Small Wars Journal

From Roman Legions to Navy SEALs: Military Raiding and its Discontents

From Roman Legions to Navy SEALs: Military Raiding and its Discontents

by Adam Elkus

The Atlantic

The Osama bin Laden raid has been hailed as the centerpiece of a new style of "collaborative" warfare that leverages intelligence fusion and networked interagency teams to focus precision force on America's enemies. Collaborative warfare, while impressive, is only the latest and greatest in a genre of military operation that dates back thousands of years: the punitive raid. From the days of the Roman Empire through Sunday's raid in Abottabad, Pakistan, governments have relied on punitive raids and manhunts to eliminate challengers to state power without resorting to costly, large-scale occupations.

But a look at the history and evolution of punitive raiding reveals that it is not a substitute for sound strategy -- and can be far more costly than policymakers might suspect and may have political costs that outweigh the strategic benefits. Punitive raids -- whether they consist of a large column of raiders advancing by horseback or an airmobile squad of commandos about to drop into an enemy cross-border haven -- have always been deceptively appealing as low-cost alternatives.

Much more over at The Atlantic



Tue, 01/29/2013 - 7:10pm

I question the need to fix what we break... If it is a punitive expedition. A raid of any size is just that, a raid.

I definitely didn't think this article was up to the high standard of the "The Alantic" and suspect their editors were a little over zealous.

Ken, great quote from Stonewall Jackson, one that we completely disregard now, and as I have wrote repeatedly throughout the SWJ our current approach (tactics without strategy, and weak tactics at that) simply prolongs the misery of war and all those inflicted by the pain. Our nation building efforts have resulted in protracted wars that have in fact created a culture of war in those countries, and they created a war based economy. Both of these unintended side effects will slow development efforts considerably.

I'm an advocate of using raids when they're the right response, but as one of you stated, sometimes raids turn into occupation forces. We need to understand our intent prior to executing, and if the intent is a punative raid, then by definition we need to hit the target, then get off it. While debatable I think our attack post 9/11 on Afghanistan should have been a punative raid (longer duration than most), then leave (leaving behind CIA and SOF) to continue the covert war against AQ.

The results of raids are generally effective for a period of time (perhaps critics will claim they're a short term solution), but an argument can be made that many of our longer term engagements only had relatively short term effects ranging from Vietnam to Haiti.

The one point that I'm clear on was SEC Powell's statement that "if you break it, you have to fix it." I think that only applies to regime change, if we throw a regime out I "think" we're obligated to follow the laws of an occupation force (provide governance and essential services), so raids should not target the regime, but punish the regime in place to influence their future behavior.

Bob's World

Wed, 05/11/2011 - 11:06am

Strategic Raids executed by States send a short, crisp, physical message designed and intended to produce some larger strategic effect. A well timed punch to the face. Such raids are a long, well accepted form of legal statecraft.

The Japenense attack on Pearl; the subsequent Doolittle raid; etc.

When executed by a non-state actor such strategic raids are outside the law, labeled as "terrorism" and seen much more as a knee to the groin.

9/11 being our most noteworthy recent example.

As non-state actors continue to grow in number and power we can expect that there will be more such "strategic raids" from that market. Learning how to process and respond to such attacks effectively is going to become increasingly important. What is an act of war when conducted by a state is most aptly a criminal act when conducted by a non-state. One size response does not fit all.

I appreciate very much President Bush's characterization of the AQ attacks on 9/11, that his assessment as he received the reports were that the first plane was an accident, the second was deliberate; and the third was a "declaration of war."

What is the proper and most effective response of a state who has had war declared upon them by a club? If these attacks had been waged by a state it would have been clearly war and warranted a war-like response. But by a club? It was a crime, and demanded a very differnt "criminal enforcement on steroids" approach. We need to figure that out, and ensure that we have the capabilities, capacities and authorities in place; and the strategies and plans to guide them; to ensure the best response when such things happen again.

Our actions of the past 10 years are understandable, but we can do better. The next time we get kicked in the jimmy, we must do better.

