Trying to Use a Scalpel like a Broadsword
In a rare variation from form, this article for The Weekly N&C is focused upon an entirely military matter and its related political component rather than upon an important World Affairs event. Considering the broader applicability of the point in question, however, let us take the time away from other things to present this item.
Since the telling of the tale of Achilles before Troy, where the great and vengeful champion leapt forward between the battle-lines of Greek and Trojan warriors unwilling to close to melee and slew handfuls of the Trojans in his pursuit of Hector, there have always been those who believe the best use of elite military forces is as a superior version of regular troops in battle. In that school of thought, having spent the resources to obtain some number of warriors orders of scale more skilled and deadly than line soldiers, one would be foolish to then set those fighting men aside for tasks that do not directly determine the outcome of battle.
It has a certain romantic nature about it, one that often beguiles political decision-makers, this idea that their army’s elite can fight through ten-fold their number in foes. It is also, at least in measure, quite true. If a commander sends a dozen of his elite into an opportunity battle against a company-sized regular force of the enemy, it is quite possible that the opposing force will be defeated… but likely at the cost of the dozen elites.
This sort of thinking even penetrates into the military command structure of the regular forces. This should come as no surprise; regular formations of any large size most always set apart a “Select Company”, or a “Special Duty Troop” which the commander relies upon as being more capable when things get tough than the main sections of his command. When given troops quantitatively better, by perhaps an order of magnitude, than line forces, higher level commanders have been known to perceive them as simply superior versions of such select formations.
Certainly there are missions that are considered beyond the capabilities of regular forces, and when those are pivotal to the outcome of a vastly larger operation, there might be some sense in using elite forces, even at risk of the loss of those forces. The American experience at Ponte du Hoc during the Normandy Invasion of World War II is often argued as such a case (irrespective of whether it was in fact a pivotal objective). But any reasoned examination of the situation on a World War II battlefield will likely point out that the 2nd Rangers sent up those cliffs were elite in an infantry sense, yet not different in magnitude than the better of the Axis soldiers whose counterattacks they would fight off for two days. Worse, that same examination might bring up the rather less successful engagement at Cisterna by the 6615th Ranger Force as part of the Battle of Anzio, five months before.
Rangers then, and Rangers now, are organized into fairly large-sized formations in comparison to the Commandos of that day and the Special Operations Forces of modern times, and their material means of war were little different from other infantry forces. When one considers the capabilities of contemporary Special Operations in American forces, it quickly becomes obvious that the fundamental formation (the Operational Detachment or Team) is very small, that it is a rare thing indeed to have more than a couple of such formations working directly together, and that when they are used in Direct Action (intentional combat) there is an enormous tail of transport, support and reconnaissance acting in concert with the Operators on mission. With superior troop quality, training, experience, support and supporting fires, such an example as Operational Detachment Alpha 3336 of the 3rd Special Forces Group (U.S. Army) winning the day even when their mission went very wrong is simply exemplary, not super-human. The battle was won, but as in the mentioned cases above the Detachment was basically expended.
The number of Detachments that can be deployed for Direct Action is of course basically limited by how many Detachments one has in-theater, but more likely the practical limit is on the number of Special Operations-capable aviation and support elements available. More significantly, the number of Intelligence assets available to support operations may simply put an upper limit on how many Direct Action objectives can be prosecuted.
Please pause a moment and absorb the most basic fact-of-life of Special Operations before we proceed: Direct Action missions are a minor subset of what Special Operations in the American Armed Forces are intended to do. The fact that they do them so well, and against such odds, is not particularly germane to the larger set of responsibilities.
Yes, I *know* that in the movies all ‘Green Berets’ do is fight battles. John Wayne and Chuck Norris I’ll ask forgiveness of, later.
Special Operations, specifically the U.S. Army Special Forces, are first and foremost the irregular forces trainers in counter-insurgency warfare. They can also be well used in regular forces training for allied armies, and in the role of intelligence and reconnaissance support for established regular allied forces. They are also well suited for reconnaissance and intelligence operations in support of higher-level formations of regular U.S. Armed Forces. The sum total of desirable bullets-into-bad-guys by an Operator on any of the above missions is zero. There are certain force-protection / command-protection tasks that are also SF assignments. Again, if they are shooting people, somebody is not doing it right (in the big picture). It is only when the Detachment goes into the field as the advisors or team-mates to local forces on operation that there is any desirable result that comes from having the Operators doing the shooting.
In the big picture of the Global War on Terror, recognizing what works for Special Forces and then doing it is *critical*. The war is big, widespread, and there just are not enough assets out there to be wasting any of them. The example case of the success in the Philippines was publicized back in October of this year as part of the discussion inside Special Operations Command (SOCOM) on how best to be doing the job at hand, and SOCOM commander Adm. Eric T. Olson has been leading the way on getting that emphasis back.
Before one asks, yes, Adm. Olson is as good as they get with Direct Action when it is called for; He was in Mogadishu in ’93. He also had SEAL DEVGRU back when it had a number. So he knows the difference between “white” and “black” Special Operations. Moreover, he knows what he wants SOCOM to be doing, and he believes the best thing they can be doing is what they are intended to do; to have small numbers of Operators make other larger forces much, much more effective.
That is what makes problematic a report like this showing up in the Army Times on Saturday about how the first thing being done to increase forces in Afghanistan is the tasking of an additional battalion-sized number of Special Forces; This would up the number of Detachments in the Combined and Joint Special Operations Task Force – Afghanistan by about one-third. All well and good, except that the idea of what is being proposed is to increase the number of forces available for combat operations. Consider this the leading edge of the Bush administration’s proposed 30,000 troop re-enforcement to the Afghan theater by next summer. The big problem apparent is that there are not enough aviation, support and intelligence (ISR) assets available right now for the Special Forces already there. Adding in more Detachments will likely mean pooling them into “ongoing operations” as they are expressly *not* being tasked to be the trainer-advisors for the Afghan National Army.
If “ongoing operations” is in fact where they will end up being, then we fall right back into the above forewarned intellectual trap for leaders.
These are your best soldiers, by a host of measures.
They are not replaceable in their specialized tasks.
They are not something that should be traded in attrition with the enemy, even at ten-to-one.
They are a surgeon’s scalpel, not a broadsword, when used correctly.
Let us use them correctly.
All references embedded as links.
Additional Historical References, from Wiki-p, for general information only:
Pointe du Hoc fighting and the 2nd Ranger Battalion: ~225 men committed; ~90 fit for duty after 2 day’s action.
6615th Ranger Force at Cisterna: 767 Rangers, 43 Recon troops reached the objective; 6 and 1 made it back to friendly forces.