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“DET-A”: Applied Unconventional Warfare In Berlin and Beyond in the Cold War
Special Forces Berlin: Clandestine Cold War Operations of the US Army’s Elite 1956-1990 by James Stejskal. Available at Amazon here.
Reviewed by David S. Maxwell
James Stejskal has performed a great service to not only Special Forces but to the national security community by researching and writing this highly readable and anecdote filled history of one of the most unsung military organizations in the Cold War. Little has been written about this organization save for an article in VERITAS The Journal of US Army Special Operations History (which unfortunately is not published online which I hope some USASOC commander will eventually rectify) and stories on niche websites that focus on special operations. This is due largely to the classified nature of the unit and its work I searched Google as well as the major on line general and academic reference sources and I can find no other book on the subject of DET-A.
Of course the history of the unit and its activities are important and the book is worth the read just for that. The general public as well as students of history and security studies would both enjoy and benefit from reading this book. The stories of how the organization was established and evolved, its Cold War exploits in and around Berlin, its advanced skills training and operations, even testing the special atomic demolitions munitions (SADM) concept, and its deployment of soldiers to Tehran in support of Operation Eagle Claw all make for good reading and relevant lessons for today. And it is those lessons that make this a must read for anyone in Special Operations and should be read, tabbed, annotated, and marked up by every Special Forces soldier in the Regiment. Special Operations leaders and practitioners as well as policy makers and strategists should read the final chapter, “A Casualty of Peace” and ask what if we had not deactivated DET-A at the end of the Cold War? What if we had maintained this unit and established others like in it in the post-Cold War World? Why ask this question? Because DET-A was the unit throughout the Cold War that conducted “applied unconventional warfare” and was the best example of this quote that has been attributed to Robert Gates (though the source cannot be confirmed it is located here).
"Unconventional Warfare (UW) ... remains uniquely Special Forces'. It is the soul of Special Forces: the willingness to accept its isolation and hardships defines the Special Forces soldier. Its training is both the keystone and standard of Special Forces Training: it has long been an article of faith, confirmed in over forty years of worldwide operations, that "If you can do the UW missions, you can do all others." The objective of UW and Special Forces' dedication to it is expressed in Special Forces' motto: De Oppresso Liber (to free the oppressed)."
The foundation for all that DET-A did rested on its UW training, education, and expertise. While the detachment trained for unconventional warfare should war in Europe break out between NATO and the Warsaw Pact it also conducted operations that were successful because the foundational training in and focus of unconventional warfare. Because of its forward stationing, the intensive training on the full range of SF combat skills, intelligence, and tradecraft the soldiers of DET-A can truly be called masters of “applied unconventional warfare.”
No mission illustrates this capability better that the detachment’s contribution to Operation Eagle Claw. Although there has been little chronicling of this effort and it was overshadowed by the tragedy at Desert One and our failure to rescue the hostages it is worthy of study in how an investment in personnel with UW capabilities overseas can be at the right time and place to conduct operations to support critical national missions.
This is important because in 2010 in the ARSOF Capstone Concept there is the recognition that the Army Special Operations Command should invest in this type of capability and specifically recognized DET-A as well as other forward deployed Special Forces detachments (though each had different missions specific to their region):
“Historical ARSOF personnel investment overseas is best represented by, but not limited to, such organizations as Special Forces Detachment A in Berlin, Special Forces Detachment K in Korea, and the 46th Special Forces Company in Thailand, as well as long-term presence in Central and South America working for Chiefs of Mission. The advantages of an investment line of effort in IW are the opportunity to develop cultural and environmental skills as well as to build and sustain relationships and gain access and mutual understanding of challenges in the region.” (Page 8, but no longer available and superseded by subsequent Capstone Concepts).
Even more important is the UW discussion in the US Army Special Operations Command’s Special Operations Support to Political Warfare White Paper (available here.) DET-A is arguably the best example of proactive fashion unconventional warfare:
“UW in a proactive fashion is not a revision or evolution of the traditional Unconventional Warfare addressed above; rather it is an approach advocates the use of UW activities to “prevent fires” through small footprint, scaled application of force campaigns in order to develop persistent influence among potential UW constituencies; deepen understanding of significant individuals, groups and populations in the Human Domain of the potential UW operational area; and build trust with SOF’s likely UW partners in regions before U.S. leaders are constrained to react to crises.”
“Finally, and with true strategic benefit, proactive application of UW increases the likelihood of producing effects associated with coercive UW without the need to execute all phases of UW itself. By holding out the possibility of achieving traditional UW effects with a particularly small footprint, and by laying the groundwork for a more robust, better-informed conduct of UW or C-UW should the need arise, UW in a proactive fashion is therefore a fundamental component of Strategic Landpower doctrine of “rebalancing… national security strategy to focus on engagement and preventing war.”
If we are to conduct proactive unconventional warfare in the Gray Zone of competition and conflict the 21st Century we would do well to study DET-A and its lessons of applied unconventional warfare There are myriad tactical lessons for Special Forces units – one of the main ones being how to conduct advanced skills unconventional warfare training in the unit. The main strategic lesson is that to be proactive we need to invest in the people and organizations like DET-A, ensure they are forward deployed for long duration, and are prepared for the uncertainty of conflict we face in the foreseeable future whether it is terrorism, hybrid warfare, political warfare, or state on state warfare.
I strongly recommend this book and I intend to use it in my Georgetown course Unconventional Warfare and Special Operations For Policy Makers and Strategists because this is one of the best examples of applied unconventional warfare in special operations history.
David S. Maxwell is the Associate Director of the Center for Security Studies in the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. He is a retired Special Forces Colonel.