Special Operations Focuses on World’s ‘Unlit Spaces’

WASHINGTON, Feb. 10, 2011 — A NASA com­pos­ite image of the Earth at night, seen from space, offers an illu­mi­nat­ing ref­er­ence point for the shift in spe­cial oper­a­tions forces’ mis­sions since 2001, their senior offi­cer said this week.

Navy. Adm. Eric T. Olson, commander of U.S. Special Operations Command
A pho­to­graph of the Earth illus­trates the shift in spe­cial oper­a­tions forces’ mis­sions over the last decade from the lit to the unlit spaces, Navy. Adm. Eric T. Olson, com­man­der of U.S. Spe­cial Oper­a­tions Com­mand, said Feb. 8, 2011, at the Nation­al Defense Indus­tri­al Association’s 22nd Annu­al Spe­cial Oper­a­tions and Low-inten­si­ty Con­flict Sym­po­sium.
NASA pho­to
Click to enlarge

Sept. 11, 2001, the mil­i­tary con­sid­ered the places where the lights are to be the most strate­gi­cal­ly impor­tant on the globe, Navy Adm. Eric T. Olson, com­man­der of U.S. Spe­cial Oper­a­tions Com­mand, said this week.

Olson dis­cussed the strate­gic impor­tance of the globe’s unlit areas dur­ing Feb. 8 remarks at the Nation­al Defense Indus­tri­al Association’s 22nd Annu­al Spe­cial Oper­a­tions and Low-inten­si­ty Con­flict Sym­po­sium.

“I’ve come to think of this as … rep­re­sen­ta­tive of how the world has changed,” Olson said, indi­cat­ing the pho­to­graph.

The swath of light stretch­ing in a nar­row band across the North­ern Hemi­sphere rep­re­sents indus­tri­al­ized nations with “devel­oped soci­eties, … things and mon­ey,” Olson said, and dur­ing most of the 20th cen­tu­ry, he added, the U.S. mil­i­tary focused on that area.

“But the world changed over the last decade,” he said, explain­ing that Socom now con­sid­ers 51 coun­tries to be of high-pri­or­i­ty inter­est in the glob­al cam­paign against the extrem­ist threat.

For the most part, “there’s not a great deal of over­lap” between those coun­tries’ loca­tions and where the lights are, Olson said.

“Our strate­gic focus has shift­ed large­ly to the south, … cer­tain­ly with­in the spe­cial oper­a­tions com­mu­ni­ty, as we deal with the emerg­ing threats from the places where the lights aren’t,” he said.

Olson said the unlit places gen­er­al­ly have ungoverned or under-gov­erned spaces, more porous bor­ders and less-secure air­ports than in more devel­oped areas.

“They have the oppor­tu­ni­ty for train­ing, for move­ment, for smug­gling –- for activ­i­ties to occur that ulti­mate­ly may threat­en us,” he said. “They are also places where the pop­u­la­tion may be riper for recruit­ment into behav­ior that is sort of chal­leng­ing to the more legit­i­mate form of gov­ern­ment.”

Places where spe­cial oper­a­tions forces are deployed show “a pret­ty high degree of over­lap” with the unlit places in the pho­to­graph, Olson said.

“We are in these places at the request of the host gov­ern­ment and in accor­dance with the strat­e­gy [of] the geo­graph­ic com­bat­ant com­man­der,” he said. “These are coun­tries where build­ing part­ner capac­i­ty, assist­ing our part­ners in help­ing them­selves, is becom­ing more and more impor­tant to us.”

Olson described the two pri­ma­ry “fla­vors” of spe­cial oper­a­tions activ­i­ties: strike capa­bil­i­ty — which he called the “man-hunt­ing, thing-hunt­ing, direct-action piece” — and the indi­rect approach, which includes engage­ment, train­ing, advis­ing, men­tor­ing, equip­ping and “stick­ing with” for­eign forces.

It’s the sec­ond approach, Olson said, that ulti­mate­ly leads to deci­sive effects on the bat­tle­field, but the direct action buys time for engage­ment, and both are nec­es­sary for suc­cess in oper­a­tions such as those in Afghanistan.

Many of the nations where spe­cial oper­a­tions forces pri­mar­i­ly oper­ate today, the Socom com­man­der said, don’t his­tor­i­cal­ly have a strong mil­i­tary-to-mil­i­tary rela­tion­ship with the Unit­ed States “either because of pol­i­tics, or economies, or both.”

The absence of a his­tor­i­cal mil­i­tary rela­tion­ship pos­es a num­ber of chal­lenges to effec­tive mil­i­tary part­ner­ships with those coun­tries, the admi­ral said.

