Streetwise Professor

May 17, 2015

One Does Not Win Wars By Special Operations Alone

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 1:42 pm

The administration is hyping an allegedly successful Delta Force attack on an Isis target in Syria. I say “allegedly successful” because even though it appears that at least one high value target was killed, and some intelligence was seized, there are doubts that the raid killed the original target. But even if the raid was successful in that it achieved its objective, it testifies to the broader strategic failure of the American campaign to “counter Isis.”

One does not win wars by special operations alone. As their name implies, special operations are special, exceptional. They can be an important and very specialized component of a military campaign that uses all elements of combat power to destroy a conventional or semi-conventional enemy force that holds territory: they cannot be the entire campaign, or even the main element of that campaign. Special operations support the main operations. They are not a substitute for infantry, armor, artillery, and airpower: they are a complement.

One important function that special operations can perform is reconnaissance and intelligence collection. The information provided by special operators can be used to identify enemy weaknesses and strengths, anticipate enemy movements, and plan main force attacks to destroy enemy units and wrest territory from them.

Even if the Delta operators seized considerable intelligence in the raid, this information will be largely useless in operations against Isis combat power because there is no American or coalition combat force that can use it to devise an effective attack against that power.

Another important task special operation forces can perform is direct action against enemy command, control, and logistics. Such actions can sow confusion in the enemy’s ranks and the minds of its commanders; disrupt communications; impede coordination, command and control, thereby reducing the enemy’s operational effectiveness; and divert forces that otherwise could be used to attack or defend against one’s main forces. But a main force is required to exploit these benefits.

Special operations were employed in these ways during the Iraq War, and in particular in Anbar during the Surge. SEALs and Delta conducted almost daily raids on insurgents and collected significant intelligence that was used by conventional infantry, armor, and air forces in near real time to mount attacks against insurgent targets, and to repel insurgent attacks. The pressure from special operations direct actions attrited the enemy and forced its leadership to devote considerable resources on self-defense. Snipers provided by special operations forces were particularly effective at killing and demoralizing the insurgents.

That is, special operations were a major force multiplier in Iraq, especially in 2007-2008. But that was because there was a force to multiply. Special operations were a key component of a full-spectrum campaign involving conventional American forces and local Sunni tribal auxiliaries. This campaign eventually resulted in a hard-won victory that Obama frittered away in 2011. Today’s news that Ramadi, and with it virtually all of Anbar, are in Isis hands shows that the reversal of fortune is all but complete.

But if you multiply nothing by something, even a big something, you still end up with nothing. And it is abundantly clear that in Iraq and Syria, we got nothin’ for special forces to multiply. Meaning that the ultimate effect of yesterday’s Delta raid, and any other raids to come, will be effectively zero.

Given the grave risks of these raids, the limited number of operators, and the very high cost of training and retaining these unique personnel, they should not be employed in operationally and strategically barren operations. It is almost certain that the recent raid in Syria will be operationally and strategically barren. It should not have been mounted, and similar operations should not be mounted in the future, except as part of a sound operational plan that utilizes conventional forces to achieve a strategically meaningful objective.

Obama is categorically opposed to using conventional forces in Iraq and Syria, but feels that he has to do something, and drones and special forces raids are something, even if they accomplish little or nothing of strategic importance. It is pointless to rely  on these instruments of national power, which are only truly useful if joined up with other elements of that power, as the backbone of a campaign against Isis. If there is a more telling testament to the strategic vacuity of Obama’s “slow burn” campaign than the daring raid in Syria, I would be hard pressed to name it. So much professional expertise and courage put at grave risk to achieve a glittering tactical victory that will have no effect on the ultimate outcome in Syria and Iraq. One cannot win wars by special operations alone, and it borders on the criminal even to try.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. Yes, you’ve hit the nail on the head.

    I recall recently reading a profile of Special Ops senior officer Mike Nagata, and while I couldn’t help but be impressed by him and his colleagues, I also couldnt help but think that the tactical victories of these intelligent, highly-motivated and superbly trained special operations teams were having zero effects on the broader strategic picture, which is moving against the interests of civilised and peace-seeking people everywhere.

    And that’s a terrible outcome. It’s tragic for the families and colleagues of lost soldiers, and the U.S. – and, speaking as a native of an ally which relies almost entirely on you for our security, the entire western world – can ill afford it, because I believe a combination of these losses and ongoing strategic incoherence and ‘frittering’ is really going to cost us in the medium-term.

    Just lastly, I remember in the Nagata piece reading that he once demonstrated jiu-jitsu to a team of SEALS, and was reported to have been throwing them around like rag dolls in the demos. Now THAT’S impressive!

    Comment by Ex-Regulator on Lunch Break — May 17, 2015 @ 6:26 pm

  2. Obama confuses tactics for strategy. It’s a typical amateur mistake. I’m sure he’s been told that, but I’m also sure he doesn’t care to be told that and made it known that people need to tell him only what he wants to hear. And the military will oblige just as they always done.

    Comment by Chris — May 18, 2015 @ 5:33 pm

  3. […] was going to write a longer post on this issue, but I looked back at what I wrote in May, and everything I said then applies now, particularly the closing […]

    Pingback by Streetwise Professor » Obama Gets a Little Bit Pregnant in Syria — October 30, 2015 @ 11:02 am

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a comment

Powered by WordPress