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:


  • Despite massive pressure, Bush Jr was unable to keep US forces in Iraq after 2011. We were kicked out, justly so after ignorantly destabilizing their country.
  • The rise of “green on blue” attacks suicidal attacks shows an almost organic rejection of 3 decades of US interference in Afghanistan.
  • We are becoming an enemy in the eyes of the Pakistan people (only 11% see America positively, 92% disapprove of US leadership).

Combined with the evolution of special operations forces into global assassins (e.g, the hit on bin Laden), this should prompt research about the short- and long-term effectiveness of special operations forces in their various roles. Posts in the For More Information section discuss warnings by experts about the excessive and misuse of these sharp tools.

Special Forces
By Eric A. Hendrix.

(2)  The Special Forces at work

In this, as in so many things today, Americans views are shaped to a scary extent by oru ignorance. For example, the Green Berets have a wonderful reputation. It might be lower if Americans knew more about their actions.  For example, the 7th and 8th Special Forces groups were involved in training at the School and working with its graduates in Latin America.  It’s not a pretty picture, nor one that has helped America. From the School of the America’s Watch (see Wikipedia):

The School of the Americas (SOA) is a combat training school for Latin American soldiers, located at Fort Benning, Georgia. In 2001 renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC).

Former Panamanian President, Jorge Illueca, stated that the School of the Americas was the “biggest base for destabilization in Latin America.” The SOA have left a trail of blood and suffering in every country where its graduates have returned. For this reason the School of the Americas has been historically dubbed the “School of Assassins”.

Since 1946, the SOA has trained over 64,000 Latin American soldiers in counterinsurgency techniques, sniper training, commando and psychological warfare, military intelligence and interrogation tactics. These graduates have consistently used their skills to wage a war against their own people. Among those targeted by SOA graduates are educators, union organizers, religious workers, student leaders, and others who work for the rights of the poor. Hundreds of thousands of Latin Americans have been tortured, raped, assassinated, “disappeared,” massacred, and forced into refugee by those trained at the School of Assassins.

(3)  Since we don’t learn, here’s the obligatory story about Vietnam

Our amnesia prevents recognition that we’ve ridden this ride before.  From David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest:

All of this helped send the Kennedy Administration into dizzying heights of antiguerrilla activity and discussion … the Kennedy people were looking ahead, ready for a new and more subtle kind of conflict. The other side, {Walt} Rostow’s scavengers of revolution, would soon be met by the new American breed, a romantic group indeed, the US Army Special Forces. They were all uncommon men, extraordinary physical specimens and intellectual Ph.D.s swinging from trees, speaking Russian and Chinese, eating snake meat and other fauna at night, springing counterambushes on unwary Asian ambushers who had read Mao and Giap, but not {Roger} Hilsman and Rostow.

It was all going to be very exciting, and even better, great gains would be made at little cost.

In October 1961 the entire White House press corps was transported to Fort Bragg to watch a special demonstration put on by Kennedy’s favored Special Forces … nd it turned into real whiz-bang day. There were ambushes, counterambushes and demonstrations in snake-meat eating, all topped off by a Buck Rogers show: a soldier with a rocket on his back who flew over water to land on the other side.

It was quite a  show, and it was only as they were leaving Fort Bragg that Francis Lara, the Agence France-Presse correspondent who had covered the Indochina war, sidled over to his friend Tom Wicker of the New York Times.  “All of this looks very impressive, doesn’t it?” he said. Wicker allowed as how it did. “Funny,” Lara said, “none of it worked for us when we tried it in 1951.”

(4)  The future of SOF

Thanks for the clarification of your position about expansion of SOF. My comment was unclear. For DoD, it appears that SOF remains in its long-term growth mode.

The 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) Report continued SOF’s growth. The 2014 QDR, expected early next year, might change that. Since the geographic scope and range of missions for SOF continues to grow, stopping their growth will force soemthing to change.  A few articles about this collision:

Now, at the conclusion of our two wars, seems a logical moment to assess the results from SOF. The results might influence — for the better — decisions about SOF organization, missions, and size. DoD history shows a reluctance to do this, a luxury we can no longer afford.

(5)  Conclusions

The dream lives on of easy solutions to 4GW, aided by our amnesia about past failures.  Unconventional warfare. COIN. “Light footprint” war. Now special operations warfare. Why do we fall for each new story? Because we want the war. Each new war. WWII gave us a taste for righteous war, as if it were an addictive drug giving us foreign adventures and distracting ourselves from the mundane challenges of 21st century life. And of course these wars benefit powerful special interests, such as the military and the defense industry.

Knowledge could help. But we prefer salesmanship and dreams to dreary research.

