Since the 2017 US National Security Strategy reoriented the US military to strategic competition, many scholars and practitioners have argued that the future of special operations forces (SOF) depends on the effective use of emerging technologies and the transformation of operators into digital warriors.
This view is misguided. Rather than funneling ever more investment to technologies such as big data processing, exoskeletons, drones, or satellites, Western special operations forces should spend more time and money on improving the minds of future operators.
To understand the realities of warfare, Western special operations forces would do well to reacquaint themselves with the lessons of Greek mythology—and in particular the story of the Greek heroes Achilles and Odysseus. Achilles was the finest warrior on the battlefield, a demigod among men. Odysseus was a strategic and operational magician, more cunning than fearsome. Achilles killed champions, princes, and kings. Odysseus won wars. Today, Western special operations forces, collectively, look too much like Achilles, and not enough like Odysseus.
The March of Technology
SOF have been at the core of US military interventionism since President John F. Kennedy. Under subsequent administrations, counterterrorism missions displaced SOF’s initial focus on unconventional warfare due to decades of murders and kidnappings of US diplomats, soldiers, and citizens. This transformation was accelerated following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, after which the clear focus of special operations became direct action and capture/kill missions. Underpinning these missions was a doctrine of raiding in darkness where speed, surprise, and superior firepower could overcome mass and the defensive positions of adversaries. Missions became a scientific calculation of variables.
There is no doubt that new technology has changed the way Western militaries plan and fight tactically. Technology has helped SOF units to better insert and extract forces undetected and improved their tactical-level operational precision. Technology has delivered better solutions for force protection and improved SOF intelligence-gathering capabilities. Technology has made SOF more lethal.
But while technology may have helped at the tactical level, it has led to no greater strategic success. The United States and its allies have spent twenty years developing a SOF ethos that has encouraged a transformation into a digital Achilles: uber warriors, enabled with a supposed all-seeing eye, perfect situational awareness, beautiful weapons, and infallible intelligence, capable of decapitating adversaries and thereby collapsing their organizations, regimes, and ideologies. In the process, the defense apparatus has created SOF operators who are overly dependent on technology and connectivity.
This development did not represent adaptation to a changing character of war. Ignoring their adversaries’ votes, this was a specialization of forces for wars and types of warfare that senior military leaders and policymakers thought they could and should prosecute—as opposed to those they are likely to face. But Western militaries have been unable to “tech” their way to victory. It is improbable that they ever will.
That’s because promised advances in science rarely materialize as anticipated (certainly not on time on budget), only occasionally live up to expectations, and have mostly been countered, bypassed, or superseded, especially amid a great democratization of advanced weapons and capabilities. Real and sustained technological advantage does not persist because war is a reciprocal dynamic with adversaries.
And doubling down on new technology—the ubiquitous answer found in military publications discussing the future of SOF—is unlikely to help. US adversaries have already produced equipment to bypass much of what the West is investing in—consider, for example the new generation of Russian air and missile defense systems, the Zircon hypersonic cruise missile, or Chinese directed-energy weapons and maneuverable reentry vehicles. On a battlefield where technology is not as decisive as many people continue to argue, great power competitors will be able to expose the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of Western SOF.
Mind Over Matter
History suggests that SOF and their forebears have found most success not as Achilles but as the other Greek hero, Odysseus. Odysseus was a cunning, conniving, cheating scoundrel who relied on his mind, lies, wit, and instinct to turn the course of campaigns where Achilles had proved unsuccessful. Think of the sacking of Troy, a true competition of great powers: the coalition of Greek city-states and island armies fighting a massive expeditionary campaign together under a single cause against the mass of Troy—a people on the defensive, but whose own modernization and mastery of technology made them a peer.
Achilles and his Myrmidons were the SOF of the day. They were the best warriors the world had ever seen, trained for nothing but high-tempo action, wreaking death and destruction with efficiency and lethality. Their mastery of dismounted close combat, ambush, open warfare, maneuver, movement, and concealment gave them no equals. And yet they failed. By contrast, the campaign was won by the guile and wit of Odysseus, the king of a small and insignificant island with no ancestral mastery of warfare, whose deception campaign and exploitation of the best of allied strengths helped steer the Greeks to victory.
Such a mindset has proved decisive when used as part of a coherent campaign design in several recent conflicts. In the May 10, 1940 German attack on Fort Eben-Emael, the Israeli air campaign during the Six-Day War, and the Battle of Asal Uttar in 1965 between India and Pakistan, mindset trumped numerical and technological advantage.
