Special Operations Forces and the Professionalization of Foreign Internal Defense
Matthew E. Miller
Original source – Small Wars Journal
FID is the participation by civilian and military agencies of a government in any of the action programs taken by another government or other designated organization, to free and protect its society from subversion, lawlessness, insurgency, terrorism, and other threats to their security.
— Joint Publication 3-22
A world with rapidly evolving instability has required U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) to assume a global posture. Through an examination of SOF support of persistent global operations, it is easy to identify the successes. Striking raids conducted by secretive, highly specialized units against terrorist organizations perforate the 24 hour media cycle. These highly publicized successes such as the killing of Osama bin Laden or the rescue of Captain Phillips from Somali pirates does well for the U.S. military, the administration, and the SOF community. However, if the community chooses to take an honest look across the spectrum of special operations’ core activities, one of these ‘core activities’ that has failed and failed consistently is foreign internal defense (FID). In this era of persistent global conflict, we do not have to look back even as far as the 1970s and 1980s to see the challenges and failures of FID. Rather, a review of the first 14 years of the 21st century is telling. FID is facing serious challenges in Afghanistan and has catastrophically failed in Libya and Iraq. FID is failing now. The solution is to create a mid-career SOF FID specialization for SOF Officers from all four special operations service components to build long-term institutional knowledge of regional issues and personal relationships with foreign SOF organizations.
The failures of the last decade of FID do not belong to any one part of the DOD. Nor is it solely an outcome of the foreign policy decisions such as the 2011 end to the U.S. FID mission in Iraq. It is however highly probable that specially trained SOF FID Officers could have done more to assist conventional planners to understand the needs of the host nation and the needs of newly minted conventional military advisors sent to train them. As it stands, Iraqi units such as the Iraqi 8th Army Division were described by conventional advisors as “top-tier, arguably the best in the Iraqi Army in terms of tactical competence” in 2009. Less than four years later, this same unit was found to be wholly combat ineffective against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Drinking a few cups of tea and teaching host nation soldiers to all shoot in the same direction is no a longer sufficient measure of success in this era of persistent global instability.
Long-term investment in SOF FID will not produce the nearly instantaneous politically marketable results of the raid culture of direct action. Nor will it have much effect on the short-term “prop-up” FID intended to buy time to exfiltrate U.S. forces from a given theater. It will however add consistency to SOF operations over the next decades if SOF leaders embrace the professionalization of FID as a long-term operational capability and an investment. In keeping with SOF truth number 1, “Humans are more important than hardware,” FID requires recruitment, training, and long-term forward deployment of SOF Officers specifically training in regional FID. Globally, the U.S. has had a poor record of predicting the next destabilizing crisis that will require U.S. support or intervention. The challenge of predictive analysis, which can identify future FID requirements, has become more difficult with “globalization with its subthemes of technology diffusion, free flow of information, interdependent and competitive economies, and relative empowerment of weak state, non-state, and individual actors” The fact is crisis and conflict will evolve rapidly in regions the U.S. military is unprepared to respond effectively. U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) needs to place SOF FID Officers in as many countries as is practical, building partnerships with foreign SOF forces.
Critics unfamiliar with the complexities of FID will argue the task of building foreign military relationships and the Foreign Area Officer (FAO) Program already serves the FID mission. The FAOs, which come from each of the four branches of service, have distinct responsibilities, to “provide regional expertise from the political-military and strategic perspectives for planning and executing operations, observe and report on international military issues, serve in liaison, attaché/military-diplomat, and representational roles to other nations, serve as arms control inspectors, and oversee military security assistance.” The last task in the FAO job description “oversee military security assistance” has not provided the ground level relationships or SOF partnerships essential to current and future operations. Oversight of security assistance is not enough in this era of global instability. Additionally, the majority of FAOs do not have a SOF or even a combat arms background, which limits the FAO programs’ ability to assess the needs of host nation forces and SOF with any level of ground truth. This gap in FAO capability and tasking and the failures of FID over the recent years clearly identifies the need for SOF FID Officers. However, the foreign environments in which SOF FID Officers will serve require that they share many of the language and training requirements of the FAO program.
