Advancing a Strategic Theory of Special Operations
Special Operations: Operations requiring unique modes of employment, tactical techniques, equipment and training often conducted in hostile, denied, or politically sensitive environments and characterized by one or more of the following: time sensitive, clandestine, low visibility, conducted with and/or through indigenous forces, requiring regional expertise, and/or a high degree of risk.
We have a problem. We have a responsibility to equip decision makers at the highest levels of our government with the intellectual tools and academic foundation to make decisions and implement policies that lead to positive outcomes when special operations are employed; and we have fallen short. We are both victims and perpetrators of the “I was there” phenomenon. A proclivity to off-ramp our attempts at intellectual discourse by defaulting to story-telling about those things – our people, and their adventures, that make up the outward facing exemplification of our community.
Consequently, at the national security and policy level of the United States government there is a gap in the theoretical underpinnings of special operations. At the core of this gap is the absence of a strategic theory that informs decision makers and planners at the policy and strategy level and connects national interests to policy implementation and execution. As a result, the concept of special operations remains suspended in a perpetually imbalanced paradigm that is both pervasive in all military domains while simultaneously misunderstood and mismanaged in terms of informed strategic employment – think of it like that distant family member that comes to Thanksgiving dinner every year but always has to sit at the kid’s table. More importantly, this also causes a significant void in understanding the strategic factors, those actions and conditions that are implemented and set at the highest levels of government, the national command level, that influence the success or failure of special operations.
To fill this void, we must articulate and embrace a strategic theory of special operations that recognizes, and in some manner, states that: national level conditions must be established for special operations to achieve desired policy level outcomes. This theory recognizes and ultimately addresses the factors at the national command level that determine, or at least influence, the success or failure of special operations. In so doing it meets a critical requirement of theory by placing the specific phenomenon of successful special operations into the broader category of causal relationships that are framed by the “conditions” and “factors”. This includes special operations conducted as part of a larger, conventionally flavored campaign, an independent special warfare campaign – a long term series of actions and activities employing dedicated special operations forces conducting multiple special operations core activities, or as independent actions – discrete special operations such as raids or hostage rescues usually of limited duration and highly specific objectives. This theory is also squarely anchored at the strategic paradigm by focusing on explaining phenomena that are framed by U.S. national interests, the international arena, defined outcomes and are driven by policy or law. Finally, as a strategic theory it must also serve as an umbrella for the various theories that address aspects of special operations at the operational or tactical level and serve as a link to broader theories of warfare and strategy that inform policy makers.
The target audience for a strategic theory of special operations is the national command authority, considered the statutory members of the National Security Council, the Director of National Intelligence, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the White House Chief of Staff and the National Security Adviser. This is not an exclusive audience: there are other decision makers and influencers in the target audience but many hold their station through appointment, informal relationship or by simply being anointed as a “trusted adviser”. This lack of statutory position should not be perceived to not have real power or influence. While the actual conduct of special operations is generally perceived to be the purview of the Department of Defense, in reality, this theory must also encapsulate special operations led, sponsored, or independently conducted by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
There is significant literature that points to tangible characteristics such as setting tactical conditions, recruiting top flite personnel, unique equipment or technology to explain success. There is no question that these factors are valid. Special operations personnel are screened and selected for a proven set of physical, intellectual and psychological characteristics. They are also trained to levels that exceed conventional counterparts and are better resourced. However, these factors fall short in informing and educating the decision makers and strategists at the national command level. Essentially, there is no linkage connecting the dots between the factors that make tactical raids and rescues successful, and the policy level actions that also contribute to that success.
In the context of the strategic decision making process, generally centered on the National Security Council, there is an established baseline of understanding with respect to general military theory and strategy. This baseline supports the concept of operating domains that align a military service with predominant capabilities and establish the responsibility for establishing doctrine and operating principles; essentially, making the rules for how military power is applied. Currently the Department of Defense recognizes five domains: Air, land, sea space and cyber. Domains also help justify the existence of the services and the development and acquisition of resources. For example, the requirement to operate in the air domain both justifies the existence of the Air Force and their further acquisition of platforms and capabilities such as aircraft and satellites. Notably, there is no special operations domain.
The Role of Theory
As an initial step it is important to review a sampling of the literature on military theory and theorists as well as the concept of grand strategy and strategy. This serves the dual purpose of illuminating the interrelationship and offering an overview of the evolution of thought regarding military theory. As a final step it is appropriate to focus specifically on existing theories of special operations and highlight the gaps that exist in the present body of scholarship.
