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Educating the Force for Strategic Land Power

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Educating the Force for Strategic Land Power

Steve Rotkoff


On 28 August 2013,  a general officer steering group consisting of Army, Marine Corps and Special Operations Force communities released its Strategic Land-power findings. The findings identified several areas of consensus, including:

  • The current and future Operational Environment (OE) is and will continue to be characterized by a complex environment, with rapid rates of change, hybrid adversaries, proliferation of WMD, and conflicting narratives
  • DoD has insufficient appreciation of itself, allies, adversaries and neutral parties, and economic changes and opportunities
  • We are too focused on threat at the expense of other factors

Part of the prescription for addressing this OE includes:

  • Training that accounts for the ‘human domain’ in operations
  • Planning and operations that account for culture
  • Future generations of leaders who intuitively address the human domain in training, planning, and operations

A DoD program designed specifically to address many of the issues identified above already exists. It includes faculty representatives from each of the three land power components that participated in the Strategic Land Power study. It is so valued by both the Marine Corps  and SOCOM that they have each assigned full time Lieutenant Colonels to an Army school as part of the instructor team. On a daily basis, Marines, Special Operators, and Army leaders wrestle with the role of culture, critical thinking, and planning strategic and operational land power problems within the context of the current OE. The program is called “Red Team,” and it is focused on challenging prevailing assumptions, generating alternative perspectives, and cultivating cultural apperception in support of decision making.  This is the story of how that partnership evolved, where we are today, and how the University of Foreign Military and Cultural Studies (UFMCS) can play a role in defining the education and training required for our leaders of tomorrow.


This article provides a small subset of the key takeaways associated with the UFMCS program and their relationship to preparing for and conducting SLP operations.  SLP requires operation in a complex environment with understanding of the ‘human domain’ and where consideration of 2nd and 3rd order effects must inform decision making. As the three SLP components come together towards the purpose of better planning, decision making, and operations in the complex SLP environment  UFMCS can be part of the training solution.

While originally designed to produce red team-trained cadres UFMCS has expanded beyond that limited charter. While still educating students for award of the Additional Skill Identifier requirements for Army red teams, UFMCS also offers a series of tailored programs and mobile training teams to a wide set of DoD and non-DoD agencies. UFMCS provides Red Teams in support of both operational and institutional needs across DoD. In the past two years alone, UFMCS has provided Red Teams on site in support of USFK planning, the ISAF commander, the CJCS J-7, and the USSOCOM staff. Additionally, UFMCS has provided tailored programs to Customs and Border Patrol, USAID, divisional Analytic Control Elements and allied staffs in NATO and Australia.  Today, UFMCS serves as an agile and adaptive forum in which the land force trains leaders to deal with planning and operations in the current and future OE.

The Marine Corps has sent students to UFMCS from the school’s inception. In 2013 the USMC Executive Steering Council (3- and 4-star generals) met; one of the agenda items was the integration strategy for Marine Corps red teams. As a result of that meeting, the Marine Corps assigned a Lieutenant-Colonel to UFMCS to serve as a faculty member, and directed 16 Marines to attend the program in FY 14.

In 2012 The Director of the Army’s Combined Arms Center Special Operations Forces cell met with UFMCS to discuss tailoring a red team course for SOF students attending the Army’s Command and General Staff course additionally, the SOF branch proponent met with UFMCS to explore the creation of a red team program as part of SOF PME, which would include campaign planning. In January 2013, UFMCS executed the Special Operations Campaign Artistry Program (SOCAP) as a recognized part of SOF Professional Military Education. In July 2013, SOF assigned an SF Lieutenant Colonel to UFMCS as a faculty member.

UFMCS’ Major Ideas and Their Role in SLP Education.

Irrespective of service, nation or agency, UFMCS inculcates the following ideas in its graduates.  These ideas are congruent with the central theme of Strategic Land Power; complex operational environments, appreciation of other ways of viewing problems, and the pre-eminence of the human dimension. All of the observations in italics reflect goals the Army has established as part of SLP.       

