Relief in Place: Managing Transition of Authority


running up that hill
Jan 3, 2007
in Wonderland, with my Alice

By Chief Warrant Officer 3 William S. Sobat

The necessity for conservation of the fighting power of the troops requires provision for the periodic relief of units in line.1

Anyone who has served in a Special Forces group during the last six years has certainly participated in a rotation of forces to a combat theater, even if they have served only in a rear detachment.

Rotations of forces are massive undertakings. When one considers that the Soldiers, individual and organizational equipment of entire battalions, and possibly a group headquarters, must be moved from one hemisphere to another, the logistics seem staggering. Considering the complexity of the move and all of the preparation required, commanders would be justified in feeling a tremendous sense of accomplishment for completing the rotation alone, regardless of the success of their combat operations.

By the way, the unit will perform a rotation of forces every seven months. Prior to Sept. 11, 2001, that would have been a dizzying prospect. Today, with some SF Soldiers on their seventh combat rotation, we have become quite adept at these complicated operations. Yet we all recognize that the operations themselves affect the greater objectives of our war of counterinsurgency, or COIN. Given the frequency of combat rotations and transition periods, and the varying methodologies commanders employ to manage them, transition periods have a potential for significant negative impact on our operational objectives.

One could argue that “rotational warfare,” as it is often called, is one of the single greatest obstacles to the long-term success of COIN in our respective theaters. So why do we rotate? Since the vast majority of our combat formations are committed to, or are preparing for, operations in one or more theaters, consideration of that question is elevated to the strategic level.

FM 3-90, Tactics, which contains the doctrine for Army relief-in-place operations, says, “A commander conducts a relief in place as part of a larger operation, primarily to maintain the combat effectiveness of committed units.” According to the manual, the relief-in-place frees the relieved unit for other tasks, such as decontamination, reconstitution, routine rest, resupply, maintenance or specialized training.2 In this era of all-volunteer forces, strategic-level planners must also consider personnel retention as a means of preserving the military component of national power.

In a COIN operation, even isolated actions by a few Soldiers can have significant negative effects on strategic objectives. As in all combat operations, COIN requires a single-minded focus in the form of a mission statement and the commander’s intent that subordinate commanders can use to guide their efforts. Maintaining that focus over multiple combat rotations is one of the most daunting aspects of the operation. Commanders at the operational level provide guidance in operations orders. Their implementation instructions should be broad enough to allow tactical-level commanders to exercise the initiative needed to adapt to the circumstances in which they find themselves. That tactical freedom to act is absolutely essential to success.

Historically, Special Forces units’ initiative and creativity have allowed higher-level commanders to treat them as a fire-and-forget weapon. However, during six years of combat rotations, different units have established different methodologies for accomplishing their missions. These differences in methodology strike at the heart of what tactical units see as the main problem with rotational warfare. The truth is that all of our groups have proven to be extremely effective. We simply employ different methodologies, based on unit cultures and command philosophies. So if all the groups are capable, and all can demonstrate success, what’s the problem? In short, even subtle shifts in methodology every seven months hinder the establishment of a single-minded tactical-level perspective on our operations’ broader objectives. That is a challenge that all counterinsurgents have faced, but FM 3-07.22, Counterinsurgency Operations, makes no mention of unit rotations or their effects.

I am not about to advocate that tactical-unit commanders have their initiative restricted by operational-level leaders in order to achieve a single-minded intent. Yet operational-level leaders have a significant role to play in helping their subordinates achieve continuity in methodology while helping to preserve initiative.

In both Afghanistan and Iraq, one SF group headquarters has been granted executive-agency authority. However, in practice, that authority has been largely without teeth. Conventional wisdom holds that the commander on the ground be given the broadest possible degree of latitude to accomplish his missions. Therefore, geographical combatant commanders, or GCCs, and their associated theater special-operations commanders, or TSOCs, may be reluctant to interfere with group commanders’ use of initiative as commanders of combined joint special-operations task forces, or CJSOTFs.

Strict enforcement of the single-group concept of executive agency would, by definition, limit the flexibility of half of the commanders executing SF operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. But without enforcement, the efforts in each country will remain subject to the personalities and unit culture that each rotation brings with it.

Given the problem, what can TSOC commanders do to ensure that subordinate commanders have the flexibility they need while maintaining a similar execution of their intent by multiple units on a rotational basis? One possible answer is to revamp the concept of executive agency. First and foremost, we must do away with the concept of single-group executive agency. Instead, the TSOC could host semiannual commanders’ conferences to establish binding orders developed in concert with the group commanders who share rotations in each of the CJSOTFs.

In other words, executive agency should rest with a council of group commanders, subject to the approval of the TSOC and GCC. TSOC leadership and staff coordination are key to the concept. Without TSOC direction, individual commanders will inexorably be drawn in the direction that their own problem-solving methodology and unit culture takes them. Furthermore, a TSOC commander may feel freer to enforce policies that have received a buy-in from each of his rotating CJSOTF commanders in a given country. Group commanders would then be co-leaders in the executive agency and would have a chance to ensure that their own visions were included in executive-agency direction.

