effects, self-organization and emergent properties as strategic values.

Special Warfare, on the one hand, is about achieving a system-wide effect, achieved through influencing and leveraging component parts of a system to create a desired feedback response—an emergent state. If the information (model) of the system is correct where and when what element of the system should be targeted to achieve broad systemic effect should be clearer and more efficacious. Thus, it becomes critical to understanding the Human Domain’s systemic structure, it’s self-organizing feedback loops—whether symbolically, linguistically, economically, politically, socially, or whatever combination of these and other elements—that will determine outcomes, or emergent effects, that enable ever-more-accurate forecasting.

Surgical Strike, on the other hand, is a focused leverage point where similar influence, albeit primarily but never solely kinetic, is brought to bear towards more narrow and specific ends, or in support of the larger goals of special operations in general.  

Knowledge reduces the lack of information that is the true enemy in conflict. The SOF art of power is to be part of the CAS just enough so that information about the system does not rely strictly on electronic means, or even intelligence in the traditional sense. The SOF art of power is to be a system within a system, to know the system and how it will move from being within it, part of it, to feel it, to know it. Thus, terms like intuition and instinct—tacit knowledge—become key markers of CAS thinking, as they are of SOF Power. To those trained in the world of data points and predictability this is uncomfortable, maybe even unscientific, but the world of science has long understood the limits of traditional definitions of knowledge and information. Chaos, complexity, quantum mechanics, all deal with uncertainty because uncertainty, as a condition of the real world, can neither be wished away nor overcome with electronics, technology, or the accumulation of data, precisely because the non-linearity and emergent effects that complexity deals with preclude these standard methods.

Information, that which we can know to be certain, can be known in two distinct ways: explicitly and tacitly. “Tacit knowledge is creaturely skillful phenomenological knowledge. Human creatures know they have it, and exult in its expression (as skillful being in the world), and in creative and skillful living generally. This is language as semiosis which is not reducible to works, but which is embodied in acts.”[14] This symbolic grammar is the very stuff of culture, social structures, and the Human Domain. This is the true power of SOF, who experience and embody tacit knowledge. What SOF Operational Design does so very well is take that tacit knowledge and leverage it to operational success.

Reducing Uncertainty in Antifragile Systems

Tacit knowledge is useful to military leaders and usually drives the decision-making process, but it does not and should not determine what is decided. Thus, as information is known to be certain, the value of information in non-linear systems needs to be understood in order for the SOF operator to deftly recognize how feedback mechanisms actually can reduce the uncertainty in the decision-making process. Dr. Charles Thomas Fingar, the former Deputy Director of National Intelligence for Analysis, states that “knowing more and having better understanding of the issues and drivers that shape events does not guarantee good decisions or successful policies, but it does improve the odds.”[15] This should be understood as cognitive understanding of the Human Domain. Reducing uncertainty is not about predicting outcomes. Reducing uncertainty is recognizing that information present in non-linear systems can explain how actors within these systems tend to behave with seemingly random feedback.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb further claims that “the idea that systems may need some stress and agitation has been missed by those who grasp it in one area and not in another.”[16] Context is important, in this case, because some SOF operators, for example, can understand an idea in one domain, such as marksmanship, and fail to recognize it in another, such as grand strategy. The idea that creating pedagogy in an education system that benefits from disorder is not unique. In fact, humans will often fail to understand that which they cannot place into context, thus the need to develop and implement curricula that places the SOF operator out of his normal comfort zone is not just needed, it is quite overdue. The success of the 21st Century Warrior Scholar is inherent in the mental agility to reduce uncertainty in non-linear systems, while keeping the information within these systems in context to the Human Doman in which the operator exists.


Since SOF Operational Design articulates that SOF power is the ability to understand and influence the Human Domain, then SOF Operational Design is also theory and art. Yet, while this addresses two major problems referenced above—what is SOF power and what is the theory and art of SOF Power, SOF Operational Design, as we noted focuses on operations, and does not account for bridging operational design and strategic design, leaving many strategic planners, particularly civilian leaders, largely unaware of the true nature of the force they are relying upon more than ever.

