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Friday, April 12, 2024

Choreographing Influence: Expanding and Integrating Special Warfare

While the Pentagon’s front line Special Warfare Units are facing cuts, our near peer adversaries are advancing.  

More reduction for funding for the non-kinetic activities of Special Warfare Units is on the table, but we, the undersigned, are advocating not only expanding SOF’s capability to conduct influence operations but we are arguing for reconfiguring, expanding, and creating more agility as a cost-effective alternative that capitalizes on SOF’s unique influence capabilities for engagement that promotes and projects the US values essential to achieving National Defense Strategy objectives at the tactical level.  

Our adversaries and allies have recognized and embraced Narrative Warfare, which is the foundation of irregular warfare, and psychological operations, influence operations.  

China and Russia are combining hard and soft power at the strategic and tactical levels. While China is rapidly building up its military capability and capacity, it also engages in psychological operations through its United Front Work Department and its blatant Three Warfares of influence (public opinion, psychological, and legal). Russia has combined its strength as a conventional military power with effective use of irregular warfare and influence operations. Despite its setbacks in Ukraine, Russia is learning and adapting its Special Operations for activities that are more about influence than kinetic activities. 

It is not only our adversaries who prioritize the quantifiable measures of effect of Special Warfare as the best value for money; NATO and FVEY partners are also reorganizing around a prioritized tech-enhanced Special Operations model to spread and maintain influence globally. US case studies and data supporting Influence Operations and Unconventional Warfare activities are historically one of the best uses of defense dollars in Great Power Competition. Focusing on, and funding, lethality is not the best bang for our military buck. As Colin Gray puts it, “special operations forces (SOF) offer the prospect of a favorably disproportionate return on military investment. Moreover, SOF provide the possibility of a range of precisely conducted military activities more extensive than that reliably feasible for regular warriors conducting regular operations.” 

Our influence capacities require a broader and more integrated system than the current PsyOp or Civil Affairs doctrines enable. Our influencers need a far broader scope of mission and one that fits more effectively into a reconfigured SOF mission in which the Green Berets would continue to bridge hyper-conventional units and expanded Special Warfare Units.   

The United States is so focused on competing with conventional military and hard power that we are now considering undermining our own capacities in the influence arena.  

The Department of Defense’s de-prioritizing of Special Warfare of the non-kinetic variety rests on a dangerous conflation: conceiving of great power competition as primarily conventional as opposed to the unconventionality of terrorism. China, Iran, Russia – like Al-Qaeda, ISIS – and other extremist groups –  have very clearly been competing unconventionally, but with far greater resources than non-state actors.  

Our adversaries tell their stories in ways that are compelling to broad and diverse audiences. And yet the United States of America has the natural advantage when it comes to a compelling foundational narrative that has historically had appeal to audiences world over.  

If we can manage to leverage our strengths instead of submitting to our hard power biases, we can lead again.  

Unfortunately, it appears that it is easier for US SOF to gain authorization, permissions, and resources to put a bullet in an adversary’s head than it is to put an idea in the mind of a vulnerable population. This needs to change. 

The lessons learned in WWI and WWII led to the birth of Special Warfare units and forces who turned enemy conventional weakness into an Allied asymmetric advantage. The Cold War conditions in Korea, and then Vietnam became the formal genesis of US Army Special Forces.  

Without a Special Warfare force, fully formed for efforts that current engagements require, including top-down efforts which have proven capable of mission success, we cannot match our adversaries on the playing field they intend to dominate.

Major defense contractors and our military services are focused on lethality. But our military can best defend our country by strengthening partnerships and alliances. Special Warfare is not about proliferation, but about human contact. They need our support. 

While, of course, we must maintain our capacity to deter and ultimately to dominate in conventional warfare, if the strategies of our adversaries (both state and non-state) are successful, there will be no need for kinetic confrontation. 

Access to, and a voice within, indigenous populations was the foundation of SOF when it was formed in the 1950s and when “special warfare” was reinvigorated during the Kennedy administration. In active combat zones SOF, and the Green Berets in particular, continue to be unique exemplars of core competencies in indigenous engagement which is one of the most vital and underserved roles in the NSS and Great Power Competition. Top-down approaches have had demonstrable oversights in operational capability.  

Every aspect of the National Security Strategy requires influence, a core competency of the traditional SOF mission, in any focus area. Influence strategy cannot rely on messaging alone, but requires an understanding of indigenous narratives, involving indigenous narrators, and a sustained choreography of actions that back up narratives that support the NSS with mission success.  

