By: Alan Van Saun, Michael Mailloux, and Jason Criss Howk

WhatsApp and Zoom Teamed-up with a Pandemic to Change the World

As the COVID-19 pandemic spread this year, one thing became obvious to every leader in the world—most of the work that made their teams come together to perform, could be done virtually with modern tools.

For the military forces globally, the decreasing number of advisors on the ground, increasing numbers of other unfriendly nation forces in the combat zones, and the risks of COVID-19 transmission has driven more and more advisors to communicate over phones or similar devices to their partners. Everyone has gotten better at mentoring and teaching over long-distance.

In Afghanistan, some advisors are only communicating over a distance of a few miles, or just across the camp—but they have little choice to do so virtually. In nation’s capitals, policy-level advisors are talking to their partners over thousands of miles, and now with only an occasional screen freeze.

So should military advisors, especially those with Security Force Assistance or Foreign Internal Defense missions, slow down their deployments into other nations and start deploying virtually to team up with their partners abroad?

We see this shift as something akin to the shift from manned to unmanned aircraft. At first some advisors will fight the idea of virtually partnering with their foreign team-mates. There will be some similar institutional excuses like when the Air Force tried to pretend drones were “a passing phase” that could never replace any of the manned flight missions.

How would this work?

Clearly, it will be hard to start cold-turkey and build a strong advisory partnership.

Productive and enduring security partnerships are built on trust which must be earned through competence, shared goals, and often times, shared sacrifices.  It would be challenging for technology to replace those factors to initially build relationships, so we envision this more as a way to strengthen and preserve relationships that have already been built over the last few decades. This will rely on the reputations and connections units have made to their foreign partners, more than just the individual relationships.

The deep trust built between U.S. Special Operations Forces and security forces in Colombia, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Niger should enable America to use the Zoom/WhatsApp era to our advantage by staying connected to our partners from ever increasing distances.

Many individuals are already virtually mentoring foreign military partners and have been for decades. When a soldier rotates home in the internet era, they often stay in touch with their friends in foreign units and advise them on career choices, education opportunities, writing and publishing etc. Often this has been done because the U.S. forces know they will return on a future rotation and that the investment of mentorship is worth the time.

Long Distance Mentoring with ANDSF

In the case of Afghanistan, where a physical drawdown is underway, how crazy of an idea is it to start having our special operations forces do deliberate long-distance advising with ANDSF units and commanders that they already have long-term relationships with? If we can’t have large numbers of advisors living with ANDSF—why can’t we continue to advise and provide massive reach-back capacity for them, especially on topics like intelligence, logistics, and aviation related missions?

One of the most significant consequences during any operational transition or force drawdown is the loss of the relationships with key leaders.  Leveraging technology to continue advising and assisting our partners through massive reach back capabilities helps mitigate this consequence. Remote Advise and Assist (RAA), if deliberately planned can take one of our biggest concerns and turn it into one of our biggest selling points to our foreign partners. We could honestly say, we aren’t leaving, just advising from a bit further away. A win-win scenario occurs where the U.S. decreases physical risk and costs on our end and our partners get a longer-term advisory partnership that can extend for years after we stop sending forces physically into their nation.

RAA is well-tested now

Remote Advise and Assist (RAA) has certainly grown in importance over the past couple years as risk acceptance has decreased, while technology improvements have increased. It’s an important tool that has relevance not only in the tactical fight (e.g. remote advise/assist kits that we started using with Iraqis in 2014 for counter-ISIS), but also in the broader picture of maintaining partnerships in support of operational plans from combatant commands.

Niger and the U.S. have become partners of choice for each other for a variety of reasons. And now as the appetite for U.S. presence in Africa is waning, the use of remote assistance will become even more important. While “the technology maturity” level of the partner nation is certainly a huge consideration, many security force partners are already on par with our capability.

