Operationalizing the Science of the Human Domain in Great Power Competition for Special Operations Forces
Aleks Nesic and Arnel P. David
The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn. -- Alvin Toffler
Woven through contemporary debate are threads of different schools of thought that cross but lack a central thread which closes the seam. One school of thought sees a return of great power competition and argues for an emphasis on lethality and warfighting competency. Another sees a change in the character of conflict and competition where adversaries pursue their ends in the space between peace and war. Above all, and critical to stitching multiple paradigms together, is the one which is eternal in all war and immutable—the human domain. War is always a political act done by humans. Regardless of which school of thought gains the most currency in national security debates, Special Operations Forces (SOF) must continue to build capability and capacity to scientifically understand, accurately interpret and effectively influence human behavior. It is the SOF operator who will be on the ground early, working with an indigenous populace, learning to understand a given situation in order to provide critical context to both civilian and military leadership. SOF must be able to navigate complex social systems and operate at a speed that creates critical decision space while ensuring their actions don’t make matters worse.
Recent history in Iraq and Afghanistan have illuminated critical gaps in this capability. In his book No Good Men Among the Living, Anand Gopal points out special forces’ activity early on in the war that not only helped the wrong people, but rather, perpetuated a deep sense of injustice that fueled an insurgency and undermined the mission. With a poor understanding of the local dynamics between families and tribes, SOF were manipulated in targeting different warlord competitors and not real threats to the state. The mere mention of Al Qaeda and a target packet was built to action the next period of darkness. In The Thistle and the Drone, Dr. Akbar Ahmed, concluded that many times these targeted groups or actors may have been mislabeled as terrorists when in reality they were actually championing peace and fighting repression. Ahmed attributes the failure of the United States and Pakistan to deal with transnational terrorists to their ignorance of tribal lifestyles, patterns of behavior, and customs.
SOF performance improved over the years but shortfalls in training and education remain. The current level of understanding in the complexity of the human domain lacks true scientific depth and application. Education in the emerging multidisciplinary science of the human domain will enhance SOF’s ability to gain indigenous knowledge and enable improved performance in the conduct of warfare in the 21st century across all domains and throughout the spectrum of conflict.
This article highlights the essential components of the science of the human domain currently in development and lays out an analytical framework that SOF can use to develop these new skills. It begins with (1) methods to analyze the operational environment by leveraging both big and thick data to map human geography then (2) reviews ways to navigate a kaleidoscope of complex psycho-social and cultural landscapes, and (3) concludes that these new skills from conflict science to assess complex social dynamics among people cannot be sacrificed for the pursuit of the changes only in the physical domains. While many in the defense department continue to chase technological panaceas, scientists and scholars have declared that the social sciences are the science of the twenty-first century. One general warns that we are entering an epochal shift where the controlling amplification of competition and conflict will be human and biological rather than organizational or technological. The essence of complex modern warfare continues to occur among the people and will continue to be driven by the people. As such, SOF will always need the scientific ability to understand, work with, and influence, people.
Big Data or Thick Data?
Information is exploding. The amount of information available exceeds human capacity. Enter big data. The in-vogue concept of big data appears to be the solution to many problems facing business, industry, and the military. Big data may be useful but alone is insufficient to address the complexities of the human domain. Scholars and development practitioners find an “eclectic combination” of diverse theoretical perspectives and research methods improve the chances of revealing hidden connections and dynamic patterns not visible with a single theoretical lens. Improved explanatory power is the result of using both big data and thick data.
The world is entering an age of data driven decision-making. An increasing surplus of digital breadcrumbs are becoming more available for analytical consumption. These large data sets of patterns, preferences, and other variables enable an examination of society in more fine-grained detail. Moreover, the combination of data and machine learning is drastically improving predictive analytics. The choices of groups and decision mechanisms of masses help explain human behavior and at times, forecast emergent trends. Pentland claims this collective intelligence is behind dynamic social effects that influence our individual decisions and drive economic bubbles, political revolutions, and the internet economy.” In the Merriam-Webster dictionary big data is defined as an accumulation of data that is too large and complex for processing by traditional management tools.
