How to build more resilient and innovative US special operations teams

U.S. special operations forces are at a breaking point. Here's how to fix them.
FILE PHOTO: A special operations sailor conducts military dive operations off the East Coast of the United States. (U.S. Navy photo by Senior Chief Mass Communication Specialist Jayme Pastoric/Released)

Editor’s Note: This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the authors.

The military is looking for the wrong solutions to support the force. Building resilient, ready, and innovative teams require leaders to release pressure on the force, not treat the fallout from it. This process starts in garrison, and it demands bold leadership. To support people, each leadership team in U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) must take a proactive whole-of-person approach. This requires culture change beyond current approaches, one that needs to focus on redefining mission objectives to better support personnel and reducing unnecessary requirements.

The services broadly, and SOCOM specifically, tend to view pressure on the force as caused by external and environmental factors — like high operational tempo, deployment stressors, and injuries — and subsequently take siloed and reactive approaches to fix the fallout. That fallout manifests itself in suicide, substance abuse, sexual harassment and assault, and loss of talent. Currently implemented solutions show the services view high operational tempo, deployment stressors, and family tensions as the causal factors for these grim outcomes. 

While these are stressors rightly being addressed, this is a myopic approach. Efforts to offer emergency health services are laudable and necessary, but they treat symptoms of the problem, and are typically utilized only after the crisis occurs. Reactive solutions focused on factors external to the force cannot treat internal and systemic problems. Getting this wrong has serious implications for people and readiness. 

To be fair, SOCOM is working hard to improve dwell times and has invested millions in treating the numerous issues facing warfighters. While necessary, it is insufficient. The approach misses the underlying problem: internal and in-garrison pressure. While investing in external solutions, it also increased in-garrison workload and tempo with things like inspections, meetings, requirements, taskers, and training. Such taskings had little to do directly with mission or people and became just more work for people to accomplish. Substantial research shows working longer hours is detrimental to occupational health, mental health, and raises the risk for chronic health conditions. Subsequently, rather than reducing pressure on the force while in garrison, the effect has been to keep it high, leaving people in the strange position of wanting to deploy to get away from the home-station chaos. 

Instead of implementing external solutions that treat symptoms in a crisis, SOCOM must look internally and ask the hard question: is it the problem? There must be a reprioritization of what matters and why. SOCOM must treat more than the aftermath of stress; pressures on the force must be reduced. Releasing pressure demands creating whitespace for people. Simply defined, whitespace is the critical and flexible resource of time given to people to use as they see fit. At its core, whitespace gives people control so they can create value. 

Theory of the case

The indications and warnings have been around for some time. SOCOM’s January 2020 Comprehensive Review noted an internal Preservation of the Force and Family (POTFF) report dating from 2011 “illuminated significant issues and cascading effects associated with ‘mission accomplishment’ culture, a lack of predictability, and the ‘cumulative effect on the force.’” The study called attention to a highly competitive culture unable to say “no,” and recommended “major paradigm shifts in the holistic organizational culture and behavior of the force.” In recognition of the multi-faceted pressures placed on SOF following the 2011 report, SOCOM launched a POTFF task force to enable and reduce stigma for seeking care. SOCOM has spent millions adding behavioral and physical health contractors to POTFF, a multi-pronged initiative with the pillars of mind, body, family, and spirit. Similarly, each of the services has launched and resourced its own suicide prevention initiatives. None of these efforts have moved the needle on resilience, talent management, or suicide rates in a meaningful way. 

That is not to say POTFF and related programs are not valuable or should not be maintained. The reality is that SOCOM and subordinate commands have not truly given people the time to avail themselves of the opportunities or sought to alleviate in garrison pressures that cause issues in the first place. The pressure created from a culture of overtasking does a disservice to both mission and support. Working longer hours does not mean people get more done, just that they are overworked. Amid the multitude of other requirements and high tempo while in garrison, POTFF becomes reactionary and another bureaucratic requirement to check-off. Whitespace tends to be found for these issues only in an emergency.

Not much has changed in culture and priorities since the 2011 POTFF report. The 2020 Comprehensive Review reviewed outcomes of the study noting selective implementation of recommendations led to temporary and shallow solutions while larger issues “did not receive sustained understanding, attention, or advocacy at the appropriate level.” A 2015 Joint Special Operations University research topic recognized the need to regulate in garrison tempo, asking, “When SOF are not deployed, they often must operate at extremely high tempos at their home units. How does this reality affect the wellbeing of the force and families?” This question started to get after the core issue of pressure on the force but is five years out of date. In other words, the needle did not move.

