SOF Futures: Pathways Through the Transition
Jon Cederquist, Anne Gibbon and Richard Lum
The world has entered a period of transition. Old assumptions and structures about the geopolitical order and international security are eroding while a variety of actors, newly empowered and emboldened, work with purpose and inventiveness to create new, alternative regional and world orders. It is a time of competition and conflict, as established actors work out the realities of the situation and newly emergent actors push hard to manifest the changes they desire. During this period, special operations forces (SOF) will once again find itself out ahead of others, operating in ambiguity and uncertainty as the world’s players compete to establish new rules and new structures. One of the key challenges for SOF is that, rather than just being tactical, this time the ambiguity and uncertainty is strategic. If SOF is to continue to be effective during this time of transition, then they must rely on their collective ability to perceive weak signals and adapt more rapidly than our competitors.
A Transition Period Between Two Eras
America’s brief “unipolar moment” is most definitively done. The post-World War II world for which we architected the foundations, and the post-Cold War order in which America stood supreme as the unrivaled economic, military, and narrative power, are fading into history. Long-held assumptions about the world order and international security have been under pressure for some time: that “democracy” will ultimately obtain for all nations (and such nations are ever allies and friends); that there are in fact global values that all peoples (and their rulers) aspire to; that those who trade together stay together; that the United States will be accepted as the global guarantor of security; and that the US will indefinitely maintain its technological leads, which it believes translates into military superiority.
Putting pressure on these assumptions, and undermining many of their supporting structures, have been a number of trends. The very globalization that we sought, the integration of trade and finance and the opening of borders, has brought prosperity – and power – to billions around the world. The digitization of technology facilitates its diffusion and access and makes it easy for people everywhere to become designers and tinkerers, innovators and thieves. Digitization and connectivity have also led to pervasive vulnerabilities across the wired world, opening up a vast, invisible landscape of threat surfaces, not the least of which has turned out to be social and narrative. Demographically, the West (and its highly industrialized allies) is wealthy and aging, while much of the developing world is young and lacking in opportunities and stability.
While such trends have been eroding the old order, a widening array of new developments have been inspiring new visions for the future. Of the many emerging technologies and ideas that are animating new visions, machines probably rank chief among them. While machine automation in its various guises has quietly become more important for everyday life, the fight to lead – and control – the future of artificial intelligence now spans corporate and national lines. Biology represents another vast landscape of radical possibilities for health, industry, and military. Cryptography, smart contracts, DNA-based memory, and quantum computing represent a broadening field of new technologies and applications that sound to many like science fiction, yet most certainly are not. These and many other emerging issues are galvanizing state and nonstate actors with disruptive new ideas about how to reorder political, economic, and military life. Additionally, the most extreme of the innovations are being developed and deployed in the dark – in underground DIY biohacking collectives and overseas in foreign labs - forcing greatly reduced reaction times and denying US forces the ability to war game out risk scenarios.
In addition to the big, structural changes underway, a lot of new actors have been taking the stage. Each of these actors, newly empowered and inspired, is pursuing some amount of change in the system. While America’s “vision” of the future is really the status quo minus ten or so years, others want a very real redistribution of power within our current system, and some want to tear it all down or to build an entirely new order based on new technologies and new imperatives. Within these extremes are a range of competing and conflicted preferences for a new geopolitical order. Never before in history has the world had so many actors, from great states to transnational corporations to networked communities to lone individuals, so empowered to pursue their own goals and potentially exercise such strategic impact on the world.
Reflecting on all of these overlapping and interwoven changes, there is the sense that we are not simply witnessing a classical “power transition” among former and future hegemons. Increasingly, we have the sense that what is going on in the world today involves far more than just some Westphalian-type states growing their economies, acquiring bigger militaries, and expanding their aspirations (and taking countless conscripted citizens along with them). This time, there are more disruptive technologies being pushed to the fore, far more actors contributing to the turbulence, and far more interdependencies linking us all together in complex patterns. What the next era to emerge from all of this will look like is unclear. Exactly how the system will reconfigure itself and settle into a new “order”, or even if it will soon settle into a new order that lasts for decades, is one of the fundamental strategic uncertainties facing us today.
SOF Futures Across the Transition
While the ultimate end state for the next security era is inherently uncertain, we can still generate considerable insight into how and why things may change in the intervening years. Drawing on history, incorporating current signals of change, and thinking critically about how change unfolds, we can develop useful forecasts about how different futures may arise. Being focused more on the journey than the destination gives us a bit more insight into how organizations need to be prepared to succeed in a variety of situations. With this view in mind, we developed a set of five original scenarios that explore different futures that SOF in particular may experience as the world transitions from the previous security era to whatever may come next.
