Tag Archives: special operations forces

What is a fourth generation war, the wars of the 21st century? Who fights them, and why?

Summary:  We resume our analysis of modern war with a brief description of 4th generation war. Who fights it, and why. This is the 4th chapter in a series of posts following the 25th anniversary of the Marine Corps Gazette article “The Changing Face of War: Into the Fourth Generation”. A series of writers explain our past defeats at the hands of 4GW foes, and prepare you for those to come. Since these defeats are unnecessary, this might motivate you to join the effort to retake the reins of America.


Source: Syed Zaid Zaman Hamid


  1. What is the 4th generation of war?
  2. War is a conflict; not all conflicts are war
  3. Posts in this series about 4GW
  4. For More Information
  5. The Evolution of Warfare graph

(1)  What is the 4th generation of war?

Many trends since WW2 forced ended the supremacy of 3GW (aka maneuver war, blitzkrieg), and powered the rise to dominance of 4GW. Two of the most important are…

  1. The slow spread of nuclear weapons since WW2 has forced the end of conventional warfare between developed states.
  2. Loyalty to the State has peaked around the world. As its influence declines in people’s hearts and minds, other loyalties emerge.

These increase the power of non-state entities, reversing the growth of State power since the Treaties of Westphalia legitimized the the State as the only entity able to use force within its bounds. Unlike the first 3 generations of war (from Napoleon to Hitler), 4GWs are fought by a wider range of players (as they were before).

  1. Multi-national corporations (imagine a 21st C East India Company)
  2. Non-governmental non-profit organizations, for example those providing regulatory services (e.g., engineering standards) and charitable efforts
  3. Ideological groups, such as radical environmentalists (example), animal rights and anti-abortion activists
  4. Mercenary armies (the Bush administration reversed centuries of work to minimize them)
  5. Transnational ethnic groups (e.g., the Kurds, the Pashtun people)
  6. Religious groups, benign or inimical depending on the observer
  7. Organized crime networks

Groups can combine along more than one of these affinities (e.g., ethnic criminal networks such as the Mafia). These can organize within a state, or use modern communication and transportation technology to easily build global networks, greatly increasing their power and reach.

Any of these can employ force, either domestically and globally — within the State, between States, between States and global non-state entities, and between non-state entities. In the 21st C any of these non-state entities can again become great powers, as they have in the past. Martin van Creveld calls these non-Trinitarian conflicts, as they break Clausewitz’s “trinity” of the government, the army, and the people.

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“SAS kill up to 8 jihadis each day, as allies prepare to wipe IS off the map.” Bold words we’ve heard before.

Summary: We interrupt our series of articles about 4GW for a news bulletin illustrating why we so often lose them.  We don’t just lose them. We excitedly cheer while losing. We feel bold and powerful when we lose. FAILure to learn has painful consequences, but feels great when it blinds us to unpleasant news. Reform hurts; it’s the price paid to win. A price we seem unwilling to pay.

Insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results. This is the 2nd of two posts today.

— Old wisdom of Alcoholics Anonymous (details here)


Vainglorious (click to enlarge and see the real picture)

SAS quad bike squads kill up to 8 jihadis each day,
as allies prepare to wipe IS off the map

Daily News

22 November 2014
(the date doesn’t matter, since these stories appear so often in the news —
and have since the 1950s)

Opening to this story about bold Western soldiers on their way to victory:

Daring raids by UK Special Forces leave 200 enemy dead in just four weeks. Targets are identified by drones operated by SAS soldiers. Who are then dropped into IS territory by helicopter to stage attacks. The surprise ambushes are said to be ‘putting the fear of God into IS’. The raids are attacking IS’s main supply routes across western Iraq. …

Pictures of brave bold British soldiers and their weapons accompany the text. Plus aerial photos of the results. These fun stories build support for the government, enthusiasm for the war, make us feel well-informed, and fill the space between advertisements. In the future these stories will be written by software, as their rigid template has been perfected by use in scores of wars since Mao brought 4GW to maturity after WW2.

