Operationalizing the Science of the Human Domain


This article was based on research completed this year for the 2019 Special Operations Research Association Symposium. How can CA improve strategic performance in the Human Domain? Dr Nesic and Lt Col David make some bold assertions and recommendations below.

Originally published by Small Wars Journal here.

Operationalizing the Science of the Human Domain

The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn. - Alvin Toffler

Woven through contemporary debate are threads of different schools of thought that cross but lack a central thread which closes the seam. One school of thought sees a return of great power competition and argues for an emphasis on lethality and warfighting competency. Another sees a change in the character of conflict and competition where adversaries pursue their ends in the space between peace and war. Above all, and critical to stitching multiple paradigms together, is the one which is eternal in all war and immutable—the human domain. War is always a political act done by humans. Regardless of which school of thought gains the most currency in national security debates, Special Operations Forces (SOF) must continue to build capability and capacity to scientifically understand, accurately interpret and effectively influence human behavior. It is the SOF operator who will be on the ground early, working with an indigenous populace, learning to understand a given situation in order to provide critical context to both civilian and military leadership. SOF must be able to navigate complex social systems and operate at a speed that creates critical decision space while ensuring their actions don’t make matters worse.

Recent history in Iraq and Afghanistan have illuminated critical gaps in this capability. In his book No Good Men Among the Living, Anand Gopal points out special forces’ activity early on in the war that not only helped the wrong people, but rather, perpetuated a deep sense of injustice that fueled an insurgency and undermined the mission.[1] With a poor understanding of the local dynamics between families and tribes, SOF were manipulated in targeting different warlord competitors and not real threats to the state. The mere mention of Al Qaeda and a target packet was built to action the next period of darkness. In The Thistle and the Drone, Dr. Akbar Ahmed, concluded that many times these targeted groups or actors may have been mislabeled as terrorists when in reality they were actually championing peace and fighting repression.[2] Ahmed attributes the failure of the United States and Pakistan to deal with transnational terrorists to their ignorance of tribal lifestyles, patterns of behavior, and customs.[3]

SOF performance improved over the years but shortfalls in training and education remain. The current level of understanding in the complexity of the human domain lacks true scientific depth and application. Education in the emerging multidisciplinary science of the human domain will enhance SOF’s ability to gain indigenous knowledge and enable improved performance in the conduct of warfare in the 21st century across all domains and throughout the spectrum of conflict.

This article highlights the essential components of the science of the human domain currently in development and lays out an analytical framework that SOF can use to develop these new skills. It begins with (1) methods to analyze the operational environment by leveraging both big and thick data to map human geography then (2) reviews ways to navigate a kaleidoscope of complex psycho-social and cultural landscapes, and (3) concludes that these new skills from conflict science to assess complex social dynamics among people cannot be sacrificed for the pursuit of the changes only in the physical domains. While many in the defense department continue to chase technological panaceas, scientists and scholars have declared that the social sciences are the science of the twenty-first century.[4] One general warns that we are entering an epochal shift where the controlling amplification of competition and conflict will be human and biological rather than organizational or technological.[5] The essence of complex modern warfare continues to occur among the people and will continue to be driven by the people. As such, SOF will always need the scientific ability to understand, work with, and influence, people.

Big Data or Thick Data?

Information is exploding. The amount of information available exceeds human capacity. Enter big data. The in-vogue concept of big data appears to be the solution to many problems facing business, industry, and the military. Big data may be useful but alone is insufficient to address the complexities of the human domain. Scholars and development practitioners find an “eclectic combination” of diverse theoretical perspectives and research methods improve the chances of revealing hidden connections and dynamic patterns not visible with a single theoretical lens.[6] Improved explanatory power is the result of using both big data and thick data.

The world is entering an age of data driven decision-making. An increasing surplus of digital breadcrumbs are becoming more available for analytical consumption.[7] These large data sets of patterns, preferences, and other variables enable an examination of society in more fine-grained detail.[8] Moreover, the combination of data and machine learning is drastically improving predictive analytics. The choices of groups and decision mechanisms of masses help explain human behavior and at times, forecast emergent trends. Pentland claims this collective intelligence is behind dynamic social effects that influence our individual decisions and drive economic bubbles, political revolutions, and the internet economy.”[9] In the Merriam-Webster dictionary big data is defined as an accumulation of data that is too large and comple