As opposed to the types of forecasting typically done in acquisitions departments, these scenarios are particularly useful for SOF to consider as they transition into more strategic leadership roles, conducting campaigns in multiple locations around the world and leading the assessments of emerging threats and new theaters of combat. As forecasts, these scenarios take into account not just technology, but also social, environmental, political, and economic trends. Assuming SOF will continue to have a role in recognizing and responding to future emergent threats, it will be imperative to hone their operators' mental agility and to identify destabilizing anomalies amidst the onslaught of conflicting signals of change.
The following scenarios explore five possible futures across the transition. Collectively, they describe some of the ways in which the world could change and some of the institutional context in which SOF may find itself during these changes. With respect to the broader environment, the scenarios include issues like great power transition, technological competition, and technological revolutions. Institutionally, they touch on issues such as organizational respect and stature, mission sets, and resources.
Flip the Script
As feared by many observers, over the next ten years China continues to pull ahead of the US in technological innovation, dominating key emerging fields. Over successive administrations, US leadership exhibits the anxiety and insecurity-driven behaviors expected of a declining hegemon, ratcheting up tensions and confirming the fears of allies. As the US slips further into the role of global follower, it eventually switches to a more asymmetric approach to meet the challenges of a rapidly reconfiguring world order. SOF, once a global counter-terrorism force, is morphed into a front line, digitally hyper-enabled destabilizer (and stabilizer) of human and technical systems. In the increasingly contested and denied parts of the world, SOF has gone decidedly dark and digital, augmented by not-quite-leading-edge AI and far more reliant on innovation in the field. In this new era, SOF has turned to new types of recruits, men and women with new profiles and novel skillsets.
The precedents of Russia’s “hybrid warfare” and ISIS’s innovations in creating and growing a movement cross pollinate and mutate over the next fifteen years, informing a new generation of militant activists, guerilla fighters, and terrorist groups. Civil society, both its public places and its narrative spaces, becomes the primary space of competition and conflict in the emerging period. America suffers repeated and violent campaigns that target the political will of its citizens, and as the rest of the world seems to descend into more of the same chaos, America pulls inward and begins a conscious retreat from global leadership. SOF, its reputation tarnished by a series of scandals over excessive violence and abuse of authority, is less trusted and less respected. As US foreign policy undergoes a major move away from entrenched foreign military engagement, SOF is slimmed down and tasked with supporting the CIA’s lead in keeping the amorphous and often invisible bad guys away. Across the SOF community, internal leadership losses and falling morale start a downward spiral and trigger an identity crisis just as the sun sets on the era of US global leadership.
Oh Hell, Scrum It
Power diffusion to non-state actors of all types accelerates as technologies like digital fabrication and easy-to-use AI mature and spread across the globe. The speed of innovation among small actors and networks of smaller actors accelerates, leading to a constant and rapid evolution in capabilities of lots of people around the world. As power resources proliferate, US leadership, already suffering from decades of decaying domestic politics, is simply overwhelmed by a competitive landscape that is constantly mutating. Not understanding the rapid changes underway, and lacking a clear sense of strategy, US leadership engages the wider world in a haphazard and lackluster way. In this period of dramatic power diffusion, SOF is refocused on special warfare against myriad, more advanced and more agile non-state opponents. As they are deployed to engage a wide variety of challenges in many different contexts, there is mounting pressure on SOF to broaden (not dilute) the recruitment pool and to overhaul its acquisition processes to meet the diversifying and multiplying missions.
A series of sudden breakthroughs in areas like synthetic biology and bio(industrialism) over the next fifteen years ushers in a technological revolution in how we make things – and how we make life. Even as corporations and states scramble to evolve their business models and laws, small actors, from individuals to domestic activists to gray market businesses, rush ahead to experiment with and apply these new technologies. What quickly results is a dazzling array of amazing and dangerous creations, most of which are unregulated and uncontrolled. As fear mounts that these new unregulated biological creations will wreak havoc on natural ecosystems – to say nothing of social and political order – the US steps back up the global leadership plate. In this emerging era of awesome biological power, SOF is tasked with working with partners and allies on controlling the proliferation of biotech capabilities to a broadening array of actors. While SOF refocuses on the spiraling challenge of high-tech nonproliferation, conventional US forces continue their own evolution, taking on more of the other, traditionally SOF missions.