Today, we might equip a contemporary Odysseus with technology, but it will be the mind that is more likely to determine the outcome of future interventions and engagements. Rather than invest in huge amounts of technology, data processing, drones, or satellites, the United States should invest in the minds of its warriors. The entire SOF training and education infrastructure requires modernization and overhaul to present more realistic and complex challenges for SOF members. Starting from the basics—like the US Army’s Special Forces Qualification Course—training scenarios must reflect the characteristics of real adversaries’ specific concepts, such as China’s Unrestricted Warfare and Russia’s New Generation Warfare, as well as the capabilities and limitations of their weapons and equipment. SOF operators must become well versed both in the theoretical approaches of their future enemies and in what they can do during real operations. And the concepts and capabilities of the allies and partners that the United States is likely to fight alongside must also be included in the SOF training regime. The most important of these concepts is the “Total Defense” strategy that some smaller US allies have adopted, which requires US SOF to better understand how to enable these small countries’ resistance forces in twenty-first-century urban environments without all the combat support and combat service support they have become accustomed to in recent decades.
SOF training should also focus on developing skills that enable SOF operators to effectively use commercially available, nonstandard, foreign-produced platforms to deliver strategic effects even in the absence of traditional military support. These fundamental scenario changes would also require major changes in the existing training infrastructure, including the development of much larger and more complex urban training facilities where training should be supported by hundreds of role players familiar with the specific conditions of specific countries. SOF training should consider abandoning the idea of training operators who have a mile-wide but inch-deep skill set and instead focus on developing highly specialized experts. To achieve this level of expertise, regional alignment might be replaced by country-specific alignment in some strategically important regions and the majority of SOF training could take place on foreign soil. Finally, processes should be in place to allow former adversaries or foreign countries’ militaries to teach at US military educational institutions. Learning how they developed solutions in resource-scarce environments to mitigate modern militaries’ capabilities would serve as an invaluable advantage for future SOF against both state and nonstate adversaries.
As recent Joint Chiefs guidance put it, “There is more to sustaining a competitive advantage than acquiring hardware; we must gain and sustain an intellectual overmatch as well.” To make this a reality, the US military needs to develop a different kind of special operator. This cadre must not perpetuate the myth that technology will solve every problem but rather rely on deep knowledge, cunning, wit, adaptation, and instinct. On the battlefields of the future, SOF operators will need to emulate Odysseus to survive—let alone to win.
Dr. Peter Roberts is the Director of Military Sciences at the Royal United Services Institute, having been the Senior Research Fellow for Sea Power and C4ISR since 2014.
Dr. Sandor Fabian is a former Hungarian Special Forces lieutenant colonel with twenty years of military experience. He is also a non-resident fellow at West Point’s Modern War Institute and a Curriculum Developer and Advanced Studies Team Leader at LEIDOS supporting the NATO Special Operations School.
The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Egisto Sani (adapted by MWI)
Some of this must be tempered with a couple of things. Like the Union Commanders in the Civil War, this is thinking about "what Lee is going to do to us" in planning their battle vs Grant who reoriented his commanders to making Lee worry about what the Union Army was going to do to HIM. We need to seize the initiative and have them dance to our tune and tempo – which was our mistake in going into FOBS with QRFs in Iraq and Afghanistan. The moment you become static and reactive you become predictable. That leads to IEDs on main response/supply routes forces must travel FROM FOBS when actions occur – and, of course, actions occurred to spur the response and corresponding interdiction attack.
The second thing to remember is that Odysseus was also a warrior and when it came down to clearing HIS house, he also had the honed skills necessary and his special bow (technology) that allowed him to succeed through cover and deception to infiltrate and superior firepower against a larger foe.
The author(s) may want to reconsider using Odysseus as a role model for Special Operations, in fact modern war fighters should probably put down their copies of the Iliad and read something else. What is the essential lessons to be learned from the Iliad…the Gods will screw up your plans and the Gods suffer from the same emotions as mortals. The Iliad is the first great piece of literature and the very first anti-war story. There are plenty of Greek writers/historians to read and learn valuable lessons…try Xenophon.
THIS, I suggest, is what our special operations forces — and those in charge of them — MUST focus on today:
"Asymmetrical actions have come into widespread use, enabling the nullification of an enemy´s advantages in armed conflict. Among such actions are the use of special operations forces and internal opposition to create a permanently operating front through the entire territory of the enemy state, as well as informational actions, devices, and means that are constantly being perfected. …"
(Gen. Valery Gerasimov, Chief of the Russian General Staff)
1. If Gen. Gerasimov has been working hard to have his special operations forces (a) achieve "internal opposition forces" which can serve as (b) "permanently operating fronts" to be found and utilized (c) "throughout the entire territory of the enemy states" (for example, throughout the entire territory of states of the U.S./West and those of our allies and partners — see my examples below),
2. Then we, ourselves, and our partners and our allies, we must work even harder to have our special operations forces (a) reverse the gains already made by Gen. Gerasimov (see below) and (2) prevent him (and our other opponents/competitors/enemies) from making any further such gains.