From predicting teenage pregnancies to stopping the spread of diseases, big data is rapidly changing the world in a significant way. The effects of these changes are yet to be fully recognized. In 2012, the World Bank declared the “pace at which mobile phones spread globally is unmatched in the history of technology.” In studying areas of limited statehood, scholars found that the information communications technology (ICT) is filling voids in governance. The use of ICT and the spread of information prevented governments from controlling the narrative. For example, Moscow was unable to cover up the crisis of the 2010 wildfires given the publics’ awareness of mortality rates and the ubiquitous communication mediums to share this information widely. ICT enabled a non-state collective response and undermined the state’s attempt to present a rosy account of the situation.
In addition to mobile phone and ICT, the proliferation of other sensors, provides a torrent of data and enable collective action. Web connected cameras, bio-sensing devices, and the confluence of other technologies aid in the collection of critical data which have aided in the accountability of government to reduce corruption, limit abuses of power, conduct crisis-mapping, strengthen civil society, and improved responses to humanitarian crises. Big data is a powerful tool to understand what has been happening through quantitative explanation but thick data is a complimentary method to explaining the why.
Thick data is qualitative information that provides insights into the everyday emotional lives of people. It goes beyond big data to explain why people have certain preferences, the reasons they behave the way they do, why certain trends stick and so on. Thick data is derived from experts adept at observing humans’ behavior and underlying motivations. They span the fields of anthropology, ethnography, and must grow to include SOF. Analyzing thick data illumines emergent human dynamics not immediately visible with big data alone. Military forces can be more effective by understanding the emotional and visceral context in which indigenous populations interpret their activities if they are educated and trained to operationalize the conflict science which will enable them to properly collect and analyze this enormously complex context of human dynamics.
Just like in business, organizations want to build stronger ties with stakeholders, and they need stories to connect. Stories contain emotions and narrative. No large quantitative data set can deliver this context. It takes specialized and patient applied researchers to provide this critical insight which allows units and organizations to adapt as circumstances change. SOF need this capability.
The outsourcing or ceding of complex problems to machines renders an incomplete sight picture. Multi-method approaches using thick data and big data empower successful strategies. The table below shows the characteristics of both kinds of data approaches.
Relies on human learning
Relies on machine learning
Reveals social context of connections between data points
Reveals insights with a particular range of quantified data points
Accepts irreducible complexity
Isolates variables to identify patterns
Smaller in scale and scope
Large sample and scale
Table 1: Comparison of Big Data and Thick Data
Leveraging thick and big data unlocks explanatory power leading to detailed causality and a richer quantitative and qualitative understanding of the human narrative. Christakis and Fowler assert the linking of the study of individuals to the study of groups help explain the human experience. Their research reveals how social networks drive and influence virtually every aspect of our lives, many times in a subconscious way. Understanding the implications of these connections and networks are becoming more important for both civilian and military organizations. Most importantly, it is becoming abundantly clearer that successful use of these data approaches will require increased cooperation and engagement across the enterprise and with unusual partners.
In her book, Peers Inc., Robin Chase emphasizes the value of cooperation and engagement amongst non-traditional partnerships forming a new collaborative economy. She explains how the best of corporate power (industrial capacity and resources to scale) combines with people power (localization, specialization, and customization) to harness resources in new ways and creates new rules for value creation. Chase’s company Zipcar and Uber are examples of these types of businesses. Cooperation is key.
The talent and skills to effectively harvest the vast oceans of data is not immediately available or evenly distributed across defense. Hence, engagement and cooperation with external elements is crucial for future interventions and requires mutually beneficial relationships. There must be incentives for outside agencies to partner with DoD and this leads to a key recommendation. SOF must leverage every opportunity to connect and collaborate in open source mediums with civilian and military organizations to gather the data needed to foster a deeper understanding. It is this level understanding that will enable one to navigate the kaleidoscope of complex psycho-social and cultural landscapes.
The Interdisciplinary Science of the Human Domain
As emphasized earlier in this article, one common element across all warfighting domains is the people. Behind every element and at every level of the warfighting enterprise is a complex domain of human beings and their multifaceted psychological, emotional, social and cultural identities. This human complexity requires accurate understanding and analysis. The only way for such understanding to be developed and effectively employed in the battlefield, is to utilize an interdisciplinary applied social scientific approach. Interdisciplinary—because not one single discipline is capable of providing comprehensive understanding of human behavior, and applied—because data collection and analysis of individuals and groups in conflict should be applicable within the reality of the conflict context, rather than theoretically orientated toward how things ought to be.