Military Theory and Strategy
Military theory provides the intellectual foundation for planners and offers a menu of largely timeless principles that are easily applied in a modern context. Ideas such as massing power against an enemy’s weakness or maintaining the initiative were equally relevant to Napoleon or Schwarzkopf. More importantly, these principles can be applied from the tactical level – a Company Commander in direct contact with the enemy, all the way to a strategic planner or policy maker.
Military theory also informs the paradigms that in turn influence the crafting of national level security objectives, supporting strategies, campaign design and operational and contingency planning. Theory, what it means and its relationship to strategy formulation has evolved over time.
Sun Tzu wrote The Art of War in the 6th Century B.C. and arguably established the discipline of Military Science. In his 16th Century work The Five Rings, Miyamoto Musashi, a Samurai and philosopher used a combination of teaching and philosophy of individual combat to serve as allegories for a broader understanding and consciousness of warfare. Musashi may also be the first on record to assert, an often repeated complaint, that very few actually understand strategy.
Modern theory is generally anchored on the work of classic theorists and strategists such as Carl von Clausewitz and Antoine-Henri Jomini. Both of these theorist/practitioners are unique in the enduring quality of their concepts and principles and that they successfully articulate notions that bring theory into the practical realm of strategy and policy.
Clausewitz is the rare example of a military theorist, strategist and practitioner; he was a General in the Prussian Army from 1792 to 1831. He is the military philosopher that laid the foundation of strategy in the modern era. He introduces us to the paradigm that "war is a continuation of state policy by other means"; a concept that remains a philosophical anchor that ties warfare to politics, statecraft, and grand strategy. Clausewitz’s theories and philosophies provide much of the scholarly foundation for modern theorists and he also sits in the unique position of bridging the gap between theory and strategy.
Among the most demonstrable and enduring principles that Clausewitz established was in framing the nature of war with a trinity of violence/hatred/passion; chance/ probability/chaos; and reason. His understanding of the friction in warfare, which he describes as the thing that occurs when theory meets the reality of warfare, is often cited as "Clausewitzian friction". He also frames the relationships of warfare with politics. This is a critical distinction that elevates what essentially was a discussion of tactics to a more intellectual understanding of all the factors in the environment.
This linkage to strategy in the literature is important because in practice, strategy is complex and confounding. Strategy and grand strategy are often misinterpreted concepts. Grand strategy is best understood in the framework provided by Liddell Hart as the conceptual guidance that coordinates and directs the resources of a nation towards a political objective. An example of this was the U.S. approach in containing the Soviet Union that characterized the cold war era – a rare example of the U.S. articulating, and then operationalizing, grand strategy.
In practicality, strategy is the mechanism that allows military planners to set conditions for an employment of force, and it is the link from national objectives to strategic and operational planning. While this concept seems fairly straight forward, the complexities of strategy are limitless. Colin Gray, one of the most well respected Strategic Theorists of the last half century introduces some of his thoughts on strategy by appropriately noting that those who do not have to actually “do strategy” in the real world, seem to come up with an endless list of solutions. Gray also offers a series of reasons that explain the difficulty of putting strategy into practice; what he calls "doing strategy well". Among these are the enduring nature of strategy, the volume and variety of friction and an inability to guess correctly when planning for future events.
In a subsequent work Gray offers a comprehensive analysis of the future of warfare, the unchanging nature of strategy and a strong argument that much of the future will look like the past. He uses five themes to bring together his argument: strategic history, the role of politics and technology, symmetrical versus asymmetrical conflicts, shifting relations and the enduring human dimension. Perhaps most relevant for this article, Gray sees a “golden era” for special operations in the coming century. He notes that the increase in special operations employment and perceived effectiveness in the post 9/11 era is compelling and has led to many accounts of dramatic and inspiring operations. However, Gray also makes particular note of the absence of literature and discussion on the strategic value of special operations forces.
Harold Winton’s examination of the utility of military theory to individual practitioners and military organizations sees the first task of theory as defining the field of study. Milan Vego does just that in an article written for Joint Forces Quarterly. He defines military theory as: a comprehensive analysis of all the aspects of warfare, its patterns and inner structure, and the mutual relationships of its various components/elements. Military theory also “encapsulates political, economic, and social relationships within a society and among the societies that create a conflict”. He also categorizes and identifies theories on specific types of hostilities, such as insurgency, and the air, land and sea domains.
