An Army Special Forces Officer, having been embedded with a Ukrainian infantry company only days earlier, arrives at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California, to give a presentation to a conventional Army brigade preparing for a rotation to Europe. He lectures on the latest anti-tank tactics and counter-drone techniques being used against Russian proxy forces. Across the country, an experienced special operations Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) briefs members of the airborne community at Fort Bragg on the what he observed alongside French paratroopers in Mali, following up on the secure teleconferences that occurred previously while he was still in Africa. These scenarios are hypothetical, but plausible. The situations described are examples of “what could be,” if Special Operations Forces (SOF) were used as military observers in modern combat.
Once a widely practiced tradition, professional soldiers are no longer commonly embedded as official military observers during war. This discontinuation can be attributed to reasons ranging from risk aversion, to feasibility, to military culture. An overview of the insights (and the overlooked, potential indicators) from military observers during the last two centuries indicates that modern militaries may be denying themselves an opportunity for critical insight. By embedding officially sanctioned and uniformed observers with belligerents, countries have the opportunity to be at the cutting edge of conflict without being actively engaged in combat. The networked nature of modern militaries means that reports, pictures and videos can be beamed across the planet in near-real time. Special Operations Forces (SOF) are the best candidates to fulfill this overlooked, but not obsolete, practice.
Before expanding on why SOF can best fulfill this role, a better explanation of how military observers can contribute to increased effectiveness and preparation for future conflict must be offered. A military observer is different from an attaché, or a journalist, or a spy. A military observer is a professional military representative present at the conflict wearing the uniform of his own nation (which is not one of the belligerents). While an attaché could feasibly observe fighting, especially if they take the John J. Pershing approach to serving as an attaché, their primary role is to serve as a liaison with their host nation. The importance of having a dedicated observer in a conflict is their focus on the actual combat- issues ranging from technology, to the use of terrain, to tactics and strategy. An official military observer is typically an experienced soldier himself, and as such understands the trials of combat and the military culture overall.
In predicting future conflict, many strategists and leaders look to military histories, and for good reason. However, even the most ardent student of history would admit that the lessons of battles past cannot be taken as templates and placed on modern conflict with the expectation of identical results. Not only do conditions and technologies change, but even when military observers are employed, lessons are not always learned. To explore how some lessons are overlooked, and mitigate that possibility, it is useful to study military observers during their heyday in the 19th century and early 20th century, specifically Europeans in the American Civil War, and American observers in the Crimea and later during the Russo-Japanese War.
European Observers: Technical Focuses and Cultural Biases
Observers from the major European powers of the 19th century—England, Germany, and France, were present on both sides of the American Civil War. While it was not true in every case, the European observers tended to have a set of technical questions to answer that were tailored to their branch of service. For example, artillerists or engineers sent to the United States may have been sent to study the strengths of specific metals, or the power of rifled artillery. The assignment given to one English officer, Captain H.J. Alderson, from his Ordinance Department included questions about the employment of balloons, explosive bullets, and the strengths of various calibers of bullets. The English experience with observers in the Civil War serves as an example of what can happen if an observer adopts too myopic of a perspective. When given an overly technical focus, a military observer may miss some of the larger lessons of the conflict. The English observers in general failed to grasp the key development that drove many of the innovations of the Civil War—the increase in firepower. In dismissing the war as generally an “aberration” due to the terrain of the eastern United States, and the mass of volunteers involved in the fighting, the English failed to ascertain the depth of the changes in warfare that were forthcoming; with their remarks on fortifications, entrenchments, and cavalry tactics, the observers missed the primary lesson of the increased lethality in firepower, and its resulting effect on defensive positions, maneuver, and formations.
The study of European observers in the Civil War betrays a flaw common to most of the international observers—bias. The Germans, for example, were very focused on the inferiority of volunteer armies versus professional, standing armies. These biases, which were not limited to the Germans, often resulted in a dismissive attitude towards the quality of the armies involved, or the conflict as a whole. Negative attitudes, specifically ones of superiority, can prevent the acquisition of knowledge from local fighters or soldiers, be they professional or partisan, and result in missed opportunities.