SOF, reconfigured for influence agility in support of National Defense Strategy requirements, must always be the “Tip-of-the-spear.”  An expanded SOF mission, to prioritize Civil Affairs and Psychological and Informational Operations, would collectively work toward marginalizing Great Power Competition adversaries in the most productive and cost-effective manner.  

All warfare since the end of the last century has been an amalgamation or integration of irregular and conventional warfare. Our adversaries have already adopted this reality with the advent of “hybrid warfare” which places equal (or even greater) priority on irregular and influence-related warfare – the wars in Ukraine and Gaza are integrated irregular-conventional wars in which the irregular component of the conflict is decisive and the conventional portion a shaping operation.  Unfortunately, the United States has yet to fully integrate irregular and conventional warfare (along DOTMLPF-P lines) to the extent or level of our adversaries; more so, it continues to treat conventional forces as largely decisive and irregular forces as shaping – if anything, it has become clear that, in many ways, conventional forces must become more SOF-like rather than the other way around. 

It would take a generation to retrain a specific force capable of filling the operational void that cuts would create. And that is unnecessary as SOF, CA, PSYOP,’s and IO are already available but not effectively woven into a singular force nor are they deliberately woven into integrated campaigns which they must be. 

We should not only retain our current levels of funding but expand and unite our influence force capacities.    

A more comprehensive understanding of, appreciation for and commitment to, the utility of Special Warfare and SOF is a crucial part of integrated whole of society treatments of the dilemmas at the heart of compound security competition. SOF’s critical relevancy in today’s and tomorrow’s full-spectrum/continuum civil-military interventionism requires, at the very least, “holding the line” on SOF budgeting and force structure at present. But the very least is not enough. If we intend to dominate and lead, we need to fund the forces that can accomplish the task. 

Authors

Ajit Maan, Ph.D. Professor of Practice, Future Security Initiative,
Arizona State University
CEO, Narrative Strategies

Felicia Weston
Senior Mission Coordinator, United States Department of Defense
Combat Correspondent, USAF 2003-2012

Paul Cobaugh
Author, Contributor, Asia Power Watch & Homeland Security Today,
Expert at NATO COE on Terrorism, Lecturer at Asia Pacific Innovation Forum

Christopher Holshek
Colonel (Ret.), U.S. Army Civil Affairs
Senior Civil-Military Adviser
Narrative Strategies LLC

Jeff Kubiak, PhD
Professor of Practice, Future Security Initiative
Director, Future Security Education
Arizona State University

Thomas A. Drohan, PhD
Professor Emeritus of Military and Strategic Studies, USAF Academy
CEO, Combined Effects LLC

Brian L. Steed
Associate Professor of Military History
Senior Fellow, Narrative Strategies

Patrick James Christian, Ph.D. US Army SF Retired
Psychoanalytical Anthropologist
Valka-Mir Foundation

Colonel Chad M. Pillai
U.S. Army Strategist who has served a variety of Army, Joint, and Special Operations assignments to include as the former Deputy J5 at U.S. Special Operations Command – Central
Author of several articles on SOF and Special Warfare

Patricia DeGennaro
Senior Subject Matter Expert in support of SOCCENT
Former Professor of International Security New York University