Both Winton and Vego rely heavily on Clausewitz and Jomini to illustrate an underlying friction that exists among military theorists; the question of “is it more art or more science?” Not unsurprisingly, they are consistent with the majority of the scholars in the field in agreeing that the answer is generally preceded by “it depends”. Winton generally finds Clausewitz to be a philosopher without strong ties to fixed rules. Essentially identifying an underlying theme that runs throughout Clausewitz’s work that creativity should not be stifled as long as adherence to principles is maintained. Jomini, on the other hand, took a very scientific approach to theory; generally believing in a more systematic approach and adherence to fixed principles. Vego had similar findings and even called out Jomini’s belief in principles that could be applied with mathematical certainty. Vego also emphasizes that military history, with a cautionary note, has to be the foundation of military theory. Historical examples can support an idea or a theoretical statement. They can also be used to understand the intangible aspects of warfare theory that are often the most enduring (leadership, unit cohesion, tactics, etc.) His cautionary note recognizes the significant danger (my emphasis) in cherry-picking historical examples. Most importantly, Vego emphasizes that military theory must be grounded in the reality of war.
Special Operations Theory
William McRaven’s Spec Ops - Case studies in special operations warfare: theory and practice is an appropriate introduction to the literature on special operations theory. McRaven offers a theory of special operations which he readily admits, scopes special operations to a much narrower category that more closely matches the special operation core activity of Direct Action, raids or strike type operations of limited duration, often conducted during a single period of darkness, with very specific or limited objectives. He develops the concept of relative superiority, an effect achieved early in an engagement, as a necessary condition for success. The methodology for this research is historical case studies of eight special operations raids ranging from the 1940 German assault on the Belgian fort at Eben Emael, to the 1976 Israeli raid on Entebbe.
McRaven’s methodological approach falls into one of the typical traps associated with historical case study analysis – selection bias. His use of a relatively small number of nonrandom and successful operations, allow him to build a case that supports the idea of relative superiority. He does add significant depth to his case studies by a combination of interviews with participants and site visits to the location of the actions.
Similar to McRaven’s approach to a specific subcategory of special operations, Abigail Linnington’s dissertation focuses on the special operations core activity of unconventional warfare; operations that enable a resistance movement or insurgency by providing highly specialized advisory, logistic and training support to proxy forces attempting to coerce, disrupt or overthrow an occupying or illegitimate regime, in the context of U.S. Foreign Policy. Linnington’s central question is: what factors best explain the success and failure of U.S. campaigns in support of insurgencies?
Linnington develops four independent variables framed from a national security objectives perspective and derived from three theoretical paradigms. From a broad overview of international security studies literature she examines the various theoretical underpinnings of insurgency, wars of independence in grand strategy and special operations in covert action. She also incorporates a review of various perspectives on measures of effectiveness used to gauge outcomes in insurgencies and wars of liberation. Finally, literature from the field of international conflict management such as Durch’s, the evolution of U.N. peacekeeping: case studies and comparative analysis, is included to provide alternative paradigms regarding solutions to issues of intervention, governance and end-states.
James Kiras also approaches special operations in the context of strategic outcomes. He offers that in contrast to notions put forward by annihilation, or strategic paralysis theory – that call for attacking an enemy indirectly and causing moral damage or destroying an enemy center of gravity, special operations is best viewed through the theory of strategic attrition. This is an approach that leads him to conclude that special operations achieve the best outcomes as part of an overall campaign and that they that require integration with conventional capabilities.
With some similarity to Kiras, but with a much broader range of case examples, John Arquilla uses a series of readings ranging from ancient Homeric tales to Chaim Herzog's account of the raid on Entebbe to tease out observations relevant to special operations. Among them, the somewhat recurring concept that integration of special and conventional operations leads to success. His case studies all focus on highly tactical operations that have both operational and in some cases strategic impact. Arquilla also touches on a broader theme that has been at least implicit in much of the writing on special operations; the role of personalities and the unique nature of the people that fit into the profile of special operations soldiers.
