Small Wars Journal

What’s Wrong With ARSOF?

Tue, 12/27/2016 - 10:59am

What’s Wrong With ARSOF?

Part II of IV of “What’s Wrong With SOCOM?”

What’s Wrong With SOCOM? (Part I)

Sadcom via Happycom

When talking about the U.S. Army Special Operations Command (USASOC), we have to differentiate between “ARSOF” (Army Special Operations Forces) and all the units within the USASOC purview. First, USASOC does not have proponency over the Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR), any JSOC unit, the 75th Ranger Regiment, or the 528th Sustainment Brigade. USASOC’s main two subordinate commands, the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School (USAJFKSWCS) and 1st Special Forces Command (Airborne) contain the majority of forces that are what most refer to as “ARSOF.” That is, the three regiments of Special Forces (SF), Civil Affairs (CA), and Psychological Operations (or “Psyop,” also known by their mission acronym of Military Information Support Operations (MISO)). These three forces are really what USASOC concerns itself with, as SOAR’s proponent is Army Aviation and their working partner is JSOC. Likewise, the Ranger’s proponent is the Infantry and they work mainly with JSOC as well.

Within USASOC, therefore, and within its two subordinate commands, SF is king. Much like JSOC running SOCOM, SF runs USASOC, USAJFKSWCS, and 1st SF Command. In fact, when many people within USASOC or even within DoD talk about ARSOF they are really talking SF. This makes sense on one level: the Army values combat arms and the tactical level, and SF provides that in spades. A CA or Psyop officer in Afghanistan does not hunt down and kill terrorists. It is much more difficult to figure out the CA and Psyop effects in the short-term. Their activities are concerned with the long-term and the non-linear. They also do not have the luxury that SF enjoys of being able to deviate from their specialty and run around killing terrorists. SF, supposed to be concerned with building local capacity, can build that local capacity ostensibly while leading local forces in killing terrorists and insurgents. Psyop and CA, when they do work through the locals, are still bound by their core specialties of influencing and building civil capacity respectively.

There has never been, nor will there ever be, a CA or Psyop commander of USASOC. Three star generals within ARSOF come from commanding TSOCs and command of TSOCs come from being Group (brigade level, commanded by a colonel) commanders in combat or something similar. Even though it is a stretch to say that SF really commands forces in combat at the Group level, CA and Psyop definitely do not. Therefore, with the current personnel system, you could be the smartest colonel in the entire DoD, capable of amazing leadership, but if you are CA or Psyop you will be lucky to make it to 1 star general, much less higher.

Special Forces: Tactically Focused and Competing Against the Big Army and JSOC

Within SF, there is really only one way to career success these days: tactical experience. This means that the best way to higher rank within Special Forces is to go from team command to battalion S-3 (Operations) to Group S-3. Group and BN S-3s are where SF gets most of its future battalion commanders. This is because that is where the Army gets their future battalion commanders. And SF long ago sold its soul to better compete within the Army for battalion command slots. This is so that SF officers that are competitive for colonel but do not get to command within SF or ARSOF can still be competitive for Branch immaterial battalion commands, commands like recruiting, basic training, special troops battalions within conventional divisions, or installation command battalions. The idea is that the more SF officers who command battalions, the more SF officers will be promoted to colonel and the more promoted to colonel, the more will be promoted to general. The more generals and colonels SF has in the Army, as it is a zero sum game, the more SF will be “winning.”

Thus, when SF officers get to colonel and general, they will be very lucky to have had more than one assignment that exposed them to anything close to “strategic,” much less “broadening.” There is no room for nuance or deviations from the preferred track. If you are in a position in an embassy and you get a chance to work for a year or two as the brigade ops officer of a foreign army unit you are most likely committing career suicide, as irregular jobs like that are not conducive to getting a “top block” on one’s evaluation and there is no way for the Army to code those kinds of jobs to compete with the official jobs that do count for promotion, without SF risking losing out on some branch immaterial battalion command opportunities. Thus, when looking at a major who speaks fluent Spanish, spent two years as a brigade operations officer in the Colombian Army while on loan to an embassy, yet did not fill the same kind of position in the American Army, that major today will most likely be passed over for promotion to lieutenant colonel. Juxtapose that to a major who was a battalion operations officer in a training battalion, but the training battalion was an American unit, and that major is more likely to be promoted, all things being equal.

