Enhancing US Army SOF Transitions During Unconventional Warfare
By Leonard Casiple, PSYOP/SF, Gary Harrington, USMC/SF/CIA and Benjamin Gilad, PhD


The three tribes of US Army Special Operations (Special Forces, Civil Affairs, and Psychological Operations) operate in ambiguous environments that escape the predictability of a fixed architecture. Although few in numbers, “advantages [,] … are not a numerical superiority, but include intangible factors such as morale, security, speed, surprise, and level of training” (Special Forces Detachment Mission Planning Guide, 2020). “As masters of Irregular Warfare … our role in competition will be crucial to set the conditions for success” (1st Special Forces Command – Airborne, 2021, italics added).

Viewing UW as competition rather than war changes the concept of “winning.” Placing competition as a central issue, SOF competes for the minds of the civilian population against a myriad of forces, including pro-government and anti-government groups (guerrilla, terrorist, militias, etc). 

This view is radically different than a conventional perspective on low-intensity conflict via military lens only. It will force SOF to think “outside the box”. Being unconventional requires first and foremost thinking unconventionally.

The UW Competitive Space

By nature, unconventional warfare and low-intensity conflict scenarios are segmented as the “gray zone [, ]… characterized by intense political, economic, informational, and military competition” (Votel, et al., 2016). Categorically, the intersection of opaque conditions within the “gray zones” of the continuum of conflict calls for the unique capabilities of SOF elements. The triad becomes the key component that brings clarity to foreign internal defense and transition operations, preventing civil wars that Thomas Hobbes defined as “the greatest threat to governments, for it represents the dissolution of ‘sovereign power’” (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2020).

While the 1st Special Forces Command – Airborne, 2021’s vision states that “To expand our competitive advantage, we must embrace revolutionary changed need to compete, deter and win against the near-peer adversaries in an increasingly complex environment,” viewing UW as competition first and foremost suggests adversaries need not be peer-level at all. To again look at the business world’s use of competitive strategies, disruptions are most often not from near-peers.

Existing dogma: US National Policy and USMIL Directives for Transitions

Source: FM 3-57, Civil Affairs Operations

During critical periods of transition, the “National Security Presidential Directive (NSPD) 44– Management of Interagency Efforts Concerning Reconstruction and Stabilization [,] …the Secretary of State is the designated lead of U.S. Government (USG) efforts to prepare, plan for, and conduct SSTR activities” (Department of Defense, 2006). “Army forces provide sustainment and security for civilian organizations [,] …Departments of State, Justice, Transportation, and Agriculture” (ADP 3-0 Operations, 2019). Upon approval, “military commanders are responsible for integrating civil affairs into military operations, programs, and activities” (Department of Defense Directive, Civil Affairs, 2017).

As a rule, “the actions of the military alone are insufficient to achieve success in SSTR operations” (Department of Defense, 2006). Transitions from major combat operations require a balance between short-term, transactional security measures and long-term, relational political continuity that “enable civil authority” (Department of Defense, 2006).

Unlike “armed conflict” against a known enemy where tactical objectives are clearly defined, SOF that “provide (capabilities) for the initial establishment of a military government pending transfer [,]…to other authority” (DOD Directive 5100.01, 2020) must navigate the competing requirements of US Agencies and Departments, local resources and capabilities, and the effects of external forces that influence transitions from beyond the host country’s borders. When competing for peace during transitions “several factors impact each AO, such as competing global and regional influences; urbanization; failed, failing, or recovering governance apparatus; non-state actors; and other state actors; degraded economic conditions; pandemics; and other health crises” (FM 3-47, Civil Affairs Operations, 2021).

Well Planned Transitions Reduce Friction

While the current dogma uses the term competing and competition in several places, military organizations do not often understand competition (unlike armed conflict.) The transfer of authority from combat units to public administrators creates interpersonal and inter-organizational friction. If not managed correctly, transitions risk failure. Even at the unit level, the best laid operational plans quickly fall apart during haphazard transitions, hand-offs, and relief-in-place operations. Missteps can lead to a temporary loss of confidence and disruption of interpersonal communications.

Woodrow Wilson in “The Study of Administration” said “We can never learn either on our own weaknesses or our own virtues by comparing ourselves with ourselves” (Shafritz & Hyde, 2017, p. 46). The same philosophy exists in business strategy, where planning must take place across functional areas to overcome silos’ risk creating implementation failure. To overcome “fractured” planning, major corporations started adopting business wargaming following the publication of the book Business War games (2003). Just like corporate silos, when the three SOF tribes wargame independently, the siloed learning (and planning) can reduce effective implementation.

In 1st Special Forces Command – Airborne’s vision, proposed innovation, including concepts applicable to Unconventional Warfare transitions, “enables Convergence, Force Development, and CONUS-Based Operational Support [,] …to be the First to Observe, First to Influence, and first to Compete in 2021 and beyond” (1st Special Forces Command – Airborne, 2021). This paper suggests adopting wargaming methodology of competitive spaces from the business world as one such innovation.

