Military Strategy Magazine  /  Volume 1, Issue 2  /  

Special Forces – Strategic Asset

Special Forces - Strategic Asset Special Forces - Strategic Asset
To cite this article: Anglim, Simon, “Special Forces – Strategic Asset”, Infinity Journal, Issue No. 2, Spring 2011, pages 16-20.

Special Forces are vital strategic asset performing functions others cannot. All military units are specialists in their own specific role, requiring personnel of particular aptitudes differing from those required in other units, and specialised organisation, training and equipment. Special Forces are no exception, being military assets designed and trained to conduct tactical actions delivering strategic outcome that is out of proportion with their size and that if conducted by conventional units, may have a disproportionate negative impact on policy. So, the aim of Special Forces is to deliver high precision at lower risks and costs than might otherwise be possible; specialists they are, but ‘elite’, not.

Despite their potential significance for policy makers, Special Forces are largely overlooked by academia. This may be due partially to image problems arising from their popularity in sensationalist media and as a subject for popular films and video games.[i] Moreover, Special Forces have no Guru and no ‘Great Theoretician’ to advance their case, as insurgency had with Lawrence, Mao and Che — this normally providing the start point for academic discussion of any form of warfare. To compound this, that other staple of academic papers, ‘doctrine’, is difficult to obtain due partially to official secrecy but more likely because codified templates for action are a liability for this type of force. While they certainly have doctrine for command, control and planning, with operational and tactical methods Special Forces operatives tend to echo Clausewitz instinctively, arguing that theory is the wise man’s tool and the fool’s master, and that the often significant challenges they face are dealt with more effectively by originality of thought and flexibility of action than codified methodologies.[ii] For example, the tactics, techniques and procedures of the British Army’s 22nd Special Air Service Regiment (22 SAS) have evolved organically, driven at the tactical level largely by the senior non-commissioned officers who command the small teams which are the SAS’ main tactical blocks and above this by senior UK Special Forces officers’ interpretation of the strategic situation at the time and place of operating.[iii] The process is bottom-up, not top-down, which creates an approach where tactics can be matched directly to the requirements of policy.

Another possible reason for the paucity of useful academic literature is that Special Forces are supposedly controversial, as touched on already.[iv] This began as early as 1941, when formation commanders in Eighth Army complained that the plethora of British ‘private armies’ in North Africa were drawing off the most resourceful and aggressive officers and NCOs to the detriment of parent units. Their disposition could not have been helped by the questionable outcome of certain operations: in June 1941, 7 and Middle East Commandos fought in Crete, taking 70% casualties, while 11 Commando’s raids on the coast of Vichy-held Syria produced 25% casualties; 11 Commando’s best-known operation, the attempt to assassinate Field Marshal Rommel, of 17/18 November 1941, failed disastrously, leading to the destruction of almost the entire force.[v] A recurring theme of Special Forces histories and memoirs has been the need to convince conservative senior officers of their worth, while preventing misdirection of manpower, funds and equipment by badly informed commanders and policy makers.

The ‘poaching’ and ‘not cost-effective’ accusations can now seem dated, even ‘historic’, and, indeed, one now tends to hear them more from historians than soldiers. At least since the 1990s, Special Forces have been recognised by many senior strategic practitioners as a far cheaper asset than others. For example, small numbers of British, Australian and US Special Forces were deployed in lieu of larger formations across parts of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, and delivered the intended strategic outcome, enhancing the combat effectiveness of local friendly forces to where they could defeat the common enemy.[vi] And, because of the growing perception of them as ‘silver bullet’, Special Forces have come to enjoy patronage at the highest levels, such as that of former US Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld. This is not entirely new, matching as it does John F. Kennedy’s support for the US Army’s Special Operations Forces and Margaret Thatcher’s enthusiasm for the SAS. However, new issues have emerged: enthusiastic but uneducated patrons have committed Special Forces to inappropriate tasks, then subjected them to disastrous levels of micro-management, as with several operations of US Special Forces since the 1960s. They have also viewed them as a politically acceptable substitute for other, possibly more effective options, as in Afghanistan in 2001 or northern Iraq in 2003, where, despite US Special Forces’ spectacular short-term successes, deployment of larger formations may have been wiser in the long term. Moreover, these enthusiasts may direct Special Forces to ill-advised, ‘something must be done’ initiatives, such as assigning the US Army Delta Force to rescue American diplomats held in Tehran in 1980, or 22 SAS to deal with rioting prisoners at Peterhead Jail in 1987, after which one Conservative MP suggested publicly they should be deployed against rioters in Britain’s inner cities.[vii] To compound this, their current popularity means Special Forces risk attracting military careerists eager to enhance their CVs. Special Forces commanders have just as often been guilty of seeking out tasks to reap good publicity and garner political support. In 1982, the then-Commanding Officer, 22 SAS, embodied many of the criticisms levelled at Special Forces. Still basking in the glory of the Iranian Embassy siege of two years before and the political clout it gave him, he as good as invited himself and his Regiment to the Falklands War; where he waged his own private war against the Argentines of questionable relevance to what the rest of the Task Force was attempting, and supported a proposal for an attack on airfields in mainland Argentina, which was fortunately abandoned as it would almost certainly have resulted in an escalation of the war as well as the complete loss of the SAS squadron committed to the task.[viii] All this worked, as he rose to the rank of full general in the British Army and senior United Nations command.