It gets worse, SF battalions and brigades normally don’t fight as battalions and brigades. They don’t maneuver subordinate formations during battle. SF’s maneuver units are the teams and even companies don’t maneuver teams. Teams maneuver their partner nation’s forces. They organize and conduct most of their training. They conduct the Military Decision Making Process (MDMP), forecast and execute budgets, and plan and prepare for and execute overseas deployments. An SF battalion operations officer does little more than track metrics like teams deployed and training requirements. During a combat tour an SF battalion operations officer sits in an operations center and tracks where teams are and what they are doing. He does not assist the battalion commander in maneuvering those forces on the battlefield, it is a very different experience than a conventional forces battalion. But, that is where SF gets its future general officers. Not from guys working at embassies who have built decades of relationships with foreign nationals and worked in their armies. Not from guys who have worked at the Theater Special Operations Commands (TSOCs) and understand the strategic and operational levels. SF gets its future general officers from guys who track tactical metrics.

USASOC might be able to overcome this tactical focus by either instructing the Army to select for promotion and command a different experience base than the Army normally uses. USASOC could also potentially overcome the tactical focus of SF by instituting additional educational opportunities at USAJFKSWCS. Lastly, USASOC could prioritize the assignment of officers to a myriad of high-level positions with regional expertise being a high priority. Instead, USASOC prioritizes the tactical level and the current fight. Thus, if an officer’s regional expertise is in Asia and he is fluent in an Asian language, he is just as likely to find himself serving in Iraq or in support of operations in Syria as an officer who has Mid-East experience and speaks Arabic. This goes back to the issue of competing against JSOC and the Army for promotion and command. An evaluation for two years working out of an embassy in Thailand holds no candle to a one-year evaluation as a battalion operations officer in combat, even if that “combat” consisted of sitting in an air-conditioned operations center far from the sounds and smells of actual combat.

1st Special Forces Command

For the longest time, but especially since 9/11, ARSOF has wanted a deployable command to call its own. JSOC has one and it was seen as the best way to jump up to command of SOCOM. Additionally, there was no clear manner with which to command ARSOF outside of the TSOCs, and the TSOCs have been viewed as both weak and too controlled (or limited, according to many) by the Geographical Combatant Commands (GCCs). Worse, the TSOCs, because they are not deemed important by SOCOM or USASOC, are mainly filled with staffers that have little to no SOF experience. Officers needing to get joint credit come in to the TSOCs, serve 2 years, and then depart, never to return. Most ARSOF officers, and SOF officers in general, avoid the TSOCs like the plague. And it makes sense too, an evaluation showing two years spent working SOF plans at a TSOC cannot compare to an evaluation showing that one was an operations officer for a battalion in a combat zone. Even if the TSOC job meant invaluable experience with the struggles of making operations fit into policy objectives and the combat zone battalion operations officer job was 6 months of sitting in an air-conditioned operations center and tracking units on a screen and preparing power point slides.

Through a series of unfortunate events, USASOC finally received an opportunity to establish a 2-star command that ostensibly was to deploy and command and control SOF engaged in combat operations overseas. At the time the Army was not in the mood to tell USASOC “no” and neither was SOCOM. The Department of the Army (DA), often viewed as “Dad,” and SOCOM, often viewed as “Mom,” are joked about being two parents who don’t live together and thus can’t control their rebellious kid, USASOC. Suffice it to say that USASOC established 1st SF Command with no permission, found it a mission (ISIS), deployed it, and has since been asking SOCOM and the Army to authorize more positions because it cannot be maintained. SOCOM currently is relishing the chance to complain that USASOC never did ask for permission nor for more personnel authorizations. DA is currently cutting personnel, so there is very little they can do but privately opine that USASOC is insane.