While working with the Nigeriens in 2017, it was apparent that WhatsApp was their preferred method of communication in the field despite having a variety of radios at their disposal. When operational movement restrictions were put in place later in the deployment, WhatsApp became a vital means for ODAs (Special Forces A-Teams) to stay connected with their partner forces when they departed the training site for missions.

Despite being one of the poorest countries in the world, access to cellular networks and more affordable smart phones is growing at an exponential rate in Niger. While an effective remote advise and assist program would require more than simple text messaging, the potential is apparent. There is also the question of scale. While we still use WhatsApp and twitter messaging to check-in with Nigerien and Afghan counterparts for over 2 years running, that’s not a guarantee that the remote relationships could be scaled across their Ministries of Defense.

Authorities and “Deployment Orders”

Combatant commands would still need to plan, coordinate, and lead the warfighting and security force assistance missions. Orders would need to be given to specific military units to virtually deploy and to have foreign forces handed off from their previous virtual partners.

Units and the soldiers assigned to them would need specific authorities. This was a huge point of contention when SOCOM stood up their global counter messaging cell in Tampa. We have to think through how we pair operational authorities with our remote assistance. While it’s one thing for soldiers to WhatsApp a friend about their next professional school, or hold a VTC on a professional development topic, it’s another to advise a foreign general on a campaign plan. The missions still need to be clear to every unit and echelon so that everyone in the boat is rowing in the same direction.

For campaign planners and commanders, the big difference and benefit here is that the U.S. forces handing over the mentor, advise, and assist duties can slowly scale down their assistance by overlapping longer with a virtual incoming unit. There will no longer be the rush out of country to keep the troop-cap below a certain number or to find basing space for overlapping units. When people are deploying into their den or into their home garrison to conduct their missions, U.S. forces can collaborate longer and give our partners overseas even more mentors at lower levels of command.

What about ongoing Embassy Run Professional Development?

It’s important to work out how SOF and other advisory units in the U.S. can best assist the U.S. Embassy DoD teams in each nation. Those defense officers in overseas capitals would now have a more robust SOF team at their disposal to partner with the security forces in their countries.

Senior DoD officers at embassies need to work closely with combatant command planners to determine how they would combine this larger (virtual) advisory presence with other existing programs. If the focus in a country is simply professional development for the foreign military, can the new advisory capability be worked into an existing IMET (international military education & training) framework? Would the SOF advisors be assigned to link up with foreign students when they arrive for U.S. military education and mentor them through courses to develop deeper bonds before they return home? If the focus of an Embassy DoD team is supporting ongoing security operations, are the virtual advisors in support of other U.S. units that may still be on the ground there, and how do we deconflict?

No going backwards

If the last eight months have taught the business world anything, it’s that a lot more work can (and probably should) be done remotely than was accepted in the past. The military is no different. Those in SOF who might push against this new reality will find themselves feeling like pilots who pushed against drone expansion—it will be like trying to divert the flow of the Mississippi river with a cardboard box. We are just scratching the surface of a deep conversation and have likely raised more questions than answers, but we hope this conversation moves forward quickly, and the U.S. takes the lead on this capability instead of trying to catch up with other nations down the road.


Jason’s Co-Authors

Alan Van Saun served in 3rd Special Forces Group as both an ODA and Company Commander, with deployments to Afghanistan and West Africa.  He is a graduate of the United States Military Academy and U.S. Naval War College.  Alan lives in New Jersey with his wife and kids, where he now works as a management consultant.

Mike Mailloux serves in the U.S. Army and has deployed to Afghanistan, Iraq, and beyond since 2002. He is a graduate of various military courses.

None of the authors speak for the department of defense or any U.S. Government agency. These views are their personal opinions about a complex topic, and should not be confused with any official policy.

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Jason spent 23 years in USG service conducting defense, diplomacy, intelligence, and education missions globally. Now he teaches, writes, podcasts, and speaks publicly about Islam, foreign affairs, and national security. He is a member of the Military Writers Guild and aids with conflict resolution in Afghanistan.