“We don’t know them, and they don’t know us,” Olson said. “We gen­er­al­ly don’t speak their lan­guages, we don’t under­stand their his­to­ries, we don’t know their fam­i­lies, we don’t know how work is done, we don’t know how mon­ey is made, we don’t know all the nuances, we don’t know the effects, tru­ly, of cli­mate, of ter­rain, of reli­gion, of cul­ture, in these regions. And it takes time to get there from here.”

Spe­cial oper­a­tions forces see an ever-increas­ing need to work effec­tive­ly in loca­tions where they haven’t oper­at­ed before in the num­bers or with the pur­pose they have now, he said. When he was first asked how the spe­cial oper­a­tions com­mu­ni­ty has changed since 2001, Olson said, his answer ref­er­enced the clas­sic mil­i­tary con­struct of “shoot, move, com­mu­ni­cate.” “Our abil­i­ty to shoot hasn’t changed all that much,” he said, not­ing that weapons and tac­tics have improved, but that forces find, approach and address tar­gets in much the same way as they did before 9/11.

But Socom’s abil­i­ty to move, par­tic­u­lar­ly over ground, is sig­nif­i­cant­ly bet­ter, Olson said.

“Before [2001], of our five active-duty Spe­cial Forces groups, only one … had a motor pool of any sig­nif­i­cance. Now we are ful­ly equipped, across our force, with a vari­ety of vehi­cles,” he said.

But the “sea-change move­ment” with­in the spe­cial oper­a­tions com­mu­ni­ty and the real change over the last decade, Olson said, has been in the third area.

“By ‘com­mu­ni­cate,’ I mean ‘net­work,’” he said. “We have placed net­works on the bat­tle­field with tru­ly pow­er­ful effect.”

Olson said net­works offer instant com­mu­ni­ca­tion, the abil­i­ty to change tar­gets while en route to a tar­get, the abil­i­ty to sort out friend­ly and ene­my forces at the tar­get with bio­met­ric feed­back quick­ly, and the abil­i­ty to trans­mit imagery and clas­si­fied mes­sage traf­fic wher­ev­er a team-sized ele­ment may be.

“Wher­ev­er there is a vehi­cle or a hand­ful of peo­ple, we have that kind of con­nec­tiv­i­ty now,” he said. “And then all of the tal­ent that is required to … grow up in that net­worked com­mu­ni­ty.”

But shoot­ing, mov­ing and com­mu­ni­cat­ing isn’t all there is to it, Olson point­ed out. The goal, he said, is under­stand­ing.

“If you can shoot, you can move and you can net­work the bat­tle­field, how do you then know that what you’re doing is right?” he asked.

It takes a deep under­stand­ing of a place to accu­rate­ly pre­dict the effects of spe­cial oper­a­tions actions, Olson said. His approach to fos­ter­ing this under­stand­ing, he added, is what he calls “Project Lawrence,” inspired by Thomas Edward Lawrence, a British army offi­cer bet­ter known as “Lawrence of Ara­bia,” who served as a liai­son offi­cer to Arab forces dur­ing their revolt against Ottoman rule in 1916 to 1918 dur­ing World War I.

Socom needs “Lawrences” of Afghanistan, Pak­istan, Mali, Indone­sia and oth­er places, Olson said.

“Absolute­ly, enor­mous­ly essen­tial and valu­able when you can find these kinds of peo­ple, because they are the key to under­stand­ing the place,” he said. “Much bet­ter if we can recruit them from that place and make them part of us than … train us to be part of them, but we’ve tak­en a bal­anced approach to that, and frankly, we have more of us.”

Socom is inten­si­fy­ing the train­ing and prepa­ra­tion of its peo­ple to work in the places they’re sent, Olson said, with a par­tic­u­lar focus on high lan­guage capa­bil­i­ty.

“You don’t get the sense of a place if you can’t look at it through the lens of that lan­guage and com­mu­ni­cate with those peo­ple,” he said. Over the past year, Socom has cre­at­ed cul­tur­al sup­port teams made up of women that are deployed with tac­ti­cal ele­ments in all sorts of sit­u­a­tions and remote envi­ron­ments, Olson said.

The teams are trained in many advanced skills, but their pri­ma­ry val­ue is that they give those tac­ti­cal ele­ments access to “the 50 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion … that we sim­ply couldn’t reach before,” the admi­ral said.

That access has great­ly increased his forces’ under­stand­ing of their oper­at­ing envi­ron­ments, Olson said, not­ing his ide­al approach to oper­a­tions is “under­stand, com­mu­ni­cate, move and shoot.”

“If you don’t under­stand, your com­mu­ni­ca­tions will be wrong; if your com­mu­ni­ca­tions are wrong your move­ment will be wrong; and if your move­ment is wrong you’re not shoot­ing at the right things,” he said.

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)

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