author avatar
Ajit Maan
Ajit Maan, Ph.D. writes the Narrative & National Security column for Homeland Security Today featuring her original work and work by guest experts in narrative strategy focused on identifying active narratives, who is behind them, and what strategies they are deploying to manipulate and muddy facts to the detriment of America. She is founder and CEO of the award-winning think-and-do-tank, Narrative Strategies LLC, Adjunct Professor at Joint Special Operations University, Professor of Politics and Global Security, Faculty at the Center for the Future of War, and member of the Brain Trust of the Weaponized Narrative Initiative at Arizona State University. She is also author of seven books including Internarrative Identity: Placing the Self, Counter-Terrorism: Narrative Strategies, Narrative Warfare, and Plato’s Fear. Maan's breakthrough theory of internarrative identity came in 1997; she published a book by the same name in 1999 which was released in its second edition in 2010 (with the addition of the subtitle Placing the Self). Internarrative identity deals with one’s sense of identity as expressed in personal narrative, connecting the formation of identity with one assigns meaning to one’s life experiences. Maan’s theories are influenced by Paul Ricoeur’s writings in narrative identity theory, and she cites several of his works in her book (Maan, Internarrative Identity: Placing the Self 90). The connection between the interpretation of personal narrative in relation to the larger social group seems to be a key factor in the work of both Maan and Ricoeur. She states that “Following Ricoeur, I’ve argued that who one is and what one will do will be determined by the story one sees oneself as a part of. Going further than Ricoeur, I have suggested that a genuinely imaginative theory of narrative identity would be inclusive of alternatively structured narratives” (Maan, Internarrative Identity: Placing the Self 71-72). This seems to indicate that Maan believes that identity influences behavior, but she also recognizes that one can be constrained by society to accept a self-narrative that fits within existing cultural norms. After establishing herself through her work on Internarrative Identity, Maan has now turned her attention to the analysis of narrative as a means of understanding (and combating) terrorist recruitment tactics. Her 2014 book, Counter-Terrorism: Narrative Strategies, examines the scripts perpetuated by a wide range of terrorist organizations while also making important interdisciplinary connections between studies in the humanities and current world events (a workbook companion to the text was published in 2018). She collaborated with the late Brigadier General Amar Cheema on the edited volume titled Soft Power on Hard Problems: Strategic Influence in Irregular Warfare, published in 2016. Maan's 2018 book, titled Narrative Warfare, is a collection of articles examining the topic of weaponized narrative; her 2020 book, Plato's Fear, examines the relationship between narrative and power. Her work was the focus of Representations of Internarrative Identity, a 2014 multi-authored scholarly monograph dedicated to the exploration of Internarrative Identity through diverse fields of study and from international perspectives. In addition to her contributions to academia, Maan has been active in sharing her knowledge with a wider audience thereby uniting military and academic experts in the cause of eradicating violent extremism around the world.
Ajit Maan
Ajit Maan
Ajit Maan, Ph.D. writes the Narrative & National Security column for Homeland Security Today featuring her original work and work by guest experts in narrative strategy focused on identifying active narratives, who is behind them, and what strategies they are deploying to manipulate and muddy facts to the detriment of America. She is founder and CEO of the award-winning think-and-do-tank, Narrative Strategies LLC, Adjunct Professor at Joint Special Operations University, Professor of Politics and Global Security, Faculty at the Center for the Future of War, and member of the Brain Trust of the Weaponized Narrative Initiative at Arizona State University. She is also author of seven books including Internarrative Identity: Placing the Self, Counter-Terrorism: Narrative Strategies, Narrative Warfare, and Plato’s Fear. Maan's breakthrough theory of internarrative identity came in 1997; she published a book by the same name in 1999 which was released in its second edition in 2010 (with the addition of the subtitle Placing the Self). Internarrative identity deals with one’s sense of identity as expressed in personal narrative, connecting the formation of identity with one assigns meaning to one’s life experiences. Maan’s theories are influenced by Paul Ricoeur’s writings in narrative identity theory, and she cites several of his works in her book (Maan, Internarrative Identity: Placing the Self 90). The connection between the interpretation of personal narrative in relation to the larger social group seems to be a key factor in the work of both Maan and Ricoeur. She states that “Following Ricoeur, I’ve argued that who one is and what one will do will be determined by the story one sees oneself as a part of. Going further than Ricoeur, I have suggested that a genuinely imaginative theory of narrative identity would be inclusive of alternatively structured narratives” (Maan, Internarrative Identity: Placing the Self 71-72). This seems to indicate that Maan believes that identity influences behavior, but she also recognizes that one can be constrained by society to accept a self-narrative that fits within existing cultural norms. After establishing herself through her work on Internarrative Identity, Maan has now turned her attention to the analysis of narrative as a means of understanding (and combating) terrorist recruitment tactics. Her 2014 book, Counter-Terrorism: Narrative Strategies, examines the scripts perpetuated by a wide range of terrorist organizations while also making important interdisciplinary connections between studies in the humanities and current world events (a workbook companion to the text was published in 2018). She collaborated with the late Brigadier General Amar Cheema on the edited volume titled Soft Power on Hard Problems: Strategic Influence in Irregular Warfare, published in 2016. Maan's 2018 book, titled Narrative Warfare, is a collection of articles examining the topic of weaponized narrative; her 2020 book, Plato's Fear, examines the relationship between narrative and power. Her work was the focus of Representations of Internarrative Identity, a 2014 multi-authored scholarly monograph dedicated to the exploration of Internarrative Identity through diverse fields of study and from international perspectives. In addition to her contributions to academia, Maan has been active in sharing her knowledge with a wider audience thereby uniting military and academic experts in the cause of eradicating violent extremism around the world.

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