Robert Spulak also addresses this concept when he asserts that special operations personnel possess unique attributes that include qualities such as flexibility and creativity. He argues that these attributes mitigate the “Clausewitzian friction” that occurs when theory meets reality. Overcoming these risks requires a greater density of attributes in the population of SOF personnel. The right "warrior" attributes in a much higher density of the population of SOF units is a necessary condition while operational characteristics are sufficient to explain how SOF works through the friction that hinders many conventional units.
Ultimately, the wealth of existing literature establishes significant scholarship on general military theory and has solid value in informing and educating decision making processes. There is also significant theory that explains the success or failure of discrete mission sets built around the special operations core activities. While much of this writing relies on anecdotes and shallow historical analysis, there has been some significant effort to elevate the discussion.
From Theory to Application
Having walked the dog from military theory “writ large” to special operations theory “writ not so large”, the gap in strategic special operations theory becomes evident; whether through omission or benign neglect. Regardless of cause, it begs the question of what we should expect from a strategic special operations theory. Recalling the target audience mentioned in the introductory paragraphs it is important to clarify that each of those members of the national command authority are supported by a staff that with rare exception, will base their understanding of special operations on “what they have read”. This theory, and subsequent scholarship testing and debating its merits, must be part of the reading list. To meet the standards of intellectual honesty and academic integrity necessary to be part of the standing literature, it is important to comply with generally accepted standards for any theory; it must provide a body of statements that systemize knowledge and explain phenomena; concepts must be well defined; assumptions must be realistic; there must be readily available empirical tools for researchers and most importantly, specific conclusions must be testable and an increasing number of observations must further confirm the theory.
Testability of a theory is critical. Without a reasonable methodology to validate the concept that a theory is trying to explain, it is no more useful as an explanatory tool than philosophy. With the framework of a theory, and a reasonable understanding of what we want to explain, the next logical step is the development of hypotheses that explain the relationship of the high level factors that impact success or failure of a special operation. Fortunately, there are plenty of possible hypotheses to construct. Broad topics include the structure of the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD), the relationship between DoD and the CIA in the context of a particular case, the degree of convergence of interests with of a particular host nation, and the density of Officers on the Joint Staff with special operations experience. There are also factors that have been identified in the existing literature that apply broadly across multiple special operations and can serve as the basis for additional hypotheses. Teasing these factors out of the literature and then eliminating those that are distinctly tactical or attributable to some other aspect such as emergent technology, helps to screen for strategic applicability.
Some examples of how broad categories, like the structure of the OSD, can transition from the intuitive – I think OSD’s structure may have a strategic impact on special operations – to a more refined hypothesis that attempts to explain relationships, are provided below.
The National Security Council or NSC was established by statute in 1947. The role of the NSC is to advise the President on policies related to national security, serve in a coordination role between various elements of the government and assess objectives, consider supporting policies and make recommendations to the President. There is also significant latitude provided to the President in the catchall phrase “perform other such functions as the President may direct”. As a result, the role and structure of the NSC has shifted over time reflecting the desires of the President. Based on the shifting role of this central organization there is sufficient cause to hypothesize that a National Security Council with an increased role in an administration’s policy formulation will increase the likelihood of successful employment of special operations.
The broad spectrum of intelligence available to inform decision makers in the U.S. Government is provided by a variety of organizations and agencies commonly referred to as the Intelligence Community or IC. Many of the capabilities resident in these agencies are controlled or allocated based on a process that loosely adheres to prioritization provided by the NSC and interpreted in the past by the Director of Central Intelligence or, more recently, by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence or ODNI. Frequently the various agencies also inject their equities into the prioritization process. The ability to apply these capabilities, ranging from satellite imagery to intercepted communications to human assets, leads to more informed planning and situational awareness during mission execution. Given the significance of national level intelligence assets it is asserted that dedicated support by national level intelligence assets increases the likelihood of successful execution of special operations.
An established and clear objective is the first principal of war. For tactical formations, soldiers and leaders enter a battle with a clear understanding of their immediate objective and the objectives of higher units several levels up. At the strategic level, the decision to commit force must have a clearly articulated objective that supports an overarching or “grand” strategy that also guides policy formulation and implementation that applies to all the elements of national power. Therefore, it is appropriate to hypothesize that special operations will be more successful when used to achieve an objective that is clearly linked to strategic outcomes and supported by policy that guides the supporting functions and roles of other agencies and departments.
