Monday, January 30, 2012

How the Navy SEALs Fight Smarter, Not Harder


Many Think Disruptively.  The following is the first in an ongoing series featuring guest bloggers with personal perspectives on things upending the status quo.  

This essay was written by someone who works closely with military special forces. John Boyd had it right when he said "Men, not machines, win wars.  And they use their minds."  The SEALs do this better than anybody.  Enjoy.

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If you are Jessica Buchanan or her family, it has been one damn good week. And for the public face of the US Navy SEALs, another significant, well-executed operation is added to a string of impressive successes. 

The Face of Innovation
The capabilities and combat precision of the SEALs is increasingly on display in print media, books, and soon, a major motion picture.  For the men within the SEAL community, however, this publicity is antithetical to their culture.  The mantra of “quiet professionalism” serves as a guiding principle from day one in the quest to become one of the world’s most elite warriors. 

That said, it bears looking into what is behind these triumphs.  Without a doubt, the special operations world is comprised of the most capable, intelligent warriors in contemporary history.  But why over the past decade have the SEALs experienced such noteworthy accomplishments, even when compared with other services Special Operations forces?

This question is especially important since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been primarily land-based, and as of late, often fought in the mountains. While SEAL stands for SEa, Air, and Land, these operators are traditionally associated with maritime engagements.  So how does a seagoing force gain such pronounced land-based prominence?

To those who know these units and their impressive sub-cultures, the most significant aspect to the SEAL community is their unique culture of innovation.  Indeed, SEALs model many of the themes that dominate modern theories of innovation:
  • Lean: Even compared with other special operations forces, SEAL units maintain a small number of operators.
  • De-centralized: While the military hierarchy remains the central tenant of running any SEAL unit, there is an implicit element of autonomy expected of all special operators.
  • Agile: Even SEAL Teams have bureaucratic elements required to exist within the national security establishment. Yet the small, lean, and decentralized nature of the SEALs enable an ability to adapt and reposition themselves seamlessly as conflicts evolve.
These elements exist throughout all branches of special operations forces, but the aggressive training and constant desire for improvement speak loudest from Naval Special Warfare. 

A much more exclusive ingredient in the DNA of SEALs is that innovation and creativity are carefully ingrained in these men throughout their careers. It’s an axiom clearly articulated in the US Navy SEAL Ethos. And while the Ethos is worth the read for every American, here are three particularly insightful paragraphs:

We expect to lead and be led. In the absence of orders I will take charge, lead my teammates and accomplish the mission. I lead by example in all situations.

I will never quit. I persevere and thrive on adversity. My Nation expects me to be physically harder and mentally stronger than my enemies. If knocked down, I will get back up, every time.  I will draw on every remaining ounce of strength to protect my teammates and to accomplish our mission. I am never out of the fight.

We demand discipline. We expect innovation. The lives of my teammates and the success of our mission depend on me - my technical skill, tactical proficiency, and attention to detail. My training is never complete.

The Only Easy Day Was Yesterday
For those who have served in the military or know its strict hierarchy, these statements are profound. Although they have been part of other units' success, they are the bedrock of SEAL operations. Every man, not just officers, is expected to be able to lead if necessary. Moreover, in understanding that failure is not an option—as learned through the rigors of 18 months of SEAL training—innovation is expected.

The above lifestyle, only shared among those men who live and work in “the brotherhood,” when combined with the organizational structure of the SEAL Teams, makes for an astoundingly innovative culture. Men are expected to be thoughtful and have the self-discipline to seek constant improvement.  Most importantly, they endeavor to harness those assets for new and better approaches to warfare.

SEAL operators are constantly questioning, constantly brainstorming, and always looking for ‘a better way.’

A SEAL acquaintance recently shared a telling anecdote. During a cold-weather training mission, his unit had inserted onto a beach through arctic waters. As they began ascending a nearby mountain, the snow conditions changed so dramatically that it made their intended route virtually impassable without snowshoes. As the unit stopped to work through their options, one man cut down pine branches, used some excess rope (550 cord), and built a pair of workable snowshoes.

This sparked an idea in a teammate, who built off this thought by using his swim fins.  Once required for the water insertion, they now served as a foundation for impromptu snowshoes. The makeshift device worked, and within 20 minutes, the entire unit was moving up the mountain using their swim fins as improvised snowshoes.

It Pays to be a Winner
Since the beginning of the conflict in Afghanistan, the SEAL Teams have mastered this adaptive capability. The wealth of knowledge that returns from battlefield ‘lessons learned’ is applied to new training methods, tactical specialization, and force structure. Again, every unit in the American military does this in some form, but the SEAL’s competitive advantage is that they can do it so quickly and effectively.

This trend and its surgical effectiveness are being noticed by US policymakers. As the Pentagon painfully works to eliminate $500 billion from its budget over the next 10 years, hard choices have to be made.  However, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced this week that while many major defense programs would either be trimmed or completely eliminated, US special operations forces will continue to see increased funding. 

This past week’s rescue again proves that the United States remains a nation committed to, and capable of, protecting its citizens in even the most unseemly of places. Yet behind the scenes, the more subtle lesson is the importance and value of a culture steeped in innovation. 

Warfare, and world history, has always been shaped by those who best understand how to exploit and create new innovations.  The SEALs success is a direct result of this, and by inherently embracing it, will continue to lead the way for others to emulate.

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