Commandos' new mission: Understand reactions in the brains of jihadis

Arne Skjaerpe of Prox Dynamics, shown here at a Tampa conference in May, showed off his Black Hornet drone at the special operations forces symposium in Palm Harbor this week.
Arne Skjaerpe of Prox Dynamics, shown here at a Tampa conference in May, showed off his Black Hornet drone at the special operations forces symposium in Palm Harbor this week.
Published Feb. 24, 2017

PALM HARBOR — U.S. special operations forces have gained fame for dramatic raids like the one that killed Osama bin Laden.

Their greatest value may be helping prevent conflicts before they start — distinguishing friend from enemy and learning how to influence both in a place military leaders call "left of bang."

"The special in 'special warfare' is all about influence," said Ian McCulloh, a former U.S. commando who is chief scientist with the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University.

McCulloh was speaking Wednesday at the third annual Global SOF Foundation Symposium in Palm Harbor, which has drawn hundreds of commandos, former commandos and industry leaders from the United States and 22 partner nations — many of them nations with a presence at the Tampa-based U.S. Special Operations Command.

Commandos can be more effective in exerting influence, McCulloh said, by understanding how the human brain reacts to messages and using this knowledge to defeat the kind of violent ideology transmitted by the so-called Islamic State and other jihadi groups.

Jihadis have succeeded, in large part, because of the reach of the Internet — a new battleground in the fight to defeat them.

Using the example of an argument between husband and wife, McCulloh said brain studies show that merely continuing the argument has little effect in bringing it to a close.

"But if we understand what aspects of the brain respond in different ways," he said, "we can test messages in advance."

Such knowledge might help understand whether a partner in another country will turn on a commando, for example, or show resilience on the battlefield, McCulloh said.

The brain was just one potential weapon discussed at a panel that included McCulloh. More tangible technologies also were discussed by the panel, moderated by Defense One technology editor Patrick Tucker.

One panelist, retired Norwegian brigadier general Arne Skjaerpe, held up a tiny helicopter-shaped drone now in use by militaries in some 20 nations, including the U.S. Army.

Weighing in at little more than half an ounce, the Black Hornet PD-100 PRS drone is waterproof, has three cameras including infrared, can fly at night, and remain in the air up to 25 minutes for a distance of up to a mile.

The device fulfills a major need for commandos — providing situational awareness with a minimum of weight.

"If a special operator carried all the gadgets everyone in industry recommended, the average weight would be 2.5 tons," quipped Skjaerpe, who once ran the international coalition with U.S. Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base.

Part of the appeal of this week's symposium to those in attendance is its proximity to Special Operations Command, unique among U.S. commands in that it has billions of dollars to spend each year on goods and services.

Among the panelists Wednesday was Jim Smith, the No. 2 executive with SOCom's acquisition unit.

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SOCom is focusing its acquisition efforts on "improving the survivability, mobility and lethality" of Navy SEALs, Army Green Berets, Delta Force and Rangers, and Marine and Air Force commandos, Smith said.

The Global SOF symposium wound up Thursday at the Innisbrook Golf and Country Club in Palm Harbor.

Contact Howard Altman at or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.