USASOC could care less if 1st SF Command cannot be maintained nor if it is unable to add anything to the current fight against ISIS. The goal was always to get a command for ARSOF that would allow ARSOF officers, mainly SF, to be able to compete against JSOC and JSOC’s deployable command. This is why USASOC will continue to fight SOCOM’s attempts to assist 1st SF Command in its personnel problems, because filling 1st SF Command while deployed with joint SOF officers defeats the purpose of having 1st SF Command in the first place.

This is also tangentially related to JSOC’s and all other SOF headquarters’ refusals to consolidate locations and headquarters, even when the SOCOM commander all but orders them to: each of these headquarters gives different branches within SOF opportunities to compete both with each other as well as with those within their respective services. Consolidating headquarters and locations both negates the opportunity these headquarters give their personnel and could result in building even more redundant systems and facilities within “consolidated” headquarters, since there is very little trust within these units. Practically speaking, there is also little capability to work together, as each unit has their own proprietary systems and classification requirements, such that it is almost impossible to share information, send emails, or talk to each other.

In the end, however, there should be one simple test of whether or not 1st SF Command is value-added or not. Following Hy Rothstein’s assertion that the more attention on an Irregular Warfare effort, the worse it will turn out to be, it should be relatively simple to gauge 1st SF Command’s contribution to the fight against the Islamic State. We should be able to simply compare how efforts were progressing prior to their entry into the battlespace. Taking this a step further, maybe we could offer a few predictions that can be tested. 1: 1st SF Command’s personnel requirements will continue to grow while they have a presence in the CENTCOM Area of Operations. 2: The ability of CENTCOM to reach policy objectives will continue to be a challenge, with or without 1st SF Command. 3: The capability of enemies of the U.S. within Iraq and Syria will continue to be maintained, if not grow, regardless of what happens to ISIS. 4: SF Officers will be more competitive against both JSOC officers and Army officers, beginning with 1st SF Command’s deployment. 5: USASOC’s personnel requirements and money requirements, 1st SF Command representing the lion’s share of this, will continue to grow. 6: ARSOF’s ability to maintain regional expertise (language ability, # and timeliness of relationships in those regions) will continue to decrease.

The over-arching hypothesis is that with 1st SF Command, ARSOF will become better at career competition, securing budgets, and growing in personnel, but worse in actual effectiveness on the battlefield and in maintaining regional expertise and connections. There are many reasons why none of these metrics will be tracked or acknowledged if they exist by USASOC, mainly because they could upset the number one strategic goal of the DoD, as identified by John Boyd: maintaining the resource flow. Because no military personnel are punished for long-term failure, “long-term” being more than 2 years, upsetting resource flows is seen as the only bad thing that can happen to an organization. It is more likely than not that SOCOM would actually improve if their budget was cut in half if the resulting amount was spent wisely. Unfortunately, spending the resulting amount wisely is about as likely as SOCOM admitting to any of the metrics mentioned above.

One last thing to mention with respect to 1st SF Command is its (and USASOC’s) deplorable treatment of CA and Psyop. First, SF would prefer to take most or all of the CA and Psyop commands away and give them to SF officers. Second, when 1st SF Command was formed, the most important jobs went largely to SF officers, much like USASOC itself. Third, SF does not think too highly of CA and Psyop, thus there is largely little effort at improving those two branches. CA has even been largely pushed to the Conventional Army. That is not to say that CA and Psyop do not have their own problems, as will be seen in the next section, but the solution to fixing them is not to weaken them even further. The SOCOM commander asked recently why SOF’s ability to influence was so terrible. The answer is that if we spent even one-fourth of our time and money on Psyop as we do JSOC, then maybe Psyop wouldn’t be so ineffective.

The Problem with CA and Psyop

Civil Affairs (CA) and Psychological Operations (Psyop) are both red-headed step-children in USASOC. There are many ways this is true. For starters, there are no CA or Psyop officers as primary staffers at USASOC. Ditto at 1st SF Command, unless you count the Influence Cell. USAJFKSWCS rarely has one as a primary staffer and never as a commander or Training Group Commander. These commands are staffed and commanded by SF officers. Another sign is the amount of attention CA and Psyop get at USASOC. Suffice it to say that although the first name of USAJFKSWCS was 1st Psychological Warfare Command when there was only one SOF general officer command around, the moniker “psychological” is today only paid a compliment in the form of this quote: “the only thing worse than Psyop is Civil Affairs.” This is a travesty for multiple reasons, but the most important one is that Irregular Warfare needs very smart influencers and the establishment of civil institutions. In fact, one could make the argument that everyone in the military ultimately supports Psyop and CA.