Missed Opportunities for American Military Observers
Missing opportunities to enact reforms or develop doctrine based on observer feedback is not a purely European experience. American military personnel have also served as observers in various conflicts. A young George McClellan, before commanding the Union Army during the Civil War, toured the battlefields of the Crimean War in 1855. While he missed the bulk of the fighting at Sevastopol, and was under only desultory fire, what he saw first hand, specifically regarding logistics, informed his siege preparations at Yorktown in 1862. McClellan would focus primarily on the organizational aspects of the European belligerents in the Crimea, and while he left the conflict with insights that made him a good administrator, he overlooked the larger, deadlier lessons of rifled muskets. While this may be more a result of his late arrival to the conflict than ignorance of technology, it is a missed opportunity nonetheless. Attributing large Russian losses to maneuvers made in “too heavy and unwieldy masses,” the chance to enact organizational or tactical changes as a result of the improvements in firepower was lost, as was painfully demonstrated in the carnage of the Civil War several years later.
The future commander of Union troops saw some, but not enough, of the Crimean War to avoid the tragedy of the Civil War, and the same can be said for the future commander of all American forces in the First World War and his experience in East Asia. John J. Pershing, before his promotion to flag-officer rank and eventual command of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF), was an observer in the Russo-Japanese War. Technically assigned as an attaché, Pershing took every opportunity to tour battlefields and get as close to the fighting as possible. Travelling with the Japanese Army, he saw limited action in a skirmish, and took part in a reconnaissance in force mission. While his hosts were hesitant to let him get too close to active fighting, Pershing observed Japanese defensive positions and trench systems that foreshadowed the First World War, which was at that time less than a decade in the future. Again, lack of exposure to direct combat as an observer may have denied the future American commander insights into the coming world war. He did, however, appreciate the opportunities presented to observers, saying, “It is intensely interesting as well as highly important for a soldier to know something of foreign armies, their methods, their equipment, and their psychology,” noting that his time with the Japanese Army gave him the “opportunity to learn much of their army from personal contact.”
For reasons ranging from organizational biases, to hesitant hosts, to fixations on technical details, European and American military observers failed to contribute in a way that prevented massive loss of life in future conflicts. With the unprecedented bloodshed of the First World War serving as the ultimate example, lessons on new ways of war were not learned or appreciated in the 19th and early 20th century. For a variety of cultural and technological reasons, however, SOF have the potential to learn from past mistakes and make a true difference as military observers in the 21st century.
Learning from the Past
The record of European and American military observers does not, at face value, inspire confidence in the utility of the role of the observer. How could a 21st century military observer be any different, and not fall into the same organizational and cultural traps of past observers? The key could be in employing the right type of soldier for what is an unconventional mission. Given their diverse background and special skillsets, SOF provide a possible solution.
Special Operations Forces personnel are good candidates for service as effective military observers to active combat for several reasons. First, SOF are unlikely to have the some of the handicaps that affected the efficiency and views of observers of wars past. Modern SOF are more culturally attuned, and are less likely to harbor cultural or organizational biases. With their experience working with foreign states conducting Foreign Internal Defense (FID) and Counterinsurgency (COIN) missions, they’re more likely to observe with an open mind.
Secondly, while SOF are unquestionably technically proficient, they are not myopically focused on technical details like earlier observers were. While modern military observers could be tasked with specific technical assignments, they would not be limited to observing only things within the purview of their skillset. This is different than the example of an English artillerist comparing rifled or smoothbore artillery, or a German engineer observing the effects of artillery on coastal fortifications. Modern SOF personnel could observe details of that nature, but given their more broadly focused training (and likely experience, with the high operational tempo of the last fifteen years) they would be capable of putting their observations in a larger perspective. This ability—to take tactical observations and forecast operational or strategic effects, would be a key contribution of potential SOF military observers. If there was a specific informational requirement that required specialized knowledge or background, small teams of observers could be formed. For example, if there were specific questions regarding a weapons system, such as a multiple-launch rocket, and its employment, an air defender or artilleryman could round out a military observation team to provide the technical expertise.
The current training for most SOF personnel is another element that makes them good potential candidates for service as military observers. With language and cultural training, SOF are more capable (than conventional forces) of working with, and being accepted by, their foreign counterparts. Additionally, an often-undervalued professional capability that SOF possess is the capacity to analyze and report in clear and concise assessments. With written requirements like area assessments and area studies already in their repertoire, SOF already possess the necessary written communication skills to serve as military observers. Any observation made that cannot be clearly communicated to higher headquarters is an observation that goes unheeded.