Ken White (not verified)

Wed, 05/11/2011 - 9:47am


Re: The first Anglo-Afghan, tenuous client -- or amorphous and thus flawed intent coupled with poor execution? A too large force attempting to garrison a location for which they were not really large enough? Shades of the US today... ;)

As you wrote, flawed strategies for the specific case <u>must</u> be avoided. That is not terribly difficult...

Conduct of effective strategic raids will take better training than we now offer, a factor which has been a deterrent to our current ability to conduct such raids. Another issue is the electoral cycle. Party politics also intrude as do Congressional budget perquisites.

However, I believe the lack of political will -- not restricted to civilians -- has been and likely will remain the most significant deterrent to strategic raids. The thought of possibly abandoning some equipment, casualties or potential PWs in a narrow escape as a result of errors in planning or execution will deter all but the hardiest politically minded souls. Not least because the deeply flawed US Media would have a proverbial field day playing who shot John with little idea of the validity of what they might write or say.

That can be avoided by simply doing it right and only when it's important. We really need to stop dredging up little wars based on US domestic political considerations.

Avoidance of development of the capability to perform strategic raids is in part a military stratagem to preclude such commitments. However, it is likely to be no more effective than were the Weinberger or Powell 'doctrines' in avoiding commitment to nation building. As you wrote, it is but one more tool and one which we have been remiss in not having available.

I always appreciate an opportunity to provide my favorite quote:<blockquote>"War means fighting. The business of the soldier is to fight. Armies are not called out to dig trenches, to throw up breastworks, to live in camps, but to find the enemy and strike him; to invade his country, and do him all possible damage in the shortest possible time. This will involve great destruction of life and property while it lasts; but such a war will of necessity be of brief continuance, and so would be an economy of life and property in the end. To move swiftly, strike vigorously, and secure all the fruits of victory is the secret of successful war."<br><br>

<i>As quoted in 'Stonewall Jackson and the American Civil War' (1904) by George Francis Robert Henderson, Ch. 25 : The Soldier and the Man, p. 481</i></blockquote>

Applies to war in general. It's quite correct and we knew and practiced that for many years but have lately abandoned it to our great cost. Strategic raids can and should hew to the same thoughts. They are a tool, one that will be needed in the near future.

A logical analysis of costs and benefits will show that such fairly large and sharp raids often can be a far better and cheaper in all aspects, including casualties and collateral damage, method of achieving objectives than attempting to use our general purpose forces for roles and missions they are ill equipped to perform.

We simply do not do the long term and patient application of limited force thing at all well. We do best with short, agressive action. We should play to our strengths.

A.E. (not verified)

Wed, 05/11/2011 - 5:37am

Ack, the Anglo-Afghan point should read that large raid to impose pliant client eventually ended in military disaster because of a sunk costs fallacy approach with insufficient forces after the client became tenuous.

A.E. (not verified)

Wed, 05/11/2011 - 5:35am


I don't think we're actually in disagreement--we're in "violent agreement" as the SWC board cliche goes.

Political sensitivity and risk-averseness is precisely the reason why the smaller efforts--which lack perhaps the power of the "older" model (I am thinking of naval 'descents' and similar efforts)--seem to predominate. I didn't meant to suggest as a normative factor that only SOF can carry out this as a mission--but am pointing out that this is the way it has evolved due to the current politics and conceptions of force in Western societies. You've just given me, however, a good idea for a sequel or expansion to this essay.

Space constraints prevented me from elaborating and qualifying on the point about JSOC, but I agree with Carl Prine's point that historical research is needed to ascertain the real impact they had in Iraq.

I think the citation of Luttwak's point about Rome may have been a bit opaque on my part--I was pointing out that Rome's mobile force policy slowly mutated over time into a garrisoning model. I've noticed in some historical reading I've done too (particularly in the British example) of raiding that mutates (due to poor policy) into permanent occupation due to sunk costs fallacy. The first Anglo-Afghan war is a great example of this--large raid

In sum total, it is a strategic problem with how force is shaped by politics--like everything else discussed on this site.

