Special Forces Are Special, Not Magical


Special Forces Are Special, Not Magical

Mar 26th, 2012 2 min read
James Jay Carafano

Vice President, Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute

James Jay Carafano is a leading expert in national security and foreign policy challenges.

Bill McRaven kicked tail for a living. He joined the elite Navy SEALs in 1978 and later took command of SEAL Team Three, based in Coronado, Calif.

In 1995, McRaven added another title to his resume: author. His book, "SPEC OPS: Case Studies in Special Operations Warfare: Theory and Practice," tells eight war stories, from the 1940 German glider assault on Eben Emael to the 1976 Israeli raid on Entebbe.

They are tales well-told. More importantly, though, he explores the "principles" of special operations warfare. McRaven calls one key principle "relative superiority." This he defines as "a condition that exists when an attacking force, generally smaller, gains a decisive advantage over a larger well-defended enemy."

McRaven goes on to make this critical observation: Once relative superiority is achieved, it must be sustained to guarantee victory.

In short, special operations are "special." Executed at the right time and place, they can surprise the enemy and accomplish an extremely valuable mission -- be it rescuing hostages or bagging bin Laden. But when faced with a large, well-defended enemy, special ops cannot do it all.

To suggest that special forces can replace conventional forces to meet America's national security challenges is like arguing that if New York City gave SWAT teams more whiz-bang weaponry, the Big Apple could send home its beat cops and detectives.

"SPEC OPS" offers sound advice about the appropriate use of forces like the Navy SEALs, the Army's Delta Force and the Rangers. And today, McRaven gets to practice what he preached. A four-star admiral, he is commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command -- SOCOM. Based in Tampa, Fla., SOCOM oversees special ops worldwide.

McRaven should conduct a special op of his own: carpet-bombing Washington with copies of his book. That's because it is increasingly clear that too many pundits and politicos just don't get it. By the defense secretary's own admission, 75 percent of the cuts in the president's proposed budget will eliminate military capabilities -- ships, troops and planes. If the automatic reductions mandated by the Budget Control Act of 2011 kick in, there will be even fewer boots in the barracks, ships at sea or sorties in the sky.

As America's big stick is whittled to a twig, McRaven's men will be called more and more to fill the breach. As special operations move from being the brain surgeons of deadly force to the nation's 911 responders, their operations will look a lot less special. All the hallmarks of their use -- careful and complete intelligence; simple and bold plans; extensive rehearsal; robust support and relief from conventional forces -- will disappear.

Those willing to throw spec ops at every problem should ponder what they are asking. In the last decade, fighting -- often side by side with conventional forces -- special ops warriors paid a heavy price. Last year, on one day alone, 31 special operations troops died in Afghanistan. What price will these warriors have to pay if they are fighting at the end of the line -- on their own?

In testimony before Congress earlier this month, McRaven swore to meet guidance from the secretary of defense that "whenever possible, we will develop innovative, low-cost, and small-footprint approaches to achieve our security objectives, relying on exercises, rotational presence, and advisory capabilities." What he didn't say is that there will be many times when the small footprint won't work. And without a robust military, both SOCOM and the nation will pay a heavy price.

James Jay Carafano is a senior research fellow for national security at the Heritage Foundation.

First appeared in The Examiner