Report on the 2014 Special Operations Research Association Symposium

By: Patricia Blocksome, Dr. Christopher Marsh, and Dr. Robert Tomlinson, Special Operations Research Association

On 24–25 October 2014, the Special Operations Research Association (SORA) sponsored an inaugural academic symposium at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas, which focused on special operations and related topics. The SORA symposium brought together approximately 40 attendees from a number of countries, who represented the spectrum of the community of interest, including academics, military and interagency practitioners, and policy analysts. For two days, symposium attendees participated in discussions on the current state of the special operations research field, as well as opportunities for future study.

Founded in 2013, SORA is a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting research across academia, the military, and the SOF community on the nature, conduct, and sources of success of special operations. SORA is the home of the peer-reviewed Special Operations Journal, published in collaboration with the academic press Routledge–Taylor & Francis.1

SORA's mission is to promote research in special operations and SOF to more fully comprehend their nature and utility, and the factors contributing to mission success; to better understand both how special operations are planned and conducted and the part special operations play in the policy making process; and to enhance appreciation of the unique role of special operations and SOF in national strategy. In line with this mission, SORA not only publishes the Special Operations Journal but also collaborates with government and nongovernment entities on related topics. It further seeks to develop a community of researchers, planners, and practitioners who share insights and thinking on special operations, and will engage in funded research on topics of particular importance. SORA's purpose in organizing an annual symposium was, therefore, not only to promote research on all aspects of special operations but also to further strengthen the nascent special operations research community.

The overall theme for the 2014 symposium was "Special Operations and Strategic Implications," which participants addressed from a variety of perspectives. The symposium's keynote speaker, RAND senior policy analyst Linda Robinson, gave a speech entitled "The Future of Special Operations: Enhancing the Strategic Impact of SOF." 2 This speech was based on her study of the topic of special warfare as a strategic and operational approach by which the United States can exert influence in the "missing middle": that potential area of operations between the costly and indefinite commitment of conventional forces and the limitations posed by distant-strike options, such as drones and cruise missiles.3 The talk was extremely well received by the more than 100 conference attendees, including staff and faculty of the US Army Command and General Staff College and its large SOF contingent.

During the symposium, panelists presented papers discussing their current research on the future of special operations. Seven panels, each consisting of multiple presentations, were organized thematically to provide diverse perspectives on a common topic. The panels on "Future Issues Facing SOF" and "The Utility of SOF Power" addressed the ways that special operations can provide options for diplomacy, partnership, and national security initiatives. They also identified cultural and institutional limitations on the uses of special operations and noted that these limitations can vary by country and over time, although the reasons for these variations are understudied. These panels emphasized how recent changes in US SOF force structure may be influencing both the options and limitations of US SOF deployment.

The "Winning Special Warfare," "Unconventional Approaches to Contemporary Challenges for SOF," and "Case Studies in Special Operations" panels all addressed the ways in which special operations and special warfare models provide insight into and compare with actual military campaigns and guerrilla strategies. As panelists pointed out, there are a number of abstract models that have real-world implications. These mental frameworks vary by case and shape the way that participants act. Panelists noted the need for further analysis and refinement of special operations models, with particular attention paid to how these models influence planning for and responses to special operations campaigns.

A very interesting—and timely—panel, "Special Operations and Russia," was devoted to the situation in Ukraine and Russian unconventional warfare. Major Antonius Selhorst, Netherlands Army, presented his research on the evolution of Russia's "new generation" warfare, based on his analysis of Russia's post-Soviet conflicts with Moldova, Estonia, Georgia, and now Ukraine. MAJ Selhorst persuasively argued that this new model of warfare has evolved slowly over the past two decades, and that lessons learned in the earlier conflicts influenced significant modifications to it. These modifications are now appearing in the Ukraine conflict.

The panel that generated perhaps the most discussion and calls for further research was titled "Developing a Theory of SOF." Participants on this panel debated the benefits and disadvantages of such a theory. Some participants, notably Dr. James Kiras of the US Air Force School of Advanced Air and Space Studies, argued very persuasively that no special theory of SOF or special operations is needed, and that the field of special operations research can continue—indeed, might more fruitfully develop—without a set theory for guidance. As Dr. Kiras pointed out, in the spirit of physicist and philosopher Thomas Kuhn, paradigms do as much to constrain new research as they do to promote it.4 Colonel Jeff Goble of the Joint Special Operations University, however, argued equally persuasively that such a limiting structure is precisely what the nascent field of special operations research needs. Strategists thus far have failed to articulate any sort of coherent theory of what special operations are, leaving it to doctrine writers and those who designate military units to determine what is "special" and what is not. Members of the audience seemed to find value in both perspectives and agreed that this was an issue not likely to be settled anytime soon.

