Small Wars Journal

The Theory of SOF: Generating the Fog of War or Conducting Military Statecraft?

Mon, 07/11/2022 - 12:02pm

The Theory of SOF:

Generating the Fog of War or Conducting Military Statecraft?

By Michael B. “Bulldog” Kelley and Greg E. Metzgar



Prior to 9-11, Special Operations Forces (SOF) were integrated into operations predominantly led by conventional forces. During the reestablishment period of formal SOF capability in the 1980s, the Service leadership required Congressional action to establish permanent and sustained SOF capabilities within their own formations. In 1987, U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) established its headquarters in Tampa, Florida, a first for the SOF community since the disbanding of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) at the end of World War II. Public Law 99-661, established in 1986 directed USSOOCM in Section 167 with the requirement to “develop strategy, doctrine, and tactics.” Arguably, USSOCOM has mastered the doctrine and tactics, but military leaders, SOF practitioners, and academics are still working to define an agreeable definition of strategy and theory of SOF.

            During the 1990s, SOF along with their conventional counterparts struggled to define doctrinal and strategic applications after the Cold War ended. In 1995, Major Ken Tovo, captured this challenge when observing that Army Special Forces have a “dual mission focus” to provide unconventional warfare (UW) and foreign internal defense (FID), and this gives senior military leaders an “indirect” capability to enable shaping the environment and providing capability below the threshold of war.[1] The Gulf War in 1991 marked the pinnacle of SOF integration into conventional operations, and arguably solidified their role in the coming decade due to the extreme versatility shown to them. Outside of the direct action and counterterrorism formations, the Army Special Forces, Civil Affairs, and Psychological Operations played major roles in providing geographical combatant commanders with unique capabilities not reticent in the conventional formations of the 1990s. Yair Ansbacher and Rom Schieifer noted the period from 1946 to 2001 as the “second age of SOF” where “SOF represented a governmental tool that may be overt or covert, designed to foment rebellion and create proxy and guerrilla forces, or to fight guerrilla forces to further national interests, while in both instances maintaining a degree of obscurity.”[2] These applications are warranting increased focus as SOF strategists and planners are adjusting to the new strategic challenges post Afghanistan and Iraq.

            The end of the Cold War, and now after two persistent decades of counterterrorism, direct action, and counterinsurgency, both the SOF and conventional formations are searching for the new strategy to address an era of strategic competition. This is focusing military strategists and political leaders in new “habits of strategic thinking” to address the uncertainty about the “potential threat or its operational conditions” especially in light of the reciprocal nature of strategic challenges—or said another way, what is old has become new again.[3] However, SOF theorists find themselves at an intersection where as Harold R. Winton notes, they must “define the field of study” and once defined, this can lead to how to categorize the strategy and operations.[4]

            B.A. Friedman notes, “War is a human phenomenon, executed by real people. Conducting it on the basis of erroneous assumptions and concepts is just as much a threat to their lives as the actions of the enemy force they encounter.”[5] Warfare brings out the most basic negative characteristics in Human beings.  …"As a total phenomenon its dominant tendencies always make war a paradoxical trinity- composed of primordial violence, hatred, and enmity, which are to be regarded as a blind natural force; of the play of chance and probability within which the creative spirit is free to roam; and of its element of subordination, as an instrument of policy, which makes it subject to reason alone."[6] (These can cause the military to lash out at the civilian populations, out of frustration or perceived lack of support).  The Theory of SOF is to use these attributes in a positive manner, in which the result is enemy paralysis in thought and action, which provides the Friendly Commander the distinct advantage in the Battle Space. Thus, Generating the Fog of War.

The Fog of War, is a term attributed to Carl Von Clausewitz, who stated that “The great uncertainty of all data in war is a peculiar difficulty, because all action must, to a certain extent, be planned in a mere twilight, which in addition not infrequently-like the effect of a fog or moonshine-gives things exaggerated dimensions and an unnatural appearance”[7]

            The theory is that SOF conducts missions and operations that generates this Fog of War. The result is an overload of situational information, in which the enemy experiences misperceptions, mental and physical exhaustion, misinformation, dealing with rumors, supplies disrupted in time and space to cause the most frustration at the soldier level, forcing incorrect assumptions into planning, overestimating their own abilities and then hitting soft spots to degrade confidence, disrupt their ability to correctly assess indicators or trends.   SOF is uniquely Trained, Educated, and Skilled in clouding the enemy commander’s vision, and effecting the enemies’ judgment to the point of operational paralysis. 