Therefore, we argue, it is necessary to develop and deliver strategic design education, in order to bridge the gap between operational and strategic design and between SOF and civilian partners. Such a curriculum would engage standard philosophy, history, and theory as generally addressed in strategic education, but would root this education in the science of complexity. Further, introduction to the tools commonly used by complexity scientists would enhance SOF power. Lastly, the need for bridging the understanding between civilian partners and SOF, an ever-present and growing necessity, suggests that this education be sponsored in civilian academic institutions of higher learning with civilian and SOF students working in teams to solve real-world, complex, and wicked problems. Such a program of study is currently being developed at Duke university’s Sanford School of Public Policy, and it is based precisely on the needs, science, and approaches outlined in this article.

End Notes

[1] Joseph Celeski, "Sof-Power Workshop a Way Forward for Special Operations Theory and Strategic Art " (MacDill AFB, Florida Pinewood Campus: Joint Special Operations University 2011), 7.

[2] Ibid., 3.

[3] "Planner's Handbook for Operational Design V 1.0," ed. Joint Chiefs of Staff (Suffolk, Virginia: Joint Staff, J-7, Joint and Coalition Warfighting 2011).

[4] Dr. Alex Ryan, "Art of Design: Student Text Version 2.0," (School of Advanced Military Studies, N.D.), ii.

[5] "Arsof 2022," Special Warfare Special Issue(N.D.): 7.

[6] Ibid

[7] Ibid

[8] Ibid

[9] "Socom 2020: Forging the Tip of the Spear," ed. United States Special Operations Command (N.D.).

[10] "The National Security Strategy of the United States of America 2011: Redefining America's Military Leadership," ed. Joint Chiefs of Staff (Washington, D.C. 2011).

[11]  TRADOC Pamphlet 525-3-1 The U.S. Army Operating Concept Win in a Complex World (Fort Eustis: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2014): 20.

[12] Chaoplexic Warfare 918 Antoine Bousquet, "Chaoplexic Warfare or the Future of Military Organization," International Affairs 84, no. 5 (2008). P. 918.

[13] Marcelo Alonso, "Introduction," in Organization and Change in Complex Systems, ed. Marcelo Alonso (New York: Paragon House, 1990). p. viii.

[14] Wendy Wheeler, The Whole Creature: Complexity, Biosemiotics and the Evolution of Culture (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 2006).

[15] Thomas Fingar, Reducing Uncertainty: Intelligence Analysis and National Security. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011): 35.

[16]  Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder. (New York: Random House, 2014): 38.


About the Author(s)

Dr. Tony Rivera, is a visiting assistant professor at Duke University’s Social Science Research Institute, a Strategic Advisor to the U.S. Army Special Operations Command, and a Core Research Fellow with the Triangle Institute for Security Studies. He is the founder and director of the Laboratory for Unconventional Conflict Analysis and Simulation (LUCAS), a computational security studies lab. Dr. Rivera received his degree in Political Science and International Relations from the University of Delaware. His dissertation, The Complexity of Iranian Foreign Policy: the politics of fear, interest, and honor utilizes complex adaptive systems and phenomenological theoretical approaches along with computational and interpretive methodologies to investigate and understand the role of honor in Iran’s nuclear negotiations with the West.

Robert Schafer is a senior non-commissioned officer in Civil Affairs and former deputy director of the Civil Military Advisory Group in Washington D.C. Over a long career, he has deployed extensively to Iraq as well as to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Qatar, Kuwait, and Somalia.  He is a graduate of the National Defense University with a Master of Arts in Strategic Security Studies. He also graduated from the University of Illinois at Chicago with a Master of Education and a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature.  His current research interest focuses on special warfare in non-linear systems.



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