1. All culture is local. People from Brooklyn and Binghamton New York have differing values and do not think the same way. Why should people from two different regions in another country be represented by a single ‘cultural advisor?’ Immersion in the ‘human domain’ requires a nuanced understanding of how that domain varies.

2. While orders come from the top-down, cultural understanding flows from the bottom up (see 1 above). Leaders must co-create context between those on the ground with the best local view, and those controlling resources and setting priorities from above (with a synoptic view). Understanding the SLP environment requires global scouts who understand both the local OE and the strategic goals and objectives.

3. Groupthink is a certain function of human behavior. While good leadership can mitigate groupthink, it cannot preclude it. Organizations need specific techniques (which include anonymous solicitation of best ideas) to really get to the truth of a wicked problem – UFMCS teaches these techniques.  Inculcating lessons, maintaining relevant and adaptable doctrine regarding SLP requires an open internal conversation.

4. How you think is a function of geography, history, economics, social structure, religion, beliefs, and culture. We think differently among ourselves – certainly our allies think differently, as do adversaries and neutral parties. Tools designed to force one to contend with other frames of reference, and to better understand others’ perspectives, are always a good place to start planning. SLP reflects the ‘clash of wills’ that is warfare. Cultural ‘will’ is a function of worldview.

5. It is crucial to ask good questions about values, beliefs and culture

  • Concepts that don’t translate well MUST be explored, rather than ignored.   (For example, the Chinese pictogram for “individualism,” when translated, equates to ‘selfishness’.)
  • Narratives learned at a young age matter. Think of our own Thanksgiving story of the Pilgrims and Native Americans. People who are very different can sit down together, break bread, and find common ground. The narrative reinforces the diversity of American culture—but it is not a narrative common to most other cultures. Graduates are encouraged to seek out those local narratives.
  • What is in the “informal economy” matters. Economic life is a basic function of all societies. Understanding the role of the informal economy is a critical component of the operational environment. 
  • Understanding the role that tradition, ritual and ceremony plays in society are vital to recognizing the underlying beliefs and values of a society.  Contrast the change in ritual and ceremony between George Washington’s simple first inauguration and today’s inaugural week.  Our current presidential inauguration ceremonies demonstrate our place in the world order and that the United States transitions power democratically.

Successful strategies have a human objective, the influence of people, based on better understanding them.

6. Problems are on a scale between the simple and complex and it is important to identify which you are dealing with and understand the characteristics of various problems. Copying a car key is simple, building the car the key will start is complicated, driving that same car everyday commuting to and from work is complex. While mechanics and physics dominate the simple and complicated task they only play a role in the complex task. The driver must constantly assess the local OE, and practice creative and agile thinking throughout the drive, while in the first two tasks following directions and knowing how to operate required equipment is sufficient.  In SLP OE we cannot predict actor adaptation thus we must be open to adapting ourselves in response to unforeseen events that result from complexity.

7. The more complex the problem, the less willing we are to let go of our frames. When struggling with truly complex problems, we search for a clean analogy or frame that will allow us to approach the problem with a semblance of understanding and without the cognitive pain of coping with complexity. It is vitally important when operating in complexity that we are always prepared to challenge what we think we know, especially in an environment where the truth changes rapidly. Understanding the role of bias and framing in our thinking and decision making is a key component in addressing this human predisposition. We need to be better able to identify emerging threats, strategies, tactics and weapons – accept new developments and not hold on to preconceived notions of the OE.

8. We all sit somewhere on a spectrum of “culturally relative” to “ethnocentric.” Many of us think of ourselves as truly culturally aware, and would challenge those who say we are prejudiced towards others’ beliefs or cultures. In practice, we all tend to believe the values and mores with which we were raised are correct and that other practices are either unenlightened or completely wrong. SLP requires we expose leaders to a broad array of perspectives based on real world scenarios.

