Small Wars Journal

America’s Dangerous Love for Special Ops

America’s Dangerous Love for Special Ops by Mark Moyar, New York Times

… The country, and its presidents, have been enamored with special operations forces ever since Franklin Roosevelt created the first unit in 1942. John F. Kennedy expanded the Army Special Forces from 2,000 to 10,500 soldiers and founded the Navy SEALs. Under George W. Bush and Barack Obama, special operations forces grew from 38,000 in 2001 to 70,000 in 2016.

Will President Trump follow suit? He has already used special operations forces in several Middle Eastern countries. And the units seem custom-made for a president intent on both combating terrorism and avoiding large-scale war.

But the history of America’s special operations forces recommends caution. They are primarily tactical tools, not strategic options. Nor, for all the talent and training, can they always beat the odds.

When Jimmy Carter sent special operators to rescue the hostages in Iran, the raid went awry far short of its objective, with eight dead Americans left behind. Bill Clinton deployed Delta Force members to neutralize the Somalian warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid, but aborted the mission after militiamen dragged American corpses through the streets of Mogadishu. Barack Obama’s use of special operations forces to train a Syrian rebel army yielded a pitiable “four or five” fighters.

When special operations forces have succeeded tactically — as they so frequently and impressively have — they rarely have produced strategic success on their own. Presidents Bush and Obama hoped that precision strikes by special operators would decapitate the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the insurgents endured so long as they controlled territory and population…

Read on.

Comments

Let me move COL Maxwell's comment below to the top of the page now -- this, so that we might consider some of his and Anthony Cordesman's thoughts.

BEGIN COL MAXWELL COMMENT FROM BOTTOM OF THIS PAGE

Mark is talking about what Anthony Cordesman called the use of SOF in his 2015 OpEd: "strategic tokenism." He provides a brief history of SOF wonders about the utility of SOF in the next war (which I think he posits has a major theater war - but of course SOF will play a supporting role major wars). But he makes this important point. But I would add the caveat that it is hard to achieve strategic effects if you do not have a strategy with balance and coherency among ends, ways, and means.

QUOTE: When special operations forces have succeeded tactically — as they so frequently and impressively have — they rarely have produced strategic success on their own. Presidents Bush and Obama hoped that precision strikes by special operators would decapitate the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the insurgents endured so long as they controlled territory and population. The killing of Osama Bin Laden did not cripple Al Qaeda, and it produced a strategically damaging backlash in Pakistan. With the notable exception of the defeat of the Taliban in 2001, strategic victory has required the integration of special operations forces with both conventional forces and civilian national security agencies. END QUOTE:

Important conclusion:

QUOTE: One virtue of the military veterans in Mr. Trump’s national security circle is their ability to reject the unrealistic expectations of military novices, a group that has always been well represented among the White House consiglieri. The deployment of Marines to Syria last month is an encouraging sign of a willingness to transfer burdens from special units, overutilized by Obama-era greenhorns, to underutilized conventional units.
Let’s hope it represents a trend. If Mr. Trump pays heed to the generals and the veterans, he is likely to go down in history as one of the few presidents to demonstrate sobriety and prudence in the use of Special Operations forces. END QUOTE

END COL MAXWELL COMMENT FROM THE BOTTOM OF THIS PAGE

Question:

As discussed by Warlock and myself below, and specifically re: achieving "strategic success," it would seem that NEITHER

a. Precision strikes by special operators "to decapitate insurgencies" (or to decapitate regimes for that matter) in Iraq and Afghanistan, NOR, indeed,

b. The use of our special operations forces with both conventional forces and civilian nation security agencies, herein, "to control territory and populations;"

NEITHER of these approaches, it would seem, is likely to achieve "strategic success" for the U.S./the West; this, given that the U.S./the West's definition of "strategic success" is understood more in "hearts and minds" -- rather than "decapitation of regimes/insurgencies" or "control of territory and populations" -- terms, to wit: as winning the population's acceptance of our unusual and unique way of life, way of governance and values, attitudes and beliefs.

Thus, should we conclude that to achieve "strategic success" -- as we understand, require and perceive it in the "hearts and minds" realm noted above -- this cannot be achieved by (a) ANY singular or combined use of our military, national security and/or indeed WOG assets focused on (b) "decapitation of regimes or insurgencies" or, indeed, focused on "controlling territory and populations?"

