16 July 2020

The SOF ethics and culture might be at risk

Daniel Ilie

For the past two years, we kept on finding out increasingly often about breaches of the code of ethics among the Special Operations Forces’ military (SOF), who do nothing but contribute to the erosion of the specific culture of these military elite capabilities, the so-called “silent professionals”. I am talking about incidents and allegations related to alcohol consumption during the dislocations in theatres of operations, the illegal consumption of drugs, sexual harassment, theft and the illegal possession of weapons, munitions and explosives, desertion and the support for extremist or terrorist factions and networks, crimes or even disfigurement of dead bodies and war crimes. Are these matters putting at risk the ethics and culture of the SOF?

Image source: MApN

Apparently yes, if these issues will not be approached or solved in time, before turning into systematic problems. Such misconducts can definitely lead to serious consequences.

One of the most recent examples is the decision made by the German defence minister to disestablish a part of the commando elite troops (the Commando’s Second Campaign) controlled by the Special Force Command, also known as Kommando Spezialkrafte – KSK, basically the connections of SOF operatives with the extreme right factions. Among her reasons there was also the fact that lately these troops have become partially independent within the command and control chain of the German Federal Armed Forces – Bundeswehr, which will stop once they will be reintegrated, in the reformed formula, in the Federal Ministry of Defence.

Recently, in Australia, such incidents related to war crimes, executed by a small number of SOF operatives, during the mission executed in the theatres of operations, have led to the serious decrease of the civil society and the army’s trust in national SOF.

Some members of the US naval special operations forces, known as US Navy SEAL, have also contributed to that, as they did some blamable actions, like crimes over SOF members, affecting the images of these elite troops in the eyes of, and not limited to, the US public opinion. Here, even the permissive attitude of the commanders who allowed the military to wear beard and unauthorized signs on their individual equipment, during the times the operatives were executing missions in the theatres of operations, was blamed and disapproved.

 In all of these cases something was wrong with the command structures, as some of the military leaders responsible with implementing them were not able to control the exact art of leadership or that specific act was disturbed by the lack of competence and character (integrity, well judgment). In other words, it seems to be about military management and the leadership which are wrongly applied in the daily activities and the existence of SOF as social organization. In fact, most of the SOF hierarchical commanders involved in such incidents, but also the civil leadership within the political-military level, acknowledge that it is about developing a bad leadership, defined by them as a “toxic leadership”.

Being an effective, professional, accepted and respected leader in the SOF community involves, however, many challenges.

First of all, the SOF are “special” because of the selection of operatives which involves a long, challenging and specialized personnel selection process. The recruiters go through intense tests of resistance to tiredness, mental challenges, physical challenges and leadership ones, which reveal their character and lead to the elimination of the weak and unstable ones, both mentally and physically, on one hand, and the identification of those able to act and take the lead in challenging situations, defined by stress, risks, uncertainty and extreme difficulties, on the other.

Obviously, most of these individuals are men that have strong physical and mental features, are well-motivated, trust their own forces, are nonconformist, yet disciplined, inventive and have an independent mind. Most of them also have a social intelligence which includes acknowledgement and social interaction. These are the things easing the team work and contributing to the necessary motivation for the SOF team to focus its efforts on achieving common objectives.

During the training, the SOF like the US Navy SEAL are testing and assessing a large series of personality features, which indicate individual’s capacity to establish his objectives, use his self-control, accept certain life situations and face the cognitive threats and challenges. The training includes, also, an academic component, which focuses on the SOF morality and values.

However, the bad things like the above mentioned incidents just happen or, like the Americans say, “stuff happens”.

On the other hand, just like many analysts and researchers have noticed, the SOF represents an “institutional anomaly[1]” within all the armed forces. These are obviously talking about a key and general characteristic of the SOF, which is to be placed in the command-control architecture of the armed forces outside the conventional forces, in most of the cases having funding and resources assurance channels, recruitment and selection processes, training processes and different and separated ways to use them in the fight. Somehow, this is also the case of the Romanian SOF.

We are talking about a certain increased organizational autonomy that’s necessary, however, dependent on factors like providing the legal framework of responsibility within the armed forces or the risk management over the mission, to allow the SOF’s successful achievement of specific tasks and missions (many of them being secrete or “clandestine”).

Also, specialists have noticed that the SOF have the possibility to try and develop their own technologies, training procedures, techniques, tactics and procedures, comparing  to conventional armies, in high-efficiency conditions (costs versus benefits), comparing to their quite small sizes and the direct method to allot the necessary resources.

However, these things have created a “separated culture specific to the SOF[2]”, defined by the emergence of a specific personality or an ethos, easily recognizable by a professional observer and eases a “different discipline model”, less strict and which allows the development of a “less informal leadership” comparing to the model adopted by the conventional armed forces.

Above all, when elitism and infatuation feelings, boldness and even arrogance that most of the SOF operatives have overlap, then the “circumstances creating tense breaches with other armed forces categories” emerge. This was noticed also by the Australian SOF commander after the scandal provoked by the war crimes allegations launched against some Australian SOF, who executed missions in the theatre of operations from Afghanistan. He was saying, related to the operatives accused for such actions, that it was “a small SAS group operatives who were felling a cut above the others and who thought that the rules of conventional army do not apply to them”. “The arrogance of this small group increased a weak internal culture and caused many issues the SAS is currently facing”.

