From Roman Legions to Navy SEALs: Military Raiding and its Discontents

It can be tempting to see special forces as providing "magic bullet" solutions to thorny political-military problems. Moreover, policymakers often do not view such discrete military operations as "war," sometimes leading them to underestimate the tactical difficulties involved in utilizing special forces. The controversy over the lack of AC-130 gunships during the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu is a case in point. As reporter Mark Bowden wrote, Secretary of Defense Les Aspin rejected a request to include the powerful gunships -- which can generate an impressive amount of fire support for ground troops -- for fear of collateral damage. Aspin took the brunt of the blame, though the greater strategic confusion and "mission creep" were what ultimately placed these lightly armed infantry in a hostile city with negligible support.

The apex of the modern school of raiding is something called collaborative warfare. Introduced to the public by Bob Woodward's account of special operations during the 2007 surge, collaborative warfare emphasizes tight inter-agency coordination and precise intelligence fusion to more accurately target insurgent networks. Collaborative warfare is the culmination of 30 years of intelligence and interagency reforms, new command structures, increased resources, and the growing awareness of a need to "fight a network with a network." The irregular character of the war on terror provided a powerful incentive for the development of these new capabilities for precision warfare and manhunting strategies.

Ironically, special forces may have succeeded where the conventional military failed in realizing their own brand of network-centric warfare, although debate still remains over its impact in Iraq. Network-centric warfare, a newly proposed strategy for fighting nation-state competitors, was supposed to leverage new surveillance, reconnaissance, and communications technologies to enable superior targeting and a new form of organization. Instead of heavy ground formations, small units with superior situational awareness would locate and destroy enemy units with long-range firepower. Network-centric warfare -- or at least the version of it implemented by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld -- didn't give American forces superior awareness in the 2003 invasion phase of the Iraq war. But the Joint Special Operations Command's deft integration of technical intelligence and interagency networks may have succeeded where Rumsfeld had failed.

The operation to kill bin Laden is a shining example of just how far American raiding capabilities have advanced since the Iranian hostage crisis. The U.S. is, for better or worse, increasingly reliant on drones and special operations forces to eliminate terrorist operatives. Some defense intellectuals, frustrated with counterinsurgency, see punitive raiding as an alternative to prolonged occupation. If we are, in fact, in an era in which terrorists and other non-state actors pose far more of a threat than do traditional state actors, American strategy will shift to focus more on punitive raiding directed against individuals. Much of this will be achieved through standoff weaponry, but there are places where drones and planes cannot go -- such as states with drone-unfriendly air defense networks.

Collaborative warfare, however, is still ultimately a tactical and operational approach -- it is not a strategy, nor is it a substitute for sound policy. It faces the same difficulties as the "old" model of raiding and of some new ones. If national interests are defined too loosely, discrete military force is unlikely to have anything more than a momentary impact. Many non-governmental organizations and policy elites warn against campaigns of targeted killing. Whether they are right or wrong, this debate in domestic U.S. politics may further constrain the attritive power of raiding warfare.

Special operations forces are only as good as the policies and plans that guide them. Collaborative warfare is indeed a milestone in the long history of raiding warfare and deserves to be further institutionalized within the American arsenal. But it is ultimately only a tool. And a poor swordsmith can dull any blade, no matter how sharp.

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Adam Elkus is an analyst focusing on security and international politics. He blogs at Rethinking Security.

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