How UW Wargaming Is Done Today

The environmental complexities could be better addressed at the lowest-level, skill-specific tactical planning guidance found in the Special Forces Detachment Mission Planning Guide (GTA 31-01-003), the Civil Affairs Planning and Execution Guide (GTA 41-01-001), and the Psychological Operations Leaders Planning Guide (GTA 33-01-001).

Used individually, the guides serve the specialized purpose of each tribe. However, if molded together – and enhanced with business wargaming methodology- the synergies would minimize blindspots. Following a collaborative war game, the information collected at ground level is less likely to be delayed due to the need to coordinate, approve, and deploy resources. As documented by past experience, “rapid technological and organizational advancements that changed the character of warfare also created ambiguous conditions where military, political, informational, and economic realms overlap and where all domains can be contested simultaneously” (1st Special Forces Command – Airborne, 2021).

Where to Start- Three Tribe Wargaming

Changing focus. Step 1- Using Porter’s Five Force model

In 1979, Michael Porter modeled competition as the interaction (often adversarial) of five forces, namely: 1) The Rivalry inside the competitive space, 2) Threat from  New Entrants, 3) Threat of Substitute Products or Services, 4) Bargaining Power of Suppliers, and 5) the Bargaining Power of Customers. These five forces compete for the “profit pool” of the industry, where each force attempts to “grab” a bigger share.

Porter’s model is aimed at explaining the differential profitability of industries due to competitive (broadly defined) pressures. For example, the high profitability of the Pharmaceutical industry vs the low profitability of airlines. Individual companies’ “goal is to find a position in the industry where his or her company can best defend itself against these forces or can influence them in its favor” (Porter, 1979). Furthermore, in industry, “competition is not manifested only in the other players [,] … competition in an industry is rooted in its underlying economics, and competitive forces exist that go well beyond the established combatants in a particular industry” (Porter, 1979).

In UW, the goal is not profitability, and therefore competition is for a different goal. One way to look at the competition (though not the sole perspective) is as competing for peace (however defined). Then the 3 Tribes collectively shape USMIL actions and influence competitor trajectory to win the transition game towards peace. Adding the Five Forces component to team, staff, and echelon level wargaming should support US strategic goals.

Furthermore, Michael Porter stipulates that the “essence of strategy formulation is coping with competition [,] … yet [,] … view competition too narrowly or too pessimistically” (Porter, 1979). In some cases, after a successive string of victories that set the conditions for the transition from armed conflict to stabilization, USMIL can view the capabilities of the competition too lightly. A wargame focusing on understanding the competition broadly defined can help avoid some of these mishaps.

How to Win the Transition Rivalry?  Step 2 – Collaborative wargaming

In UW, the fight for a stable footprint (competing for peace) manifests not only in observable enemy actions, but also in the hidden external factors such as foreign financing of insurgents, underground political influence beyond borders, and a lack of recognizability of veiled, new “transition combatants.” Since the three SOF elements frequently work together, a collaborative war game based on viewing competitive forces holistically could uncover strategies countering threats to peace.

When to Implement? Step 3 – Pre-Test, Deliberate Planning Phase of MDMP

Phase 1:

Pre-Test, Fictional Wargaming (Training), Not During MDMP, No Time Constraints

To refine the concept, SOF could conduct a pre-test to confirm the effectiveness of a collaborative, tripartite (CA-PSYOP-SF Tribes, or DoS-USMIL-SOF Tribes) wargaming concept into a fictional scenario without mission time constraints.

Phase 2:

 Pre-Test, Wargaming (Training), During MDMP, Under Time Constraints

Once the format has been refined, SOF advances the project while observing the scaled benefits of SOF organizational agility, operator flexibility, and a more comprehensive awareness of the “gray battlefield.”

Phase 3:

UW Application (Real World), During MDMP, Under Time Constraints

The innovative and collaborative approach to UW wargaming would make information gathering and mission planning more efficient. This scalable mechanism can quickly consolidate SF, CA, and PSYOP information that will result in a more effective USMIL, USDoS, and US NGO positioning within the competitive “UW Rivalry” space.


            SOF professionals are “masters of the indigenous approach, and leaders who are uniquely educated and trained as regional and cultural experts to successfully operate in complex, austere, and politically sensitive environments” (1st Special Forces Command – Airborne, 2021). Borrowing a competitive model from some of the world’s most advanced global corporations working across various cultures, customs, stakeholders and political conditions can enhance the “special” in Special Forces. A war game simulates rivalry for the populace’s hearts and minds (the “buyers”) as a competition between the SF and other armed groups, affected by suppliers (e.g., foreign governments), substitutes (NGOs), new entrants (new insurgencies) and buyers’ preferences (local officials and the civilians). As practiced in corporations, it is an agile, human-based (no need for computers or big consulting firms), low-cost exercise that separates Special Forces from Big Army’s conventional thinking. With tripartite wargaming, SOF will harness synergies not available individually and stand to unveil competitive blind spots in all domains.


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