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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?

[1]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.

55 Comments (Open | Close)

55 Comments To "What’s So Special About Special Ops?"

#1 Comment By Vince On August 16, 2013 @ 2:59 pm

I think Special Operations should increase. The main reason we take casualties is because the enemy can easily keep track of a large convoy or conventional force and set up ambushes and i.e.d’s . It will be far harder for them to track a small unit with greater influence.

Then again I think their physical fitness level and some tactics should be standard cause I have no remorse for some of the Fat Asses in the military. We need too improve everything even at home because im tired weaklings and complainers. Some say I have a strong mind, sure , sure. But I think the state your body is in also reflects your internal self. soooo… need I say more?

#2 Comment By Douglas Livermore On January 12, 2014 @ 11:30 pm

I’d recommend reading “Going Big by Getting Small” by Colonel Brian Petit. COL Petit discusses in doctrinal terms the very unique role that ONLY SOF (and predominantly SF) can fulfill in “Phase Zero” (everything short of open warfare). In my four years in SF, I’ve deployed to every corner of Africa working closely with DoS to address regional security threats BEFORE they become theater wars. Deployments to Afghanistan are fun, sure, but where SOF makes a truly unique contribution at the operational and strategic level is everywhere else that we don’t have Title 10 authorities. The conventional Army is now trying to make inroads into these other theaters that have traditionally been the purview of SOF and we’ve already seen that they are ill-suited to operations in such ambiguous environments. Rangers and SEALs make poor diplomats, but SF with their language skills and cultural training thrive in those environments. I’ve often had to brief an ambassador in the morning, go out with my team and train indigenous personnel in small unit tactics or MDMP during the day (in their native language), and then have dinner with the country’s Minister of Defense. I found the author incredibly naive of the manner in which SOF is ACTUALLY employed in fourth generation warfare.

#3 Comment By Dark On March 6, 2014 @ 11:56 am

The author needs to stick to what he knows… transportation. His ignorance on the subject matter is appalling.

#4 Comment By James Johnson On March 6, 2014 @ 1:27 pm

“SOF are mostly not tactically competent, at least from what I have seen of them”

…and that is where you lost credibility.

#5 Comment By JT On March 6, 2014 @ 3:21 pm

You think its the tactics that we employ as SOF that are failing. How about the ROE and what the upper echelon commanders and politicians do to stifle success? I am sorry but Mr. Lind I would not consider you an expert on military tactics just because you have read books and have an education. Me with my lowly bachelors degree and 4 tours of war can more aptly tell you what we need.

Its not just our tactics that are better than conventional military. It is our discipline, drive, loyalty, and our attitude that make us Special. If you dont understand that then your grasp on what SOF is is not very in depth.