Systems of Systems Thinking and Hybrid Warfare: A SOF Approach

By William Mitchell

The global security upheaval at the turn of the century pushed complexity to the forefront of military operations, and consequently, the supporting military functions are coming to grips with modern unconventional warfare, popularly referred to as ‘hybrid’ warfare. From a SOF perspective, it is not a changed world where one static situation is now replaced by a new static situation that we must prepare for, but rather the dynamic of change itself. By 2008, more out of necessity than foresight, system of systems and effects based thinking formed the theoretical basis for SOF intelligence and planning cycles that generated inputs into operational planning and targeting. In a sense, SOF began practicing a design approach without design theory considerations, confirming once again that ‘necessity’ has little respect for conventions when working from the bottom-up.

From 2008 onwards, SOF began directly embracing a system of systems thinking, netwars understanding, inter-agency collaboration, and other attack the network principles, in order to meet, among other things, the complexities of hybrid warfare.

The Traditional Military Use of SOF

SOF has a long military history, where specially trained commandos were used extensively in military campaigns as force multipliers as well as strategic tools for covert and unconventional operations. SOF itself is in a period of development, expanding its capability to plan and execute a wider variety of operations in a wider variety of military and civilian operational environments. Of course the traditional SOF legacy of being able to provide a unique supporting line of operation (LoO) to major operations or campaigns will continue, direct action (DA), military assistance (MA), special reconnaissance (SR), and unconventional warfare (UW) in support of major operations, is how the SOF legacy began and it will remain a major part of SOFs operational spectrum.

Non –Traditional SOF Operations in the Age of Design

However, over the last 20 years a second distinct spectrum of SOF operational environments has emerged that do not necessarily involve the integration of SOF into traditional military organizations or campaigns. Trends towards globalization, urban society, population shift to the littoral regions (major water ways), and technological leapfrogging – results in interconnected people, better awareness, and instant reaction to global events. Global order is currently challenged by social upheavals due to new technologies and demographic changes. In chaos and instability, there are grand opportunities for some to seize initiative, shift power, advance causes, organize trans-national criminal activity, and generate insecurity.

Hybrid warfare in its purest sense is the integration, exploitation, and leveraging of diverse networks, to accomplish strategic goals. A hybrid campaign is ‘design’ generated and executed, as it identifies, interprets, and manipulates systems of systems across a plethora of domains.

There have been many studies conducted on future operational environments including a plethora of US intelligence and military authorities10, NATO, and several other Allied national studies. The main conclusions were:

  • Future operational environments will see a refinement of state hybrid and UW stratagems. Hybrid warfare will become more refined and widespread.
  • Future operational environments will see an intensification of warfare conducted through surrogate or proxy forces.
  • SOF can expect a higher operational tempo in vastly diverse operational environments, at the same time.

To deal with this, primarily out of necessity, SOF adopted a Systems of Systems Analysis (SOSA) and network analysis as a method for managing the complexities of hybrid operational environments in the 21st Century, and it is in this way that SOF, in effect, has already ‘operationalized’ design in their métier.

Keep it Simple – A SOF Way

Against the backdrop of a design driven operational environment, the once dominate linear power and territorial realist understandings of winning or losing conflict now merge with philosophically heavy conventional constructivist understandings; such as managing inter-subjectivity, where planners estimate the impact of actions/non-actions in the physical domain,  on the cognitive domain, and vice-versa.

The ‘keep it simple’ SOF design solution, apply a design friendly system of systems framework to every operational environment, identify the networks believed needed to execute the mission, and apply SOF effects to these networks.

The system of systems approach that has emerged as most popular in the joint planning environment is known as PMESII, referring to the Political, Military Economic, Social, Information, Infrastructure domains of an operational environment.  It is an analytical approach derived from a system of systems world view that is currently applied across the wide spectrum of SOF operations, at all echelons and planning levels. It essentially provides the basis for developing a network understanding of the operational environment.

PMESII sets an easily communicable standard for the breakdown of all operational environments into 6 interacting systems of human behavior; even more interesting is that it is actually the relationships between these domains that become the focus for design driven planning. PMESII can be used to guide initial knowledge development for an operational environment whether it is a complete theatre for a campaign, or a local area of responsibility for CONOP development.

Hybrid warfare in itself is a product of a system of systems driven design, as it consists of the leveraging of inter-subjective and mutually supporting networks (the ’hybrid’ dynamic) for strategic purpose. Therefore it can come as no surprise that when the initial smoke of system of systems thinking and netwars is cleared, SOF will already find itself to be an active practitioner of design in operational planning, and by consequence an essential capability for conducting ‘hybrid’ warfare. Without a doubt, the continuing efforts of SOF to be successful in whatever operational environment is thrown at them, their system of systems understanding will increase their design skills. Ultimately, I am confident it will allow the next generation of SOF planning professionals to be sufficiently agile in thought and purpose, as to become true ‘Masters of Mayhem,’ capable of mastering the dynamic of change itself, come what may.

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