Despite cases such as these, the balance of evidence indicates that Special Forces can be a critical strategic asset, provided they are used properly. As to what ‘used properly’ means, there are three designated roles of UK Special Forces at the time of writing: surveillance and reconnaissance, support and influence, and offensive action against important targets. These mission types are apparent in the histories of most Special Forces, UK and otherwise.[ix] The surveillance and reconnaissance role impacts frequently more at the operational than the strategic level, and usually involves Special Forces working to the benefit of other forces in theatre. For example, the Long Range Desert Group’s (LRDG) reporting on the movements of Axis reserves deep behind their lines in North Africa, or UK Special Forces intelligence-gathering, in plain clothes and unmarked vehicles, in Aden and Republican-controlled areas of Northern Ireland.[x] However, Special Forces are growingly informing decision-making at the government level. They do this through covert or concealed insertion into global trouble spots from where they can report back on the situation ‘in real time’ in ways in which satellites and spy aircraft cannot. They are able to achieve this with more flexibility and less of the ‘friction’ arising from taskable agents of intelligence agencies. They also have the ability to be reassigned to other tasks, such as overseeing and protecting the evacuation of civilians, as 22 SAS were reported as doing in Libya in February 2011.[xi]

Offensive action can be divided into two broad forms: coups de main – seizing key facilities or people as part of wider operations within a theatre – or hit-and-run raids aimed specifically at neutralising such targets. While conventional units such as light infantry or even armour might reasonably execute such actions, what differentiates Special Forces is the precision with which they can conduct them, and being able to conduct them in time and space not accessible by conventional units. Examples include Otto Skorzeny’s rescue of Mussolini from Allied captivity in September 1943 and his kidnap of Nicholas Horthy, son of the Regent of Hungary, in October 1944, as a negotiating tool; Special Operations Executive’s (SOE) assassination of Obergruppenfuehrer Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazi governor of Czechoslovakia in June 1942; Allied Special Forces’ operations against Saddam Hussein’s Scuds during the 1991 Gulf War, aimed partially at protecting rear areas in Saudi Arabia, partially at keeping Israel out of the war.[xii] All these operations were effective at the strategic level, and each involved the kinetic action of no more than a few hundred lightly armed personnel, even fewer in most of them.

Cost-effectiveness becomes more apparent still with influence and support, which involves, among other things, waging warfare in enemy-held areas in cooperation with local forces, in many cases as a covert surrogate for main force action. A good example of the potential political-strategic impact of this is the use of two squadrons of 22 SAS to assault the main rebel stronghold in the Djebel Akhdar in Oman in 1959, as a low-key, plausibly deniable substitute for a major British deployment in the immediate aftermath of the Suez embarrassment, and which succeeded in saving the regime of the Sultan of Oman, a close British ally in a globally important region.[xiii] A more open variation came in 2001, US SOF operating alongside Northern Alliance forces in Afghanistan, providing technical and firepower support, summoning airstrikes from the US and allied Air Forces, and generally ensuring the often unpredictable Afghan warlords abided by US strategic aims.[xiv] In both cases again, less than 100 pairs of boots were deployed on the ground.

Under these terms it makes sense that Special Forces’ command arrangements reflect their strategic role: they work as companies, platoons, sections or sometimes even pairs, but are tasked by headquarters several echelons higher, at the theatre or even cabinet levels of command. For example, the LRDG, operating in Patrols of 32 men, was controlled directly from British Army General Headquarters (GHQ) Middle East, while the Army and Royal Marines Commandos, fighting as companies or battalions, were directed by Combined Operations Command, whose Chief sat on the Chiefs of Staff Committee and held equal status with the other three service chiefs. It is a tradition continued by the Director of UK Special Forces today, a major general reporting directly to the Chief of the Defence Staff and, when required, via him to the Cabinet. Special Forces are therefore separable from other so-called ‘elites’, specialist light infantry raiding or invasion forces, like the British Army’s Parachute Regiment, the US and Royal Marines, the US Airborne or Soviet/Russian Air Assault Regiments, which tend to operate in larger formations and be tasked and commanded in the same ways as other conventional units.