Unity of Command – meaning that all participating agencies and organizations are subordinate to one responsible commander or leader, is another principle of war that helps to eliminate confusion, simplify communications and focus the attention and efforts of all participants to a single source of guidance and decision making. For the military this is a principle that exists on a daily basis in the form of a chain of command and is easily understood in even the most ambiguous and temporary command arrangements. The same does not necessarily hold true for other departments and agencies within the federal government. As a result, in a complex, potentially volatile and often fast paced scenario where a special operation is a consideration for achieving a national security objective, the role of lead and supporting organizations may be unclear. The significance of a unifying principle to focus efforts and eliminate confusion justifies a hypothesis that formal designation of a lead agency or department and the supporting agencies and departments and defining their roles will contribute to overall success of special operations.
The trend in special operations related scholarship has been to conduct qualitative research focusing on historical case studies. There is a good reason for this. History provides us the benefit of complex and deep analysis of an event while also catering to the general readability standards of the target audience; most military types love history. However, as previously discussed, there are problems with using a small number of cases to try and explain a phenomenon that is intended to be universally applicable. There is also the issue of selection bias; cherry-picking cases to buttress a position or theory while discounting cases that might point to alternate outcomes.
On the other hand, quantitative research assigns numerical measures and presents findings in mathematical statements. Like qualitative research, the quantitative method also has advantages and disadvantages. By utilizing a large number of cases the issue of universal applicability is mitigated. Quantitative analysis is generally considered more rigorous, substantiated by data and statistical analysis and comes closer to meeting scientific standards. However, this method also narrows the scope of the phenomena being studied and tends to utilize significant energy to address bite-sized chunks of a greater problem. This approach accepts the concept that knowledge is accumulated and advanced in small steps over time. It is worth noting that the quantitative methodology is currently the predominant research technique among political science scholars and in the social sciences in general.
With respect to a strategic theory of special operations, both approaches are viable. Quantitative analysis of a large number of cases can help inform qualitative analysis of historical case studies and vide-versa. The use of varied research approaches also takes advantage of the strengths offered by the different methods; deep analysis expected of a qualitative approach and the mathematical rigor of quantitative methods.
Where to go from here….
Regardless of methodology, once hypotheses are selected, research will require selection of variables, valid assumptions, data sources, clear definitions and expectations. Any dependent variable testing a hypothesis supporting this theory will likely be linked to the success or failure of a special operation (the effect). The independent variables (the causes) will be more complex and varied but will require solid explanation of how they affect the dependent variable and an operational definition to measure the effect of interaction.
The case population associated with this theory provides a rich data field. Additionally, by framing the population using the modern era of special operations it is possible to use a manageable number in the entire universe of cases while still providing adequate numbers for statistical significance. The entirety of overseas U.S. interventions and conflicts since the establishment of the National Security Council in 1947, to a logical cutoff point such as the first iteration of the support to the moderate Syrian resistance movement commencing in 2014, provides a total of 83 U.S. interventions or involvements. Obviously this number will be tweaked up or down based on special operations or CIA involvement and additional malleability is possible based on special operations used in support of other diplomatic or engagement activities; support to the State Department’s African Crisis Response Initiative or demining efforts in Africa are examples of these other activities.
An abundance of data does not promise easy research. Regardless of methodology, there is a “scut work” aspect necessary to determine relationships between the independent and dependent variables. The availability of data presents an additional research problem. Many of the records associated with past special operations are available from various sources, but many remain classified. This causes additional challenges and opens the door to creative use of open source information as well as document analysis from documents like the National Security Strategy, National Military Strategy, Defense Department Directives and unclassified issuances from the NSC to help fill this gap.
This article lays out a working strategic theory of special operations and provides a road map for further research and testing. In attempting to establish a bridge between strategic theories of warfare and the tactical and operational theories that explain successful special operations, it offers some initial ideas in understanding the strategic factors that may influence the outcome of special operations. Additionally, it aims to inform policy makers; providing a reference to answer the question, “what are the things we should be thinking about as we consider a special operations option?” Most importantly, it attempts to focus a broad scholarship that ranges from human characteristics such as “warrior attributes” to unique equipment and technology, to a much narrower examination of the role of strategic factors. A continued dialogue is critical. Developing new hypotheses, examining ideas from different perspectives, countering ideas with different theories, criticism and counterpoints are all appropriate and necessary to continue to narrow the gap and achieve a more complete understanding of the interrelationship of all the factors that impact special operations.
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