In the course of time, the SOF, within their organizational dynamic, were more and more distant from the national policy makers in the so-called command and control architecture, some of these capabilities having an easier or harder access to the final decision makers. Some operatives, like the SOF officers, even the middle-management ones, had direct access to the high-level military commanders or even the political decision makers. For example, for the Romanian SOF, according to our effective national laws, the SOF leadership is made by the General Chief of Staff of the Army, through the Special Operations Forces Commander (SOFC).

This is a particularity the analysts and researchers consider when estimating “how special are the SOF comparing to the other armed forces”, noticing that “it allows them (SOF officers and operatives) to avoid or ignore the normal command and control chain, to extend their autonomy and decrease the civil control over militarization in terms of using the military forces to solve the political issues[3]”.

Furthermore, the environment the SOF members usually operate in is defined by uncertainty and extreme risks, which make them think creatively and innovatively, “outside the box”, to timely find ingenious solution to the complex issues that emerge during specific missions.

Even just for some of the reasons listed in the short analysis, the execution of the leadership art by the SOF commanders is a challenge, especially when working with individuals whose “mindset” is thinking independently and unconventionally are too confident and, sometimes, mighty, if not arrogant, based on the unique experiences they lived, together with the other members of the team, during specific training and, especially, during multiples real missions executed in different theatres of operations during their carrier.

As concluded by a study published, at the beginning of the year, by the US Special Operations Command – US SOCOM, after making a comprehensive analysis of the SOF ethics and culture, lately, the organizational culture of the American troops is marked by the idea of an increased importance of leadership, associated with the use of force in theatres of operations, in the detriment of the significance of leadership focused on developing future leaders, cultivating ethics, responsibility, discipline, the proper training and the generation of force to proper standards.

Such a model of using force is destroying the organization and work on SOF’s specialized teams (operational detachments), is consuming the leadership capacities and is negatively affecting the individual predictability. The additional operational tasks are also contributing to the slow erosion of leadership, discipline and responsibility inside the SOF.

Instead of conclusions

The current organizational culture has created some situations which allowed misconducts and the development of behaviors lacking ethics among the SOF operatives.  Given these circumstances, no one should be surprised with the fact that such blamable incidents can happen. Some members are being radicalized, others commit war crimes, others different types of crimes and some even desert and join criminal or extremist terrorist networks.

As for the principles of leadership, discipline and responsibility, some studies show that there are some gaps, both in the SOF pyramid as an organization, and individual and the team, and the command-control chain. Now that the problem was found and the symptoms of the cultural downturn are known, it is time to cultivate and train new leaders, officers and non-com officers, to guarantee a performance-enhancing leadership, based on responsibility, commitments, order and discipline, able to impose and keep the standards of a SOF organizational culture of the “silent professionals”, with zero tolerance for any misconducts.

I have learned during my career, just as many others did, that a true SOF leader leads by the personal example he gives on the frontline or from the middle of the action. This involves full commitments to a cause or objectives and full responsibility. As a leader, one can commission the authority, but not responsibility.

A leader that the FOS will respect and follow must dominate the situation from the very beginning, cultivate and impose, without compromise, an appropriate organizational culture and severe discipline, and help his team develop self-discipline. He will have to inspire them and at the same time challenge the team members to constantly push their limits in the face of the impossible, giving them impactful tasks, starting with the recruitment and selection process and continuing throughout the training period, continuous training and preparation for the mission. People, especially those with a personal growth/development mentality, are constantly looking for new challenges and if they do not find those opportunities within the organization, they will look elsewhere, sometimes risking deviating from FOS ethics and culture, compromising them.

I have learned that taking care of Soldiers is not about coddling them, it’s about challenging them—establishing a standard of excellence and holding them accountable for reaching it,” Admiral McRaven, the ninth commanders of US SOCOM was saying in front of the West Point cadets, in 2015.

As for the access to elite troops such as FOS, an identified and learned lesson would be that as long as the selection base is large enough, character and performance traits will first need to be validated in the recruitment and selection process, candidates only then cultivating the necessary specific skills. Specialized skills can be taught and learned, however, very difficult character features can be changed. However, in order to ensure the success of such an approach, it will be necessary to review the procedures for allocating suitable FOS instructors and mentors, who will be able to guarantee the entry into the system only of military or civilian personnel possessing the necessary character traits and skills to the subsequent cultivation and maintenance of an ethics and organizational culture worthy of the elite troops status.

Translated by Andreea Soare

[1] Special Operations Forces in the 21st Century Perspectives from the Social Sciences, by Jessica Glicken Turnley, Kobi Michael, Eyal Ben-Ari, First edition 2017

[2] Special Operations Forces in the 21st Century Perspectives from the Social Sciences, by Jessica Glicken Turnley, Kobi Michael, Eyal Ben-Ari, First edition 2017

[3] Special Operations Forces in the 21st Century Perspectives from the Social Sciences, by Jessica Glicken Turnley, Kobi Michael, Eyal Ben-Ari, First edition 2017