How many such stories have we read since 9/11? Too bad that killing our way to victory has almost never worked when applied by foreign armies against well-established insurgencies. See the links below to learn about the sad history of this tactic against 4GW. For an analysis of why this fails see The solution to jihad: kill and contain our foes. Give war another chance!

That we try it again (and again) represents a FAILure to learn, perhaps even outright insanity. Why do we fail to learn? The officer corps of western nations is probably the best-educated in history (although Martin van Creveld shows that they’re not usefully educated). They’re supported by a massive corps of civilian geopolitical experts, most with PhD’s in relevant specialties, often from our elite universities. Yet out ability to learn from experience would be considered retarded in a toddler.  Perhaps we cannot reform our military until we solve this puzzle.

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Expanding the size and scope of our Special Operations Forces, an alternative to learning from our failed wars

Summary:  The military runs to daylight, using the public’s fears and cheers to expand. We make that easy, since Americans have long loved bold violent heroes. Our latest heroes are the men of the Special Operations Forces. And so the military literature fills with proposals for their expansion in size and missions. Without, unfortunately but typically, examining their record of success.

Special Operations Command


  1. A Special Operations Forces Extravaganza
  2. The Special Forces at work: The School of the Americas
  3. Since we don’t learn, here’s the obligatory story about Vietnam
  4. Future of SOF
  5. Conclusions
  6. A warning
  7. History of COIN
  8. For More Information
  9. Nostalgia for the last time we took this ride

(1)  A Special Operations Forces Extravaganza

American military history since WW2 has been a series of fads. The nuclear Army battlefield. Unconventional warfare,. The Air Force’s variable-wing aircraft and their countless multi-billion dollar X-failures.  COIN. Adequate research would have shown the critical flaws in all these, but we preferred not to know.

Now we have the latest: the Special Operations extravaganza. As described in “Thoughts on the Future of Special Operations“, David S. Maxwell, Small Wars Journal, 31 October 2013

As the post 9-11 era of the War on Terrorism winds down, the Services are rightly looking to the future.  With the severe fiscal constraints, drawdown of personnel, and an uncertain future of threats there is a debate on whether the military should focus solely on traditional war fighting and deterrence or sustain and further develop the capabilities to deal with the unconventional warfare threats posed by state and non-state actors from the Iran Action Network to North Korea’s Department 39 to Al Qaeda.  The Special Operations community is having this debate as well and it has resulted in controversial visions for the future including establishing a Global SOF Network (GSN).

The purpose of this paper is to briefly argue that the future of Special Operations rests in a thorough understanding of its fundamental and traditional missions and then adapting sound, tried and true, and still relevant historical doctrine, mission sets, and tactics, techniques, and procedures for the uncertain future operating environment.

In summary this paper will briefly highlight six specific points.

  1. The U.S. faces national security threats in three fundamental forms of warfare: nuclear warfare, conventional warfare, and unconventional warfare.
  2. The future is characterized by the need to conduct unconventional warfare (UW) and to be able to counter unconventional warfare.
  3. The U.S. has the greatest surgical strike capability in the world but it needs to prioritize and resource equally our special warfare capabilities.
  4. The U.S. needs Strategists and Policy makers who have a deep understanding of and value the strategic options of UW and Counter-UW.
  5. Effective Special Warfare is counter-intuitively characterized by slow and deliberate employment – long duration actions and activities, relationship establishment, development, and sustainment.
  6. SOF will always have a role in hybrid conflict and conventional warfare.

This is an excellent article by an expert, well-conceived and well-written. From another perspective it is quite strange. We have just lost two substantial wars — failures to achieve a gain for our national interests despite the expenditure of massive blood and money. Both wars had large-scale involvement of special operations. Both wars’ legacy have the potential of serious long-term damage to our relationship with important nations:

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The future calls the Marine Corps, but they refuse to answer

Summary:  An organization’s destiny rides on its leaders’ decisions on those rare occasions when the future call. Their response puts the organization on the path to success, or decay. Sometimes that happens on the field in battle.  Sometimes it’s a call to action, to serve by growing. After 9/11 the future called the US Marine Corps, and they refused. They might not get another opportunity.



