Leadership: April 17, 2005

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The U.S. Army is undergoing an interesting, and largely unnoticed, transformation. The experiences in the Balkans during the 1990s, and then in Afghanistan and Iraq, has made the army more enthusiastic about learning tactics and techniques from the U.S. Army Special Forces. 

Since its formation in the early 1950s, the Special Forces were too often seen as an alien presence inside the army. Not surprising, as many of the key people behind forming the Special Forces had a background of espionage and irregular warfare with the OSS (Office of Strategic Services, precursor of the CIA) during World War II. The people in the Special Forces were always different from the rest of the army, a difference made more stark because the army was always getting ready to fight a massive mechanized war against the Soviet Union in central Europe. Even in Vietnam, a war the army didnt want (because the main threat was seen as the Russians in Eastern Europe), the Special Forces were not fully appreciated by the regular army. What did happen during Vietnam was that many army personnel got to see, up close and personal, just how effective the Special Forces could be. But it wasnt until after the Cold War was over, and the Russians were gone from the threat list, that the army started to get comfortable with the Special Forces. 

During the 1991 Gulf War, the Special Forces were especially useful, even though most senior army commanders were still leery of them. But the generals were impressed, and with the Cold War over, and an age of Little Wars looming, Special Forces were becoming more popular. Moreover, in 1987, all the commandoes and special troops in the Department of Defense were combined into SOCOM (Special Operations Command). The Special Forces were the largest component of SOCOM, but the navy SEALs and air force special aircraft and commando units felt right at home together. One thing SOCOM started to do was establish better relationships with the rest of the armed forces. In the 1990s this began to pay off, partly because of peacekeeping missions, and partly because regular troops and SOCOM operators worked together more often for training and planning. The results of this could be seen in Afghanistan in late 2001, and later in Iraq in 2003. 

While there was still a lot of the why dont you amateurs leave this to us professionals attitude by SOCOM operators towards the regulars, there was also a growing exchange of equipment and techniques. SOCOM had pioneered the rapid adoption of new equipment, an old Special Forces tradition, and this became a popular army program as well. The Internet also played a part in this, making it easier for army personnel to get advice from SOCOM personnel. Often it was advice on socks and thermal underwear, or how best to plan a patrol. The important thing was that the superior tactics and techniques developed by SOCOM were now flowing to the regular troops. One reason this didnt happen before was because most regular troops couldnt handle it. But decades of all volunteers meant that the regulars were older and more professional. They appreciated, understood, and could use a lot of the tips they got from the even more experienced and expert Special Forces. 

SOCOM began preparing training and briefing documents for the army (and marines and anyone else in uniform who could use it.) SOCOM wanted to be friends with everyone, because the old days of being considered a bunch of weird, snake eating green beanies was not pleasant. Especially when these hostile attitudes occasionally turned into calls that the Special Forces be disbanded. No one wanted that any more, because the regular troops were beginning to think, and fight, like the SOCOM troops.

This included new attitudes by the army. It had long been thought that ever improving communications would make it possible for senior commanders to move their troops around like chess pieces. But SOCOM knew that combat didnt work like that. To win, you had to have people at the lowest levels who could think for themselves. To make that work, you had to train that way. So despite the appearance of a battlefield Internet, army units are increasingly being allowed to operate like SOCOM commandoes. That means careful planning, and rapid execution of plans by well trained and led troops. There are still senior officers who like to micromanage, and take advantage of the fact that they can call down to a platoon leader and ask for a report, or give orders. Unlike Vietnam, when this sort of thing became all the rage, now its looked down on. A successful general has troops who can perform well without a lot of close supervision. 

While there is still a lot of the zero defects and micromanagement mentality around, the wartime demands for winning, and not getting killed in the process, have forced everyone to look for the most efficient way to do things, not the most fashionable or politically correct. 

 


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