Because CA and Psyop are given such little attention and priority, the branches are not filled with the best folks, the fundamental assumptions about their specialties are highly specious, and they have zero chance at commanding anything past colonel, and even a small chance at that. This does not bode well for America’s chances at being successful at Irregular Warfare (IW). If we need to influence populations to support our proxies and we need countries we are supporting to build resilient civil institutions that will support stability, then we need really good CA and Psyop units. In fact, one could make the argument that at least part of the reason we have struggled in Iraq and Afghanistan and now Syria is that we suck at CA and Psyop.

CA and Psyop are at a tremendous disadvantage, of course, within the Army and the JSOC-controlled SOCOM. CA and Psyop are viewed by most at SOCOM as worse than SF. That is, their effects on the battlefield are difficult to measure and usually have a time horizon that is further out than most tours of duty, evaluations, political election cycles, and resource decision making. Thus, if one is to take risk in something, it is much easier to take risk in the realm of something like CA and Psyop wherein the negative effect of doing so is very difficult to gauge, and, either way won’t be known during most commanders’ assignment horizons. While it has already been mentioned that a CA or Psyop officer will never command USASOC, it follows that one will never command SOCOM.

Why is ARSOF Shut Out of Commanding SOCOM?

We have already mentioned that ARSOF generals don’t go on to command SOCOM. There are many reasons for this, but the most obvious one is that JSOC, as mentioned, has a better track to commanding SOCOM. Another reason is that ARSOF officers, as mentioned in this article, are mainly tactically focused and attempt to compete within the Army for battalion command. A related reason is that, by concentrating on competing with Regular Army officers, ARSOF officers don’t look all that attractive to SOCOM. Most ARSOF officers aren’t known for strategic thinking. Most of their greatest experiences consist of commanding SF Groups, which mostly concern themselves with things as mundane as: how many bad guys do we know are in a certain area, how many have we killed, who do they know, and how many partners have we trained in those areas. “Vision,” it would seem, doesn’t seem to be something that ARSOF senior officers are known for or have been able to demonstrate.[i]

It is useful to spend some time reviewing where the various SOCOM commanders have come from. The current one and three before him were all JSOC commanders. GEN Brown could also be considered a type of JSOC officer, since he came from the Special Operations Aviation Regiment. Holland, before him, was the one AFSOC officer who has commanded SOCOM. GEN Schoomaker was JSOC. GEN Shelton was the last officer who could be considered ARSOF, if one limits “ARSOF” to SF, CA, and Psyop. GEN Downing was JSOC. Stiner and Lindsay both could be labeled ARSOF, since they served with Special Forces.

What this shows is that since 9/11 SOCOM has been commanded by 3 JSOC commanders, a SEAL, a SOAR officer, and an Air Force officer. Even before that one has to go back to GEN Shelton in 1997 to find an ARSOF commander of SOCOM. This demonstrates the value of a JSOC career to anyone paying attention, and belies the focus of SOCOM. Not only that, but it shows the inability of ARSOF to produce leaders competitive against the SEALs, JSOC, and AFSOC. This inability isn’t just about 4-star rank. It also plays out in TSOC command, other higher-ranking areas of SOCOM and the Joint Staff, and the GCCs. Arguably the one area in which the U.S. has floundered, Irregular Warfare, is potentially in some way the fault of not having ARSOF officers in places of influence throughout DoD. Of course, this assumes that these officers would be able to give different advice than the ones who have been in place. As we will discuss in the next session, this assumption is probably a bad one.

What’s Wrong with ARSOF Officers?

One of the problems that has resulted in ARSOF officers being non-competitive with others stems from the Army model applied to ARSOF. SEALs don’t have to command a ship to make admiral. AFSOC personnel mainly fall into the AF model quite comfortably. The Army model works for the Army, since there are plenty of opportunities to command at high levels and Army generals are exposed to higher levels of thinking more often than ARSOF officers. But, tying ARSOF to the Army not only affects careers and SOCOM command, it also affects how ARSOF think about Irregular Warfare.