9. Self awareness, introspection, and empathy change your worldview. In the classic Strategy and Ethnocentrism, Ken Booth explains that it is difficult to appreciate an adversary’s problems, feel their pain, understand their ambitions, internalize their experience, understand how one’s actions appear to them, or know how threatened they may feel or what threatens them. These questions are founded in developing empathy and are critical when conducting Strategic (or Operational) land power planning.

10.  Developing alternative perspectives in the planning process is an unnatural act and requires tools beyond MDMP to generate options. Tools like Pre-Mortem analysis (imagining the plan has failed, imagining why it failed, then examining the plan for the mitigation of that potential failure), the 4 Ways of Seeing (how X sees X, how X sees Y, how Y sees Y and how Y sees X), Stakeholder Analysis (formalized method of identifying key parties and their perspectives and goals), the 9-Step Cultural Analysis methodology, and others all help generate additional perspectives on the problem.  Education that is redesigned and tailored on the learner, proving them with a wide variety of tools for understanding the human domain is a critical need for SLP.

Way Ahead – UFMCS and SLP

The UFMCS curriculum is designed to create critical thinkers.  Students are exposed to the ethnocentrism of their own thinking and examine their tendency to default to Western/Aristotelian logic.  Students are exposed to how other cultures think differently.  From the outset, students are provided with tools to help them view problems from the perspectives of nonwestern human domains and to challenge their own biases. UFMCS education is exactly what the Army describes as needing in order to train and educate leaders for the current and future SLP OE.

As the Army faces a future dominated by the need for rapid adaptation, by a resource constrained, CONUS based force, in support of expeditionary operations; the type of education UFMCS provides is a critical component in preparing our commanders and staff.  As UFMCS continues to evolve its curriculum with the input from Soldiers, Marines, and Special Operators it will serve as a thought leader and key trainer in support of Strategic Land-power. UFMCS through curriculum redesign, podcasts, and provision of distance learning tailored tools for developing cultural apperception can and should be at the center of our evolving approach to SLP.

For additional information about this program please contact the author.

About the Author(s)

Steve Rotkoff is Director, University of Foreign Military and Cultural Studies. He retired in 2003 from a position as the CFLCC Dep C2 for OIF. His experiences and lessons learned from that tour have made him a staunch advocate of the importance and need for groupthink mitigation and alternative perspective development for commanders and staff.



In order to undertand strategic landpower and educate the force accordingly, one would seem to need to identify, know, articulate and understand the context within which the need for strategic landpower exists.

Let's begin with this from GEN Ordierno, GEN Amos and ADM McRaven's introductory page to the strategic landpower white paper:

" ... armed conflict is a clash of interests between or among organized groups, each attempting to impose their will on the opposition."…

Thus, these distinguished military officers have identified the prerequisites for armed conflict and strategic landpower, these being:

a. A clash of interests and

b. The attempt by one or more of the parties to impose their will on another party/other parties.

It stands to reason, therefore, that we now must identify the interests of the opposing parties and identify those who are attempting to impose their will on others.

The interests of the United States/the western world are broadly seen as transforming outlier states and societies along modern western lines and, thereby, providing for greater peace, prosperity and security throughout the world. Via all their instruments of power -- and by way of diplomacy, development and defense -- the United States/the western world has worked to achieve this goal.

These interests have, for some time, been in conflict with the interests of other states and societies; specifically those who do not wish to see their political, economic and social structures -- and, more importantly, their values, attitudes and beliefs -- compromised, eliminated and/or replaced so as to meet the needs and desires of the United States/the western world. Via all their instruments of power, these other states and societies have sought and fought to avoid transformation along modern western lines and assimilation into the modern western world.

To sum up: The need to understand and educate the force re: strategic landpower would seem to exist within a certain context. That context is and has been:

a. Generally and generically described by GEN Odierno, GEN Amos and ADM McRaven as "a clash of interests between or among organized groups, each attempting to impose their will on the opposition" and

b. More specifically described by me as a clash between (1) a United States/the western world seeking to transform and incorporate "different" states and societies and (2) those different states and societies who do not wish to be so transformed and assimilated.