Having military observers in modern combat would improve the preparation and training of conventional military units. Observers could communicate (in near-real time) notes on how new technology is being employed, as well as what has already been proven to counter it. Observations can be readily shared with centers of excellence for incorporation into doctrine and professional military education, as well as with the Combat Training Centers (CTCs). Beyond changes in technology, observers could witness how forces are being employed, as well as their composition and disposition. SOF are a logical choice for service as observers for another key element, that of building relationships. A benefit of embedding military observers with willing states would be the creation of long-term, working relationships that could have strategic benefits for the United States in the future—a field in which SOF already have considerable experience.
There are risks that would come with embedding military observers. The two largest points of contention pertaining to neutrality would likely be arming the observers, and their appearance on the battlefield. Should observers be unarmed, as a demonstration of their neutrality, or should they be armed to retain their right to self-defense? Given both the human and political risks at stake, a bi-lateral agreement of some form would likely have to directly address the arming (or not) of observers. Regarding the question of appearance, military observers would have to retain their own clearly marked uniform identifying them as a U.S. service member in order to avoid being accused of any form of espionage in the possibility of capture. An additional planning consideration is that Violent Non-State Actors (VNSAs) are unlikely to respect an observer’s neutrality, a point that may change the calculus regarding the risk of employing military observers. While this concern may be held up as a partial explanation for the dearth of observers in recent conflicts, the current Russo-Ukrainian struggle presents an opportunity for implementation.
In several isolated instances, the Ukrainian military has granted journalists access to frontline positions. These journalists and photographers fulfill an important function by communicating the toll of the conflict to audiences across the world. While some of the journalists, such as Nolan Peterson, are veterans themselves, the lack of active military observers effects the type of information that comes out of the conflict. Reports may include details of an attack the reporter witnessed, or daily life on the front, but the technical and tactical questions that only professional soldiers could ask are going unanswered. The recent fighting offers an unparalleled opportunity to learn about what modern combat with a near-peer, or at the minimum an adversary with a blatant state-sponsor, may look like. Given that the United States has not fought a state since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and before that the brief 1991 Gulf War, recent examples of conventional conflict are lacking from American military experience. Technology, for example, has changed in ways that will likely impact modern warfare, but they’re not what the U.S. has experienced in the 21st century. The Russian (or Russian-supported) use of drones in Ukraine is something that the United States has not encountered on the battlefield. Similarly, electronic warfare attacks; massive artillery barrages, and contested airspace have not been among the capabilities of Islamic terrorists of the Afghan Taliban, our two most recent adversaries. The U.S. would do well to develop the doctrine to counter these threats before, as opposed to during, a future potential conflict. By embedding SOF as military observers, the U.S. would have the expert insight of professional soldiers, not journalists, sharing the latest developments of the modern battlefield.
Embedded military observers could provide the current and relevant information needed to shape a future force as efficiently as possible. Observations from personnel on the ground could be shared in near-real time, an undreamt of feat in past conflicts. In some ways, a modern military observer could be a hybrid of our current military advisors, with some aspects of embedded combat journalists. What an observer sees with regard to technology, tactics, and techniques could be disseminated across the force in a way that units preparing to deploy, units in a standard training cycle, or leaders attending professional military education can receive, analyze and incorporate into their own preparation. Military observers may break the cycle described by former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in 2011, when he said “When it comes to predicting the nature and location of our next military engagements, since Vietnam, our record has been perfect. We have never once gotten it right, from the Mayaguez to Grenada, Panama, Somalia, the Balkans, Haiti, Kuwait, Iraq, and more — we had no idea a year before any of these missions that we would be so engaged.” Our current compliment of SOF personnel have the potential to fulfill this function more efficiently than military observers of the past. Special Operations forces have the cultural, language, and advisory training that would enable them to work well with foreign allies currently engaged in combat. The cultural biases and preconceived notions of past observers would not hinder the observations and analysis of SOF personnel. Given the global, real-time reach of communications systems, observations and lessons can be shared with an unprecedented speed. As the current operating environment continues to be unpredictable and unstable, employing SOF to observe and communicate the latest developments in ground combat rapidly and accurately would pay dividends for future U.S. combat operations.