What’s So Special About Special Ops?
In the face of the failure of America’s conventional military forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Washington establishment seeks a silver bullet, a “force of choice” that can win. It thinks it has found one in Special Operations Forces, which include most famously the Navy’s SEALs and the Army’s Green Berets.
Experience is the best teacher, as the old saying goes, but she kills all her pupils. Experience is likely to teach us that against Fourth Generation non-state enemies Special Operations Forces are no silver bullet. We could learn the same lesson beforehand through a bit of reflection, without expending the lives of some of our best and most admirable men.
The first reason is that the strategic objectives the foreign-policy establishment sets are unattainable by any military. Not even an army of elves and ents could remake Third World hellholes into Switzerland. And as Russell Kirk wrote, there is no surer way to make a man your enemy than to tell him you are going to remake him in your image for his own good.
Second, while there is wide variance within the Special Operations community, most SOF units share the same problems that afflict our conventional forces. They, too, are stuck in the Second Generation of modern war, with an inward-focused culture of order that reduces the complex art of war to putting firepower on targets.
SOF are more skilled at techniques than their conventional counterparts, but techniques are not a typical American weakness. Our armed forces are technically capable across the board.
Techniques and tactics are not only different but opposite in nature—the first is formulistic and the second should be situational—and like our conventional forces, SOF are mostly not tactically competent, at least from what I have seen of them. Few American Special Operations units know light-infantry (“Jaeger”) tactics, without which they depend tactically on massive fire support (usually air strikes) that in Fourth Generation war works to the enemy’s advantage. They do not even know the basic Third Generation maneuver-warfare tactics the German army evolved late in World War I. They use their superior techniques merely to put more fire more accurately on more targets in wars of attrition against enemies who are not sensitive to losses.
SOF’s tactical obsolescence is doubly harmful in that they are often employed to train the forces of the weak states we are attempting to support. By teaching them Second Generation firepower/attrition war, we undermine their effectiveness while making them dependent on firepower they are unlikely to have once we depart. Beyond the level of techniques, we are too frequently the Typhoid Mary of military advice.
The picture at higher levels of war is also grim. SOF understand operational art no better than the rest of the American military, which is to say they can spell it. (This is now evident in the increasingly desperate attempts of the American command in Afghanistan to respond to green-on-blue attacks. They are trying to counter an operational move by the Taliban at the tactical level, which is doomed to failure.) This is an especially serious failing for Special Operations Forces because what makes an operation “special” is that it is operational, not just tactical. The result is that most American “special operations” are merely tactical actions with fancy techniques, the equivalent of raids by police SWAT teams. Our Special Operations Forces get dribbled away in minor events that, again, add up to a war of attrition. Night raids to kill or capture Taliban squad leaders are a long way from Otto Skorzeny’s rescue of Mussolini, which was the model special operation.
SOF fare no better at the strategic level. There, attrition has been and remains the American way of war, and Special Operations Forces are employed accordingly.
In Fourth Generation war, Special Operations Forces share yet another weakness with our conventional forces: they are American. With the important exception of Special Forces (the Green Berets), they take America with them wherever they go to war. After an action, they go back to a base that is “little America,” with air conditioning, steak, and the Internet. The locals, whether enemies or allies, look on with envy that soon shades into hatred.
This feeds a central problem in Fourth Generation war, what Martin van Creveld calls the power of weakness. With our overwhelming technical and equipment advantages, luxurious (by local standards) way of life, and nice country to go home to after we have wrecked someone else’s, we are Goliath. Our opponents, however repulsive, become David. How many people identify with Goliath?
In the end, Special Operations Forces differ from the conventional armed forces that have failed repeatedly against Fourth Generation opponents primarily by putting on a better show. Their techniques can be dazzling. But few wars are won by superiority in technique.
A general rule of warfare is that a higher level trumps a lower, and technique is the lowest level of all. Our SEALs, Rangers, Delta, SF, and all the rest are vastly superior to the Taliban or al-Qaeda at techniques. But those opponents have sometimes shown themselves able at tactics, operations, and strategy. We can only defeat them by making ourselves superior at those higher levels of war. There, regrettably, Special Operations Forces have nothing to offer. They are just another lead bullet in an obsolete Second Generation arsenal.
William S. Lind is director of the American Conservative Center for Public Transportation.