Should my explanation above be deemed unworthy and/or incorrect, then those with more knowledge, understanding and capability should come forward and set forth the proper specific context. Only then, it would seem, might we be able to understand (1) the need (or lack thereof) for strategic landpower in the current era and (2) what such forces and their education -- should these be needed -- might look like.

Outlaw 09

Wed, 11/13/2013 - 7:19am

The term "red team" bothers me are there are currently about 15 different ways the term red team is being used depending on the organizational turf war that has broken out in the last five years and is getting worse as the financial drawdown occurs.

Tiger team is another overused/misused term as well.

Concur with Robert's comments---another point that needs to be made is that even if one understands the region/culture we are as a Force inherently not good listeners---listening is a skill set just as understanding a culture is.

What really bothers me though is that the force feels that it needs to be constantly made aware and trained in human domain---by the way another buzz word for human domain is human terrain if I recall correctly which was created as well when the Force felt we needed cultural insight-and at a tremendous cost to the taxpayer--six digit plus earnings for the fielded teams.

After the Abu G scandal big Army felt in mid 2005 that those of us who worked at the JIDC level as interrogators needed further insight into the profession of interrogation---basically pertaining to culture.

During one of the sessions the PH.D facilitator asked the group what would the characteristics be needed for say being a successful interrogator---the white board list was up to about twenty items when he stopped.

He then stated that a really good interrogator needed only three things to be successful;

1. speak a foreign language on his/her own-not Army trained
2. have lived a number of years outside the US
3. have an innate curiosity about people, things, places

AND being trained by the Army was not the key thing---boy did a dispute breakout especially from senior NCOs.

Just a note the PH.D person spoke fluently three Arabic dialects and resided in Jordan as well as having been prior SF from Det A Berlin.
Was mildly surprised to see him after all the years.

This example goes to the heart of what Robert was saying.

Robert C. Jones

Tue, 11/12/2013 - 4:54pm

"All cultures are unique." True. Effective tactics depend upon having perosnnel, who not only appreciate this fact, but who also through years of persistent engagement in some particular region have come to appreciate the nuances of a place.

One can teach the 4-word observation, but one must actually put in the sweat equity over years to develop the understanding of a single region.

This is why SF Groups are regionally oriented and why the personnel are largely regimented to work within a single group for the bulk of their careers.

A strategic lesson for big Army would be to dedicated a single BCT to each GCC region and to then regiment each of those BCTs much as they do the Ranger Regiment and the Special Forces Groups. Each of these BCTs would morph in terms of how it was organized and equipped over time, and the soldiers who spend 15 of 20 years in their careers there would eventually develop the type of understanding advocated for here.

Another strategic lesson is that while every culture is unique, human nature, on the other hand, is largely consistent across cultures. A society that perceives itself to be treated with disrespect compared to other similarly situated societies by the system of governance over them is susceptible to insurgency or UW exploitation. A society that perceives the system of governance over them to be illegitimate in the context of their culture(no right to govern), or to be acting in ways that exceed their sovereignty (governs inappropriately) in the context of their culture is susceptible as well. As is a society that perceives that the rule of law as applied to them to be unjust in the context of their culture.

Strategic understanding helps us to appreciate what perceptions are most important. Tactical understanding helps us to appreciate how the people we are working with perceive those things and how to work to best nurture positive perceptions and avoid negative perceptions.

From where I sit, this focus on the nuance of culture is pure tactics. You can't teach me the nuance I need, only that nuance is important. Tactics. This is not "strategic land power." If we are trying to validate a requirement for strategic land power upon so tactical of a concept, I would recommend finding a more strategic foundation to build upon.

All humans laugh - but tell the wrong joke, in the wrong way, to the wrong crowd, and one is likely to provoke all manner of unintended and unwanted respones. But you still need to learn how to craft and tell a joke first before you go out looking for an audience to tailor it to.