Rather, for the measure of "hearts and minds" strategic success that we require, should we understand that this can only be achieved via (a) a successful pre-invasion or pre-revolt "ideological indoctrination" process; one which is focused on (b) winning the population over to our unusual and unique way of life, way of governance, etc.?

(Attempts at achieving our "ideological indoctrination" requirements -- in a post-invasion/post-revolt setting -- which became necessary due to the failure of such things as "universal western values" -- these such post-invasion/post-revolt "ideological indoctrination" attempts/approaches have resulted in dramatic strategic reversals/strategic disasters/strategic failures?)

Warlock

Mon, 05/01/2017 - 3:38pm

In reply to by Bill C.

Never understood squaring a circle. But:

a. Often, yes. Revolutionary war seeks to overthrow the existing system -- some combination of political, social, and economic norm, and a more inclusive movement is more likely to stick. More accurate to say an internally-generated UW effort -- a revolution *might* start from the bottom strata, but it *must* be internally generated.

b. Influenced, not employed. Successful revolution requires an internal buy-in, which makes your characterization of "alien and profane" inaccurate -- there have to be enough indigenous believers to carry the day. The initial cadre may be externally trained, but they have to be able to develop credibility amongst the larger population.

c. Overstretched. If you can't build a native cadre, you're doomed to fail.

So as far as who should lead, I don't believe you're talking SOF, which are, in the end, military forces. You want the "other guys".

Bill C.

Fri, 04/28/2017 - 5:43pm

In reply to by Warlock

Re: "revolutionary war," it appears that we have to, somehow, find a way to square the circle here.

In this regard, note the original context of our discussion; wherein, I addressed (a) the suggested offensive employment of one's special operations forces, (b) in an unconventional warfare manner in other states and societies and, this, (c) for the specific purpose of laying the necessary foundation for (from the definition/purpose of "revolutionary war" noted above) "destroying an existing society and its institutions and replacing them with a completely new structure."

In this such context, consider the following from our discussion above:

BEGIN QUOTE

The offensive employment of unconventional warfare -- to extend political and strategic positions -- has been almost solely the weapon of the Sino-Soviet bloc in the Cold War. The Communists follow a pattern of active and aggressive promotion of their goals, while the United States and allied countries have used unconventional warfare primarily for the protection and safeguarding of their interests.

END QUOTE

Note that this revolutionary war effort -- to achieve fundamental and complete state and societal "transformation" more along, in this case, communist political, economic, social and value lines -- and the use of unconventional warfare, in an "offensive" manner, specifically to achieve same -- note that this does not appear, in the quoted material above, to be (a) an "indigenous population" undertaking. Nor does this revolutionary war effort appear to require that (b) the Chinese or the Soviets "invade." Rather, this appears to be an UW undertaking of ideologically-driven "expansionist" great nations to achieve their (the ideologically-driven "expansionist" great nations') revolutionary war goals for "outlying" states and societies.

Thus:

a. A "grass-roots"/"bottom-up" UW effort,

b. Employed by ideologically-driven "expansionist" great nations in other states and societies; this,

c. To establish the necessary preconditions in such states and societies for a -- meaningful and effective -- indigenous reflection/representation of these great nations' "revolutionary war" goals.

(This is, after all, what I believe that we are talking about here, to wit: the necessary "preparing of the ground" for the achievement of our -- not the indigenous populations' -- state and societal "transformative" goals. Our mistake in the past being that we believed in such things as "universal western values," which suggested that such "grass roots"/"preparing of the ground" efforts would not be necessary. Now that we have learned otherwise ["universal western values" have not obtained throughout the world], thus our current discussion of following the Sino-Soviet model of [a] offensive employment of one's UW assets; this, to [b] ESTABLISH such necessary pre-conditions. To wit: a "fire-in-the-belly" indigenous belief in, desire for and willingness to fight to achieve our way of life, our way of governance, etc. Thus, to see my "market-democracy" ideological indoctrination recommended "skill set" for our SOF in exactly these such "establish the necessary pre-conditions" terms. Does this help?)