3. Here are some examples of Gen. Gerasimov amazing achievements so far:
"Liberal democratic societies have, in the past few decades, undergone a series of revolutionary changes in their social and political life, which are not to the taste of all their citizens. For many of those, who might be called social conservatives, Russia has become a more agreeable society, at least in principle, than those they live in. Communist Westerners used to speak of the Soviet Union as the pioneer society of a brighter future for all. Now, the rightwing nationalists of Europe and North America admire Russia and its leader for cleaving to the past."
(See "The American Interest" article "The Reality of Russian Soft Power" by John Lloyd and Daria Litinova.)
“Compounding it all, Russia’s dictator has achieved all of this while creating sympathy in elements of the Right that mirrors the sympathy the Soviet Union achieved in elements of the Left. In other words, Putin is expanding Russian power and influence while mounting a cultural critique that resonates with some American audiences, casting himself as a defender of Christian civilization against Islam and the godless, decadent West.”
(See the “National Review” item entitled: “How Russia Wins” by David French.)
"During the Cold War, the USSR was perceived by American conservatives as an 'evil empire,' as a source of destructive cultural influences, while the United States was perceived as a force that was preventing the world from the triumph of godless communism and anarchy. The USSR, by contrast, positioned itself as a vanguard of emancipation, as a fighter for the progressive transformation of humanity (away from religion and toward atheism), and against the reactionary forces of the West. Today positions have changed dramatically; it is the United States or the ruling liberal establishment that in the conservative narrative has become the new or neo-USSR, spreading subversive ideas about family or the nature of authority around the world, while Russia has become almost a beacon of hope, 'the last bastion of Christian values' that helps keep the world from sliding into a liberal dystopia. Russia’s self-identity has changed accordingly; now it is Russia who actively resists destructive, revolutionary experiments with fundamental human institutions, experiments inspired by new revolutionary neo-communists from the United States. Hence the cautious hopes that the U.S. Christian right have for contemporary Russia: They are projecting on Russia their fantasies of another West that has not been infected by the virus of cultural liberalism."
(See the December 18, 2019, Georgetown University, Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs article "Global Culture Wars from the Perspective of Russian and American Actors: Some Preliminary Conclusions," by Dmitry Uzlaner. Look to the paragraph beginning with "Russia and the United States as screens for each other’s projections.")
4. Technology for our special operations forces?
First and foremost to be determined, developed and deployed so as to achieve the goals that I identify at my item "2" above.
My thoughts above possibly stated another way:
If Vladimir Putin and Russian Gen. Gerasimov (acting more like Odysseus and less like Achilles) have used their special operations forces and internal opposition (such as the conservative elements in various states and societies) to create permanently operating fronts to be used throughout the entire territory of their enemies' states (for example: throughout the entire territory of the U.S./the West);
This, with Putin and Gerasimov's goal being to "contain," and indeed to ultimately "roll back," the power, influence and control of the U.S./the West,
Then (a) given this such fact, (b) how might the leadership of the U.S./the West (also acting more like Odysseus and less like Achilles) use its special operations forces today, for example, to:
a. Reverse these such gains already made by Putin and Gerasimov — and to prevent them from making other such gains — and/or to:
b. Do to Putin and Gerasimov what they have done to us? (In our case, this would seem to require that we use our special operations forces, along with internal "liberal" opposition, to create a permanent operating front to be used throughout the entire Russian, etc., territory? "Turnabout," after all, being "fair play?")
Note even Trojan King Priam's respect for Odysseus' wisdom (or ultimately prevailing craftiness?) in the recent (and rather good) Helen of Troy TV film.
Interesting article. Made me think of the Trojan Warrior Program we ran in 10th Special Forces in the 80s. Designed to make a better soldier from the inside out.
To this I would add that the modern SOF operator should have the character of Ajax, who was as superior to Odysseus in this regard as Odysseus was to Achilles in terms of cunning and strategic thinking. Having the strong moral compass of an Ajax would be invaluable to SOF operators faced with the myriad moral and ethical quandaries that are part of the contemporary operating environment.
Interesting point. Train to be more like Odysseus and less like Achillies. Yet, encourage sharp expertise like Achillies with fighting, whereas Odysseus is clever, informed, and broad— as is with strategy.
"Odysseus was a cunning, conniving, cheating scoundrel who relied on his mind, lies, wit, and instinct to turn the course of campaigns."
The mind is only as good as the information it possesses at its disposal.
Mile wide but an inch deep, or a jack of all trades and a master of none. However, he will always be better than the master of one. Why? Because the mind has information from multiple realms and can further best understand the narrative of an issue.
I think we are already Odysseus, but just need to refine ourselves.