Looming budget cuts, ground forces worn down by years of repeated deployments, and a range of ever evolving security challenges from Mali to Libya and Yemen are quickly making "light footprint" military interventions a central part of American strategy. Instead of "nation building" with large, traditional military formations, civilian policymakers are increasingly opting for a discrete combination of air power, special operators, intelligence agents, indigenous armed groups, and contractors, often leveraging relationships with allies and enabling partner militaries to take more active roles.
Despite the relative appeal of these less costly forms of military intervention, the light footprint is no panacea. Like any policy option, the strategy has risks, costs and benefits that make it ideally suited for certain security challenges and disastrous for others. Moreover, recent media coverage of drone strikes and SEAL raids may also distort public perceptions, creating a bin Laden effect -- the notion of military action as sterile, instantaneous, and pinprick accurate. Yet nighttime raids are only the proverbial tip of the iceberg: the most visible part of a deeper, longer-term strategy that takes many years to develop, cannot be grown after a crisis, and relies heavily on human intelligence networks, the training of local security forces, and close collaboration with diplomats and development workers. For these smaller-scale interventions to be an effective instrument of national policy, civilian and military leaders at all levels should make a concerted effort to understand not only their strategic uses and limitations, but also the ways the current defense bureaucracy can undermine their success.
The most critical resource requirement in smaller interventions is human capital: talented, adaptable professionals who are not only fluent in language, culture, politics, and interpersonal relationships, but also willing to deploy for long periods and operate with little guidance. Smaller-scale missions mean less redundancy, less room for error, and more responsibility for every person in the field. In the words of Lt. Gen. Charlie Cleveland, the commander of U.S. Army Special Operations Command: "To succeed in these missions, we need people who can wade into uncertainty, learn the key players, and figure out the best way to influence outcomes." This means that in the face of looming budget cuts, the Pentagon's biggest national security challenge may not be dealing with a rival power or preserving force structure, but instead solving an intractable human resources problem -- how to retool outdated institutions to select, train, assign, and retain the most talented people to address today's security problems overseas.
Two of my own operational assignments may help illustrate how light-footprint missions can succeed or fail depending on the people who are assigned to accomplish them. I served in the 7th Special Forces Group and the Department of Defense AFPAK Hands program -- organizations with very different missions but built for the same fundamental task of influencing foreign partners and building security capacity with a handful of U.S. personnel. These contrasting vignettes should serve as a vivid example of two different organizational philosophies and the institutional challenges that must be overcome if the United States is to master a smaller, more indirect, lower-profile approach to warfare.
The 7th Special Forces Group
The ethic that defines Special Forces training is probably best described as "select hard, manage easy." Operators enjoy tremendous autonomy in the field, but they must earn it first. Before reporting to an operational unit, every Special Forces officer and soldier is required to undergo a rigorous screening and selection process, followed by a two-year qualification course that includes instruction on infantry tactics, specialized technical skills such as weapons or communications, guerrilla warfare, survival, and foreign language training.
Undertaking these intense experiences just after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, I was surprised by two things. First, there was a strong connection between our training and real-world Special Forces missions -- operators who had just fought on horseback with the Northern Alliance would return to speak to the class, and their feedback would be immediately incorporated into realistic, immersive exercises. Second, a large portion of the course was focused on the intellectual and social attributes of the students -- creativity, oral and written communication, judgment, cultural respect, and interpersonal skills -- rather than sheer athletic prowess. Peers who aced every physical challenge would suddenly be dropped when the instructors observed them unable to plan a mission alone without further guidance or incapable of building rapport with role players during a cross-cultural scenario. Sensing our confusion after a particularly tough cut sent a dozen students home, one instructor quoted a line from our World War II predecessors, the Office of Strategic Services: "The OSS, when selecting officers to parachute into occupied France, described the ideal candidate as a Ph.D. that can win a bar fight. We don't just want an officer that can carry a hundred-pound rucksack on his back. We need someone who can think and improvise."