Special Operations Forces in Unlit Spaces: Understanding the World’s Dark Spots in the Context of SOF Operational Planning

May 24, 2016

In 2011, Admiral Eric T. Olson, then commander of U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), highlighted a strategic focus for Special Operations Forces (SOF). He discussed placing greater emphasis on the “unlit spaces” around the globe to “deal with the emerging threats from the places where the lights aren’t.”1 Admiral Olson was referring to an illuminated image of Earth viewed from space at night which depicts concentrations of city lights and zones of darkness.2 While this is a partially useful description of potential problem areas, it lacks comprehensiveness and overgeneralizes strategic shaping of SOF potential. USSOCOM should further define what comprises those “unlit spaces” before committing resources to them. This monograph attempts to define more clearly what the unlit spaces are and what their implication are for the use of SOF. It will also offer a more comprehensive framework with which to analyze SOF options.

When looking at unlit space, the central thesis to consider is that the ability of SOF to operate in unlit spaces varies based on the unique characteristics affecting accessibility of those areas. The typology of unlit spaces means many things. It entails various characteristics causing an area to appear dark. Those characteristics demand distinct accessibility considerations that affect the feasibility of SOF missions in those unlit spaces. SOF missions conducted in the human domain, such as unconventional warfare (UW), incur unique risks associated with the nature of the human environment. Since the nature of the human domain can vary widely even within an unlit space, SOF planners must fully understand the physical and cultural nuances of the operational environment.

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