19 October 2020

Who needs the special operations these days?

Daniel Ilie

“Foreign policy decisions are not made by the military. A soldier goes where he is told to go, and fight whom is told to fight” is the smart and patronizing line of sergeant Muldoon, a character of the famous movie directed by John Wayne, in 1968, called “Green Berets”, when facing the challenging questions of the civilian media representatives.

I was writing in my first article published on the Defence and Security Monitor platform that, according to NATO’s vision, the special operations are those military activities developed by the forces especially dedicated, organized, trained, equipped and enrolled with special selected personnel, using unconventional tactics, techniques and commitment methods (which are not used by all land, maritime and air conventional military forces).

These can be executed on the entire spectrum of military actions, independently, or along with conventional forces to get the expected final condition, within the strategic or operative levels, or that could also be executed when there are important political risks at stake. It must be mentioned that, sometimes, the military-political interests might need the execution of undercover or clandestine actions and an acceptation of risks that are not associated to the operations usually made by conventional military forces.

The special operations are different from the conventional operations in terms of the political and physical risk, the operational procedures, tactics and techniques, the commitments level as well as the independency on the support of the host nation.

In the big powers competitions for world’s supremacy, on its military component, some states could plan and execute such special operations influence, for example, the decision makers’ will or that of a enemy state’s population to create the perfect conditions to accomplish their own strategic objectives. In fact, recent history proved us that such military actions are successfully used including to occupy regions and illegally seize territories.

Actually, the special operations can be used as offensive kinetic military actions that have a high political and physical risk, deliberately planned and executed against high-value targets. Many times, these refer to the so-called precise target killings, controversial and, sometimes, contested actions.

Just like the US admiral (now in reserve), William H. McRaven, initially called them, the man who coordinated the bombing executed by the US Navy SEAL Team Six to capture/eliminate the most wanted terrorist in the world, Osama Bin Laden, these actions represent the direct or kinetic approach of the special operations.  It involves lethality, trustable intelligence, cooperation between different agencies, the use of digital data networks, control over the fight space and involve the extreme risk, execution’s precision, the immediate impact and operative or strategic results.

A second approach of the special operations is the indirect one (non-kinetic), which involves the assistance of indigenous defence and security forces, “conquering the hearts and minds” of local actors, humanitarian assistance, but also the approach and cooperation with key leaders of society in the operations area, to have long-term effects on the establishment effort of trustable defence and security capabilities.

Among the non-kinetic activities, we can mention the intelligence collection, training and counseling of a variety of national and local armed forces and the training and shaping of pre-conflict environment and the battlefield emphasizing the local commitment with, for example, civilian businesses projects (medical assistance or the creation or reconstruction of infrastructure – roads, schools etc.).

Those who are familiar with the field know the fact that both the main principles of the armed fight (the objective, offensive, mass effect, forces’ economy, maneuver, command unit, security, awe and simplicity) as well as the military operations, other than the war, like the stability and support ones (objective, effort unity, security, detainment, perseverance and legitimacy) apply to the special operations the same they apply to conventional operations.

Many analysts in the field say the military forces dedicated to planning and executing such special operations, which are the Special Operations Forces (SOF) became, globally, the favored military forces of the 21st century, going from being marginalized to being placed in a central operational and even strategic position[1], offering the most effective way for financially constrained states to fight against hybrid wars, far from media’s attention and of the international humanitarian international right organizations.

Although these are military capabilities hard to create and maintain, the SOF are seen as the perfect way to accomplish the counter-insurgency missions or the asymmetrical conflicts, which often combine kinetic, direct actions and non-kinetic activities, targeting the influence of people in the conflict area. In the regional conflicts from the last two decades, including the so-called global war against terrorism, the SOF have proved that they are the tools of the military power that can offer state actors an increased effectiveness and military efficiency for less costs.

However, many people are asking what are the special operations, are they really necessary and why and how are these military capabilities executing more “special” missions than those which plan and execute conventional military operations and, eventually, why are these military capabilities the “favorites military forces” of the 21st century?

I personally tried, through everything I wrote in the last years on the Defence and Security Monitor, to present some arguments to contribute to a better understanding of the field and highlight the importance the SOF bring to the military systems of the nations who afford to create and use such military capabilities. Furthermore, many times I tried to explain the NATO policies and vision on this issue, even by approaching the way to use them in the modern warfare or to use them to fight against hybrid threats and actions and so on.

The risk-based theory of the special operations

Recently, I have read a research report published by the Centre for Naval Analyses (CAN)[2] of the US, called “Why Special Operations? A risk-based theory”, where the author, dr. Jonathan Schroden, a science researcher and special operations coordinator and Director of the Center for Stability and Development of the CAN, approached a component of the special operations which, he claims, was not explained so far properly and aims at answering the questions “Why special operations are conducted?”.

In order to do that, the author analyzes the previous theories of the special operations, such as the “Theory of direct actions”, by McRaven, the “Theory of special forces”, by Finlan[3], the “Theory of unconventional military actions”, by Driver and DeFeyter[4], the “SOF theory”, by Spulak[5], Yarger’s[6] “Theory of US special operations”, Rubright’s[7] “Unified theory of Special Operations” and Searle’s[8] “A new general theory of special operations” or a series of “Essays on the special operations theory topic”, published by the US Joint Special Operations University, that introduced a so called “Risk-based theory”, which considers the risk and highlights the reason why special operations are demanded and executed.