The military spends more energy caring for hardware than for humans. Each service maintains some variation on an annual physical health assessment and physical fitness test. Although some other services are available, they are not well developed and most people lack the time. There are no routinely prioritized mental, behavioral, or psychological exams or checkups until after a crisis has occurred. By comparison, Air Force aircraft receive countless touch points with trained professionals: preventative maintenance as well as depot, isochronal (ISO), paint, wash, and inspection. All that care is mandatory, tracked, analyzed, and utilized throughout an aircraft’s lifespan. No such methodology exists for humans – SOCOM’s most important asset. As filmmaker Ken Burns noted about former Secretary of Defense Robret McNamara’s Vietnam War strategy, “When you can’t measure the things that are important, you make the things you measure important.” 

Changing whitespace

Comprehensive solutions demand culture change and a shift in mindset. Research shows that working longer hours makes for more stressed and less resilient individuals rather than more work completed. This holds for additive training, physical fitness, and taskers in the force, which despite being discrete, still puts pressure on individuals. The military does not offer opportunities to take time away from service — broadening assignments are the closest equivalent and are not available to all individuals or on the right timeline. Taking time off, or even a sabbatical, can be crucial for personnel retention. Furthermore, getting the balance right is critical for SOF’s success: overtasking makes leading, decision-making, team-building, and interpersonal communication harder. Although the military in many ways is fundamentally different from the private sector, SOCOM is uniquely positioned to adopt best practices that could reduce pressure on individuals, improve health and wellbeing, and drive retention. 

The fear with whitespace centers around the loss of control and a belief that units will become unproductive and lack mission focus. The opposite is true: people and teams can be more productive by utilizing time in a manner they see as useful and rewarding (e.g., working out, visiting a health professional, tending to a family matter, improving the unit, reading a book, talking tactics, completing professional military education, among others). These whitespace activities are more productive and teambuilding than many of their other mandated tasks and creates a healthy environment. Whitespace can help alleviate the compounding nature of work-stress perpetuating home-stress cycle – allowing people to better manage and perform in both. This healthy environment develops healthy people, and healthy people are resilient and ready to fight.

There have been some attempted readjustments. For example, in recent years the Army started reviewing mandatory training to free up time and resources. In 2018, then-Army Secretary, Mark Esper said the goal was “to empower commanders to make decisions that are best for their units.” More recently, novel coronavirus (COVID-19)-related restrictions illustrated the unsustainable pace of Combat Training Center rotations; Chief of Staff of the Army James McConville said, “The intent is to give more time back to our sergeants at the lower level so they have chances to build cohesive teams.” Enabling whitespace through such guidance will result in a meaningful return on investment for teams and the broader force.

On the team level, SOCOM can build whitespace by releasing tasks and meetings as well as adjusting timelines for completion. This is antithetical to most SOF training and experience, requiring leadership to be fully behind the practice and process. Some things may not get done on the timeline teams are used to, and some things may not get done at all, but the result is to reinforce priorities. Teams can then focus on the mission and improve the unit, while also recognizing developing people and their families are a priority. It also allows people to spend time on things important to them. These simple concepts yet difficult cultural shifts would build resilient, ready, and innovative SOF teams. 

The COVID-19 pandemic accidentally proved the value of whitespace. On bases across the country (and world) most functions came to a halt except for critical operations and training, even within SOCOM. Leadership teams developed similar directives… people with critical missions could come to work and perform those tasks, otherwise they stayed home. This exposed a hard truth; most of those previously thought of “mission essential” tasks and meetings were not really mission essential at all. Except for the few critical shops, between March and June of 2020, things got quiet. Taskers dried up and meetings drew down. As the pandemic continued, commanders worried about morale and resilience of the force. 

While COVID-related stressors were real and serious, many commanders were surprised to learn that while living and working during a pandemic was difficult and stressful, morale was good. People were happier to be released from in-garrison pressure. People were able to focus on their priority mission as well as have time and energy for their families and personal and professional development. COVID forced whitespace and led to hyper-focused prioritization. In fact, the release of pressure and additional time on their calendars increased innovative ideas and also allowed them to go to health professionals previously out of reach due to time constraints. While it would have been better to do this without a pandemic, it is forcing a reexamination of which trainings, tasks, and meetings are essential for readiness and which ones can be removed. 

