In 1941, the U.S. was drawn into World War II, the most catastrophic conflict the world has ever known. The country realized the need for nontraditional military capabilities and in June 1942, established the clandestine Office of Strategic Services, which was charged with recruiting, assessing and selecting, training and deploying special operations personnel to prosecute unconventional warfare and intelligence operations behind enemy lines.
During this time, the world also saw the beginning of a transition from human to digital computers, driven by increased demand for rapid and large-scale computing in support of the war effort. It was largely this work by mathematicians like Alan Turing and Claude Shannon that laid the foundations for the future of computing.
The legacy of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) endures to this day at the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. But it is the convergence of the scientific principles developed by the OSS and the advancements of modern computation that promise a revolution in building and maintaining America’s special operations forces.
The official mission of the Special Warfare Center and School is to “recruit, assess, select, train and educate the U.S. Army Civil Affairs, Psychological Operations and Special Forces Soldiers by providing superior training and education, relevant doctrine, effective career management and an integrated force-development capability.” Training over 20,000 students per year, process efficiency, training development and student management are critical mission components.
Until last spring, student data was captured in spreadsheets and distributed to various stakeholders via email or shared drives for analysis and decision-making. This process was antiquated, time-consuming and inefficient. Data loss and inconsistencies were common, and analysis challenging, if even possible. The Special Warfare Center and School needed to modernize its management information system to bring it in line with the 21st century.
To address this gap, the Special Warfare Center and School developed and launched the Special Operations Forces Management Information System (SOFMIS). This system serves as the umbrella program for all information management systems utilized by the Special Warfare Center and School, which will bring the enterprise to the forefront of modern informatics, or the science of information. This overhaul to data collection, storage, analytics and consumption will improve the quality of education and student training, and optimize the Special Warfare Center and School’s use of funding.
However, one may ask, why did the Special Warfare Center and School only recently begin this push, while industry has been doing this work for years? To understand, let’s take a brief look to the past.
The OSS applied rigorous scientific analysis to assess, select and train special operations personnel for unconventional warfare and intelligence collection against the Axis forces. This laid the foundation for training the first Special Forces soldiers during the Korean War at the Army’s Psychological Warfare Division. When the Special Warfare Center and School was formally established in 1982, it maintained that deliberate and scientific approach to assessing, selecting and training special operations forces.
Until recently, however, data was used only transactionally to assess and train each soldier, then archived as paper files or isolated spreadsheets, and rarely revisited. In this system, further analysis using traditional scientific methods was time consuming and expensive, and yielded little insight beyond the Special Warfare Center and School’s existing institutional knowledge.
However, recent developments in technology, as set in motion by the forebears of computer and statistical sciences of World War II, have made mass data collection, storage and analysis feasible. This opened the door for the Special Warfare Center and School to embark on the journey from transactional to transformational data use.
When SOFMIS was conceived of in mid-2020, the Special Warfare Center and School was utilizing a multitude of antiquated and isolated information management systems that siloed the various types of information (administrative, academic and performance) as students moved through the training pipeline. Compartmentalizing information made it difficult to establish a comprehensive profile of each student, resulting in a limited common training picture for command and staff.
The decision to modernize pulled these scattered information management systems into a centralized management information system where data is synchronized for analytics and better data-informed decision-making.
To see this metamorphosis through, a few steps had to be taken. The first was a change to the Special Warfare Center and School’s staff structure. A plans and analysis section was established under the operations directorate to serve as the nexus for this new initiative. Next, a computer application needed to be identified for data collection. Fortunately, this application existed in the Special Warfare Center and School arsenal, but it was compartmentalized and thus underutilized. To address this, responsibility for employment of the system was pulled from the brigade level to the division level, allowing control and implementation across the enterprise.
A plan was then developed and set in motion to expand the application to every course in the Special Forces pipeline, the administratively complex training pathway for all Army Special Forces soldiers. With a data collection application in place, it was then possible to start piloting a series of tactical-level data analytics projects with planned expansion into the operational and strategic levels as the data analytics section matures.
A Ph.D.-level information scientist was brought onto the team to serve as the chief science officer and to work directly with the chief of plans and analysis. This structure provides a balance of operational and scientific expertise that, along with command guidance and bottom-up feedback, has shaped the early analytics efforts.
These initial efforts have been designed to demonstrate value and build trust and institutional knowledge in modern analytical methods like machine learning and process simulation modeling. This new lens through which to view and optimize recruitment, assessment, selection and training data provides the academic focus and rigor necessary for truly data-informed decision-making.
The final step in the development of SOFMIS was to expand system usage. After extensive communication and training efforts, the software is used by approximately 50% of the formation, from instructors to commanders. Having a centralized application closes the information gap between the field and command, allowing leaders and staff access to real-time status on students and courses. Additionally, it provides an improved level of accuracy and efficiency at the tactical level that previously was not possible.
Although much has been accomplished since the inception of SOFMIS, the revolution has only just begun. Expansion to include the psychological operations and civil affairs pipelines are expected to be complete by early 2022, and cloud migration plans are in the works to improve accessibility and use. Critically, though, a data analytics section is under development. Finding and maintaining high-level data science expertise in a competitive market under the pay and billeting limitations of government systems is a significant challenge.
To address this, the Special Warfare Center and School is building relationships with academic programs to leverage the cutting-edge training of the student population and to search for talent that may be interested in working in national defense. This data analytics section will be responsible for building on the current initial efforts, transitioning from the tactical level to the operational and the strategic levels, to develop outputs that inform the capabilities and potential of special operations forces beyond the Special Warfare Center and School enterprise.
In the past, technology at the Special Warfare Center and School has moved at the speed of bureaucracy. This must change. Technology in the 21st century is simply moving too fast for this practice to continue. The most successful Fortune 500 companies utilize big data and advanced analytics to gain an edge on the competition. The Special Warfare Center and School, for all intents and purposes, is a Fortune 500 company with its shareholders being the people of the United States. It is the largest manufacturer of special operations personnel in the world.
As the manufacturer of this rare and highly prized product, the Special Warfare Center and School owes it to its soldiers and shareholders alike to always search for ways to improve and optimize. SOFMIS is one such vehicle that will help facilitate the accomplishment of that goal.
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Maj. Gen. Patrick Roberson is commander and commandant of the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School, Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Previously, he was commander, Special Operations Joint Task Force-Operation Iraqi Resolve. He also served as deputy chief of staff, U.S. Army Reserve Command, and deputy commanding general-operations, 1st Special Forces Command (Airborne), where he also served as deputy commanding general, Special Operations Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve.
Maj. Stuart Gallagher is chief of plans, analysis and futures for the Special Warfare Center and School. Previously, he was senior psychological operations observer coach/trainer at the Joint Multinational Readiness Center, Germany. He also commanded Company B, 6th Psychological Operations Battalion, Fort Bragg, and served as military adviser to the State Department, Washington, D.C.
Capt. Kurtis Gruters is a neuroscientist and chief science officer for the Special Warfare Center and School. Previously, he served in various research and analysis positions around U.S. Army Special Operations Command, and he remains active in brain health studies in the command and outside the military.