Global War on Chaos
The nature of conflicts in a hyperconnected world of rapid adaptation and innovation is that they spread and infect across geography and stakeholders, mutating from one form of conflict to another and never really coming to an end. Local insurgencies become global movements, which launch innovative cyber campaigns, which lead to widespread industrial damage, which trigger trade wars. As conflict after conflict seem to intersect and infect one another, the US leadership flails, not knowing where to look or what to hit. Lacking a clear set of causes to address or targets to strike, the US turns almost desperately to its elite forces to solve the problem(s) du jour. SOF becomes the all-purpose scalpel, a global and general-purpose emergency response force spun up for every crisis. Tasked with responding to so many different situations, SOF is backed up with newly expanded authorities and given any new tool or toy they need.
Looking across these scenarios, there are some initial insights that stand out. First, and perhaps most obvious, the scenarios represent a widely divergent set of challenging new futures. Given the array of potential challenges, SOF’s ability to recognize – and to accept – possible futures that diverge significantly from today’s reality will be key to adapting and succeeding across this period of transition. Second, with so much change across so many levels and from so many different directions, the signal-to-noise challenge will likely worsen. SOF will need additional ways to collect and make sense of the signals of change that are out there if they are to effectively anticipate divergent and challenging possibilities. Third, the speed of many of the changes identified in the scenarios is likely to be much quicker than we anticipate, especially if we really are experiencing exponential technological change. SOF will need to deal with accelerating change if it is to anticipate and adapt effectively. Finally, given that speed of change, SOF will likely need to operate far left of boom – moving, in fact, away from the traditional OODA loop process of adaptation to a much more anticipatory predict and act approach.
Gearing Up for the Fight
During periods of transition many strongly-held assumptions – and many long-lived institutional practices – can begin to fail as the surrounding environment changes rapidly. During these periods, it is more important than ever for an organization to both widen their aperture to anticipate signals of change, as well as become more aware about how they perceive and respond to the environment. Change – not just in tools but in mindsets and practices – will be required if SOF is to effectively navigate the turbulence of this transition. In pursuing these changes, the hardest challenge will not be an enemy, but rather a willingness to gaze unflinchingly in the mirror. Is SOF, the entirety of its community of operators and organizations, capable of the kind of rapid and strategic adaptability required in the coming years?
We certainly believe so, and to support our SOF community in this challenge, we offer a simple three-part framework. This framework links three mutually reinforcing areas: Cognitive and Perceptual, Sensemaking and Anticipation, and Innovation and Adaption.
Cognitive and Perceptual
How we perceive the world, how we process information, and how self-aware we are of those things are key to innovation and adaptation. Ultimately, the foundation that will determine success is not any particular process, but a willingness to break and alter established process. It is a willingness to recruit and nurture outliers, to challenge long held assumptions, to trial new partnerships, and to alter mission sets.
Nurture the Outliers Theoretical physicist Geoffrey West compared the predictable death of businesses to the relative infinite regeneration of cities, applying complexity theory and systems dynamics to understand patterns in their chaos. He found that the difference between the two, between regeneration and death, was the tolerance of outliers. Companies built up a calcified bureaucracy as they expanded and formalized, pushing out the “crazies.” Cities, on the other hand, had to tolerate them, and from that divergent population a few would manage to carve out space in corners of the city to create the innovations that renewed the cycle of growth.
Increase your tolerance for Cognitive Dissonance Innovation gurus talk in vague terms about developing a comfort with uncertainty, with discomfort. A more correct prescription comes from neuroscience and medicine. Just as SOF operators learn to recognize, tolerate, and manage the physical sensations of discomfort, so they must do the same for mental discomfort. There are detectable, quantifiable neural and physiological responses the human body generates to information that challenges its mental models – creating cognitive dissonance. Most humans simply reject reality because they find the distance between their expected vision and real sensory input to be too jarring, just like they will do anything to escape the physical discomfort of exercise. SOF will need to create crucible experiences for testing and pushing the boundaries of their tolerance for weak signals and unexpected information.
Acquire exponentially better tools for visualizing intelligence and missions A significant hindrance to the ability of SOF to increase the speed of the targeting cycle are the poor tools they have to convey their insight of the enemy and the battlespace in which they operate. The combined decades of experience of the SOF intel and operator communities are virtually lost when they build CONOPS in ppt, sent over email. Current means of conveying information are the equivalent of asking Picasso to finger paint. Why hamstring a genius by withholding tools to clearly convey their vision? The perception of SOF intel and operators should be translated crystal clear from them to their partners and senior decision makers.
Sensemaking and Anticipation
Every period of transition introduces great turbulence, great uncertainty, and many competing signals of change. As SOF proceeds through this next phase in history, there are some very effective, initial steps it can take to improve the foresight it develops to help navigate – and shape – its pathway through the transition.