The ability to conduct operations in locations inaccessible to other units is another distinguishing aspect of Special Forces. This is linked to the requirement calling for a Special Force in the first place: the LRDG were created because the British Army was operating in a desert, the Royal Marines Special Boat Squadron (SBS) and US Navy Sea-Air Land units (SEALs) because maritime powers needed to strike at maritime and littoral targets inaccessible to conventional forces. At its simplest this may mean just bypassing enemy main forces around an open flank, for example the LRDG and SAS in North Africa in 1940-42, or infiltrating or exploiting breaches or weak spots in the front line created by overstretch or friendly main-force action. A second means is airborne or airmobile – the vertical flank – and a third technique is approach by water, unsurprisingly favoured by maritime powers such as Britain and the USA. While these techniques are also used by others, Special Forces are again distinguished by the ability and training to do so at greater range and with a far lower signature, such as deploying from submerged submarines or free-falling from aircraft travelling at altitudes normally used by commercial airliners.

Such operations require particularly motivated, fit and intelligent manpower, and a further, informal way of assessing any Special Force is to look at its size and selection and training procedures. The strength of 22 SAS is usually put at around 300-350 men: candidates for the Regiment must serve a minimum number of years in the British forces before applying and then survive an almost year-long selection process in which the pass rate is never more than 15% (10% for officers), this in an already small, highly professional army.[xv] There are similar requirements for Delta Force, SEAL Team Six and the “Tier-One” Special Forces of other NATO countries. It is also worth noting that the bulk of candidates for 22 SAS come from the Parachute Regiment while Delta Force draws many from the US Army Rangers, meaning potential entrants have passed arduous selection procedures already in order to get into their original units.

It can be contended, therefore, that Special Forces conduct action against strategically significant targets that other forces cannot reach and achieve results disproportionate to size, perhaps during periods of international confrontation as well as ‘open’ war, so providing a flexible means of supporting allies, gathering intelligence and influencing the strategic situation in the direction their masters choose. This, however, risks overlooking the main role of Special Forces, post-1945, which has been in counterinsurgency. Sometimes this can be extremely overt, for instance the raids by Israeli Special Forces on facilities in countries used by terrorist insurgents or sympathetic governments, a cornerstone of Israel’s counter-terrorist strategy since the 1950s. However, Special Forces deploy more often within their own government’s sovereign territory or that of allies, their training and organisation allowing them to use the insurgents’ own operational and tactical methods – ambush, assassination, attacks on supplies, suborning the local population – against them. Alternatively, they may take precise action against insurgents where there may be fallout from alternative methods – the most glamorous Special Forces role of all is the rescue of civilian hostages held by terrorist insurgents, as with Operation Jonathan, the Israeli raid on Entebbe in July 1976, or Nimrod, 22 SAS’ storming of the Iranian Embassy in London in May 1980.

Perhaps the first to apprehend the usefulness of such forces in counterinsurgency was Brigadier Michael Calvert, the post-war refounder of the SAS, remarking on Malaya in 1951 that the British Army needed ‘a force that would live, move and have its being in the jungle, like the guerillas [sic]…supplied and supported by air’; its role being ‘to operate in deep jungle areas not controlled by other security forces, with the object of destroying guerilla [sic] forces, their camps and sources of supply’.[xvi] As such, Special Forces can form the backbone of an entire counterinsurgent philosophy, based on blurring their three main wartime roles. The US Army’s Colonel Charlie Beckwith served an exchange-attachment as a troop commander with 22 SAS in 1962-1963, and made no secret of his creation, Delta Force, copying the organisation and ethos of 22 SAS, adapted to the more manual-orientated approach of the US Army. This was filtered through experience gained with Project DELTA of the 5th Special Forces Group in Vietnam in 1965-66, tasked with reconnaissance of Vietcong-held areas ahead of major operations, and authorised to ambush any guerrillas encountered. General Sir Frank Kitson, who organised and commanded ‘counter-gangs’ in the Kenya Mau-Mau insurgency of the 1950s, took the ‘covert’ role further, advocating deployment of officers with expertise in particular geographical regions to collect and assess information, supported by teams of local militia and ‘turned’ insurgents, trained and commanded by regular military personnel, to carry out offensive action when required.[xvii] 22 SAS formed such units, called Firquat or ‘companies’ in the Dhofar region of Oman in the insurgency of 1965-1975, SAS troops masquerading as ‘training teams’ in another example of how Special Forces can act as a cost-effective and low-visibility substitute for more open deployment.[xix] This has the additional benefit of allowing intelligence agencies, with whom Special Forces collaborate very closely, to identify and train potential local agents among those forces. 2007-2008 saw US Special Forces forming several such units in Iraq. Whereupon it was hailed as a ‘new way in war’ in the literature, as is often the case when the media and academic community stumbles upon concepts known to practitioners for generations, US Special Forces having done this previously, successfully and largely unnoticed, in Vietnam. Overt offensive action can take the form of ‘spectaculars’ of the Entebbe, Mogadishu (1977) or Nimrod variety, but more often involves apprehending or neutralising suspected or known insurgents expected to resist with deadly force. For example, in Gibraltar in 1988, when SAS personnel ambushed and shot dead an Irish Republican Army (IRA) team intent on a bombing campaign in the colony, or US and British Special Forces’ offensive against the insurgents’ leadership and logistical networks in the cities of Iraq since 2003.[xx]