This complex reality of the conflict context was recently illustrated via term “durable disorder” in Sean McFate newest book The New Rules of War: Victory in the Age of Durable Disorder. McFate argues that “Durable disorder is what’s left behind after the Westphalian system of nation-states retreats. It’s not anarchy, but a global system that contains rather than solves problems. It is the new environment for war, and we are unprepared for it. Old strategies fail, and armed conflicts smolder in perpetuity. Warfare is changing but we refuse to recognize this new reality—or adapt to it. We buy, train, deploy and fight according to rules that don't apply anymore, and then are frustrated by the outcome.” 
Arguably, the Westphalian system of nation-states has already retreated in many places around the world, and in many places, it has never been effectively implemented. Decades of conquest and colonization of tribal areas within the Global South has been nothing short of multiple unsuccessful experiments of socially, culturally and politically engineering nation-states from within the tribal and indigenous systems of governance. These traditional i.e. indigenous systems were deemed illegitimate, namely because they did not resemble the West, and therefore needed transformation. But this transformation came at a costly expense and unsustainable future as many of them resisted, continue to resist, and are still not ready for such rapid and massive transformations.
The grand failure in our approach to rapidly transform and centralize these political and economic systems continues to be driven by the classical realist and liberal political science theories that dominate the strategic direction and the rules of engagement. This creates strategic and operational failures in predicting and preventing the ongoing outbursts of violent interplays between state and non-state actors, violent extremist ideologies that continue to spread through fractured and vulnerable societies—the same vulnerabilities that our state adversaries such as Russia, China and Iran continue to cleverly exploit.
One of the main reasons for our lack of understanding the complex system of the human domain is our overreliance on the classical realist and rational actor frameworks, the trademark theories of Western political science. By relying mainly on the rational actor theory, political scientists have failed to help those intervening in violence (government and military) to understand the seemingly irrational motivations and behaviors of different actors in conflict and their delicate interplay. We have failed to understand the nature of the human element outside the comforts of the rational-actor framework because no political science theory has ever been able to accurately explain variables most prevalent in unconventional warfare--fear, hope, trauma, dreams, and myths i.e. the covert drivers of conflict that power up, drive and sustain violence.
What McFate alludes to as “old strategies” is actually an ontological and epistemological mistake in its original design, that is, we started with a wrong theoretical premise and formed a hypothesis based on a misunderstanding of what we were experimenting with—the human condition. The importance for SOF to understand the human condition in warfare, i.e. the human domain, is to expand its current education and training and to include psychology, sociology and cultural anthropology as the foundational disciplines that can explain the variables of irregular, unconventional and/or asymmetric warfare. Political science and rational actor theories are futile in the face of the human domain in current and future warfare.
In 2017, the United States Geospatial Intelligence Foundation (USGIF) published a remarkable report titled The State and the Future of GEOINT in which it featured a commentary by Patrick Biltgen et al. that describes how to utilize Activity-Based Intelligence (ABI) in developing an understanding of “Patterns-of-Life”. They argued that standard statistical methods, regression techniques, and models are almost always based on the assumption that the variables are independent, but people are not. “People are not lifeless particles governed by Brownian motion or Kepler’s laws; we are complex entities whose activities are constrained and influenced by geography and other societal, relational, biographic, historic, and preferential constraints as outlined in the three axioms. For these reasons, human activities are not entirely random processes. Seemingly unrelated activities and behaviors cast as a spatiotemporal narrative expose the previously undiscoverable threads of motivation, purpose, and implication. Integrating and studying historical data that describes the activities of an entity across time and space improves an analyst’s understanding of that individual’s pattern-of-life. Adding the set of constraints and likely outcomes produces a model of what the analyst thinks will happen and a series of hypotheses that can be tested with real-world observations.” 
This delicate interplay of individual and groups’ pattern-of-life can only be accurately assessed if psychology and sociology, curated by cultural anthropology, are employed and taken seriously if we are to succeed in the great power game. The ultimate aim of developing this understanding and knowledge is to instill a capacity within deployed SOF teams to achieve a capability to effectively act, react, and intervene within the conflict communities’ psychosocial, emotional, cultural and physical spaces. This necessitates understanding complex internal, indigenous or traditional cycles of decision-making processes and psychosocial mechanisms of the target audience for non-lethal targeting and engagement, and ultimately create tactical effects within the population that will increase strategic effects on the battle space.