“Competent SOF cannot be created after emergencies occur,” arguably more than other special operations core activities, is a SOF Truth that FID planners need to embrace. At the strategic level, the SOF Officer cannot acquire that acute knowledge of operational environment or build personal relationships with foreign SOF after the crisis arises. Personal relationships and trust, like SOF competencies, cannot be forced into being the morning after a coup d’état. The relationships developed by SOF FID Officers in peacetime amount to a strategic force multiplier for the larger SOF community and the DOD at large. A SOF FID Officer who serves as a liaison, a partner, and possible mentor of foreign SOF will build relationships unobtainable through the current exercise model for SOF partnerships, the Joint Combined Exchange Training (JCET). This model will not replace the JCET exercise, but the SOF FID Officer will be able to focus the mission of the JCET and will drastically shorten the incoming US SOF elements’ local adaptation period with foreign SOF partners. . If history tells the U.S. military anything, it is that foreign SOF will be at the epicenter of future regional instability either as the defender of the status quo or as the vehicle of unrest to displace the foreign governments. In the case of the destabilization of a regional partner state, decision makers would be able to draw upon experienced SOF FID Officers who had lived and worked in the region and possess a tactical and strategic knowledge of the crisis. Additionally, the ability of SOF FID Officers to reach out personally to foreign SOF is the equivalent of the Cold War Moscow-Washington hotline.
In addition to the personal relationships built with foreign SOF forged by FID Officers’ foreign assignments, the SOF contingency and rapid response planners will benefit from an institutional knowledge of environmental variables such as the people, culture, and terrain. Knowledge attained by SOF FID Officers will provide the tactical level SOF planners and decision makers with the key to what Admiral McRaven called ‘Relative Superiority.’ Relative superiority is defined as “the condition that exists when a smaller force gains a decisive advantage over a larger or well-defended enemy.”  In his master’s thesis at the Naval Post Graduate School, Admiral McRaven endeavored to develop a theory of special operations focused on the key elements of successful direct action operations conducted by SOF units and therefore did not address FID. However, his theory emphasizes reducing Clausewitz’s ‘Fiction’ through the application of his six principles of special operations – simplicity, security, repetition, surprise, speed, and purpose – which in turn allow SOF direct action missions to achieve and maintain ‘Relative Superiority’ over the enemy force. Future SOF FID Officers offer an important key to gaining McRaven’s ‘Relative Superiority’ in regions or nation states, where the U.S. military has limited institutional knowledge. The SOF FID Officer who has local experience and relationships will be invaluable to the information environment of the SOF decision makers and planners during the onset of deteriorating stability. Historically, a lack of local knowledge has led to mission failure due to gaps in local knowledge, which has led to SOF mission failures during the 1980s and 1990s. Tomorrow, SOF could be asked to operate in a region or environmental conditions foreign to units who have adapted their tactics and equipment to a specific climate. The ability to call upon a SOF FID Officer with extensive experience in a jungle or a tumultuous region and knowledge of foreign SOF will be invaluable for SOF commanders in the zero phase of an operation.
The first necessary step is the establishment of a Joint FID Management Office at SOCOM Headquarters, tasked with the program development and the long-term career management of SOF FID Officers. The SOF FID Officer designation would work best as a U.S. Army Functional Area and its sister services equivalent, with the FID Officer course contributing to the individual officer’s joint professional military education (JPME). This Joint FID Management Office would be the vehicle that assists the services in determining joint requirements across the SOF service components. The creation of a SOF FID ‘functional area’ would require the creation of a significant number of additional O4-O5 billets at SOCOM Headquarters. These positions housed at SOCOM Headquarters, outside the SOF service components, would allow SOCOM the ability to retain a larger portion of the investment made in SOF officers who may be forced to leave the SOF based on the availability of SOF service component billets.