Controversies now emerge. The public reaction to the Gibraltar episode reminds us that nowhere is the use of Special Forces more contentious than in counterinsurgency. The use of deadly force by army or police against elements of their own population is always going to be controversial in liberal democracies, given their emphasis upon the rule of law and legal due process, and a cultural morality centred upon unfettered freedom of political expression. Mark Urban’s recent assertion that, as a liberal he finds the idea that insurgencies can be defeated through military means alone ‘disturbing’, speaks volumes for the cultural context in which Special Forces operate currently, one where traditional counter-insurgency is giving way to ‘stabilisation’ and uniformed social work, and in which ‘going kinetic’ on insurgents can be viewed by the voting public as a sign of failure.[xxi] Colin Gray has presented a political-cultural ‘ladder of acceptability’ for using Special Forces against insurgents, based upon ‘brutal cynicism or sophisticated appreciation of the needs of Realpolitik’, the aggressive use of such forces in ‘peacetime’ being more acceptable in some societies (Israel, Russia, some Arab and Asian countries) than others (Europe and the USA); Britain is halfway down Gray’s list, but he noted the domestic outcry in the UK, ‘couched substantially in ethical terms’, following the Gibraltar incident.[xxii]

Such controversy is compounded by several factors. Using ‘shock troops’ may be counter-productive in that their necessarily robust approach might (and usually does) create media and public sympathy for the insurgents and can also provide a convenient ‘bogeyman’ for propaganda – the IRA, for instance, portrayed British counter-insurgent forces, from the Black and Tans to 22 SAS, as ‘the strong arm of British imperialism’. This can be redoubled if a force develops – or even cultivates – a reputation for ferocity in action, as with 22 SAS, the Soviet/Russian Spetznaz or the IDF’s “Unit 101”. Yet, such a reputation might become a force multiplier when propagated via the very pop-culture ‘military pornography’ Professor Gray sees as undermining Special Forces’ academic respectability.[xxiii] However the greatest problem – one requiring a paper on its own – is that counter-insurgent operations frequently produce situations like that in Gibraltar, SAS in Northern Ireland, or Israeli or Russian Special Forces since the early 1990s, of having no option but to open fire under ambiguous circumstances and in front of witnesses, then face what General Sir Peter de la Billière (a former CO 22 SAS and Director UK Special Forces) dismisses as ‘the sort of rubbish which [people] produce when they have time to think about an event academically’.[xxiv]

History indicates that however ‘controversial’ Special Forces may appear, their utility to policy makers and their general effectiveness ensures that by any description, Special Forces are special.