Ken White (not verified)

Tue, 05/10/2011 - 11:56pm

Catchy if misleading title. Once past that theatrical effort, the article makes a very valid point, that Strategic Raids are not a panacea and are no substitute for good policy and decent strategy. However, that point is better and more concisely made by one of the Posters of a Comment at <i>The Atlantic</i>: "There is a persistent critque of the political class not knowing what it wants to do within a conflict; how to fight it, how to win it. Okay, but that isn't a problem of raiders, its a problem of the political class."

Just so.

The author does inadvertently provide some cautionary points for said political class and for military leaders.<blockquote>"By demonstrating the steep consequences of opposing the state, the raider established a crude form of deterrence and exercised influence far beyond its otherwise limited means. It didn't hurt that raiding forces -- like the Roman legion -- were often qualitatively superior to their victims."</blockquote>Yes, that's really a requirement. If superior quality is not available, our penchant for substituting Mass is not a good solution...<br><br>

Failure in high places, both Civilian and Military can lead to repetitions of the First Anglo-Afghan War. Elkus also writes:<blockquote>"Historian Edward Luttwak notes that Rome eventually shifted to garrisoning its periphery, a distribution of forces that deprived the Empire of enough forces to deter its opponents."</blockquote>Far be it from me to point out that we appear determined to duplicate that strategic error by Rome...<blockquote>Instead of large columns of expeditionary forces, raiding increasingly utilizes small, forward-deployed special operations forces (SOF) capable of nearly superhuman endurance. The political sensitivity of these discretionary operations and the ability to micromanage them through modern communications in turn necessitates direct executive control.</blockquote>I think he draws some very wrong conclusions there.

"Columns" of Expeditionary Forces are eschewed by us for three reasons; the Armed Forces are a reflection of the society from which they come and thus are risk averse; They are forced to procure equipment for conventional combat due to politically driven issues -- the failure of <i>Eagle Claw</i> was due to all the factors he cites in the article and more but, mostly, due to not having the equipment to do the job properly (and we have diligently avoided procuring much of such equipment since then as a measure of risk avoidance); The Armed Forces have, due to essentially marginal training and a flawed personnel system that sacrifices performance for ease of 'management' determined that only the SOF can do such punitive strategic raids.<br><br> That last factor really needs to be corrected. Our SOF elements are great and can do many things but they are not large enough -- and should never be -- to mount a Brigade / BCT sized strategic raid, a size required to truly do a punitive effort in many cases and places...<blockquote>"Network-centric warfare -- or at least the version of it implemented by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld -- didn't give American forces superior awareness in the 2003 invasion phase of the Iraq war. But the Joint Special Operations Command's deft integration of technical intelligence and interagency networks may have succeeded where Rumsfeld had failed."</blockquote>That's just wrong on several levels but the statement is indicative of the mentality that says that only SOF elements can or must do strategic raids. That's not true. More correctly, it is today mostly true and has been since the 70s but it was not always true -- and it absolutely should not be in the future.

We cannot afford to garrison the world and should not -- we can afford to smack those (or their hosts...) who push us too far. We should not play by the rules of others on their choice of ground or other venue, we can establish our own rules and determine where and when we wish to apply what force. We are long overdue in doing that.

So yes, strategic raids are not always the answer and they require thought, training, materiel and preparation -- but they are a very valuable tool.

They are also a far better option than our current methodology...

Brian Kaiser (not verified)

Tue, 05/10/2011 - 2:57pm

In your article you compare and contrast the Roman Legions punitive raids with the current raid against Osama Bin Laden. Stating that the continued success of using this style of warfare is limited at best. Yet your own example contradicts your point, it is when the Roman empire ,as you point out, switched to a policy of garrisoning its forces or occupying its conquests that it collapsed under this burden. It is the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan which has also dictated the tactics of COIN. So raiding or counter terrorism with a supporting strategy incorporating all elements of DIME is prefferable to COIN because it deters the threat without exposing our weaknesses to a irregular warfare threat.