The Seductiveness of Special Ops?


In a prescient article in Foreign Affairs in 1994 entitled “The Mystique of U.S. Air Power,” the historian and strategist Eliot Cohen, writing in the wake of the Gulf War, argued, “Air power is an unusually seductive form of military strength, in part because, like modern courtship, it appears to offer gratification without commitment.” If he were writing such an article today, he might substitute special operations forces (SOF) for air power. And, in fact, Cohen has written about SOF in the past, stating,

By their mere availability and past successes elite units may subtly distort policy-makers’ perspectives on politico-military problems. This does not imply that policies are undertaken just because the tools to execute them exist. Rather, elite units sometimes seem to offer an easy way out of a serious problem, and in so doing mislead political decision-makers….

But even that was written before the revolution in U.S. SOF capabilities that took place after the aborted Operation Eagle Claw hostage rescue attempt in Iran in 1980 and the further increases in capabilities over the past decade-plus of war.

Today, SOF is widely viewed as a primary tool in both contemporary and future American foreign and defense policy. As retired Army Lieutenant Colonel and War on the Rocks contributor Douglas Ollivant wrote last week,

An elite consensus on the “New Way of War” has been emerging for some time now. Among defense policy experts, think tanks, echoed at Aspen and Davos, the way forward seems clear. The future belongs to cyberwarfare and includes a terrorism problem that will be dealt with by drones and SEALs, and the need to be prepared for the possibility, however remote, of a large-scale naval and aviation campaign in the Far East against a rising China.

Perhaps this should not be surprising. Writing on U.S. strategic culture, Carnes Lord has noted that,

Americans are a pragmatic people, with a tendency to seek technical solutions to isolated problems and a preoccupation with the here and now at the expense both of the past and the future. This means, among other things, that Americans tend to lack the historical memory that is critical for understanding other cultures, as well as the future orientation and holistic thinking that are the preconditions for strategy.

Special Operations = Surgical Strike + Special Warfare

Taken together, then, it should not be a surprise that SOF have a seductive quality about them. But what SOF? The direct action tales of derring-do, such as the raid on Abbottabad that killed Osama bin Laden or the take down of the Somali pirates holding the Maersk Alabama Captain Richard Phillips captive are but exemplars of but one type of special operations: surgical strike. Such surgical strike operations are short duration direct action missions and longer duration special reconnaissance assignments. They are carried out by the Special Mission Units of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) and by the Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment, Navy Sea Air Land (SEAL) commandos, elements of the Marine Raiders, and elements of the Air Force’s Special Tactics Squadrons. Without doubt, these units are manned by exceedingly skilled and capable soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines and are arguably the best in the world at what they do.

The surgical strike element of SOF is likely able to capture the imagination of both politicians and the public due to its (usually) shorter duration and more obvious metrics of success (e.g., numbers killed, captured, or objectives seized). There is a reason why American Sniper is the most successful war film of all time. The same goes for the popularity of films like Captain Phillips, Zero Dark Thirty, and Black Hawk Down. Even though each of those films offers a cautionary tale, they also show commandos as the best of the best. The popularity of superhero films like The Avengers and Iron Man and television shows such as The Flash and Arrow also feed into such a mystique: small numbers of technologically assisted, preternaturally skilled heroes or those with “metahuman” abilities take on numerous or exceedingly powerful foes and triumph. (And SOCOM is even developing the Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit exoskeleton nicknamed the “Iron Man” suit.) This feeds into Lord’s argument about American strategic culture nicely.

But surgical strike is not the sole mission for SOF. The other side of special operations is special warfare. Special warfare focuses on the political-military realm of longer duration rapport building and working “with and through” foreign allies. The cornerstone missions of this SOF approach are foreign internal defense (FID) and unconventional warfare (UW). The logic for this pairing is that those who know how to foment or assist resistance, rebellions, or revolutions should also know how to counter them. Special warfare is largely the domain of U.S. Army Special Forces, select Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations units, as well as select elements of Marine Raiders, Special Tactics Squadrons, and SEALs.

Special warfare missions may seem less sexy than their surgical strike counterparts. Such operations are normally carried out across much longer time frames and under ambiguous conditions in environments where complex social, historical, and economic contexts are as important as purely military factors. Unlike surgical strike missions, their metrics of success are much more difficult to discern due to the sui generis circumstances of either supporting or countering subversion, lawlessness, or insurgency. Members of special warfare-oriented SOF are trained and selected to operate at the end of long strings with minimal support in areas where cross-cultural sensitivity, area knowledge, and language skills are important tools. The temporal factor plays against the preferred American strategic culture. There are fewer movies made about these missions, Lawrence of Arabia is one, but it is mainly known for its cinematography.

Superman, Daniel Boone, and the Contemporary Strategic Environment

Getting back to the superhero analogy, retired Army Special Forces Lt. Col. Tony Schwalm compares the surgical strike-oriented SOF of the Special Mission Units to Superman and the special warfare-oriented SOF of Special Forces to Daniel Boone. Describing the two approaches, he states,

While [Special Forces, SF] may on occasion appear to act like an armed version of the Peace Corps, we are, at our core, soldiers, which means we are killers, and no less killers than Superman and crew. But where Superman intends traumatic amputation, SF brings cancer. We make the body, the host, kill itself. As amputation usually kills faster than cancer, unconventional warfare is unfortunately time consuming. As Superman devours money and equipment, Daniel Boone demands time, and this temporal reality hurts the cause of UW.

The reality in the twenty-first century is that Superman is always the first choice when the guy in the White House decides to employ U.S. armed forces, SOF or otherwise, and the decision is always predicated on a timetable. One word defines that timetable: elections.