            Special Operations Forces generate the Fog of War, by energizing the Friction of War. This term is also attributed to Clausewitz. This term describes unexpected events of War.  It relates to the debilitating effects of combat on the human participants. These frictions are for the most part the inconsequential and trivial incidents that occur, produced by poor judgements by leaders, the soldier’s response to danger, and disorientating activities.  SOF with unconventional operational design and unconventional planning can create mission sets, task and purpose in which the strength of each SOF tribe can be utilized that enhances the Friction of War that when applied, without allowing the enemy to rest, results in the inability of the adversary to mitigate in their planning or decision making, which then allows the advantage to the Friendly commander and force, and leads to Domination of the decision cycle for the war or campaign.

            In the 1990’s, SOF worked to integrate itself into the Service and Joint Planning Process that was emerging after the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986 codified jointness as the new operational paradigm.  A great deal of the process that went into planning was an understanding of the Operational Environment and a full understanding of the enemy.  This distinction from being a part of the Conventional Force, is that SOF in particular are students of foreign cultures and languages, educated in the culture of the thoughts, food, pop culture, history and other aspects of reality that the enemy exists in and operates.  This deep knowledge of the causes of the conflict at a social level allows SOF to better understand the complex Human make up of conflict and the thoughts and action of the enemy. 

            Currently there is a debate on how the US will define its enemies in the future. The debate centers around the hypothesis that wars of the future will be conventional, and that SOF must be reduced in numbers and capability to make way for larger conventional forces and that SOF needs to become more conventional minded, and that last concept is being promoted by mid-grade SOF leaders along with the greater military.[8]   Yet, as of 2022, the last three major multinational conflicts of Yemen, Syria, and Ukraine are telegraphing that the future may not truly  be large scale conventional battle formations but small-scale unconventional operations using technology to enhance tactics and strategy, not replacing it.  The enemy should be defined as armed forces of a belligerent, or hostile government, armed anti-government forces, insurgents and their passive and active supporters, and large well-armed criminal gangs that act like police or military forces.  

            The success for any military Commander and their planners is the ability to correctly identify and assess the enemy, their TTPs, their use of weapon systems, and the operational environment. This takes mental agility, with true critical thinking skills coupled with a deep understanding of the enemy and ability to adapt to surprises and changes in the Operational Environment. Far too often, American Commanders and planners underestimate the creativity, motivation, determination, and abilities of our enemies.  Modern day and future enemies will be motivated by religious extremism, radical ideologies (based on conspiracy theories, and radical superstitions) ethnic and cultural fanatism, and alternative Political and Economic theory.  These adversaries generally have a complete disregard for International and National laws and Norms. [9]

            Our enemies in the future will use the Influencing technologies, such as mainstream and social media platforms to gain national, regional, and international sympathy and to proclaim the reasons for their “just” conflicts.  Without a true Psychological campaign to counter this propaganda and expose the lies and promote the truth of a situation, the populace, and even friendly politicians will most likely fall for the enemy’s propaganda. (Citation Needed) Making use of large Conventional Forces difficult or impossible.  If forces are committed without a full understanding of the enemy and a true set of Objectives and Military End State, forces will start to question the reasons for fighting.  When there are no true, clear, Objectives, Commanders and Leaders become timid.  SOF planners are educated to develop clear “Objectives” and “Understanding” where they fit into the Operational picture. Through proper planning the ambiguity of the “Why” is mitigated, because most SOF activities must answer the “Why” of a mission in relation to the Human factors, or they will simply fail.

When we look at a Theory of SOF, we must understand the aspect of/ or category of War we are operating.  Again, this is a turning away from Convention to study the Human things.  SOF wages war in the following environments:

  • The Political Environment
  • The Intelligence Environment
  • The Military Environment
  • The Law-and-Order Environment
  • The Populace Environment
  • The Economic Environment
  • The Perception Environment [10]

If one were to cross refence these Environments one would discover that the SOF Core Missions and Tasks correspond to these very well.

Photo 1

    SOF can purposely conduct operations in all of the above Environments, and achieve success when Operations are properly planned and that the Operational Design is properly thought out.


    Victory will never be truly cheap, but the value of SOF is that it can be done with a less expensive Force and much smaller footprint. (Insert Cohen quote) Thus, to achieve victory   a realistic design, with well-equipped forces properly trained, sustained and led, with a deployment and employment focused on the operational objectives is a must.


