Delta Force and tactical thinking
Here’s the good news: Former Delta Force BSquadron commander Lt. Col. Pete Blaber’s well-executed treatise on tactical thinking, “The Mission, the Men, and Me,” should be required reading for all flag-rank officers. Required, because it codifies in simple, accessible language the concepts that will allow us to adapt, overcome and prevail in 21st-century warfare, whether it be asymmetric in nature and unconventional in approach, or along the classical Land-War models. And required because Lt. Col. Blaber demonstrates through multiple empirical examples why flexibility, audacity, situational awareness and preparation are superior to rigid, formulaic doctrine-influenced operational planning.
Lt. Col. Blaber, a Ranger before he was badged at Delta in the early 1990s, enjoyed a reputation as an officer who protected his men by displaying unswerving loyalty down the chain of command and as a cutto-the-chase thinker whose mission statements seldom exceeded one or two sentences. A gifted unconventional warrior, he was always guided by the Principle of the 3Ms.
“The 3Ms,” a young Lt. Blaber was told by his first CO, “are the keys to being successful. [. . . ] They stand for the mission, the men, and me. [. . .] Never put your own personal well-being, or advancement, ahead of the accomplishment of your mission and taking care of your men. [. . . ].” The 3Ms was a code Lt. Col. Blaber lived by. It is also, unfortunately, a principle that all too many flag officers seem to have forgotten, or jettisoned along the way to their stars.
Which brings us to the bad news. Lt. Col. Blaber’s book will probably be ignored or rejected by most flag-rank officers because he — like many at the Unit, which is how most soldiers refer to Delta Force these days — is an iconoclast who doesn’t suffer FWSs (that’s Fools With Stars) gladly.
Or at all. Not to mention the fact that Lt. Col. Blaber has, like most A-Grade operators, an ego the size of Texas and a point of view that starts, “If they’d only listened to me. [. . . ]” That super-sized ego, by the way, will do him well in Hollywood, where he’s linked up with another B-Squadron veteran, Eric Haney, as an occasional writer on Mr. Haney’s CBS TV series, “The Unit.”
Moreover, generals and admirals don’t like to be told they’ve screwed up — even when they have. And Blaber provides example after example of flag rank tone-deafness when it comes to listening to the folks on the battlefield who are begging you to change your mind instead of relying on an inflexible plan that’s going to get people killed.
Now, Lt. Col. Blaber isn’t opposed to taking casualties. He skewers the risk-averse Clinton senior national security staffers who refused Delta permission to go after Osama Bin Laden in the late 1990s because Delta might take a few casualties just the way he castigates the aviator-turned general who denies a joint military-CIA strike force additional assets to chase down and kill the al Qaeda leadership because the new troop level might, ahem, offend the Afghans.
Writes Lt. Col. Blaber, “The main question that high-level leaders should ask is whether the mission is important to our country. If the answer is yes, then we in the Unit had no issues with laying our lives on the line to accomplish it.”
He also understands and deplores the difference between losing lives on a worthwhile mission and squandering them out of pride, foolishness, or rigidity. And, in 21st-century asymmetric warfare, lives have been squandered because of the military’s reliance on what Col. Blaber labels an “illogical and dysfunctional” procedure called the MDMP (Military Decision Making Process).
He writes that the MDMP is “basically a comprehensive, step-by-step doctrinal framework for decision making and planning. All of the steps are supposed to occur within a ninety-six hour period. [. . . ] At the end of [which] they produce an elaborately detailed plan which, upon approval of the commander in charge, gets locked in stone in preparation for execution.”
If you get trapped by what Lt. Col. Blaber calls “the tyranny of the plan,” what results “is [like] a caveman trying to put together a rocket ship, without the time or the situational awareness to figure it out.”
Situational Awareness (SA) is close to Lt. Col. Blaber’s heart. And you can’t achieve SA through technology alone. In Afghanistan, during the battle of Takur Ghar in March 2002, the generals back in Florida and North Carolina saw high-tech video surveillance of the battleground on their flat screens, and seeing no resistance, planned for a helicopter assault. But Taliban anti-aircraft (AA) was there — camouflaged with lowtech tarps and tree boughs and invisible to the eyes in the sky. Yet when Lt. Col. Blaber’s people, who’d seen the AA, advised that landing choppers would be asking for trouble, Lt. Col. Blaber was told it was too late to revise the plan. In fact, one of the generals in overall charge of the events at Takur Ghar was so upset that Lt. Col. Blaber was moving chess pieces without asking first, he ordered the radio frequencies switched so the plan wouldn’t be adjusted. The tonedeaf general who did that lacked situational awareness — and a lot more.
One arrives at SA Nirvana, suggests Lt. Col. Blaber, through old-fashioned boots on the ground recce and hands-on intelligence gathering. SA means a thorough observation of your enemy’s patterns; SA is continually asking ‘what would you recommend?’ to the locals. SA is imagining the unimaginable — like, what would you do if we suddenly lost our communications and here we are 10,000 feet up in the Hindu Kush with a mission to fulfill? SA is always listening to the guy on the ground, and most important, SA results from sharing what you learn.
Sharing information — the factoids and info-bits from boots on the ground, Predator surveillance, locals, captured enemy documents, and open-source materials — insists Lt. Col. Blaber, is the key: “No matter how many patterns you recognize — or think you recognize — they won’t do you any good unless they’re shared.” But here’s the bad news again: all too many of the guys with stars on their collars hate to share information. Because information is power, they hoard it. And they’re certainly not about to be criticized by some knuckle-dragging non-West Point lieutenant colonel.
But worry not. Lt. Col. Blaber’s book will still sell lots of copies. I can think of scads of people who will read it cover to cover, underline it, highlight paragraphs, and make sure all their friends read it too. It will, for example, be devoured by the al Qaeda fighters in their caves up in northwest Pakistan, by Hezbollah guerrillas in Beirut’s southern suburbs, by Zetas in Mexico, Taliban operatives in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Lashkar e-Tayyiba terrorists in Kashmir. It will probably become required reading at the Ministry of Intelligence and Security in Tehran and Mukhabarat headquarters in Damascus. The generals who run Beijing’s Er Bu (Second Department) of the PLA’s military intelligence organization will no doubt find Lt. Col. Blaber’s material hugely informative. So will operatives in Russia’s expanding military intelligence community. And all those Blaber-resistant FWSs? They’ll find someone down the chain of command to blame the next time they screw up. Then they’ll retire and work at the State Department, or consult for TV news.
Washington writer John Weisman’s most recent books, “SOAR,” “Jack in the Box,” and “Direct Action” are available as Avon paperbacks. His email is email@example.com