Now, back to who should have "lead" in exactly this such -- UW-centric -- strategic context; a strategic context which, thus, requires that we, much like the Soviets/the communists before us, "establish the necessary pre-conditions" for the "world revolution" that we seek to achieve. This such decision (on who should have lead) to possibly be based on (a) which of our WOG agencies' personnel routinely interact most closely with indigenous populations, (b) which of our such agencies' personnel, thus, are most likely to have earned the indigenous populations' trust and (c) which of our such agencies' personnel, accordingly, might be most likely to achieve the successful market-democracy "ideological indoctrination" -- and "conversion" -- of said indigenous populations that we require.

(Possibly something of a problem -- a contradictory effort I might imagine -- for certain SOF entities; this, given that the trust established by these SOF elements over many years -- this such trust is likely to have been earned specifically by showing great respect for, great understanding of and significant non-interference with, the native's preferred ways of life, their preferred ways of governance and their preferred values, attitudes and beliefs. To wit: the very things that the U.S./the West now seeks to eradicate and replace; this, by such methods as "ideological indoctrination" and "conversion" as per our -- often alien and profane -- such attributes.)

Warlock

Fri, 04/28/2017 - 12:24pm

In reply to by Bill C.

Quote me correctly: U.S. SOF haven't been trained to conduct revolutionary war. Revolution, by nature, has to come from within indigenous population, which may include dissenting elements of the government and military in that country. There is no such thing as a revolution fought within a country by a foreign power; that's called an invasion. To "conduct UW in the service of revolutionary war"...to assist those indigenous revolutionaries with training, material, and services, as low-key and invisible as possible, is a different matter. Within U.S. SOF, you're then specifically talking SF, rather than the whole of the force, and even SF, while more flexible and trained to appreciate economic, social, and psychological factors, is weighted towards the military functions.

And of course, within the U.S. "WOG", there's an organization with a specific legislative charter for covert and paramilitary operations. There's overlap with SOF in terms of UW capabilities there. As far as who leads, though, I don't think there's a pat, all-purpose answer for that. It depends on the strategic context.

Bill C.

Thu, 04/27/2017 - 12:19pm

In reply to by Warlock

Question:

If U.S./Western SOF (being primarily used in a defensive mode during the Old Cold War and beyond) aren't and haven't been trained to *conduct* UW in the service of revolutionary war -- and, indeed, if none of the U.S./the West's other WOG entities have been trained to do so either --

(This characterization of the problem being consistent with COL Bjelajac's thoughts below:

"The offensive employment of unconventional warfare -- to extend political and strategic positions -- has been almost solely the weapon of the Sino-Soviet bloc in the Cold War. The Communists follow a pattern of active and aggressive promotion of their goals, while the United States and allied countries have used unconventional warfare primarily for the protection and safeguarding of their interests.")

And if, today, we believe that SOF is not best suited to take "lead" in this critically important task. (For example, due to their closeness to the people and their better understanding of the "human factors" involved),

("An understanding of the human factors is arguably more critical in irregular warfare than in conventional warfare and especially critical in complex civil conflicts that extend over time into a protracted war for 'hearts and minds.' ")

http://www.soc.mil/ARIS/HumanFactorsS.pdf See Page 3.)

Then exactly which U.S./Western WOG entity (with an even closer relationship with the people and an even a better understanding of the applicable "human factor" dynamics?) is going to be assigned "lead" here?

This, re: the necessary "offensive employment of UW in the service of revolutionary war"/"market-democracy ideological indoctrination" requirements of our current time?

Warlock

Wed, 04/26/2017 - 3:09pm

In reply to by Bill C.

Given the above characterization of revolutionary war -- "a unity of which the constituent parts, in varying importance, are military, political, economic, social, and psychological" -- then U.S. SOF (and frankly, most others) aren't, and haven't been trained to *conduct* revolutionary war -- at best, they're trained to nurture and assist it where it's already growing. Keep in mind, too, that the polyglot that is U.S. SOF is focused on the military part of revolution. Yes, psychological operations units are part of SOF, but only in the same way that air rescue units have periodically been part of SOF...because they're not a priority for resources with the conventional force. Everyone else under the SOF umbrella, while they may appreciate the other aspects, are principally focused on the military part of the equation. And for all the gasps of surprise at what the Russians have accomplished, their SOF is oriented the same way -- the Russians are just better at the "whole of government" thing, largely because political power is more concentrated.