Superman promises to get wherever the geopolitical fire is burning, put it out, and get back before anyone knows he’s gone. Daniel promises to get to the fire, enter the house, find a corner not immediately threatened by conflagration, and begin an assessment process, the length of which may cost him his marriage.

Superman goes, does, and leaves. Daniel Boone goes, does, and stays and stays and stays. In the end, both come to the same place: killing somebody. The question then becomes who pulls the trigger.

One place where there have been calls for an unconventional warfare campaign has been in Syria—see for example this and this. The uprising against the Assad regime that started in 2011 has spawned numerous opposition groups to the regime that include an umbrella organization of the Free Syrian Army, the al Qaeda affiliate the Nusra Front, and, of course, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). It is open to debate as to whether earlier action on that front—and the use of other military means—would have changed the calculus on the ground. But under present conditions, with ISIL controlling territory on both sides of the Syria/Iraq border and with a large inflow of foreign fighters from the region and the West, it is unclear whether there is a moderate opposition, however defined, that can fight against both the Assad regime and the Islamists from the Nusra Front and ISIL. Theo Padnos, a reporter held captive by the Nusra Front in Syria, wrote that he encountered Free Syrian Army soldiers who had received U.S. training in Jordan but lied about promising to use it to fight extremist groups when they would go back to Syria.

While the above points mainly to a discussion of unconventional warfare, it is also helpful to address foreign internal defense. Recent events in Yemen suggest that the counterterrorism-plus option employed there of using drones and surgical strike-oriented SOF to help attrite al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula leadership and capabilities by assisting Yemen in building its own rapid reaction capabilities might not have been the best approach. The Houthi gains against the government in Sana’a show that the government there needed more than a raiding capability to be able to maintain some semblance of territorial control. Whether that is even possible, however, is another matter.

Schwalm’s statement about SOF and elections is also an interesting one. President Obama’s call to launch the raid that killed Osama bin Laden helped his street credibility appearing tough on terrorism before the 2012 election. But the Republican opposition also seized upon the lack of SOF available to counterattack the forces that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans in Benghazi, Libya, on September 11, 2012. (Whether they would have been able to arrive in a timely fashion and stop what happened is another issue entirely.) Still, both point to the mystique of surgical strike SOF.

Toward a Special Operations Equilibrium?

Nothing written above is meant to suggest that surgical strike as a form of special operations is inferior to special warfare or vice versa. They are both useful tools when used either separately or collectively. Both have strengths and weaknesses that are largely situationally dependent. Their employment should not be debated as a false dichotomy like the WHAM (“winning hearts and minds”) vs. BAM (“bold aggressive maneuver”) debates about counterinsurgency.

But aside from political considerations and strategic cultural predilections, there is also a structural imbalance between surgical strike and special warfare SOF. The biggest imbalances are those between the rank structures of the command elements and the resources allotted to each. The commander of JSOC was formerly a two star general or flag ranked officer until retired General Stanley McChrystal was elevated to the rank of lieutenant general in 2006. Since then all JSOC commanders have held lieutenant general of vice admiral rank and the position has become a kingmaker assignment for command of Special Operations Command—the four star general or admiral responsible for the nation’s SOF. And there are legitimate reasons for the commander of that formation to hold such rank. They operate on a very direct chain of command due to the nature of their work and are the best resourced units in the military.

Special warfare-oriented SOF, on the other hand, are more diffusely covered by the individual services special operations commands. Recently, the Army’s Special Operations Command reorganized its special warfare capabilities under the 1st Special Forces Command (Airborne), led by a two star general officer, to be able to provide forces and command and control elements to the various Theater Special Operations Commands (TSOCs)—each of the six geographic combatant commands has a TSOC. This is a very useful step forward, but one wonders if perhaps it might have more weight if it were elevated into a joint special warfare command? This is not a novel suggestion. Rank structures and resources, after all, matter in bureaucracies.

At the national level, another fix might be to resurrect, under a new title, the Board for Low Intensity Conflict (LIC) in the National Security Council. Mandated by law under the Goldwater-Nichols Act and implemented by President Ronald Regan’s National Security Decision Directive Number 277 of June 15, 1987, this board was instructed that it would address interagency responses to Congressional queries on LIC and SOF and foreign assistance and intelligence requirements for LIC. The Board was also to address how technology and competitive strategies would improve LIC strategies, how to improve communications and intelligence interoperability in LIC, how LIC structures would work with country and regional policy and coordination mechanisms, and whether adequate capabilities existed to execute the strategy elements of NSDD 277 and how to address shortfalls.

Even though it was mandated by law, it seems to have formally disappeared. But there may be at least some hope on this front. While I was conducting interviews with SOF students and staff at Defense Analysis department at the Naval Postgraduate School in January, I was told that a National Security Council Staff position for an unconventional warfare planner has been proposed. Whether this is an episodic response to the situation in Syria or a long-term fix remains to be seen.

Surgical strike-oriented SOF will remain key pieces for countering terrorism and conducting other critical assignments in both war and peace. But the recent Russian practices of using political and unconventional warfare in Ukraine, the situations in Syria and Iraq, and conflicts elsewhere show that special-warfare SOF supported and enabled by non-SOF military forces and other interagency partners will also be very busy for the foreseeable future. Again, both are valuable instruments in the United States’ toolkit of capabilities, but are best used when the circumstances dictate their use. Policymakers and the public should not become too enamored with their being a panacea for providing perfect solutions to difficult problems.


Michael P. Noonan, PhD, is the Director of Research at the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute, a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, and a contributor to War on the Rocks.