This article argues that special operations forces (herein SOF) achieve optimal strategic effect as part of a protracted special operations campaign. Understanding this link unlocks force structure and employment considerations. Knowledge of the logic that underpins the relationship between special operations campaigns and strategic effect is essential for policymakers and military practitioners, (within and external to the special operations community) if SOF are to achieve the return on the taxpayers’ investment that their existence implies. Indeed, the consequences for misunderstanding this relationship will ultimately be paid in wasted blood and treasure as a result of missed opportunities or the misuse of a valuable military asset.
SOF are an important and complementary capability alongside other land, air, space, maritime, and cyber forces. For the purpose of this article, SOF are specially selected, educated, equipped and designated forces, designed to execute special operations employing unorthodox methods and unconventional modes to achieve relatively disproportionate effects. Due to their nature, SOF are often prone to misunderstanding (as described here, p 5). Much of the commonly available literature on special operations assists in building unhelpful misconceptions, with the dominant narrative implicitly emphasising single ‘direct action’ (strike) missions and overblown accounts of their supposed strategic effect. Successful ‘great raids’ in history such as Australia’s 1943 Operation Jaywick in Singapore Harbour during World War 2, the 1968 North Vietnamese Army Commando strike on the US Embassy in Saigon, or the US SOF 2011 Osama Bin Laden raid were tactically important, but they were not individually decisive or inherently strategic. However, when considered from the viewpoint of a single point in a protracted special operations campaign, (such as the campaign executed by US SOF Task Force 714 against Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI)) the strategic meaning of these operations, and consequent force structure and employment considerations, become apparent.
Operation Jaywick and similar operations executed by Australian Special Operations Command’s forebears in the Strategic Reconnaissance Department and Special Operations Australia are a little known but important element of Australia’s contribution to defeating the Japanese in the South West Pacific. But these operations have to be viewed in aggregate. Destroying thousands of tonnes of Imperial Japanese shipping in Singapore harbour, almost certainly had some immediate material effect, as did the psychological impact of raiders getting inside a secure area, deep inside the area supposedly controlled by Japanese forces. But these operations were not individually decisive, or war winning. Every small scale special operation and its immediate and relatively disproportionate material and psychological effect, combined with the cumulative actions of other land, air and maritime forces across the South West Pacific theatre put the allies in a position where they could exert control over the strategic behaviour of Imperial Japan.
Likewise, the effects achieved by US SOF Task Force 714 (TF 714) in Iraq are illustrative of this paradigm. TF 714 was the lead US SOF Task Force conducting counter network operations in the Iraq theatre of operations after the US invasion in 2003. As Dr Richard Schultz observed in his considered analysis of the TF 714 campaign (JSOU Report 16-6, pp. 4-5):
Three years of industrial-strength task force raids seriously degraded AQI’s ability to function. By operating inside AQI’s networks, TF 714 dismantled a large number of its operational cells, financial units, communications and media centers, improvised explosive device (IED) production facilities, and arms acquisition methods. In the words of General McChrystal, the TF 714 commander had “clawed the guts out of AQI.”
At a campaign level, and in conjunction with other conventional forces, the cumulative effect of a large volume of individually small scale special operations executed by TF 714 (each having a disproportionate moral and material impact relative to the force elements directly involved in each operation), ultimately had a decisive strategic effect on AQI.
When force designers and planners consider holistically the force structure and force employment of SOF, it is therefore essential that they focus on enabling them to execute protracted campaigns. In the author’s experience, there can be a tendency to think about special operations as a one shot ‘silver bullet’. This ‘single mission’ or ‘single operational rotation’ mindset is unhelpful if one accepts that SOF have their most profound effect against an adversary when employed in a protracted campaign. As I have previously argued (here), when employing a protracted campaign lens, military force structure requirements become apparent.
To fulfil their potential strategic utility, SOF must be structured to be able to execute mission after mission, night after night for an extended period. Within a campaign framework, SOF must have the resources to enable partner forces, to find, fix and finish high value target after target, continuously exploiting adversary vulnerabilities while amplifying the effects of other land, air, maritime and cyber forces. This means a heavy emphasis on supporting capabilities. To be effective at achieving disproportionate tactical effects relative to the size of the forces employed in a single mission, SOF must have adequate access to high grade intelligence, dedicated force projection and fires assets, over the horizon secure communications, and a bespoke logistic architecture to enable sustained operations. This force structure must complement holistic investment in selecting, educating, training and equipping the ‘badged’ (combat) elements of the force to assure the requisite tactical excellence that underpins each SOF mission over a protracted time period.
It is therefore essential that special operators, joint force designers and relevant policymakers consider special operations from the viewpoint of protracted campaigns, or risk under resourcing or misapplying a potentially valuable strategic resource. SOF must be resourced and enabled across all aspects of their capability to execute high tempo special operations campaigns, to continually achieve relatively disproportionate effects, and to fulfil the ultimate value proposition offered by this important component of the joint force.
Author’s note: The work of James D. Kiras in his book on Special Operations and Strategy and later articles (behind firewall), provide a deeper explanation of the relationship between special operations campaigns and strategic effect than is possible here.
About the author: LTCOL N. is the Commandant of the Special Operations Training and Education Centre.