Force-provider commands also need to be involved. Any decisions at the executive-agency level that involve manning will most certainly need their approval. What is the use of developing plans at the tactical level that will ultimately be shot down by the U.S. Army Special Operations Command, or USASOC, and the U.S. Army Special Forces Command, or USASFC, who must responsibly manage the operational tempo? Furthermore, force providers, as commanders of CONUS-based SF groups, can help to achieve greater synchronization of the objectives of the U.S. Special Operations Command, or USSOCOM, by providing guidance on manning levels and resources to executive-agency planners.

These CONUS-based commanders could use executive-agency documents in two ways. The first and most obvious would be to determine personnel and equipment requirements for the theaters they support. The second would be to streamline resource requirements for equipment and training, particularly for specialized schools, and provide the JFK Special Warfare Center and School with statements of the requirements for supporting the needs of supported and subordinate commands. This method could greatly enhance synchronization of effort across all levels of command.

What potential obstacles lie in our path? Commanders would have to cede some elements of control to their partner commanders in developing plans that they can support during their rotations. Multiple combat rotations to the same theater, coupled with unit pride and a culture of self-reliance, lead many of our Soldiers to scoff at the notion that anyone from another unit might be able to show them anything useful about their environment. Commanders and Soldiers at all levels cannot let this desire to do it “our way” interfere with overall mission accomplishment. Everyone must accept some level of common guidance over their desire to show the other group “how to do things right.”

Finally, we must consider the reality of emerging operations in a world of questionable stability. This final consideration may be the most important of all. If events outside U.S. Central Command’s operational environment dictate the commitment of one of the groups currently manning a rotation in Operation Enduring Freedom or Operation Iraqi Freedom, the TSOC must be able to efficiently transition one of the other groups into the same methodology. This will be particularly complex, given all of the other challenges the new group would face in adjusting to that contingency. Enforcing executive agency would smooth the transition. If the new order of rotation were to remain in effect, the additional group would have to have an equal stake in determining the overall methodology.

Specifically, what would be required to make this work? First, an executive agency must be established that takes into account the requirements and vision of all the stakeholders. That includes the group commanders who are responsible for commanding the CJSOTFs in their respective countries — one each for Iraq and Afghanistan. Also included should be senior representatives from the TSOC and USASFC staffs, to ensure that their commanders’ requirements are met and to facilitate approval by those commanders.

The relationship would be strengthened further if the TSOC maintained a representative cell in the specific country or area in which the CJSOTF operates. That cell, which would report to the TSOC, should be led by at least a senior colonel. Further, that cell could coordinate regularly with the conventional joint-force commander and staff, thus easing some of this burden for the CJSOTF commander.

The executive council should meet at least every seven months to ensure that policy reflects changes in the tactical environment. The meetings should occur at mid-rotation: first, so that the mechanics of unit rotations aren’t the primary consideration; second, so that incoming commanders don’t view the outgoing commander’s input as an attempt to steer the vision of his rotation. Policies established through the executive agency would have to be enforced. That is not as easy as one might think: Group commanders answer to multiple commanders, depending on where they are or what situation is being considered. Enforcement would require not only discipline but also sensitivity of commanders to the demands they place on the group commanders and the way the group commanders will be evaluated.

In addition to the semiannual commanders’ conferences, unit commanders would need to reinforce the need for frequent communication between individual counterparts in groups that share rotations. Ideally, this would be facilitated by establishing CONUS-based positional e-mail accounts that mirror the accounts of deployed units. The TSOC Web-based portals should also include phone rosters of key positions of the deployed and CONUS-based groups.

Finally, USASFC and USASOC should consider ensuring that a percentage of the key leaders in each group have spent some time in their counterpart group. By establishing a cross-leveling percentage (I recommend 33 percent), the force provider could ensure that each group retained the benefits of continuity in leadership while satisfying the need to facilitate cross-group communication through these transplants. Professional-school slots could also be grouped so that students from those same two units could attend schools together, to further forge cultural bonds between the two units.

The establishment of uniform methodologies for the accomplishment of given missions for SF groups that share rotations in a given country would ensure that overarching goals of the war on terror could be more easily achieved. Achieving those goals would be facilitated by a continuity of effort and the sharing of operational- and tactical-level vision and planning considerations that would extend beyond the next unit rotation.

The conflict that will dominate the history of our generation of Green Berets has been called “the Long War.” Given the nature of our all-volunteer Army and the COIN efforts in which we find ourselves, successful prosecution of that war will depend upon unity of effort and preservation of combat power. It falls to those of us responsible for working out the mechanics of rotational warfare to ensure that the all-important concept of a single-minded vision is pursued with an equally single-minded application of methodology that rivals the efforts we put into the physical movement of Soldiers and equipment across continents.

1 FM 100-5, Field Service Regulations: Operations, May 22, 1941.
2 FM 3-90, Tactics, July 4, 2001, Chapter 15.

Chief Warrant Officer 3 William S. Sobat is the special-activities chief for the 3rd SF Group. After serving in the Army from 1979 to 1983, he re-enlisted in 1990. Following a series of Infantry and Ranger assignments, he attended SF Selection and Assessment in 1992 and was trained in the SF Qualification Course as an SF medical sergeant. He attended Warrant Officer Candidate School in May 1999 and subsequently graduated from the SF Warrant Officer Basic Course. His overseas assignments include four combat rotations — two each to Afghanistan and Iraq. In addition to his military training, he holds a bachelor’s degree from Regents College. He wrote this article while a student in the SF Warrant Officer Advanced Course.