    The First step in conduct SOF Operational Design is to focus on intel and information that truly articulates the Operational Environment, and the process of Joint Planning. The SOF planner must understand and get correct the Centers of Gravity.  It is crucial to assess the enemy’s Center of Gravity. Clausewitz stated that the center of gravity is the “hub of all power and movement on which everything depends…the point at which all of our energies should be directed” [11] This can be especially true when conducting Conventional Operations against a Conventional Force, but SOF conducts cognitive maneuver in the Human domain[12].  Therefore, SOF planners need to view the Centers of Gravity through that lens. So, for SOF planners they should consider a Trinity of Gravity.[13]


    In the modern conflicts SOF finds itself engaging an enemy that uses their Tactics Techniques and Procedures, not to dominate key terrain, nor to dominate and destroy the enemy in large conventional maneuver, but to erode and collapse the pillars of the State to bring about their victory.  Thus, the terrain consists of the population that are passive and active supporters and the rural or urban ground over which it moves and operates. These forces require access to information, intelligence, recruits, weapons and above all funding. This reality morphs the center of gravity into a Trinity of Gravity, consisting of the leadership, popular and moral support, financial and other support, complicating the identification and destruction of the enemy’s center of gravity.  This requires a multi-dimensional approach and mainly an Indirect Approach.  It also requires that Victory be achieved, or the Conflict will remain protracted and eventually the enemy will simply outlast the friendly force and achieve their victory. 


    In this Multi-Domain Operational Design and Approach, the Lines of Effort and Lines of Operation for SOF must be aimed at influencing, degrading, and neutralizing(defeating) the:

  • Leadership and its forces
  • The populace from which the enemy is drawing its manpower, whether coercively or voluntarily
  • The financial and economic resources that sustain the force.


    This SOF Multi-Domain campaign should focus on:


  1. Offensive Actions as soon as possible, This would be an enemy centric Line of Operation or Effort, in which Human and technical assets, resources, and sources are used to exploit where the enemy is or was, how he is organized, and what his plans and TTPs are.  This is intelligence heavy along this line.  Offensive action is not just conducting conventional military actions, it is using the forces available (Military, Governmental and Commercial).  Offensive Actions for the SOF planner and thinker should not be boxed into the idea that only Military activities are Offensive Actions.  Remember, the goal is to mess with the adversary’s decision making and produce operational paralysis.


  1. Support, which is a population centric Line of Effort or Operation.  This is when the active and passive supporters, who provide recruits and material, are influenced through actions and activities to degrade their faith and motivation to support the enemy. This can be done through addressing the needs of the population in areas of support, safeguarding civilians, conducting economic opportunities, infrastructure building or rebuilding, and ensuring the partner forces respects their own citizens.  This can be categorized as an interagency approach and unconventional statecraft.  As opposed to Conventional strategies of warfighting, SOF conducts mainly indirect approaches to conflict or coercion. SOF conduct “shaping” (now called Steady State) operations, which relies less on threats, demonstrations, and use of violence and more on attraction, persuasion, and legitimacy. SOF relies more on soft power than on hard power, this approach contradicts the conventional wisdom of the purpose militaries serve. SOF professionals and operator dynamics conform more to Statecraft than Conventional Warfighting.


  1. Financial Disruption, funding centric. The ability of the enemy to sustain itself through the support of a diaspora, International Donations, and Nation-state funding. This approach must be properly planned and executed by the Friendly nations and the Partner Nation, this strategy must incorporate those agencies that have authorities to block, confiscate and turn off the funding to the point that the enemy cannot replace captured or destroyed equipment, and sustain military and propaganda operations. 


       These Lines must be executed rapidly, even while SOF is building partner capacity and conducting Train, Advise, Assist and Accompany operations.


       The Theory of SOF explains the why and how of SOF activities and operations.  In many cases SOF are conducting Unconventional Statecraft. The skills of Statecraft are analogous to the Core SOF skills of engaging and influencing civilian populations, SOF understanding of human factors and the ability to incorporate those factors into planning to conduct partnership activities and operations through unified action partners or location populations to fulfil Strategic and Operational level goals.  SOF must also engage in developing a Theory of Success or Victory.  This means that the SOF planner/operator must constantly think in Ends, Ways and Means.  What can SOF do to disrupt the enemy’s mental processes and cause operational paralysis.  The definition of Theory is “a coherent group of propositions formulated to explain a group of facts or phenomena in the natural world and repeatedly confirmed through experiment or observation” [14] The Theory of SOF is based on the right personality traits of the SOF operator and is based on what SOF does well;  SOF should be employed to conduct the operations that lead to unconventional statecraft and  at the same time exaggerate the friction of war to fully generate the Fog of War for the enemy and be so disruptive that the enemy cannot regain control of the decision-making cycle causing them to make mistakes, lose their understanding of the operational environment, forcing the enemy to fight the conflict on our terms.   