How much do we know about traditional societies? How much do we know about indigenous governance systems? How do we build resilience and social movements? How do we prevent counter-governance? How do we instill courage and self-sacrifice in the partner forces’ soldiers? Who, what and how is influencing the partner nation soldiers and their families? Can we predict the effects of trauma on the partner nation forces soldiers and their families? What does heroism look like in the partner nation force? Do we understand the psychodynamics of psychological message construction? Can we locate and include cultural object symbology into messages in order to produce visceral emotional response? Can we accurately and effectively describe the psychological, sociological, and emotional processes that violent extremist and criminal organizations use to weaponize civil society? Can we accurately describe the psychosocial-emotional process used by VEO/Criminal organizations to create suicide weapons? Do we know how violent extremists and criminal organizations access and use indigenous knowledge and communication to support insurgent and terrorist networks?
To find the answers to these critically important questions for SOF operators, three primary disciplines that SOF must utilize simultaneously are psychology, sociology and cultural anthropology, as their nexus allow us to understand and deconstruct the individual and his/hers psychological organization, i.e. how identity is constructed, how the mind and memory works, how an individual is contextualized and how it functions within a complex socio-cultural system, how such systems organize and sustain individuals and groups within them. The social science map of cultural conflict above depicts the intersection of these fields of science as they apply to the SOF operating environment. 
Culture vs Human Domain? SOF must move beyond the simplistic understanding of “culture”, and build the capacity and capability where “culture” is understood as a set of complex psycho-social and emotional realities and dynamics of the host nation target audience. This level of analysis will enable SOF to become more effective in conducting pre-mission analysis and research, and develop an understanding of how to successfully message, navigate and engage the factors and conditions in the human domain that directly influence operations within each combatant command area of operation (COCOM AOR). The Framework for Mapping and Analyzing Overt and Covert Conflict Drivers in the Human Domain developed by Dr. Christian and Dr. Nesic (2016) for the US JKF Special Warfare Center and School could enhance and deepen other SOF tools, such as PMSII-PT, ASCOPE, and target audience analysis. This tool enables SOF operators to produce thick data during pre-mission analysis and employ such knowledge in the field in order to not miss the underlying (covert) conditions that fuel violence and conflicts. There are slight variations in tailoring the education and training in the human domain for Special Forces, Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations.
To support the requirements of Special Forces for host nation and militia forces training, tribal engagement, village stability operations, and operational preparation of the battlefield (environment), the knowledge must target ongoing SF challenges with insider threats, ability of host nation/militia forces to grasp basic military training, and their subsequent willingness to fight against non-state actor forces in the field. This knowledge will help build culturally relevant combat capacity within host nation combat forces as the content focuses on the nexus between the host nation partner force train, advise, assist, and accompany missions and the civilian community that the host nation partner force soldiers are a part of. The aim of this knowledge and capacity development is to address the central question that the SOF have always struggled with and continue to do so: how to build conditions of courage, heroism, and willingness to self-sacrifice within volunteer or conscripted soldiers of host nation security forces so that they are willing to fight as tenaciously as their adversaries? This training ensures that the host nation partner forces build acceptable levels of fighting capability that increases their willingness to engage VEO combat power without resorting to abandonment of the SF team advising, assisting, and accompanying them. Deeper psychosocial-emotional variables of FID and UW mission tasks focus on civil society’s role in population intelligence and material support as well as VEO enablement and concealment within the population.
For every example of an SF ODA figuring this out intuitively, there are hundreds of examples where we did not figure it out, at least not fully. Most importantly, SF ODA/ODB teams who did intuitively figure this out, cannot transfer that success to other teams in a predictable scientific manner that can actually be replicated on demand. Major Jim Gant’s book One Tribe at a Time is deemed a success in the type of engagement needed, yet his success was based on personal experiences and intuition, not scientific accuracy in targeting and engaging the Pashto tribes in Afghanistan. Simply put, it is not enough to know what worked, we must know why it worked, and how to recreate tactical success in all human domain environments at the family, village, tribe or clan level by NCOs and junior officers who man the frontline teams. We must enable their operational success by giving them the tools to know what they would say and what they would do to produce predictable results.