The core candidates for the SOF FID Officer program should come from the officer corps of U.S. Army Special Forces, U.S. Naval Special Warfare Seals, U.S. Marine Corps Special Operations, and U.S. Air Force Special Tactics. There would likely be opposition to diverting already highly trained officers from line positions in their respective SOF service components. However, if we are to accept Dr. Turnley’s contribution to SOF theory, which argues SOF service members are uniquely qualified to be “warrior-diplomats,” then SOF must embrace the need for this level of character and experience for the sometimes ambiguous world of FID. To advance Dr. Turnley’s assumptions, we must extend her model to our foreign SOF partners and competitors who to varying degrees will be “warrior-diplomats” with whom relationships can be built. Turnley notes that the SOF service components embrace the “warrior-diplomat” concept with varying enthusiasm. She specifically makes the point that “becoming a warrior diplomat is a nontrivial process involving far more than just learning a language and a few behavioral do’s and don’ts.” The concept of the “warrior-diplomat” must not be solely embraced as a second or third order effect of SOF training and experience, but must become a formal ‘functional area’ and an advanced specialization within the SOF community.
The argument can be made the SOF Officers are already trained in FID and a specialized course is not necessary. The counter point however is again the fact that FID is not only facing a more complex operational environment but has had little success in creating sustainable security as demonstrated by the striking collapse of western-trained Iraqi Divisions or Libya security forces in the face of Islamic extremist. Obviously, what is being done now is not sufficient to properly assess the needs, the institutions, and the cultural challenges of the persistent FID mission around the world. Therefore, the SOF FID candidate, already a trained and experienced SOF operator, would follow a pipeline similar to the previously mentioned U.S. Army’s Foreign Area Officers (FAO), only with a focused specialization in SOF FID requirements. A joint SOF FID Officer ‘functional area’ training course must be developed, piloted, and managed at JSOU. Following the function area’ training a graduate level education program is essential. Numerous DOD educational institutions provide regional training as well as formal graduate level education. For the SOF FID Officer ‘functional area,’ the best choices for graduate education are the JSOU and the Naval Postgraduate School, the latter of which has a long history in graduate education in special operations topics.
A significant number of SOF Officers already possess language skills but for service in FID ‘functional area,’ language training would need to be conducted at a higher level. The Defense Language Institute (DLI), which hosts 6 to 12 month programs, should support this task with quotas specifically designed for SOF FID Officers. The Joint FID Management Office should endeavor to follow the FAO model, matching skills and capabilities of SOF FID Officers to the region for which they are trained. The Joint FID Management Office would put an end the old military cliché of sending Chinese languages speakers on operational tours in Italy.
Following a utilization tour in the SOF FID Officers region of specialization, the Joint FID Management Office would be responsible for assisting in identifying follow on positions best suited for these highly specialized officers. Of course, a certain number of SOF FID Officers will return to their SOF service components, however every effort should be made to continue to match skills and experience to the follow on position. Additionally, positions should be established or opened to these highly specialized officers as members of the staff or advisors to the Combatant Commands and Theater Special Operations Commands (TSOC). Outside the SOF community, these unique skill sets would be invaluable as JSOU/NPS instructors, DOD and service branch contingencies planners, or joint staff assignments, which require regional specialization.
Another challenge is allocation of funding for a long-term program in a fiscally constrained environment. “Enhancing stability and preventing conflict are more cost-effective than fighting wars.” The cost of training and deploying SOF FID Officers, to include the contributions these experienced officers will contribute in future assignments is a minuscule cost in comparison to the estimated $25 billion spent training and equipping Iraqi Army divisions, which collapsed in the face of ISIL. In comparison to the highly popular overhead platforms, SOF FID Officers would be considerably cheaper than these systems, which will never provide any insight into the causes of the instability or crisis. Overhead platforms can only serve as mechanical witness where the relatively low cost SOF FID Officers can provide analysis and outreach to the foreign partner. Another administrative concern is the status of SOF FID Officers during the utilization tour in a foreign nation. Whether this program operates under individual Status of Forces Agreements or as part of State Department Country Team, or both, will depend on the politics of the day and is beyond the scope of this essay.
