Peace, Art and … Special Operations
Brian S. Petit
It is early 2014 and the United States is surrounded by war. Iraq is behind us, Afghanistan and Libya are beside us, and ahead of us lay a number of regions in turmoil, with Syria and Egypt topping the list. With persistent talk of military actions and war, we need an intensified conversation about military options and peace.
Warren Buffett said “Most people are interested in stocks when everyone else is. The time to get interested in stocks is when no one else is.” With wars simmering on all sides, Buffett’s contrarian logic has great strategic wisdom. So in this moment of war, let’s get interested in peace. Let’s be further contrarian by examining the role of the notoriously lethal US Special Operations Forces (SOF) in peacetime, or at least non-wartime, environments.
The post-Iraq and Afghanistan US national security environment is predictably yearning for a renewed era of engagement. Engagements, described as “the active participation of the United States in relations beyond our borders,” are the centerpiece of the current (2010) US National Security Strategy. The desire to exert American influence through engagement reflects the foreign policy guidance of The White House and, arguably, the mood of a war-weary American public. Yet a key question remains: How are engagements designed, arranged, and implemented to accomplish US policy goals and strategic aspirations abroad?
Engagements occur where the US is in dialogue with allies, partners, friends, and competitors in reasonably normal diplomatic relations. In military parlance, engagements occur in Phase Zero, the pre-crisis environment in which state relations are relatively peaceful and routine. Beyond Phase Zero lies the military phases that represent an escalation of conflict: Phase I (Deter), Phase II (Seize the Initiative), and Phase III (Dominate). Phase Zero then, is a slang descriptor for both the actions and the environment in which the US pursues its strategic interests prior to any act of war.
Closer to Peace than War
Although economic, diplomatic and informational elements of US national power generally take precedence in Phase Zero, the US military plays a significant role in peacetime foreign engagement. Among the US military options to engage foreign partners are US SOF. US Army SOF includes Special Forces, Civil Affairs and Military Information Support; US Navy SOF is comprised of SEALs and specialized maritime capabilities; and from all armed services come skilled aviators and counterterror forces. Public knowledge of US SOF is centered on tales of derring-do and inspired stories of lethal military prowess. But there is another story to be told about SOF that is less sexy but more central to the national security interests of the United States.
Specially selected, culturally attuned, and language trained US SOF operate in small teams with select, vetted host nation security forces. Very often, these Phase Zero engagements are in and among local populations with committed, military partners. At other times, engagements unfold with potential partners who are judged to be less than ideal. In such cases, these US SOF engagements are exploratory in nature and can be expanded or retracted according to partner suitability and US policy aims. When engaging new, potential partners, US SOF engagements do not represent deep policy commitments; by design, they are limited policy expressions that start where the pavement stops. Subsequently, the assessments derived from special operations engagements help guide policy decisions about expanding, contracting, or retracting relations with putative partners.
Special operations engagements range from simple tactical-level training (marksmanship, radio operation and communications, medical training, small unit tactics) to more sophisticated topics like armed forces professionalization, security philosophies, and institution building. A typical engagement might last six weeks and involve twelve to twenty US personnel. When performed correctly, these exchanges are both transactional and relational – delivering mutually beneficial exchanges (finite) while deepening the trust and partnership required for true strategic relationships (infinite).
Enter Operational Art
In Phase Zero, highly skilled US military capabilities are required but capabilities alone can only take the US so far. A closer look reveals a compelling problem: Phase Zero military engagements lack a coherent operational art, the sound link between tactics and strategy. While many military operations are physics-based problems of time, space, and capability projection, the application of military power to solve problems does, in fact, take a great deal of creativity, design, and even intuition; thus, the term art.
How could the US Armed Forces, 238 years old, and with few global peer competitors, lack an operational art? To be clear, there are volumes of operational art. But operational art principally exists for the type of warfare where two military foes duel, within a bounded realm, intent on the harmonious synchronization of maneuver, firepower, and logistics with the singular purpose of destroying an opposing armed force. In Phase Zero, no such contest exists. Without this contest, boundaries are less clear, foes are uncertain, and military options are radically reduced. Subsequently, traditional military operational art often becomes inert. For the US to fully maximize engagements in the pursuit of its strategy, the US military, within an interagency team, requires a revised, modernized operational art.
In Phase Zero, policy and diplomacy are the dominant disciplines – and should be. In this setting, the military operational artist is, appropriately, more confined and lacks a free hand to creatively apply military effects. Thus, in peacetime environments, military art options are limited. But complaining about such restrictions misplaces the desire for military efficacy with the need for policy supremacy. Military actions are expressions of policy and need to be calibrated and applied correctly to achieve policy aims. But even when these principles are understood, tensions are inevitable. Foreign policy, incremental in application, often produces a nebulous framework to guide military actions. And the military artist, by his nature, seeks those free, unfettered arenas to unfurl the flag and put full military capabilities into play. Lacking a foe to defeat on a tidy field of conflict, one can see the tension forming: military actions (Full speed ahead!) and policy aims (We’re negotiating.) can be uncomfortable bedfellows.
