Center for Strategic Communication

One of the most useful aspects of Zero Dark Thirty is its dogged focus on the mundane and numerous things that underpin great raids. There are the countless hours of intelligence collection and analysis, some of which is highly dangerous. The deliberations and interagency decisions about an event that not only risks the lives of brave men but also requires a high degree of enabling technologies and logistics. Perfect certainty is unavailable, and the identification of the Abbottabad hideout is a product of inductive reasoning of a highly impressionistic nature. A sophisticated helicopter malfunctions.

Of course, the film underplays all of the things that could have gone wrong. My former Georgetown classmate Phillip Padilla, a USSOCOM alumni, wrote a very chilling piece for Slate with Daniel Byman about how Neptune Spear could have easily gone FUBAR. As Padilla observes, the intel could have been wrong, al-Qaeda could have prepared defensive traps and positions that might have inflicted a heavy toll on the attackers, the helicopter could have crash-landed in an location far more inconvenient than the compound (such as in the middle of urban Abbottabad itself), and a diplomatically perilous and tactically risky shootout with the Pakistani military could have occurred.

For every Neptune Spear, there are many Dieppes or Mogadishus. In the world of hostage rescue, the kind of confused mess seen in Algeria’s gory retaking of its natural gas complex is more common than smooth operations like Entebbe or the GSG-9’s expert performance at Lufthansa Flight 181. Roger Spulak of the Joint Special Operations University (JSOU) emphasizes that Special Operations Forces (SOF) are selected and organized in a manner that deals directly with three prominent sources of friction on the battlefield: constraints imposed by physical and cognitive limits, informational uncertainty, and the highly unpredictable nature of combat between two thinking adversaries. Elite warriors are better able to overcome basic human constraints, flexibility provides a means of customizing capabilities to deal with informational problems in ways conventional forces cannot, and creativity provides game-changing methods for dealing with complex problems. The latter is dramatically demonstrated by William McRaven’s concept of “relative advantage,” which can create a state of tactical paralysis in even a well-prepared opponent that knows an attack is coming.

The problem is that the higher the importance of the mission, the greater the level of fog, friction, and overall interactive complexity inherent in the operational problem. A war cannot be won by great raids alone. Even new technology has not changed the high costs to consistently replicating decisive raids. An operation like Stuxnet was dependent on contextual organizational, technological, and human factors that are unlikely to be replicated in the exact same way for the target set struck. Getting that mixture right is very difficult. It seems apparent from open-source accounts that bad intel and good enemy counterintelligence ruined the recent French hostage rescue attempt in Somalia. The right organizational framework eluded the doomed rescuers in the 1980 Tehran hostage rescue attempt. Enemy adaptation, restrictive rules of engagement, poor strategic guidance, and the problem of operating in a multinational coalition were all factors in the Battle of Mogadisu.

Sometimes special operations are also fairly irrelevant to the long-term outcome. The Spetsnaz operation in 1979 that ushered in the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan decapitated the government in a marvelous display of operational acumen. But like a stone that makes the water ripple but nonetheless still sinks, its influence on the ultimate outcome is at best highly indirect. Perhaps Neptune Spear will be more significant for its domestic political effects than its ultimate impact on al-Qaeda. Certainly killing bin Laden removed a prominent enemy leader from the war effort and delivered troves of valuable intel on how his organization worked. But the destruction of the Afghan safe haven and the constant attrition by local Afghan cross-border forces (the Counterterrorism Pursuit Teams) and American airpower likely had a more important impact.

Neptune Spear did, however, give the President more political breathing room to draw down the Afghan war. In terms of the ultimate aim of war, this is highly useful and underrated. Stuxnet also may have reassured regional allies and given more time for the US to create the sanctions regime that would devastate Iran far more than any computer worm. Some special operations missions have distinct strategic payoffs that often make them often worth the risk, and hence the need for customized, tailorable forces that can do the job. The structural requirements of enabling those forces, however, are often grossly undervalued.

The “tip of the spear” is only one small element of a large and multifarious machine, and when that machine breaks down (as it is wont to do) there is hell to pay. Special operations forces are highly skilled and lightly armed infantrymen, supported by special operations aviation, search and rescue, close air support platforms, and other enabling capabilities. A small group of lightly armed infantrymen, as seen at the battle of Arnhem, does not count for much in the face of superior numbers and even the most rudimentary of combined arms. And as my friend Rei Tang often reminds me, the famed SOF efforts during the Surge were highly dependent on a unique form of interagency fusion.

All of these factors should give us pause when thinking of replacing targeted killing programs with capture regimes. The level of planning and risk involved, to say nothing of the potential blowback in terms of violations of sovereignty and civilian casualities, is of an order of magnitude higher. Between 1,500 to 3,000 Somalis were killed or wounded in the Battle of Mogadishu, all for the capture of one man who wasn’t even there to begin with. If there is one truth to criticisms of targeted killing, it is that they are more sustainable. The air war over Pakistan has gone on long because the complexity and friction inherent in the missions are lower. But one of the prominent reasons why is that the potential moral harm inherent in some situations potentially posed by a coercive capture regime dwarf those of airpower-based killing. The large and complex apparatus needed to make a snatch-and-grab work in a complex environment cannot be underplayed, and the human consequences for civilians when that machine breaks down can be very ugly. How would we regard Neptune Spear if scores of Pakistan civilians were harmed in a madcap attempt by special operators to shoot their way out of a failed mission?

Reducing targeted killings is certainly desirable, but the degree to which captures can meaningfully replace TKs is highly context-dependent. Ultimately, when the policy requires an terrorist be removed from the scene, some means will be used. When a snatch-and-grab promises Mogadishu-like results, an aircraft may be employed. When it is possible to rendition a terrorist, it will likely be preferable to do so. As noted in my previous posts, the demand is unlikely to go away, which has implications for the supply. Finally, there is no way to reliably know whether another Mogadishu will occur. Had AQ or the ISI been better at counterintelligence and deception operations they could have foiled Neptune Spear in the same way the Somalis did to the French hostage rescuers. Indeed, when one thinks of the great coups de main of antiquity, good CI and MILDEC could have turned the Trojan Horse or the fall of Jericho into bloody disasters. Had the inhabitants of Jericho “turned” Rahab they could have fooled the Israelites as handily as the Double Cross System foiled the Germans, and the Trojans might have been a bit more skeptical of “Greeks bearing gifts” had they patrolled more vigorously.

What is the future of special operations great raids? Technology will create different tactical possibilities, certainly. Advances in cyberweapons, directed energy weapons, sensor meshes, 3-D printing for logistics, and robotics will create a much more diverse and powerful set of enabling capabilities to augment the power of raiding forces. Of course, they will also introduce their own set of complications, vulernabilities, and enemy adaptations. What won’t change is the enduring value of SOF as a “strategic asset“–defined not necessarily as a tool that necessarily has intrinsically “strategic” qualities but one that delivers a certain kind of effect with a unique and rare meaning for strategy. That meaning must be appreciated, lest SOF is squandered in missions that do not play to its unique strengths or seen as a panacea.