Bill C.

Wed, 04/26/2017 - 2:16pm

In reply to by Morgan

Re: an offensive rather than a defensive role for SOF, I am thinking more in terms revolutionary war and, thus, more in terms of, I believe, (a) an unconventional warfare-centric activity which emphasizes (b) ideological indoctrination. For example (and, here, make the appropriate U.S./Western/market-democracy "civil society" changes):

BEGIN QUOTE

Among the techniques used to implement revolutionary warfare strategy and to attain their goals, the selection of cadre, organization, deification of the masses and psychological impregnation are the most important. Leaders, speakers, propagandists, activities, organizers, officers, volunteers and others are trained. Revolutionary cells are established to control different circles and organized groups in all sections of society. Parallel communists hierarchies are organized starting with the cell of a local committee to the central communist party. This becomes the party's invisible machine by which unions, sport, and cultural associations, veteran societies and others are controlled. The conflict embraces all segments and groups of society and, in fact, is concerned with every single aspect of social activity. It is and must be a fight for the minds of the people. That side which is victorious in this aspect of the struggle is virtually assured ultimate victory.

END QUOTE

The offensive "skills" that SOF would need for this mission -- and the rationale for same -- would appear to be described here:

BEGIN QUOTE

The decisive factor is more in the nature of power. The success of the revolutionaries can primarily be assigned to two extraordinarily powerful factors, namely, their closeness to the population -- that is their ability to win over the population -- and their ideological conviction.

END QUOTE

https://www.jstor.org/stable/1034145?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents (As to both quoted items above, see Page 79.)

(Thus, our SOF must clearly understand and fervently believe in the foundational ideas of market-democracy, must be able to answer difficult questions relating to same and, thus, must be able to "convert" populations accordingly; this, due to their [SOF's] "closeness to the populations" and their "ideological conviction.")

Thus, if we:

a. Properly reject the now significantly dis-proven "universal western values"/"overwhelming appeal of our way of life"/"end of history" thesis -- which suggested that we only needed to do regime change/regime decapitation in order to achieve our advancing market-democracy goals -- and, in the place of same,

b. Properly adopt the much more-realistic (ideologically speaking) "we are still sucking hind tit" thesis -- which suggests that a bottom's-up/grass roots ideological promotion effort is still absolutely necessary to achieve our advancing market-democracy goals,

Then these such changes would seem put unconventional warfare/ideological indoctrination -- and thus SOF -- (a) at the tip of the spear (b) in the right gear (offensive rather than defense) and, thus, (c) on the right track (revolutionary war).

Bottom Line Thought:

If the promotion of one's unusual way of life, unusual way of governance and unusual values, attitudes and beliefs is one's goal. And if these such unusual ways of life, etc., HAVE NOT, in fact, obtained/gained general acceptance throughout the world, then it would seem that one must, indeed, embark upon a revolutionary war mission to achieve such goals:

BEGIN QUOTE

Revolutionary warfare is never confined within the bounds of military action. Because its purpose is to destroy an existing society and its institutions and to replace them with a completely new structure, any revolutionary war is a unity of which the constituent parts, in varying importance, are military, political, economic, social, and psychological.

END QUOTE

http://www.marines.mil/Portals/59/Publications/FMFRP%2012-18%20%20Mao%20... (See Page 6.)

Herein, our SOF -- employed in an offensive manner such as that I have described above -- being a critically important component; this, of the commonly "unconventional warfare-centric"/"ideological indoctrination" nature and character of such revolutionary wars?

Morgan

Wed, 04/26/2017 - 5:44am

In reply to by Bill C.

Bill C,

How would you "offensively" employ our SOF (beyond the ways they are employed in a combat zone)? What skills would they need IOT advance market-democracy? Cyber skills (hacking?)? Understanding of global finances and ability to influence local economies? Understand & use cryptocurrencies?

I think it does make sense to use them in a more offensive role VS defensive as you describe the Cold War usage of them, but I'm not sure if I understands what that means.