As mentioned in the first article in this series, all SOF above the team level are not really “special.” They mostly fall under their services’ respective education, career management, and doctrinal systems. This is somewhat less true for the SEALs, but, for the most part, it is true for the rest of SOF. For ARSOF this is even more so the case. After a CA, Psyop, or SF officer finishes their respective qualification courses, the rest of their careers they are Army officers: they receive continuing education mostly from Army schools (sister service or NPS are exceptions for some[ii]), their doctrine is mostly Army doctrine, and their concepts are mostly rips off of Army concepts (sometimes they rip off of SOCOM). The ways in which ARSOF officers are managed, as mentioned earlier, are through a system for conventional Army types.

These systems, then, produce ARSOF officers that, as they get promoted, think increasingly like conventional officers. Most of the deviant thinkers within ARSOF are what gives its teams their “special” credibility, but these thinkers are largely gotten rid of before they make E-8 (in the case of the NCOs), CW4 (in the case of warrants), and O-4 in the case of officers. Once an officer makes O-4 within ARSOF, if they are natural innovative thinkers they will increasingly become frustrated with their service. Most will simply get out. The ones that stay in have to make a choice: conform, largely to the Army ways of thinking (with their loyalty firmly in the ARSOF camp), or become increasingly frustrated. Some manage to get promoted on to higher rank, but many of those run out of steam well before they are considered for general officer. For the very few innovators that make it to general, most of those get out earlier than they need to. It becomes increasingly difficult to look at oneself in the mirror while living the conformist life.

This ultimately means, I assert, that ARSOF officers and their staffs at the battalion and higher levels offer the nation nothing different than a conventional force staff would. Their thinking is the same[iii], the doctrine is the same, and their education and training are the same, so why should anyone expect them to be different? The one argument I have heard made consistently is that SOF know how to command and control SOF, implying that Conventional Forces (CF) do not. I think this is a spurious claim, would be very difficult to conclusively determine, and I have seen anecdotal evidence that the context determines better who should C2 whom. The one example that seems to crop up continuously is that CF brigade commanders will try to maneuver SF Operational Detachment Alphas (ODAs) as if they were infantry units. While this may be true, better educated SF team leaders on their options and better educated CF commanders are probably better institutional solutions than simply calling for all SOF to always be C2’d by SOF. If Hy Rothstein’s thesis in his article “Less is More”[iv] is correct, the solution to C2ing SOF isn’t more HQs, SOF or otherwise, it is the right level of HQs. That usually will mean, as Rothstein states, less is more, as the problem during Irregular Warfare is too much attention from HQs.

The focus of USASOC, however, is not how ARSOF might be failing or their share of the failures since 9/11, far from it. It might help to turn our attention to USASOC’s headquarters and what that headquarters is focused on.

What’s Wrong with USASOC Headquarters?

USASOC’s headquarters from the outside is pretty impressive. The command has the most personnel in all of SOCOM. On paper they include Special Forces, otherwise known as the Green Berets, the Rangers, Psychological Operations, The Special Operations Aviation Regiment, Civil Affairs, and have some connection with JSOC units and several others. In the recent past they have built an impressive UW capability, largely without official permission, and have established a division-level deployable headquarters without securing additional personnel authorizations or permission. If taking initiative and favoring acting and asking for forgiveness afterwards are tactical characteristics of ARSOF teams, those same characteristics seem to describe USASOC headquarters as well.

Behind the scenes, however, the headquarters suffers from the same issues that SOCOM’s headquarters suffers from: bloated bureaucracy, civilians jockeying for position, sections that do not work well together, lack of trust issues, and a focus on securing resources instead of actual effectiveness of its deployed formations. Worse, USASOC, much like SOCOM, has tailored its learning system towards securing those resources, so there is no independent objective viewpoint that can tell the emperor he has no clothes. Instead, sections compete at looking best at being able to secure resources from SOCOM or DA. This repeats the same problem at SOCOM: ARSOF are focused on short-term metrics and usually material solutions, which are more expensive, and give short shrift to education, training, and innovation related to how special operations are conducted. This is, of course, the exact opposite of what SOF say they value.