“The views expressed are those of the author. They do not represent the views of the Department of Defense,  USSOCOM, JSOU, the US Army, or any other organization.”

1 Tovo, Kenneth E. “Special Forces’ Mission Focus for the Future” (master’s thesis, School of Advanced Military Studies, 1995), 2.

2 Ansbacher, Yair and Schieifer, R. (2022) The three ages of modern Western special operations forces, Comparative Strategy, 41:1, 38.

3 Milevski, Lukas (2017). Respecting Strategic Agency: On the Categorization of War in Strategy, Joint Forces Quarterly, 86, 3rd Quarter, 37,

4 Friedman, B.A. (2021). On Operations: Operational Art and Military Disciplines, Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 4.

[5]Friedman, 7.

[6] Clausewitz, Carl Von, 1987, On War, Hertfordshire, Wordsworth Edition, page 89.

[7] Clausewitz, Carl Von, 1997, On War, Hertfordshire, Wordsworth Edition page 90.

[8]  Horn, Bernd  Colonel, “When Cultures Collide: The Conventional Military / SOF Chasm”  Canadian Military Journal Autumn 2004

[9] Barlow, Eben, Composite Warfare, 30 Degree South Publishers Ltd. South Africa, Copyright 2015, page 81

[10] Ibid page 83

[11]Clausewitz ibid page 163

[12]Warburg Robert A. Cognitive Maneuver for the Contemporary and Future Strategic Operating Environment (White Paper) 21 June 2016

[13] Barlow, Ibid page 36

[14]  Scientific Theory

About the Author(s)

Greg E. Metzgar was a career Special Forces Officer and currently a PhD Candidate at Liberty University, who served a majority of his career in 7th Special Forces Group with multiple Advising tours in Latin America. Mr. Metzgar has served at Joint Forces Command and was a lead planning for the introduction of Special Forces into Afghanistan in 2001 at USCENTCOM. Mr. Metzgar is a Graduate of the Air Force War College and He served as Professor of Joint Special Operations and Planning at Joint Special Operations University. Currently he is a Director in the J3 Joint Collective Training Branch at USSOCOM.

Michael B. “Bulldog” Kelley (Lieutenant Colonel Ret. US Army) retired from the U.S. Army in 2020 after serving a total of 32 years as a commission officer, with almost 25 years in Special Operations.  

Prof. Kelley was commissioned as an Infantry Officer in 1987 and served in multiple Infantry Mech and Light Tactical and Training units. In 1995, Prof. Kelley attended the FA 39 PSYOP and Civil Affairs Course at the JFK Special Warfare Center and School. Ft. Bragg, NC. He served in multiple Planning and Operations Officer positions in SOF and Conventional Units. Served with USSOCOM, USASOC, JFK Special Warfare Center and School, 5th Special Forces Group (A), 3rd Special Forces Group (A), 1st Special Forces Group (A), Task Force-N, CJTF-Counter Terrorism Horn of Africa, USSOCCENT and SOJTF-A.

While in Uniform, Prof. Kelley deployed on six Combat Tours, conducted nine Operational Tours, and was stationed in Korea for a 14-month tour.  He spent years as a military advisor for foreign SOF, teaching Special Forces Officers at the Egyptian Training Authority in Cairo Egypt and was primary advisor to several Provencal Police Chiefs, Provencal Governors and National Directorate of Security Chief in RC East, and RC North,  Afghanistan.

Prof. Kelley’s final assignment while serving in uniform was as the Deputy Division Chief of the Civil Affairs Operations Division, Operations Directorate, Interagency Action Group USCENTCOM, His responsibilities included conducting the day-to-day operations of the three branches of the Civil Affairs Division. Conducted planning and support operations for the Counter ISIS campaign in Syria.                                      

Following his retirement Prof. Kelley was hired to serve as an Instructor in the Special Operations Planner’s Course Joint Special Operations University. 


Active Member, American Indian Association

Active Member of the Association on American Indian Affairs

Life Member, Special Forces Association Chapter 28 “The Devil’s Brigade” Memorial


Active Member, Academy of Political Science

American Bar Association Member

Executive Officer for The Phantom Airborne Brigade