In addition to the panels, the symposium included two roundtables. The first was on "The Art and Design of the Special Operations Campaign." Chaired by Dr. Kiras, the roundtable included Lieutenant Colonel Mike Kenny, US Army; Dr. Christopher Marsh; Patricia Blocksome; and keynote speaker Linda Robinson. Before a packed auditorium, this group debated the value and utility of SOF-specific campaign planning as opposed to planning all campaigns the same way, whether special operations–focused or not. The presenters generally agreed that the art and design of the special operations campaign require a different conceptual model from those used for conventional campaigns, but whether this conceptual model actually required different planning tools, campaign support plans, and campaign plans was an issue that the panel widely disagreed on. There was, however, an implicit agreement that special operations campaigns can no longer be looked at as merely supporting efforts for conventional campaigns or phase zero "shaping operations." This roundtable was notable for its broad audience participation, with valuable input coming from all those present, ranging from academic specialists to special operators with decades of experience. Again, this was an issue that the audience agreed would not be settled anytime soon, but the opportunity to share ideas and debate the topic's merit was of great value in and of itself.

The second roundtable centered on the issue of the use of intelligence in special operations. The debate here included important concerns such as the different responsibilities and duties of the various intelligence agencies. For instance, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is charged with providing strategic intelligence for the US president and other policy makers. The requirement to accomplish this sometimes conflicts with the tactical or operational intelligence required by special operations teams. The major issue that seemed to come out of the discussion was the need for a proper understanding of the differences between the tasks assigned to the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and those assigned to the CIA. The roundtable resulted in a very robust discussion among panelists and audience members, who ranged from CIA and DIA senior officers to special operators with experience (often frustrating experience) working with these and other agencies in the intelligence community.

Following the symposium, attendees were encouraged to fill out a survey of their experience. Respondents reported attending this conference for a number of reasons: to pursue research interests in the area of special operations studies, to receive feedback on their research, to engage with the research community, to learn more about SOF, to learn more about and interact with SORA, and for professional development. All respondents said that the conference had fulfilled their reasons for attending.

When asked what they saw as the best part of attending the SORA symposium, a majority of respondents listed the roundtables, which encouraged open discussion between subject matter experts and conference attendees. Several noted that it is not often that a senior noncommissioned officer or junior field grade officer has the chance to engage in a theoretical discussion with such established subject matter experts as were present at the meeting. Additionally, some of the attendees who came from a more purely academic environment, and thus had less interaction with the special operations community, found it equally valuable to engage with present and past special operators on their topics of research. Other highlights of the symposium included informal conversations, networking, and engagement opportunities. Several respondents noted that the community-building that went on at the symposium was invaluable, and they urged that more time be dedicated to this aspect at future symposia. The broad variety of panels and topics presented at the conference also garnered favorable remarks.

Based on the responses from the survey, as well as those from conversations with symposium attendees, the conference organizers were able to develop a working list of topics for future gatherings. These topics encompass the span of special operations research, ranging from the historical, to the tactical, to contemporary issues of global concern: SOF theory; SOF as an element of foreign policy; special operations history, including multinational perspectives on SOF strategy, doctrine, and force development; coordinating special operations and enabling activities across joint, interagency, intergovernmental, and multinational organizations; and contemporary challenges in the deployment of SOF. Planning for the 2015 SORA Symposium is already underway. The meeting will tentatively be hosted in the fall at Hurlburt Field, Florida, home of the US Air Force Special Operations Command.

About the Author(s):

Patricia Blocksome is the assistant vice president for research of the Special Operations Research Association (SORA).

Dr. Christopher Marsh is the president of SORA.

Dr. Robert Tomlinson is the vice president of SORA.

This is a work of the US federal government and not subject to copyright protection in the United States. Foreign copyrights may apply.

  1. More information on the Special Operations Journal can be found at 
  2. Linda Robinson is author of One Hundred Victories: Special Ops and the Future of American Warfare (New York: Public Affairs, 2013). 
  3. Dan Madden et al., Special Warfare: The Missing Middle in US Coercive Options, RR-828-A (Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND, 2014): 
  4. Kuhn described a new concept of scientific discovery based on cycles of stability and revolutionary revision that forever changed the field of scientific philosophy. See Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962). 
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