Here’s a timely, insightful, and provocative article: “Can the Marines Survive?“, Lloyd Freeman (Lt Col, USMC), Foreign Policy, 26 March 2013.

The author is a Marine infantry officer, and has served three combat tours, two in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. He currently serves as the Deputy Executive Assistant in the Expeditionary Warfare Division of the U.S. Navy.


Following the 9/11 attacks, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld approached the Marine commandant and asked if the Marines could take on a special operations role within the Department of Defense.

For the secretary, it seemed logical. The Marine Corps is designed to operate independently when necessary; it can sustain itself with a well-oiled logistics organization, and it even has its own air wings. At the time, most special operations forces resided in the Army and in Navy Special Warfare and there was an emerging shortage of operators. The Corps could have filled the gap in special forces that existed right after 9/11.

Instead of taking taking this bold path to the future, the USMC attempted to become a second Army, putting their investment capital in the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (see Wikipedia) and the VTOL version of the F-35. The first has been canceled; the F-35 limps forward with costs skyrocketing and inferior performance (See “Marine F-35 Jump-Jet PR: Caveataxpayer Emptor“, Time, 27 March 2013).

These failed programs, burning much of their R&D funding, are less important for the USMC’s future than their loss of the “elite ground forces” niche in the minds of the American public — now owned by the Special Operations Forces.  This bumps the USMC decisively into the “second Army” market niche.  When budgets get cut, the second source gets cut first.

Result: the Marines have a small slice of the exiting future for US ground forces — Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command (MARSOC) — when they could have had almost the whole pie.

Can the USMC recover from this? It will take more creativity and insight than USMC’s leadership has shown so far.

A description of the choices offered by destiny

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The military takes us back to the future. To Vietnam, again and again.

Summary: Now that our most recent wars are ending, we have an opportunity to learn. Will we? Making clear insights more difficult, our war machines has already started preparing us for new wars: threat inflation plus cheap/easy solutions. After 9-11 we bought such stories about Iraq and Afghanistan, with no questioning or skepticism. Will we do so again? Today we look at the “cheap/easy solution” part of the formula. Stand by for excitement.


Wanted: Ph.D.s Who Can Win a Bar Fight. How to reform the Pentagon for ‘light footprint’ interventions.“, Fernando M. Lujan (Major, Special Forces), Foreign Policy, 8 March 2013 — Opening:

By Eric A. Hendrix.


Looming budget cuts, ground forces worn down by years of repeated deployments, and a range of ever evolving security challenges from Mali to Libya and Yemen are quickly making “light footprint” military interventions a central part of American strategy.

Instead of “nation building” with large, traditional military formations, civilian policymakers are increasingly opting for a discrete combination of air power, special operators, intelligence agents, indigenous armed groups, and contractors, often leveraging relationships with allies and enabling partner militaries to take more active roles.

Despite the relative appeal of these less costly forms of military intervention, the light footprint is no panacea. Like any policy option, the strategy has risks, costs and benefits that make it ideally suited for certain security challenges and disastrous for others.

… The most critical resource requirement in smaller interventions is human capital: talented, adaptable professionals who are not only fluent in language, culture, politics, and interpersonal relationships, but also willing to deploy for long periods and operate with little guidance.

This is a brief of Major Lujan’s report for the Center for a New American Security (a powerful lobbying groups for foreign wars): “Light Footprints: The Future of American Military Intervention“. It’s a wonderful example of America’s failure to learn, especially so after our COIN fiasco (another failure to learn from the post-WWII experiences of the US and other nations fighting insurgencies as foreigners).

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Uncle Sam, Global Gangster

Summary:  Americans increasingly live in a world bordered by our amnesia.  Our past lost, replaced by myths.  Our recent history largely forgotten, replaced by a vague jumble of half-remembered events.  To tell the story of our past decade requires someone with a clear understanding of geopolitical dynamics, able to place each step in our wars in a larger context.  It requires Andrew Bacevich (Colonel, US Army, retired).