Coupling Warriors and Diplomats
Despite these tensions, an operational art is gaining form in Phase Zero. Among the leaders in this discipline are US SOF. The evidence suggests that US SOF, within the US Joint Force, are crafting new campaign modes guided by revised operational art constructs. In over 75 countries, where the US is actively engaged but is not at war, special operations engagement approaches are showing increased coherency in connecting tactics with strategic objectives.
In sovereign countries, US SOF engagements pursue national objectives where pervasive action is welcome but invasive action is not. Such approaches, as seen in Colombia, Thailand, and the Philippines, suit the nuanced, light footprint approaches favored by SOF. The art is connecting the tactics (engagements) with the programs (security assistance) within a diplomacy-centric environment where host nation sovereignty is paramount. These are complicated efforts in finicky environments. Exacerbating this challenge are ill suited US military doctrines, bureaucratic security assistance programs, and gaps in the civilian and military education regarding the application of peacetime military effects. But with changing global power paradigms, this dilemma demands greater attention from the US diplomatic, development, and defense communities.
The Strategy Imperative
To grow an effective Phase Zero operational art and therefore optimize engagement, two requirements are necessary. The first requirement is an actual strategy to achieve. Where no coherent strategy exists within a country or a region, then engagements are singular acts of goodness with unreliable connections to broader strategic aims. In these environments, US SOF engagements are not wasted. They are critical relations-building events and a visible demonstration of US partnership. Special operations engagements also represent incremental US policy obligations. But without an intelligible strategy to pursue, these engagements, no matter how tactically exquisite, have limited long-term effects.
Secondly, effective Phase Zero operational art requires a tighter weave on US diplomatic, defense, and developmental actions. This starts with improved cooperation and collaboration. But pursuing US interests over years and decades requires measures beyond mere improved US interagency cooperation. An operational art, built within and inclusive of the interagency, is required to fuse the often-conflicting logic of the diplomatic, defense, and development realms. Former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton stated in a May 23, 2012 speech, “We need Special Operations Forces who are as comfortable drinking tea with leaders as raiding a terrorist compound. We also need diplomats and development experts who understand modern warfare and are up to the job of being your partners.” Anything less than a mutual understanding of an operational art is unlikely to consistently bridge our defense and diplomacy cultures.
Art Applied Before Bullets Fly
The emerging applications of operational art by US SOF are less oriented on raw militaristic applications of power and more on a connected, collaborative method of pursuing US interests bound by diplomatic norms. Applied correctly, this is a 21st Century operational art suited for a world where land armies are shrinking, power is diffusing, and lawlessness poses threats on par with military peer competitors. Properly conceived and applied, US special operations applications of operational art are one possible US strategic option to influence these environments without a wrongheaded application of US military power. In form, these special operations engagements do not achieve rapid, tactical military victories with high political payoffs. Instead, these operational art designs aim for a smarter, strategically empathetic use of US power projection abroad.
Special operations-modified operational art is not a replacement for traditional, high-intensity warfare operational art. Rather, this is an operational art offspring that is better suited for the pursuit of US interests in peace or in volatile regions hovering between peace and war. In a world where the military actions of great power states can be perilously publicized and politicized, new pathways are needed to attain US strategic objectives. Merging 21st century diplomatic and military art with revised design elements is a necessary evolution of US power projection.
So how and where do we start? Successfully linking military engagements within diplomatic realms means less books by George Patton and more by Henry Kissinger. Currently, you won’t find too many Kissinger books in military curricula. Conversely, you’ll find fewer books on special operations in diplomatic circles. A new operational art will require closing the cognitive gap between engagements and strategy within military and diplomatic practice and culture. This doesn't require resources. It simply requires will.
Good strategy is achieved by smart posture and shrewd resource expenditures rather than provocative force projection and high resource outflows. For military engagement to fulfill the aims of US security strategy and propel engagement into a suitable building block for US strategic aims, an improved concept of operational art is sorely needed. With such an art, the elements of US national power have improved options for sticky foreign-policy problems. A sound start is the messy merger of peacetime diplomatic and military operational art. Such a merger must treat peacetime strategy with the same urgency, technicality, and focus as our wartime operational art.
Options, Options, Options
For its part, special operations applications of operational art aim for scalable commitments and differentiated options. When directed, US SOF act as policy frontiersmen, providing clarity on options involving surrogates, actions in remote regions, or to gain understanding where complex human factors confound policy clarity. By design, SOF are also comfortable in a lead role, in a supporting role, or as a backbencher, according to the suitability of special operations contributions.
Engagements that are smartly devised and applied within operational art do not represent a desire for perpetual war. In fact, they represent the polar opposite: a restrained use of US power, smaller in size but not in effect, to sustain an advantageous peace and mitigate conflict. Strategic partnerships are built in peacetime often to be leveraged in wartime. The current strategic context demands that peacetime partnerships that are built in peacetime are leveraged in peacetime. Toward that end, the strategically maturing US Special Operations Forces deserve fresh consideration for their applications of operational art – not in war – but in not-war.
 The White House, National Security Strategy of the United States of America, May 2010 (Washington DC: The White House). http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/rss_viewer_/national_security_strategy.pdf.
 Secretary of State Hilary R. Clinton, “Remarks at the Special Operations Command Gala dinner, Tampa, FL.” Washington DC, May 23, 2012. http//still4hill.com/2012/05/24/hilary-clinton-at-tampa-socom-gala/ (accessed December 15, 2012).