From our article above:

BEGIN QUOTE

When special operations forces have succeeded tactically — as they so frequently and impressively have — they rarely have produced strategic success on their own. Presidents Bush and Obama hoped that precision strikes by special operators would decapitate the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the insurgents endured so long as they controlled territory and population. The killing of Osama Bin Laden did not cripple Al Qaeda, and it produced a strategically damaging backlash in Pakistan. With the notable exception of the defeat of the Taliban in 2001, strategic victory has required the integration of special operations forces with both conventional forces and civilian national security agencies.

END QUOTE

First, let's do the logical -- and boringly basic and necessary thing -- and attempt to articulate what "strategic success"/the strategic objective/the "ends" that the U.S./the West seeks to achieve look like today. This being: to gain greater power, influence and control throughout the world by transforming outlying states and societies more along modern western lines and by incorporating said states and societies more into the U.S./the Western sphere of influence.

Next, let's look at how -- in the Old Cold War of yesterday -- the Soviets/the communists back then used, for example, unconventional warfare as a means/method for achieving their, similar, expansionist objectives. (In their case, of course, this being: To gain greater power, influence and control throughout the world by transforming outlying states and societies more along communist lines and by incorporating such states and societies more into the Soviet/communist sphere of influence.)

https://www.jstor.org/stable/1034145?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

On Page 89 of this referenced/linked document, at the second paragraph of the first column, note the following:

BEGIN QUOTE

The offensive employment of unconventional warfare -- to extend political and strategic positions -- has been almost solely the weapon of the Sino-Soviet bloc in the Cold War. The Communists follow a pattern of active and aggressive promotion of their goals, while the United States and allied countries have used unconventional warfare primarily for the protection and safeguarding of their interests.

END QUOTE

Thus to ask:

Is the problem here the use of the U.S./the West's special operations forces today in a defensive role? (To wit: as per the quoted paragraph of this article which I have provide above.) If so,

Then might the solution to this problem (the lack of proper application of our special operations forces to strategic objectives) be the use of the U.S./the West's special operations forces today more in an offensive manner? (Such as more per the Soviet/communist model of old -- described in my referenced/linked item above.)

Bottom Line Questions:

When the strategic objective of the U.S./the West was "containing communism," a defensive role for America's/the West's special operations forces could -- from a strategic perspective -- be better understood. Yes?

Given, however, that our strategic objective today is "expansionist" in nature (herein, certain state and non-state actors standing in our way), to wit: as per "advancing market-democracy;" then, in this decided different/opposite strategic context, might an offense role -- for America's/the West's special operations forces -- make more sense?

Dave Maxwell

Mon, 04/24/2017 - 9:20am

Mark is talking about what Anthony Cordesman called the use of SOF in his 2015 OpEd: "strategic tokenism." He provides a brief history of SOF wonders about the utility of SOF in the next war (which I think he posits has a major theater war - but of course SOF will play a supporting role major wars). But he makes this important point. But I would add the caveat that it is hard to achieve strategic effects if you do not have a strategy with balance and coherency among ends, ways, and means.

QUOTE: When special operations forces have succeeded tactically — as they so frequently and impressively have — they rarely have produced strategic success on their own. Presidents Bush and Obama hoped that precision strikes by special operators would decapitate the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the insurgents endured so long as they controlled territory and population. The killing of Osama Bin Laden did not cripple Al Qaeda, and it produced a strategically damaging backlash in Pakistan. With the notable exception of the defeat of the Taliban in 2001, strategic victory has required the integration of special operations forces with both conventional forces and civilian national security agencies.
END QUOTE:
Important conclusion:

QUOTE: One virtue of the military veterans in Mr. Trump’s national security circle is their ability to reject the unrealistic expectations of military novices, a group that has always been well represented among the White House consiglieri. The deployment of Marines to Syria last month is an encouraging sign of a willingness to transfer burdens from special units, overutilized by Obama-era greenhorns, to underutilized conventional units.

Let’s hope it represents a trend. If Mr. Trump pays heed to the generals and the veterans, he is likely to go down in history as one of the few presidents to demonstrate sobriety and prudence in the use of Special Operations forces.
END QUOTE