Special Operations Forces: A Global Immune System?
The use of special operations forces (SOF) in war fighting and peace keeping efforts has increased dramatically in recent decades. A scientific understanding of the reason for this increase would provide guidance as to the contexts in which SOF can be used to their best effect, and when conventional forces are better suited. Ashby’s law of requisite variety provides a scientific framework for understanding and analyzing a system’s ability to survive and prosper in the face of environmental challenges. We have developed a generalization of this law to extend the analysis to systems that must respond to disturbances at multiple scales. This analysis identifies a necessary tradeoff between scale and complexity in a multiscale control system. As with Ashby’s law, the framework applies to the characterization of successful biological and social systems in the context of complex environmental challenges. Here we apply this multiscale framework to provide a control theoretic understanding of the historical and increasing need for SOF, as well as conventional military forces. We propose that the essential role distinction is in the separation between high complexity fine scale challenges as opposed to large scale challenges. This leads to a correspondence between the role SOF can best serve and that of the immune system in complex organisms—namely, the ability to respond to fine-grained, high-complexity disruptors and preserve tissue health. Much like a multicellular organism, human civilization is composed of a set of distinct and heterogeneous social tissues, each with its own distinct characteristics and functional relationships with other tissues. Responding to disruption and restoring health in a system with highly diverse local social conditions requires an ability to distinguish healthy tissue from disruptors and to neutralize disruptive forces with minimal collateral damage, an essentially complex task. Damage to social tissue, either through the growth of malignant forces or large-scale intervention by conventional forces, leads to cascading crises that spread beyond the initial location of disruption. To prevent such crises, the healthy functioning of social systems must be maintained by responding to disruptive forces while they remain small. SOF have the potential to mitigate against harm without disrupting normal social tissue behavior. Three conditions for SOF to fulfill such a role are identified: (1) distinctive capabilities of special operators that enable unmediated interaction with local cultures and peoples, (2) persistent presence and embeddedness to foster cultural attunement and mutual trust, and (3) local autonomy and decision-making of SOF to achieve requisite variety for sensing and acting on fine-grained disturbances. We point out the inapplicability of traditional hierarchical control structures for high-complexity local tasks, which require a decentralized control architecture. This analysis suggests how SOF might be leveraged to support global stability and mitigate against cascading crises.
We thank Charles Flournoy and Philip Kapusta for helpful comments and discussion.
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