Thus, Schroden uses a different definition from that used by NATO (for example) and takes from other authors the ideas that the special operations intention is strategic (McRaven, Spulak, Yarger) and that these are fundamentally different from the conventional operations, not just better versions of it (Spulak, Searle).

The definition given by the author is: “special operations are unorthodox military solutions to difficult policy problems that lower the level of risk to policy-makers”.

Addressing the special operations risk, the risk-based theory formulated by Schroden claims that: “if policy-makers have a difficult policy problem and they are unsatisfied with the level of risk presented by orthodox solutions or inaction, then they will choose special operations”. Because these are relying on a sort of popular support to keep their power positions they are, also, opposing risky actions.

Policymakers understand that special operations are risky, says Schroden. But, if the special operations – unorthodox solutions – can offer a lower global risk profile than the elite operations (which can be executed by the conventional forces as well) or the risk mitigation ‘ lack of action, then these are more likely to be chosen by the policymakers.

What distinguishes modern-day special operations forces (SOF) from elite forces is that SOF are assessed and selected for attributes that are fundamentally different—and typically unorthodox—from those of (elite) conventional forces.

After deriving this theory, this paper evaluates it, applies it to the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan, and discusses implications of the theory for the future of US special operations forces.

According to the author, the risk-based theory offers many implications for the future:

- there will always be policy-makers grappling with difficult policy problems. Inevitably, some of those problems will not be resolvable within policy-makers’ risk tolerances and they will seek unorthodox solutions. He suggests that there will always be some demand for special operations—for the military, they are a natural feature of the strategic level of war.

- it does not guarantee that future special operations will be conducted solely by SOF, except for the case when the SOV will somehow monopolize the production of unorthodox solutions (which seems unlikely).

- as we have witnessed lately, the US SOF are increasingly being asked to undertake elite or, in some cases, standard operations as opposed to being used only for special operations. This carries with it the risk of the US special operations enterprise becoming less “special” over time, since increased adoption and execution of elite and standard operations necessarily dilutes the focus of the enterprise on those aspects that make it unorthodox.

- the future is likely to hold significant choices and tensions for SOF leaders, as long as the force conceived to be unorthodox stays institutionalized and, for example, the conventional forces’ demand for a bigger integration, interoperability and interdependency will increase.

Instead of conclusions

The risk-based theory Schroden came up with is rather completing the answers and solutions given by previous authors to things related to the definition, explanation and demonstration of the special operations’ viability, even if, I think that it should be supported by a great number of proofs to complete the doctrinaire panoply regarding the special operations.

In a world that’s continuously changing, the nations must definitely continue to adapt in order to respond to the increasing security threats. The SOF proved to be a valuable and versatile tool able to respond even o especially in an unorthodoxically (unconventionally) and effectively to these challenges.

I believe that those nations that can afford the costs should continue to invest in such capabilities, at least for the fact that when the security situation demands it, policymakers will have those unorthodox military solutions to difficult political problems that diminish the level of risk for them.

As for Romania, according to the new document "2020White Paper on Defense", which establishes the integrated and comprehensive set of measures and actions in the medium and long term in the defense field, meant to ensure that the nation will have, whenever needed, its Forces Armed capable of protecting vital national interests, the FOS represent specific military capabilities that will help guarantee sovereignty, independence and unity of state, territorial integrity of the country and constitutional democracy, collective defense in military alliance systems, but also participating in peacekeeping or restoration activities.

I also believe that, for the time being, FOS-specific missions can only be carried out by well-cohesive action elements, made up of multidisciplinary trained soldiers, who are, at the same time, paratroopers, divers, or climbers, fluent in several foreign languages of interest, who can perform, independently, the whole spectrum of specific actions, who can be infiltrated undetectably through air (for example, by high altitude parachuting procedures, with immediate or low opening of the parachute, HAHO/HALO - High Altitude High Opening/High Altitude Low Opening), by land, or by sea (on the surface of the water, or under water) and, moreover, which have the capacity for self-support. Currently, these are the FOS operators.

Translated by Andreea Soare

[1] ”Special Operations Forces in the 21st Century. Perspectives from the Social Sciences”, first edition, 2017, authors Jessica Glicken Turnley, Kobi Michael and Eyal Ben-Ari.

[2] The Center for Naval Analyses. CNA's Center for Naval Analyses is the federally funded research and development center (FFRDC) for the United States Navy and Marine Corps.

[3] Alastair Finlan, A Dangerous Pathway? Toward a Theory of Special Forces,” Comparative Strategy.

[4] William Dave” Driver and Bruce E. DeFeyter, The Theory of Unconventional Warfare: Win, Lose, and Draw,” Naval Postgraduate School, December 2008.

[5] Spulak, Jr., A Theory of Special Operations.

[6] Harry R. Yarger, 21st Century SOF: Toward an American Theory of Special Operations,” JSOU Report 13-1, Apr. 2013.

[7] Rubright, A Unified Theory for Special Operations.

[8] Tom Searle, Outside the Box: A New General Theory of Special Operations,” JSOU Report 17-4, July 2017.