The fix

Taking a more whole-of-person approach to building more resilient service members and teams requires SOCOM to be truly holistic in its approach. Rather than launching additional external programs, increasing taskers, meetings, and training that do not improve the mission or the people, it is the attitude and culture towards people that must change — at all levels. 

  • Stay off the grass. Increase the amount of whitespace on people’s calendars and get out of their way. All work-related requirements are just that, work. Give people time to think, to innovate, to meet with health professionals, and spend time with their families. If people are really the competitive advantage and most valuable asset, treat them like it. This requires recalibrating the ideas about how SOF operates and what is considered “essential.” This takes more than unit leadership — it takes bold and trusting leadership at all levels. SOCOM should trust commanders to make tough choices about time, tasks, and people. For those able to generate whitespace, guard it ruthlessly. 
  • Cultivate people. To save SOF from themselves, SOCOM, its component commands, and the services, need to make mental and physical health mandatory missions. Ideas abound in this space, but broadly speaking, service members should receive entry exams on physical, mental, and psychological health and attributes. This will develop baselines from which to compare throughout their service, but also break-down the barriers to seeking care. Throughout a warfighter’s service in SOCOM, mental and psychological checkups should also be required and routine. This normalizes caring for the whole person while elevating the importance of such care. One model is SOCOM’s Human Performance Program, which aims to identify early physical wellness intervention and is mandatory for certain people. Initial results have been good, and this program should be expanded; however, these cultivation efforts run the risk of adding more rocks to a warfighter’s rucksack. SOCOM must prioritize activities such as POTFF and other similar resources over less important activities and do so through routine and long-term preventative maintenance. 
  • Incentivize the cultivation of people. SOF and commanders are evaluated from a bureaucratic rubric that forces prioritization of systems rather than the individual. Fixing this requires comprehensively implementing “people are our greatest asset” and “humans are more important than hardware” throughout evaluations, training, and force design. It will require a culture shift at all levels of leadership, and a comfort-level never before seen with qualitative metrics. Mandate, track, and utilize the health services as commands do effectively with hardware to move upstream on preventative care. Utilize climate surveys, peer reviews, and focus groups to shift career review processes and expand measures of what matters in leaders. Leadership validation must grade leaders on the care and development of their people, not just the mission. While the results will be less tangible than the metrics currently used, SOCOM and commanders must be comfortably uncomfortable with a more holistic approach. 
  • Ruthlessly prioritize. Cut or outsource that which does not directly tie to the mission or its people. If the bureaucracy is unable or unwilling to cut itself clear of its accepted tasks, then it needs to on-board more civilians or contractors in units to keep servicemembers free from those burdens so they can focus on their primary mission. Start with, “How much time have we saved the warfighter in their day?” The current National Defense Strategy offers room to focus on the future of SOF. Redefining and refocusing on core missions and functions is essential; SOCOM should leverage hiring authorities to create more efficient teams.

True leadership drives change

If there is little to no room for error caring for hardware, the same approach must be extended to people; if leaders want resilient, ready, and innovative teams, and ostensibly they do, they have to give people time and space to run. Leaders can still give top down priorities, and broad guidance, but need to get out of their own way, and create the right environment and culture. Current solutions are bureaucratic answers to human problems. Whatever initiatives are implemented to care for people, build resiliency, and foster innovation will fall flat if these issues are planted in unfertile ground. The military needs leaders who can think flexibly and not only have the courage but the support to argue for change even when unpopular. As Jason Lamb and Jeremy Buyer wrote on accelerating change, “More than anything, leaders are responsible for creating the conditions in which the team can succeed.” Change is not just about new technological solutions or better weapons, it must also be turned inward to support the backbone of the military, its people.

True adaptation is hard to foster within rigid existing structures, hence the addition of specific siloed programs, rather than an overall change in mentality. Nora Bensahel and David Barno have expressed concern that the military leadership is not adaptable enough to prevail in future conflict, arguing “excessive risk aversion, especially in garrison, [sic.] undermines the critical principle of mission command.” People should be trusted to strike the right balance and leaders should be trusted to create whitespace. Creating this environment will allow special operations forces to focus on core activities while supporting its values. 

Lt. Col. Kaveri Crum is a national defense fellow at the Center for a New American Security. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the position of the Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Emma Moore is a research associate at the Center for a New American Security and a non-resident fellow at the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Creativity at Marine Corps University.