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A nation must think before it acts.
Much has been made about President Trump’s selection of Army Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster as his new National Security Adviser. Aside from the potential hiccup wherein the Senate will need to confirm him for this position in order to retain his current rank, seemingly no one has mentioned the fact that LTG McMaster does not come with a Special Operations Forces (SOF) background.
Why is this interesting? Because the president’s first National Security Adviser Lieutenant General (USA, ret.) Michael Flynn’s career took off after his service as the chief intelligence officer for the secretive Joint Special Operations Command. From all accounts, LTG Flynn did great work there revolutionizing the integration and exploitation of intelligence to create a much more efficient capture or kill operations. The president’s next choice, who demurred, was Vice Admiral Bob Harward, USN (ret.) who was a career SEAL officer. LTG McMaster, on the other hand, comes from the conventional military community. To be sure, at least in my opinion, McMaster was one of the rare officers who excelled in both decisive action (his command in the battle of 73 Easting in Operation Desert Storm has been studied) and in population-centric counterinsurgency environments (his actions in the Battle of Tal`Afar), but he will likely be skeptical of assuming that special operations forces, drone strikes, and cyber operations (three big components of defense policy during the Obama administration) will be able to achieve the nation’s operational and strategic ends.
Why do I think that? Because in a speech at the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum several years back, he argued against what he characterized as the four fallacies of modern warfare: (1) the “vampire” fallacy where advances in technology will allow standoff targeting to solve tactical, operational, and strategic conundrums, (2) the “zero-dark-thirty” fallacy of raiding to victory, (3) the “Mutual of Omaha Wild Kingdom” fallacy of winning through proxies, and (4) the “RSVP” fallacy of being able to opt out of future conflicts. Fallacies two and three are directly related to American SOF. I reproduce his words on each below:
…The zero-dark-thirty fallacy, like the vampire fallacy, elevates an important military capability, raiding, to the level of a defense strategy. The US capability to conduct raids against networked terrorist organizations is portrayed as a substitute for rather than a compliment to conventional Joint Force capabilities. Raids, because they are operations of short duration, limited purpose and planned withdrawal, are often unable to effect the human and political drivers of armed conflict or make progress toward achieving sustainable outcomes consistent with vital interests.
…[T]he Mutual of Omaha Wild Kingdom fallacy may require a little explanation for those of younger generations. In the 1960s on Sunday nights, families with young children gathered to watch two television shows, the Wonderful World of Disney and Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. The host for Wild Kingdom was Marlin Perkins. Marlin Perkins would introduce the topic of the show, often a dangerous animal, and provide commentary throughout. But Mr. Perkins would rarely place himself in a dangerous situation. He usually left close contact with the wildlife to his assistant, Jim Fowler. Under the Mutual of Omaha Wild Kingdom fallacy, the US assumes the role of Marlin Perkins and relies on proxy forces in the role of Jim Fowler to do the fighting on land. While it is hard to imagine future operations that will not require US forces to operate with multiple partners, primary reliance on proxies is often problematic due to issues involving capability as well as willingness to act consistent with U.S. interests. The political and human dimensions of war often create what economists and political scientists call principal-actor problems.
None of the above is meant to suggest that the United States will not continue to use SOF to deal with national security challenges. My only point here is that LTG McMaster’s experience and education (in particular his historical mind) will likely question when and how to rightly use and when and how not to use these incredibly capable forces. After 15+ years of war, we no doubt have amassed spectacular capabilities in terms of our SOF, but we’ve also ridden them hard. And such forces do not offer a panacea for solving complex political-military objectives. McMaster’s more holistic approach to military power may then bring a more balanced approach toward the application of force when military tools are required.