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Theory of Special Operations
In the realm of military literature, there is much written on theory of war, ranging from Herman Kahn’s thinking about the unthinkable on the nuclear end of the spectrum to B. H. Liddell Hart’s indirect warfare on the conventional end. There are theories of war escalation and war termination, theories of revolution and counterrevolution, and theories of insurgency and counterinsurgency. There are general airpower and sea power theories, and more specific theories on strategic bombing and amphibious warfare. Nowhere, however, is there a theory of special operations.
Why is a theory of special operations important? A successful special operation defies conventional wisdom by using a small force to defeat a much larger or well-entrenched opponent. This book develops a theory of special operations that explains why this phenomenon occurs. I will show that through the use of certain principles of warfare a special operations force can reduce what Carl von Clausewitz calls the frictions of war to a manageable level. By minimizing these frictions the special operations force can achieve relative superiority over the enemy. Once relative superiority is achieved, the attacking force is no longer at a disadvantage and has the initiative to exploit the enemy’s weaknesses and secure victory. Although gaining relative superiority doesn’t guarantee success, it is necessary for success. If we can determine, prior to an operation, the best way to achieve relative superiority, then we can tailor special operations planning and preparation to improve our chances of victory. This theory will not make the reader a better diver, flyer, or jumper, but it will provide an intellectual framework for thinking about special operations. The relative superiority graph that will be shown later is a tool to assess the viability of a proposed special operation.
THE SCOPE OF THIS STUDY
To develop a theory of special operations I had to first limit the scope of the problem. This required developing the following refined definition of a special operation: “A special operation is conducted by forces specially trained, equipped, and supported for a specific target whose destruction, elimination, or rescue (in the case of hostages), is a political or military imperative.”*
My definition is not consistent with official joint doctrine which broadly defines special operations to include psychological operations, civil affairs, and reconnaissance. The eight combat operations I analyzed to determine the principles of special operations and to develop the theory are more closely aligned to what Joint Pub 3–05 defines as a direct-action mission.† Unlike direct-action missions, however, the eight special operations that I analyze in this book were always of a strategic or operational nature and had the advantage of virtually unlimited resources and national-level intelligence. The refined definition also implies that special operations can be conducted by non-special operations personnel, such as those airmen who conducted James Doolittle’s raid on Tokyo or the submariners involved in the raid on the German battleship Tirpitz. Although I believe the theory of special operations, as presented in this book, is applicable across the spectrum of special operations, as defined by Joint Pub 3–05, it was developed solely from the eight case studies presented in this work. All usage of the term special operations henceforth will adhere to this refined definition.
WHY ARE SPECIAL OPERATIONS UNIQUE?
All special operations are conducted against fortified positions, whether a particular position is a battleship surrounded by anti-torpedo nets (the British midget submarine raid on the German battleship Tirpitz), a mountain retreat guarded by Italian troops (Otto Skorzeny’s rescue of Benito Mussolini), a prisoner of war (POW) camp (the Ranger raid on Cabanatuan and the U.S. Special Forces raid on Son Tay), or a hijacked airliner (the German antiterrorist unit [GSG-9] hostage rescue in Mogadishu). These fortified positions reflect situations involving defensive warfare on the part of the enemy.
Carl von Clausewitz, in his book On War, noted, “The defensive form of warfare is intrinsically stronger than the offense. [It] contributes resisting power, the ability to preserve and protect oneself. Thus, the defense generally has a negative aim, that of resisting the enemy’s will … if we are to mount an offensive to impose our will, we must develop enough force to overcome the inherent superiority of the enemy’s defense.”2 Clausewitz’s theory of war states that to defeat “the stronger form of warfare” an army’s best weapon is superior numbers. “In this sense superiority of numbers admittedly is the most important factor in the outcome of an engagement, so long as it is great enough to counterbalance all other contributing circumstances. It thus follows that as many troops as possible should be brought into the engagement at the decisive point.”
No soldier would argue the benefit of superior numbers, but if they were the most important factor, how could 69 German commandos have defeated a Belgian force of 650 soldiers protected by the largest, most extensive fortress of its time, the fort at Eben Emael? How can a special operations force that has inferior numbers and the disadvantage of attacking the stronger form of warfare gain superiority over the enemy? To understand this paradox is to understand special operations.
Relative superiority is a concept crucial to the theory of special operations. Simply stated, relative superiority is a condition that exists when an attacking force, generally smaller, gains a decisive advantage over a larger or well-defended enemy. The value of the concept of relative superiority lies in its ability to illustrate which positive forces influence the success of a mission and to show how the frictions of war affect the achievement of the goal. This section will define the three basic properties of relative superiority and describe how those properties are revealed in combat.
Relative superiority is achieved at the pivotal moment in an engagement. For example, in World War II, when the Germans attacked the Belgian fort at Eben Emael, they achieved a decisive advantage—relative superiority—over the enemy within five minutes of the initial engagement by using gliders and shaped charges to gain surprise and speed to subdue the enemy quickly. Although the Belgians fought for another twenty-four hours, the battle hinged on the first few moments, and the outcome of the engagement was virtually assured.
In some cases, the pivotal moment comes before actual combat. In 1943 the British modified an old destroyer, the HMS Campbeltown, filled it with four and a quarter tons of explosives, covered it with armor plating, sailed it across the English Channel, and rammed it into the German-held dry dock at Saint-Nazaire, France. This action rendered the dry dock useless for the remainder of the war. Although the German defenses surrounding Saint-Nazaire were the heaviest in the Atlantic, once the HMS Campbeltown managed to reach the outer harbor of the port (two miles from the dry dock), the Germans could not stop her. At this point, which was prior to actual hostilities, relative superiority was achieved. The point at which relative superiority is achieved is also frequently the point of greatest risk. The closer the attacking force gets, the tougher the defenses become. However, once you overcome the last obstacle the probability of success strongly outweighs the probability of failure, and relative superiority is achieved.
Once relative superiority is achieved, it must be sustained in order to guarantee victory. In an effort to rescue the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, SS Capt. Otto Skorzeny conducted a glider assault on an Italian stronghold on top of Gran Sasso peak in the Apennines Mountains. Within four minutes of landing, Skorzeny had stormed the hotel hideout and had Mussolini in his custody. At this point he had achieved relative superiority. However, for the mission to be successful, Skorzeny had to extract Mussolini from the mountaintop and ensure the dictator’s safe return to Rome. This interim period between grabbing Mussolini and mission completion required sustaining relative superiority. This was accomplished through boldness on Skorzeny’s part and by reinforcing the small commando force with conventional troops.
The ability to sustain relative superiority frequently requires the intervention of courage, intellect, boldness, and perseverance, or what Clausewitz calls the moral factors. For example, during World War II, Lt. Luigi Durand de la Penne, an Italian frogman, clandestinely entered Alexandria Harbor aboard a manned torpedo. He and his second diver overcame an antisubmarine net, depth charges, picketboats, pier security, and an antitorpedo net to reach the British battleship HMS Valiant. All they had to do was place explosives on the hull and the mission would have been successful. Unfortunately, as Durand de la Penne dove the manned torpedo under the HMS Valiant, the submersible gained ballast and sank into the mud. To make matters worse, his second diver lost consciousness and floated to the surface. Although physically exhausted from the long dive and freezing from the cold water seeping into his torn dry suit, Durand de la Penne spent the next forty minutes moving the torpedo into position under the HMS Valiant. Only through his tremendous perseverance and courage (two of the four moral factors) was he able to sustain relative superiority and complete the mission.