Vietnam was a humiliating defeat, generating severe social stresses and straining the economy. We still carry the debts that paid for much of it; we’re still paying the disability and retirement benefits to those who fought it. Our current wars have proved equally vain, and their long-term effects have yet to be seen.  Our future will result from  the lessons we learn, the best way to honor those who sacrificed so much in these wars. Will we fall for the next story to get us into the next war: easy, cheap, righteous, making a better world! Well-funded lobbying groups like Center for a New America Security will produce shiny reports making the next war sound enticing  The news media will apply a glossy finish and broadcast it from sea to sea.

Will we continue to spread America’s resources — both money and blood — across the world in vain wars?  So far the military literature shows little evidence of gaining from the experience of the past decade. The Defense industry continues to thrive. The US military remains the most trusted American institution.

Perhaps it is our destiny to follow the path of so many other nations, from Spain to Germany, waging war until we are broken financially or militarily.

(6)  A warning

The CIA was created to be — and has acted as — the President’s private army, working with limited supervision. The Secret Service has evolved into a Praetorian Guard, working with little supervision and an often-casual regard for the Constitution. Now we take the next step, as the Special Operations Forces expand in both size and scope of action — often operating outside normal military controls, often as a militarized branch of the CIA.

This is a dark path. There might be monsters at the end.

(7)  History of COIN

Only after five years was there systematic research to determine if COIN works when conducted by foreign armies.  Research then showed what we learned the hard way: it seldom works (i.e., only in special circumstances). Are we repeating this unwillingness to learn with special operations?

(8)  For More Information

(a)  About Special Operations Forces: “What’s So Special About Special Ops? SEALs and Rangers are no answer to our military woes.“, William S. Lind, American Conservative, 26 September 2012

(b)  Other posts about special operations forces:

  1. “Night Raids, Hidden Detention Centers, the ‘Black Jail’, and the Dogs of War in Afghanistan”, 30 January 2010
  2. Stratfor looks at “The Utility of Assassination”, 26 February 2010
  3. The biggest re-branding exercise in the history of the world, 21 August 2010 — A new image for America.
  4. Mercs spread special ops methods to corporations and (eventually) our enemies, 17 September 2010
  5. Killing the leaders of our enemy. Is this the fast track to victory – or disaster?, 25 October 2010
  6. About the strategic significance of bin Laden’s execution, and the road not taken, 5 May 2011
  7. The men of US Special Operations Command are heroes.  But are their deeds heroic?, 15 August 2011
  8. Uncle Sam, Global Gangster, 22 February 2012
  9. The military takes us back to the future. To Vietnam, again and again.. 14 March 2013

(9) Nostalgia for the last time we took this ride



12 thoughts on “Expanding the size and scope of our Special Operations Forces, an alternative to learning from our failed wars”

  1. Fabius.

    It is always annoying when I can’t contradict you.

    However, may I note that the Zetas were at least originally Mexican special ops.

  2. Colonel Maxwell is an expert on SOF, and if I am looking for the best way to utilize SOF, then I would seek his advice.

    However, SOF is still a military option.

    In our current situation, I wonder if this is simply the alcoholic switching from liquor to beer in the hopes of attempting to better manage the drinking problem?

    1. MikeF,

      I agree that Col Maxwell is an expert. But long experience has proven that even experts are not reliable at evaluating the effectiveness of their tools. There is a massive body of evidence about this. From the Strategic Bombing Survey to the studies about COIN. And equally telling, the limited ability of doctors to evaluate the effectiveness of their treatments.

      Only careful analytical research can answer these important questions.

    2. FM,

      I agree with you, and I’ll clarify the final part of my last comment,

      In my mind, for US foreign policy, which is increasingly turning to military-first options, switching to an SF or SOF focus from COIN is like an alcoholic switching from liquor to beer in order to try and manage his drinking problem.

      1. Mike,

        I posted my question at SWC. Has anyone attempted to determine the effectiveness of SOF at its various missions?

        It will be interesting to see anyone attempts to answer. I know how I will bet.

  3. FM,

    Currently, there is no good study on the utility of special operations that I have seen; however, there is an ongoing Minerva project that may be able to use Big Data to better start analyzing war.

    Check out the Empirical Studies of Conflict at Princeton.

    Joe Felter started this project five years ago. I had a small part in coding the Philippines data when I was at the DA dept. at the Naval Postgraduate School. In my case, I was looking at/interpreting fifty years of Philippine Army situational reports and coding them into data for analysis.

    Overtime, if the data is continued to be collected, then we may be able to start quantifying success/failure in a better way.

    1. Mike,

      Yes, that’s a fascinating project.

      Still, a smaller project could tell us useful things about SOF effectiveness. It’s a bad sign that there is so little interest in learning the facts. We prefer our myths and stories. That’s just hubris.

    1. Jason,

      That’s a legitimate question. It’s easily done using google, given the number of stories they’ve sparked over the years.

      I will get to this when time available.

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