To support the requirements of Civil Affairs missions to building resiliency in cultural conflict communities to resist violent extremist and criminal organizations’ ideological messaging, recruitment, and subsequent organizational spread through the population (target audience), the knowledge must be based on effectively and accurately diagnosing and repairing the damaged cultural-social systems of failing local governance structures that gives rise to violent extremist organizations (VEO) and/or criminal counter-governance. The Civil Affairs capability must include the science of how indigenous/traditional societies operate, how to socially engineer and re-engineer them and how to engage by, with and through the traditional governance structures. This knowledge must focus on teaching the Civil Affairs teams to locate and understand the psychological organization, sociological structure, and emotional conjugation of indigenous, traditional societies or communities residing outside the capital cities where the structure of social authority and the integration of leadership, social purpose, survival, and health – both mental and physical combined—are the critical human domain areas for the Civil Affairs teams to understand and engage with.
This application of interdisciplinary social sciences can help Civil Affairs develop the knowledge of the deepest underlying psychosocial-emotional needs of the conflict communities and teach how those needs are met outside of violent conflict; as a precursor to understanding how conflict societies attempt to meet their needs within violent conflict. Civil Affairs should be able to understand in detail how exactly societies are broken and weaponized by extended violence, loss of membership, intentional VEO and criminal weaponization, as well as the epidemiological spread of violent extremist ideology and trauma conditions. This learning could be accomplished through the use of specific field approaches to targeting (data collection and analysis) and engagement that rely on scientific assessments and analytical tools, such as the Assessments of Indigenous Social Systems and Traditional Governance Health and Resiliency developed by Dr. Christian and Dr. Nesic.
To support the requirements of Psychological Operations (PO) missions that are tasked with communicating psychological messages that use object symbology in message construction that achieves emotional elicitation to desired actions, the science must be used in a way that it teaches Psychological Operators how the ego-self (identity) is constructed, how it operates, how it creates thought, meaning, and emotion, as well as, how to access meaning and emotion in message construction. In addition, Psychological Operators must understand how the subconscious ego-self becomes destabilized from personality malformation, trauma, abuse, identity disintegration, and even how terror works in messaging, as well as how to identify symbolic objects within each culture; how to assess the emotional power of each symbolic object; and how to incorporate and build their psychological message around key or central cultural symbolic objects.
Knowledge of the psychological, sociological, and emotional variables of target audience analysis and message construction are currently missing in many PO lines of effort, hence the lack of understanding the ‘how’—how memory is created and used by the subconscious mind, and how memory becomes collectivized, destabilized and weaponized by VEO and political leaders. In order to design effective messages and/or counter-narratives, we must be able to first understand and illustrate how the ego-self engages in storying and narration as a basic structure of thought and how individuals and groups of human beings become psychologically extremized as a precursor to becoming behaviorally radicalized and subsequently recruited into violent extremist organizations as fighters and suicide weapons. There is a clear scientific method to this process and SOF needs access to this capability.
Concluding Thoughts and Way Forward
Army Special Operations Forces (ARSOF) work in diverse and complex operational environments where psycho-social, emotional and cultural variables within the human domain present ongoing threats to regional stability and USG interests. A population-centric approach is key to ARSOF operations due to the fact that the majority of negative actors (state and non-state) use the human domain to: conduct influence operations to recruit and control populations; enhance freedom to maneuver and control key areas; derive manpower and logistical support, and ultimately achieve military and political goals. At this time, ARSOF is inexperienced in understanding and utilizing a population-centric approach and thick-data, and have little knowledge of the complex socio-cultural factors and variables associated with the geographically aligned lines of effort. Without developing a proper understanding of the operating environment and the means by which the enemy conducts operations, ARSOF will be unable to achieve long term mission success.
Employing interdisciplinary social science of the human domain will enable ARSOF to 1) Develop a better understanding of the psychosocial, emotional and cultural variables of various regions of the 5 COCOM AOR to strengthen analysis, mission planning, and operational execution; 2) Achieve comprehensive knowledge of how state and non-state negative actors utilize the human domain and create and exploit vulnerabilities to achieve military and political objectives, 3) Establish initial guidance to update or improve LOE campaign plans to better address the importance of the human domain and psychosocial & cultural factors; 4) Develop concepts that utilize human domain practices necessary for population compliance; 5) Improve cross-cultural understanding and intercultural skills and techniques to enhance communication within 5 COCOM AOR and 6) Enhance ability to achieve long-term mission success.
The opinions, conclusions and recommendations expressed or implied above are those of the authors and do not reflect the views of any organization or any entity of the U.S. or U.K. governments.
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 table derived from Tricia Wang’s website: https://medium.com/ethnography-matters/why-big-data-needs-thick-data-b4b3e75e3d7
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