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

Despite their increasing success at raids like the one to take Osama bin Laden, history shows that even the most skilled special forces are no replacement for good policy, and no magic bullet

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U.S. Army


The Osama bin Laden raid has been hailed as the centerpiece of a new style of "collaborative" warfare that leverages intelligence fusion and networked interagency teams to focus precision force on America's enemies. Collaborative warfare, while impressive, is only the latest and greatest in a genre of military operation that dates back thousands of years: the punitive raid. From the days of the Roman Empire through Sunday's raid in Abottabad, Pakistan, governments have relied on punitive raids and manhunts to eliminate challengers to state power without resorting to costly, large-scale occupations.

But a look at the history and evolution of punitive raiding reveals that it is not a substitute for sound strategy -- and can be far more costly than policymakers might suspect and may have political costs that outweigh the strategic benefits. Punitive raids -- whether they consist of a large column of raiders advancing by horseback or an airmobile squad of commandos about to drop into an enemy cross-border haven -- have always been deceptively appealing as low-cost alternatives.

In the classical world, punitive raiding served a simple purpose: shock and awe. Raiding forces -- advancing by foot, horse, or boat -- laid waste to enemy villages and cities and captured or killed those responsible for defying state power. By demonstrating the steep consequences of opposing the state, the raider established a crude form of deterrence and exercised influence far beyond its otherwise limited means. It didn't hurt that raiding forces -- like the Roman legion -- were often qualitatively superior to their victims.

Even so, states utilizing raiding have found it difficult to achieve lasting security. Unless incorporated into a sound long-term political-military strategy, raiding has only ever been a temporary solution to long-term problems. Many expeditions, while tactically devastating, did not compel obedience or deterrence. The British colonial experience in the 19th century is instructive, with many inconclusive operations in Africa and South Asia that did little to enhance the Empire's long-term security on the periphery. Some missions, like the First Anglo-Afghan War in the 19th century, were outright blunders of epic proportions.

The problem wasn't that raiding forces couldn't shock and awe barbarians. But tactical raiding operations have not been enough on their own to deal with the overarching strategic problems they mean to solve. Historian Edward Luttwak notes that Rome eventually shifted to garrisoning its periphery, a distribution of forces that deprived the Empire of enough forces to deter its opponents.
The purpose of raids had changed since the time of the Roman and British empires, but their method, and underlying weakness as a strategy, have remained surprisingly consistent. Now, instead of creating deterrence through devastation, modern raiding aims to achieve carefully targeted policy objectives: for example, the capture or killing of high-value targets, the destruction of critical enemy infrastructure, or the rescue of hostages. Instead of large columns of expeditionary forces, raiding increasingly utilizes small, forward-deployed special operations forces (SOF) capable of nearly superhuman endurance. The political sensitivity of these discretionary operations and the ability to micromanage them through modern communications in turn necessitates direct executive control.

Raiding tactics have also shifted from overwhelming force to relative superiority. SOF forces are lightly armed and numerically inferior to the opposition, using surprise, planning, quick execution, and the practice that comes with detailed rehearsals, and lightning speed to gain a decisive advantage early in the mission. As William McRaven wrote in his Naval Postgraduate School thesis 15 years before he would go on to lead the bin Laden mission, even the tightest enemy defense network cannot always remain at full alert everywhere -- allowing space for a small force to exploit a gap in readiness.

While economy-of-force missions in remote hostile environments have always been dangerous, the smaller size and decreased capabilities of raiding forces have only increased operational risk. Contrary to their image as elite standalone forces, modern-day raiders such as Navy SEALs are dependent on a host of external capabilities, from secure forward bases (or sea basing on ships) to heavily armed battlefield-loitering gunships.

The failed 1979 Iran hostage rescue mission illustrated the recurring problems inherent in carrying out sensitive and often logistically challenging missions. The problems that doomed Operation Eagle Claw to failure included each military service's desire to have a piece of the action, regardless of the operational incoherence it might cause; overly complex and compartmentalized planning and training for the mission; poor communications; and decentralized command. The Gulf War failure to destroy Saddam Hussein's mobile SCUD launchers also proved how difficult it can be to locate and destroy elusive enemy ground targets. And as the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu illustrated, even the most elite soldiers can be pinned down and surged by third world infantry armed with cheap but effective weaponry. But these operational and tactical problems pale in comparison to the strategic dysfunction behind how some policymakers view SOF raiding in strategy.

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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