A NASA composite image of the Earth at night, seen from space, offers an illuminating reference point for the shift in Special Operations Forces' missions since 2001, their senior officer said this week in Washington.
Before Sept. 11, 2001, the military considered the places where the lights are to be the most strategically important on the globe, Navy Adm. Eric T. Olson, commander, U.S. Special Operations Command, said this week.
Olson discussed the strategic importance of the globe's unlit areas during Feb. 8 remarks at the National Defense Industrial Association's 22nd Annual Special Operations and Low-intensity Conflict Symposium.
"I've come to think of this as ... representative of how the world has changed," Olson said, indicating the photograph.
The swath of light stretching in a narrow band across the Northern Hemisphere represents industrialized nations with "developed societies... things and money," Olson said. During most of the 20th century, he added, the U.S. military focused on that area.
"But the world changed over the last decade," he said, explaining that SOCOM now considers 51 countries to be of high-priority interest in the global campaign against the extremist threat.
For the most part, "there's not a great deal of overlap" between those countries' locations and where the lights are, Olson said.
"Our strategic focus has shifted largely to the south... certainly within the special operations community, as we deal with the emerging threats from the places where the lights aren't," he said.
Olson said the unlit places generally have ungoverned or under-governed spaces, more porous borders and less-secure airports than in more developed areas.
"They have the opportunity for training, for movement, for smuggling –- for activities to occur that ultimately may threaten us," he said. "They are also places where the population may be riper for recruitment into behavior that is sort of challenging to the more legitimate form of government."
Places where special operations forces are deployed show "a pretty high degree of overlap" with the unlit places in the photograph, Olson said.
"We are in these places at the request of the host government and in accordance with the strategy [of] the geographic combatant commander," he said. "These are countries where building partner capacity, assisting our partners in helping themselves, is becoming more and more important to us."
Olson described the two primary "flavors" of special operations activities: strike capability -- which he called the "man-hunting, thing-hunting, direct-action piece" -- and the indirect approach, which includes engagement, training, advising, mentoring, equipping and "sticking with" foreign forces.
It's the second approach, Olson said, that ultimately leads to decisive effects on the battlefield, but the direct action buys time for engagement, and both are necessary for success in operations such as those in Afghanistan.
Many of the nations where Special Operations Forces primarily operate today, the SOCOM commander said, don't historically have a strong military-to-military relationship with the United States "either because of politics, or economies, or both."
The absence of a historical military relationship poses a number of challenges to effective military partnerships with those countries, the admiral said.
"We don't know them, and they don't know us," Olson said. "We generally don't speak their languages, we don't understand their histories, we don't know their families, we don't know how work is done, we don't know how money is made, we don't know all the nuances, we don't know the effects, truly, of climate, of terrain, of religion, of culture, in these regions. And it takes time to get there from here."
Special operations forces see an ever-increasing need to work effectively in locations where they haven't operated before in the numbers or with the purpose they have now, he said.
When he was first asked how the special operations community has changed since 2001, Olson said, his answer referenced the classic military construct of "shoot, move, communicate."
"Our ability to shoot hasn't changed all that much," he said, noting that weapons and tactics have improved, but that forces find, approach and address targets in much the same way as they did before 9/11.
But SOCOM's ability to move, particularly over ground, is significantly better, Olson said.
"Before , of our five active-duty Special Forces groups, only one ... had a motor pool of any significance. Now we are fully equipped, across our force, with a variety of vehicles," he said.
But the "sea-change movement" within the special operations community and the real change over the last decade, Olson said, has been in the third area.
"By 'communicate,' I mean 'network,'" he said. "We have placed networks on the battlefield with truly powerful effect."
Olson said networks offer instant communication, the ability to change targets while en route to a target, the ability to sort out friendly and enemy forces at the target with biometric feedback quickly, and the ability to transmit imagery and classified message traffic wherever a team-sized element may be.
"Wherever there is a vehicle or a handful of people, we have that kind of connectivity now," he said. "And then all of the talent that is required to ... grow up in that networked community."
But shooting, moving and communicating isn't all there is to it, Olson pointed out. The goal, he said, is understanding.
"If you can shoot, you can move and you can network the battlefield, how do you then know that what you're doing is right?" he asked.
It takes a deep understanding of a place to accurately predict the effects of special operations actions, Olson said. His approach to fostering this understanding, he added, is what he calls "Project Lawrence," inspired by Thomas Edward Lawrence, a British army officer better known as "Lawrence of Arabia," who served as a liaison officer to Arab forces during their revolt against Ottoman rule in 1916 to 1918 during World War I.
SOCOM needs "Lawrences" of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Mali, Indonesia and other places, Olson said.
"Absolutely, enormously essential and valuable when you can find these kinds of people, because they are the key to understanding the place," he said. "Much better if we can recruit them from that place and make them part of us than ... train us to be part of them, but we've taken a balanced approach to that, and frankly, we have more of us."
SOCOM is intensifying the training and preparation of its people to work in the places they're sent, Olson said, with a particular focus on high language capability.
"You don't get the sense of a place if you can't look at it through the lens of that language and communicate with those people," he said. Over the past year, SOCOM has created cultural support teams made up of women that are deployed with tactical elements in all sorts of situations and remote environments, Olson said.
The teams are trained in many advanced skills, but their primary value is that they give those tactical elements access to "the 50 percent of the population ... that we simply couldn't reach before," the admiral said.
That access has greatly increased his forces' understanding of their operating environments, Olson said, noting his ideal approach to operations is "understand, communicate, move and shoot."
"If you don't understand, your communications will be wrong; if your communications are wrong your movement will be wrong; and if your movement is wrong you're not shooting at the right things," he said.