[i] For a good summary of the academic view on Special Operations, see Colin S Gray, ‘Handfuls of Heroes on Desperate Ventures: When do Special Operations Succeed?’, Parameters, Spring 1999, pp.2-24, which can be accessed at and accessed last by the author on 4 February 2011. When the author recently asked a group of his undergraduate students what responses the term ‘Special Forces’ conjured up for them, one replied immediately, ‘Call of Duty’
[ii] See Gray, ‘Handfuls of Heroes’, where he argues that Special Forces ‘must not be doctrinaire’ and Carl von Clausewitz, On War translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret (London: Everyman’s 1994) pp.153-174 for Clausewitz’s views on the role theory in war, which are more enlightened than those of many of his disciples.
[iii] For differing views on the role of senior NCOs in the SAS and the ‘Chinese Parliament’ tradition, see Ken Connor, Ghost Force: The Secret History of the SAS (London: Cassell 1998), pp.11-113; Tony Geraghty, Who Dares Wins: The Special Air Service, 1950 to the Gulf War (London: Warner 1992), pp.11-14; Peter Ratcliffe DCM, Eye of the Storm: Twenty-Five Years in Action with the SAS (London: Michael O’Mara 2000) pp.297-299. ‘Billy’ Ratcliffe, a former Regimental Sergeant Major, 22 SAS, was sceptical about ‘Chinese Parliaments’ and his memoirs recount that during Operation Desert Storm, the CO of 22 SAS sacked one of this squadron commanders in the field for being too heavily influenced by one particular senior NCO.
[iv] For the most cited, and influential special forces critic, see Field Marshal Sir William Slim, Defeat into Victory (London: Cassell 1956), pp.546-549. Ironically, the Field Marshal’s son, Colonel John Slim, was later CO 22 SAS.
[v] Special Forces in the Desert War (London: National Archives 2001), pp.276, 281-282, 416-418
[vi] Richard A Clarke, Against all Enemies: Inside America’s War on Terror (London: Free Press 2003), pp.274-277; George Friedman, America’s Secret War (London: Little, Brown 2004), pp.151-155, 160-165, 171, 178-182; Bob Woodward, Bush at War (London: Pocket Books 2003), pp.251-254, 260, 267, 275, 282
[vii] Geraghty, Who Dares Wins, pp.474-480; a former officer in 22 SAS of the author’s acquaintance commented that politicians’ and senior commanders’ eyes can be ‘full of fairy dust’ when dealing with the Regiment.
[viii] And came close to causing a mutiny in the Regiment in doing so – for two contrasting personal accounts, see Connor, Ghost Force, pp.374-378 and General Sir Peter de la Billière, Looking for Trouble: SAS to Gulf Command (London: HarperCollins 1994), pp.346-347
[ix] Private Personal correspondence with the author
[x] For example, see Special Forces in the Desert War, pp.130-132; Geraghty, Who Dares Wins, pp.381-408; Mark Urban, Big Boy’s Rules: The Secret Struggle against the IRA (London: Faber and Faber 1992), especially pp.38, 45, 180, 181
[xii] For detailed accounts of the strategic role of the SAS in the Gulf in 1991, see Connor, Ghost Force, pp.456-501; Geraghty, Who Dares Wins, pp.23-79
[xiii] De la Billière, Looking for Trouble, pp.131-151; Geraghty, Who Dares Wins, pp.166-178; JE Peterson, Oman’s Insurgencies: The Sultanate’s Struggle for Supremacy (London: Saqi 2007), pp.116-141
[xiv] See note 5 above
[xv] For details, see Geraghty, Who Dares Wins, pp.500-532 and any number of personal accounts in SAS memoirs, such as Ratcliffe, Eye of the Storm, pp.52-71; like many members of 22 SAS, Ratcliffe began his career in the Parachute Regiment.
[xvi] Mike Calvert, Fighting Mad: One Man’s Guerrilla War (London: AirLife 1996), p.205
[xvii] Peter Harclerode, Secret Soldiers: Special Forces in the War against Terrorism (London: Cassell 2000), pp.409-412
[xviii] Frank Kitson, Low Intensity Operations: Subversion, Insurgency and Peacekeeping (London: Faber and Faber 1971), pp.139, 191-196
[xix] De la Billière, Looking for Trouble, pp.131-151; Geraghty, Who Dares Wins, pp178-206; Tony Jeapes, SAS Operation Storm: Secret War in the Middle East (London: Greenhill 2005), discusses the role of the Firquats in Oman throughout; Peterson, Oman’s Insurgencies, especially pp.254-264
[xx] Geraghty, Who Dares Wins, pp.282-322; Mark Urban, Task Force Black: The Explosive True Story of the SAS and the Secret War in Iraq (London: Little, Brown 2004), pp.137-148, 151-159, 240-243, 253-262
[xxi] Urban, Task Force Black, p.xvi
[xxii] Gray, ‘Handfuls of Heroes’
[xxiii] In ‘Handfuls of Heroes’ he argues that Special Forces ‘must be feared’.
[xxiv] De la Billière, Looking for Trouble, p.336, and see Geraghty, Who Dares Wins, pp.561-563; Urban, Big Boy’s Rules, pp.69-78

My thanks to Colonel David Benest, the late Sir Douglas Dodds-Parker, Professor Colin Gray, Colonel John Hughes-Wilson, Brigadier David Venn and other, unnameable sources for informing my views on this subject.

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