SOF Truths, blue-suit edition

Last year the Air Force revised its Special Operations doctrine and we just went through the relevant document, Air Force Doctrine Document (AFDD) 2–7, Special Operations. Most of the changes are yawnsome (really, most doctrine publications are dry as the bleached bones in the Dasht-i Margo. That’s just the way it is). But one of the changes was to insert an Air Force-ized version of the Special Operations Truths into the preface, as follows.

As we read AFDD 2-7, it is essential we keep the basic SOF truths in mind. AFSOF cannot be mass produced. AFSOF is centered on people and not platforms and therefore quality is always better than quantity. It takes years to produce a strategic SOF Airman. History has demonstrated that we cannot produce competent AFSOF after an emergency arises. Our AFSOF must remain strong and ready to serve. Finally, as we employ AFSOF, All Air Force Airmen must be prepared to enable the AFSOF mission with agile combat support capabilities.

As long-time boosters of The Truths, we think that’s a good development. We think that the Special Ops Truths are remarkably useful and widely applicable. The Air Force version makes them a bit wordier and harder to memorize and internalize than the telegraphic, canonical version, but they’re still good. Far beyond combat or special operations force procurement, we’ve found them to be worthwhile lodestones even in civilian business and family decisions. The secret is to do like the Air Force has done here, and adapt them.

There’s also one SOF Truth that we disagree with, at least to some degree. That’s “Competent SOF cannot be produced after an emergency occurs” and its variants. I’d change that to “Competent SOF cannot be produced instantly.” Many of the SOF warriors involved in highly consequential operations, from Eben Emael to the Long Range Desert Group to many of the SF soldiers running recon in SOG were products of a few months to a year of training. It takes a decade to make a well-rounded Green Beret, but some of the Rangers that dropped on Grenada and Panama, and fought like lions in Mogadishu, had only been in the Army a few months. The Rangers that stormed Pointe du Hoc had more time to prepare, and theirs was a unit created after the crisis was underway!

If we bog down in thinking it takes forever to train the best, we create an asymmetric vulnerability. The Taliban take only days to train a suicide bomber or motivate a green-on-blue attacker to zap some of those expensive and patiently trained Americans. (Kipling explored this asymmetry in a poem called The Cheaper Man).

A classic example of self-inflicted asymmetry was the Imperial Japanese Navy’s system of selecting and training pilots in the era of Japanese Imperialism (you can start counting in 1927, 1933, 1937, or 1941, but scholars all agree the era ended in 1945). They took pains to select perfect physical specimens and train them in many warrior arts before they ever got near an airplane. The process took forever and most of the trainees flunked on one thing or another. (Presumably, they wound up back in the ranks, chipping paint). The resulting elite pilots were able to exploit the technical superiorities of their airplanes well enough that many young Allied pilots, trained to a less exacting standard, never lived to figure out what the technical superiorities of their aircraft were, and how to exploit them.

But in war, some days even an average pilot gets lucky, and even the best pilot may only get to have one bad day in his life — the last one. And when the Japanese aces went down, the long-apprenticeship training method failed Japan rather dreadfully. Hasty measures to cheap out on training meant that the field was never able to catch up with the attrition of pilots, even as the skills of the new guys plummeted.

Meanwhile the Allies created a gigantic training infrastructure that turned out tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of good-enough pilots, and it salvaged the human capital sunk in the washouts by repurposing them as crewmen on bombers. The Allies didn’t set the bar too high, and they didn’t get obsessed about raising standards to an abstract level. In pedagogical terms, their standards were criterion-referenced.

In economic terms, to use a concept we have visited before in these pages, it was a satisficing, not an optimizing, strategy.

Sometimes our obsession with military quality is a bit reminiscent of the Japanese pilots. Yes, individual troopers and units should be constantly striving to raise the bar on their own performance. But the bar for the standard should get set in one place, and only moved for compelling reasons.

So, can competent SOF be created after a crisis begins? Maybe. Depends on how fast the crisis comes on.

2 thoughts on “SOF Truths, blue-suit edition

  1. McThag

    It’s been my understanding that the Air Force is the most ISO 9000 of the services, and it may well take all those years to dot every T and cross every I.

    Admittedly I have a tanker’s perspective and an armchair historian’s viewpoint… but I’ve read over and over that the Air Force has a list of the things you CAN do; the rest of the services have lists of the things you CANNOT.

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