The simple fact is our long term efforts to promote global stability are not working. In the late 1990’s, al-Qai’da amounted to a few hundred radical Islamists renting land from the Taliban government. Today, groups that have embraced al-Qai’da’s radical Islamist ideology physically control territory in at least seven countries. The challenges of the 21st century FID efforts have made it evident that FID requires and deserves an independent professional SOF work force to counter present and future vehicles of instability, including al-Qai’da and a multitude of other current and potential threats. Experienced special operations officers, from all four SOF service components, trained and educated as FID professionals, are the key to the successful long-term goal to “support training, advising, and equipping HN security forces.”
 Joint Publication 3-22, Foreign Internal Defense, 12 July 2010, defines FID as U.S. activities that support a HN’s internal defense and development (IDAD) strategy and program designed to protect against subversion, lawlessness, insurgency, terrorism, and other threats to their internal security, and stability. In addition, to enabling HNs to maintain internal stability and counter subversion and violence, FID should address the causes of instability. FID programs are tailored to the individual HN, and focus on CT, COIN, counterdrug, or stability operations.
 Deady, Timothy, MiTT Advisor: A Year with the Best Division in the Iraqi Army, Military Review, November-December 2009; Iraqi Army Launches Offensive on Islamic State in Three Cities, Reuters, September 17, 2014
http://news.yahoo.com/iraqi-army-launches-offensive-islamic-state-three-cities-133137912.html Last visited on: November 24, 2014; Roggio, Bill and Weiss, Caleb, Islamic State photos detail rout of Iraqi Army at Camp Saqlawiya, The Long Wars Journal, September 30, 2014, http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2014/09/islamic_state_photos_1.php Last visited: November 20, 2014; Zucchino, David, Why Iraqi Army Can’t Fight, Despite $25 Billion In U.S. Aid, Training, Los Angeles Times, November 3, 2014, http://www.latimes.com/world/middleeast/la-fg-iraq-army-20141103-story.html#page=1 Last Visited: November 20, 2014, pg. 10
 Yarger, Harry R., 21st Century SOF: Toward an American Theory of Special Operations, JSOU Report 13-1, The JSOU Press, MacDill Air Force Base, Florida 2013,
 Department of Defense Instruction (DoDI) 1315.20, SUBJECT: Management of Department of Defense (DoD) Foreign Area Officer (FAO) Programs, September 28, 2007
 McRaven, William H., The Theory of Special Operations, Master’s Thesis, Naval Postgraduate School, June 1993, pg. 4
 Clausewitz, Carl von, & Maude, Frederic Natusch, On War, K. Paul, Trench, Trübner & Company, Limited, 1908, pg. 222
 McRaven, William H., The Theory of Special Operations, Master’s Thesis, Naval Postgraduate School, June 1993, pg. 11
 In times of expanded requirements, the program could be scaled-up with other SOF Officers to include Civil Affairs, Psychological Operations, Naval Special Warfare Combatant-Craft Officer, and SOF experienced Intelligence Officers.
 Turnley, Jessica G., Cross-Cultural Competence and Small Groups: Why SOF are the way SOF are, JSOU Report 11-1, The JSOU Press, MacDill Air Force Base, Florida 2011, pg.
 United States Special Operations Command, Special Operations Forces, Operating Concept, May 2013, pg. 23
 Joint Publication 3-05, Special Operations, 16 July 2014
Matthew E. Miller is a U.S. Army Reserve Officer. He holds degrees from University of California, San Diego, the London School of Economics, and is currently a doctoral candidate at the University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Forces Academy. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army or any agency of the U.S. government. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army or any agency of the U.S. government.