Redefining the Indirect Approach, Defining Special Operations Forces (SOF) Power, and the Global Networking of SOF

By Morrison, Scott | Prism : a Journal of the Center for Complex Operations, September 2013 | Go to article overview

Redefining the Indirect Approach, Defining Special Operations Forces (SOF) Power, and the Global Networking of SOF


Morrison, Scott, Prism : a Journal of the Center for Complex Operations


Most military professionals and historians are familiar with the theories and concepts of air, maritime, and land power, but there has been little in the way of theory or concept as to what Special Operations power means and its strategic utility alongside those of the air, maritime, and land domains. Yet Special Operations Forces (SOF) must play a central role in several of the primary missions of the U.S. Armed Forces as projected in the Defense Strategy entitled Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense, such as countering terrorism, irregular warfare, and countering weapons of mass destruction. The importance of Special Operations to this new strategy was underscored in the accompanying remarks made by former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta during the January 5,2012, unveiling of the new defense strategy where he mentioned specifically, "as we reduce the overall defense budget, we will protect, and in some cases increase, our investments in special operations forces." Therefore, understanding the role of SOF power and how it fits within strategy is an essential prerequisite to successfully implementing the U.S. Defense Strategy.

Recalibrating the Current S OF Interpretation of the Direct and Indirect Approaches

Within the U.S. Special Operations community there has been a considerable amount of theoretical discussion, attempting to more clearly characterize the "indirect approach" as it relates to the "direct approach" in a Special Operations context. The familiar understanding in U.S. SOF circles generally associates the direct approach with direct action (DA), and the indirect approach with foreign internal defense (FID) or security force assistance (SFA). In some quarters current interpretations of these two approaches represent what is nearly a cultural schism within Special Operations due to the very different focus and skill sets associated with them. In order to understand SOF power, one first needs a recalibrated view of the direct and indirect approach frames of reference from a broader strategic vantage point.

An informative start point for exploring these topics to better define and understand the strategic utility and value of SOF power is to revert back to first principles and reconsider the roots and origins of the indirect approach. Former British soldier, historian, and military theorist Sir Basil Henry Liddell Hart is historically credited with defining the indirect approach in his work, the "Strategy of Indirect Approach," where he asserted: "...throughout the ages decisive results in war have only been reached when the approach has been indirect. In strategy the longest way round is apt to be the shortest way home."1 This indirect approach of Hart focused on targeting the balance or equilibrium of an adversary noting, "while the strength of an enemy country lies outwardly in its numbers and resources, these are fundamentally dependent upon stability or equilibrium of control, morale, and supply."2 The central premise of the indirect approach is to orient upon, target, and upset an adversary's equilibrium or balance to set up and enable follow-on decisive blows to be landed. Hart goes on to explain with an athletic metaphor that a direct approach without the preparatory shaping of an indirect lead is often a blunt and raw methodology that typically results in an adverse outcome; "In war as in wrestling the attempt to throw the opponent without loosening his foothold and balance can only result in self-exhaustion increasing in disproportionate ration to the effective strain put upon him. Victory by such a method can only be possible through an immense margin of superior strength in some form, and, even so, tends to lose decisiveness."3 From his historical analysis of the indirect approach vice the direct approach, Hart became convinced that, "More and more clearly the fact emerged that a direct approach to one's mental object, or physical objective, along the 'line of natural expectation' for the opponent, has ever tended to, and usually produced negative results. …

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