The Way Ahead

Part four of this series will offer recommendations for improving SOCOM, but one way in which USASOC could improve that is worth mentioning here is to value their education and training center more. The training that the U.S. Army JFK Special Warfare Center and School conducts is largely thought of by many as being value-added in spite of both USAJFKSWCS and USASOC. This is, from this author’s perspective, because of the initiative, courage, and capability of the NCOs and junior officers who instruct at the school. Much, though definitely not all, of the mid-level management within USAJFKSWCS pretty much keeps the command from really earning the moniker the Army has bestowed on it for breathing: “The Special Operations Center of Excellence.”

If that were not enough, USASOC rarely prioritizes USAJFKSWCS activities and forces the center and school to constantly justify spending money on training and education. This is an activity that is disingenuous at best, having officers and NCOs attempt to explain the second and third order long-term effects to war-fighting capabilities of spending less on role players or TDY trips. Bureaucracy within USAJFKSWCS has resulted in some of the same situations that JSOU suffers from at SOCOM: civilians entrenched and working against civilians in other sections and commands, mainly jockeying for position and influence. If SOF is really about people over hardware and education is really about the future, the easiest way to make the future better for ARSOF would be to invest more in USAJFKSWCS and do some house cleaning there. Lastly, USAJFKSWCS rarely gets a commander for more than a year. This guarantees the entrenched civilians and terminal colonels awaiting retirement will gut most attempts at reform there.

Another of USASOC’s problems is that they view JSOC and the SEALs as their enemies. While it may be true that SEAL and JSOC influence on SOCOM and JSOC influence on foreign policy may not be good for the nation, the solution isn’t for ARSOF to get more money than those two. The solution has to be about ARSOF having, not just more, but more valuable and effective influence, and, ultimately, SOCOM having more valuable and effective influence with respect to military options during Irregular Warfare. No matter how good SOF teams are, if their actions do not ultimately lead to better foreign policy objectives, then it is all just tactical excellence, but strategic failure. But, what of those SEALs and the other sections of SOCOM, AFSOC and MARSOC? The SEALs, known by some as “Swim, Eat And Lift” have grown along with SOCOM and the rest of SOF and now conduct missions in landlocked countries due more to PC equitable sharing of missions within SOCOM than because of mission fit. The rest of SOCOM will be covered in the next article, part three of this four-part series.

End Notes

[i] LTG Cleveland, while in command of USASOC, did, according to some, have a vision for the future. Among other things, that included establishing 1st SF Command. Unfortunately, “vision” must include how to get to what one envisions in a way that is lasting, and, in that area LTG Cleveland perhaps caused more problems than anything else. It remains to be seen as to whether how much of his vision will be realized, but at this point this author does not feel very confident ANY of them will result in lasting difference, and, if anything, many will make things worse.

[ii] Naval Postgraduate School is really not a replacement for being inculcated into Army thinking, as NPS still uses joint instructors, NPS has to meet institutional curriculum requirements, and rarely does NPS research result in changes to joint or service doctrine or concepts. Research within DoD educational institutions is not where DoD entities get their concepts from. DoD is largely driven by the resourcing side of the house in terms of concepts, which may seem backwards, unless one recalls John Boyd’s remark on Pentagon strategy.

[iii] The ‘same kind of thinking’ comment reflects the fact that there is no difference between ARSOF and Conventional Force officers’ fundamental assumptions about things like counterinsurgency, UW, stability operations, and warfare in general. The tools with which ARSOF staffs use are the exact same as conventional forces staffs use and the education their officers receive is the same, therefore it makes no sense to assume the thinking would be any different at a fundamental level.

[iv] Rothstein, Hy S. “Less Is More: The Problematic Future of Irregular Warfare in an Era of Collapsing States.”

Third World Quarterly. Vol. 28, No. 2 (2007), pp. 275-294.


About the Author(s)

Sadcom via Happycom has spent more than 20 years in special operations and more than 29 years in the military.