The Future of Special Operations: Beyond Kill and Capture
What was once the exclusive domain of highly trained, elite forces- insertion into hostile territory, locating the bad guys and eliminating the threats they posed is receding. To a large degree unmanned drones have replaced these highly trained and ever ready special force units. Not always and not entirely- going after bin Laden was clearly a necessary boots on the ground operation, Still, recent drone successes in eliminating threats while keeping personnel risks to a minimum have insure drones are here to stay.
So where do that leave special operations forces? What will be their role in the future? In truth, there will always be a need for human forces. While drones can kill and take pictures and videos they are not a replacement for intelligence and on the ground analysis. As our enemies respond to the use of drones you can be sure they will use deception in attempt to fool the camera.
We will always have a need to communicate with people- and that may be the most critical aspect of what special forces assets do in the future. People- human assets- are essential to success on the battlefield and beyond.
Special forces may very well be the best ambassadors we have in a conflict or potential conflict. People cannot really relate to or bond with remote technology. Drones cannot inspire confidence and courage in oppressed people. Technology cannot explain or even show others what it means to be free and technology cannot comfort those who are terrified. Only other people can do that. Special forces will evolve and will always be needed- the front line forces we can and should be proud of.
Over the past decade, the United States’ military and the country’s national security strategy have come to rely on special operations to an unprecedented degree. As identifying and neutralizing terrorists and insurgents has become one of the Pentagon’s most crucial tasks, special operations forces have honed their ability to conduct manhunts, adopting a new targeting system known as “find, fix, finish, exploit, analyze, and disseminate.” They have adopted a flatter organizational structure and collaborated more closely with intelligence agencies, allowing special operations to move at “the speed of war,” in the words of the retired army general Stanley McChrystal, the chief architect of the contemporary U.S. approach to counterterrorism.
Implementing McChrystal’s vision has been costly. Spending on sophisticated communications, stealth helicopters, and intelligence technology; building several high-tech special operations headquarters; and transforming a C-130 cargo plane into a state-of-the-art flying hospital have consumed a large (and classified) portion of the total special operations budget, which has increased from $2.3 billion in 2001 to $10.5 billion in 2012. The investment has paid clear dividends, however, most dramatically in May 2011, when U.S. Navy SEALs, operating in coordination with the CIA, raided a compound in Pakistan and killed Osama bin Laden.
The target and location of that raid made it exceptional. But similar operations, which in earlier eras would have been considered extraordinary, have become commonplace: during the height of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, U.S. special operations units sometimes conducted as many as 14 raids a night, with each successive raid made possible by intelligence scooped up during the previous one and then rapidly processed. When decision-makers deem raids too risky or politically untenable, they sometimes opt for strikes by armed drones, another form of what special operators refer to as “the direct approach.” (The CIA conducts the majority of drone strikes, but special operations forces are also authorized to employ them in specific cases, including on the battlefields of Afghanistan.)