  1. Introduction by Tom Englehardt
  2. Scoring the Global War on Terror – From Liberation to Assassination in Three Quick Rounds
  3. About the author
  4. For more information: other posts about our special ops assassins

(1)  Introduction by Tom Englehardt

If all goes as planned, it will be the happiest of wartimes in the  U.S.A.  Only the best of news, the killing of the baddest of the  evildoers, will ever filter back to our world.

After all, American war is heading for the “shadows” in a big way.  As news articles have recently made clear, the tip of the Obama administration’s global spear will increasingly be shaped from the ever-growing ranks of U.S. special operations forces.  They are so secretive that  they don’t like their operatives to be named, so covert that they  instruct their members, as Spencer Ackerman of Wired’s Danger Room blog notes,  “not to write down important information, lest it be vulnerable to  disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act.”  By now, they are also  a force that, in any meaningful sense, is unaccountable for its  actions.

Although the special ops crew (66,000 people in all) exist on our tax  dollars, we’re really not supposed to know anything about what they’re  doing — unless, of course, they choose the publicity venue themselves,  whether in Pakistan knocking off Osama bin Laden or parachuting onto Hollywood’s Sunset Boulevard to promote Act of ValorIn  case you somehow missed the ads, that’s the new film about “real  terrorist threats based on true stories starring actual Navy SEALs.” (No  names in the credits please!)

Of course, those elite SEAL teams are johnnies-come-lately when  compared to their no less secretive “teammates” in places like  Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Somalia — our ever increasing armada of  drones.  Those robotic warriors of the air (or at least their fantasy  doppelgangers) were, of course, pre-celebrated — after a fashion — in  the Terminator movies.  In Washington’s global battle zones, what’s called our “traditional combat role” — think big invasions, occupations,  counterinsurgency — is going, going, gone with the wind, even evidently  in Afghanistan by 2013.  War American-style is instead being inherited  by secretive teams of men and machines, both hunter-killers who  specialize in assassination operations, and both of whom, as presented  to Americans, just couldn’t be sexier.

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The men of US Special Operations Command are heroes. But are their deeds heroic?

Summary:   The FM website discusses facts and insights too harsh for most to see (as seen in the 16 thousand comments during the past 4 years).  Today we look at the men in the US Special Operations Command.  Heroes, but not all the deeds we ask them to do are heroic.

In many ways our Special Operations forces are the best we have. Brave, talented, and dedicated.  Sacrificing for the nation on a scale that nobody would do for just money.  They are heroes. But that does not mean that DoD has them doing heroic tasks.

People are judged by what they do as much as who they are and why they serve. Especially so as foreigners look at the deeds of a superpower.  That’s bad, since we increasingly use our Special Operations Forces as storm troopers and Gestapo-like enforcers of US foreign policy. Heavily armed teams bursting into peoples’ homes at night — not in bases, just poor villages — to kill and kidnap.  Training our allies to use enhanced questioning techniques.   Such dark deeds may be effective.  It is often dangerous for our spec ops troops. But it is not heroic in any usual sense of the word.

The responsibility for their deeds lies on our hands, not theirs.  We require our soldiers to obey a chain of command that extends up to elected officials at the top.  Every two years we collectively acknowledge and take as our own the deeds done in our name.

We can loudly shout “hero hero hero” all day long to commemorate such deeds.   That might even convince ourselves.  It will not convince our allies, and our words will have no effect on the enemies made by each raid.

I suspect if continued long enough our spec ops forces will be seen as villains around the world.  As the CIA is today in much of the world.  As our drones are increasingly seen.  Ultimately the US will be judged as much by the means used to enforce our policies as the policies themselves.

The better our troops get at breaking down doors, the worse it is for the US in those parts of the world.

The combination of tactical success and strategic failure is how Empires die.  Unfortunately our Empire is both costly AND unprofitable.  It’s an Empire of the mad.

For more information about our Special Forces

(a)  Some early mentions of torture as a US export

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