Widen the aperture for detecting signals of change: one of the most important things SOF can do is to increase and broaden the signals of change it collects about the institutional and operational environments. One of the simplest ways to begin this is to start engaging more diverse networks of experts and boundary-pushing thinkers. Technologists at the bleeding edge of technical capability, social and political activists responding to deep faults in society, and entrepreneurs innovating economic value at the fringes and in the gray markets of the world all have important perspectives on current and future change, and often more so than established leaders in traditional institutions.
More frequent engagement with the future: when change in the world around us ups its operational tempo, insights about the world age fast, and so we have to keep up by having more discussions about how things are changing and what may come next. Organizations today have a need to pulse the future more often than once every four or five years. And foresight conversations don’t all have to be big formal studies; ad hoc sensemaking sessions, periodic deep dives into newly detected signals of change, and quick scenario sketches can all be extremely useful reflexive activities. Further, these conversations need to be more integrated with each other and across commands.
Map out the high-change scenarios: rather than refining projections of futures that strongly resemble the present, SOF’s foresight efforts in this transition period should be focused on exploring the diverse and divergent possibilities that more likely capture the novel challenges (and opportunities) of a future world order. The results of today’s foresight work should challenge how we operate and with what and with whom we operate. In the context of moving through this period of geopolitical transition, SOF’s futures conversations should feel more like a bracing (and invigorating) shower than a nice warm, comfortable bath. And the point is not to get the future right; rather it is better to anticipate the range of disruptive changes that are possible, and to identify the new and novel spaces and changes that we can shape into a more preferred future.
These represent a few first steps that SOF can take to begin to enhance its sensemaking of signals of change and its ability to anticipate the challenges and opportunities that this transition may bring.
Innovation and Adaptation
Everything must evolve and adapt, or it gets marginalized. SOF is coming to a crossroads where it must adapt, innovate, and leap past near peer and non-state actors to maintain their advantage. SOF must consider where they will operate and what tools they will need to solve the right challenges, quickly to create new spaces and opportunities for themselves.
Enhance SOF’s recruitment pipeline: The battlefield is changing and the need for a more technical savvy, ethnically, culturally, and socially diverse force that can interact at all levels is required that reflects that change. The SOF warrior of the future will be required to be socially savvy enough to talk to the technologist as well as the most hardened partner force fighter. In a similar vein, the SOF warrior of the future has to have the interpersonal skills to understand the divergent cultural and social norms that exist and naturally evolve to reflect the global society. SOF has to attract individuals that can understand, interact, and thrive in this environment without sacrificing the high physical and mental standards needed to complete training. An internal and external marketing campaign should be developed and implemented that conveys a clear message to those encouraged to apply to SOF.
Embrace untapped Human Terrain: SOF must learn to use the human terrain better and in different sectors than it has in the past. SOF needs to develop, strengthen, and maintain long-term relationships with partners and allies that exist outside of the nation state structure. The “front line” in a conflict is usually non-existent and the boundary is blurred between state actors and eco-systems. Many sectors of society fall along lines outside of geographic boundaries and are instead may be formed organically from common interests, cultural histories, religious background, education, and other factors. Human terrain does not necessarily conform to nation state boundaries, so by connecting with these new types of local (global) actors, groups, and networks SOF will enhance their reach and gain historically untouched knowledge and capability. These lines are already blurred in the rest of the world. SOF’s development of a living doctrine will enable them to reach these hard to reach or unreachable nodes, in countries where SOF doesn’t have freedom of movement.
Technology Innovations: SOF must access and use areas of technology and innovation that have historically remained untouched or underutilized. Several sectors across communications, surveillance, transportation modes, weapons, analysis, finance and other technologies will continue to enhance the battlefield along all of these lines. Advances outside the normal procurement channels in the commercial sector including hacker/maker spaces, incubators, and other private enterprise innovator cells may arise at usable or near usable solutions while on parallel development paths or if given access to SOF requirements. A flattening of the innovation and procurement hierarchy by SOF to tie the innovator much closer to the operator will reduce the time frame between iterations during prototyping and fielding.
SOF should push decisions and approvals towards the edge to operators that are more technology savvy and can operate amongst a diverse human terrain spread across a global physical and digital environment.
The world is moving through a transition, one that will continue to introduce significant disruption and will challenge many of the assumptions we have for decades held about security and world order. SOF, with its unique approaches and capabilities, will almost certainly be tasked with confronting the key military and geopolitical challenges across this transition. To effectively navigate this transition, to adapt swiftly and effectively to the challenges it presents, SOF will need new concepts, approaches, and tools to enhance its ability to anticipate, innovate, and adapt. Considering the diverse range of scenarios possible across this transition, we believe that the three areas outlined above, Cognitive and Perceptual, Sensemaking and Anticipation, and Innovation and Adaptation, are where SOF can affect valuable institutional and cultural changes that will allow it to succeed no matter what kind of future we ultimately confront.