Last weekend’s raids in Libya and Somalia by US special operations forces raise a question that has long bedeviled similar raids in Afghanistan. Can they work strategically? That is to say, can they bring us closer to a favorable outcome in our war with the Taliban and al Qaeda?
The answer, at present, is almost certainly no, at least so far as the Taliban is concerned and probably not against al Qaeda. The reason is that operational art, the key linkage between the tactic of raiding and the desired strategic result, is missing. As a result, we have defaulted into the usual approach of a Second Generation military, a war of attrition. The Taliban has too much depth in personnel to be vulnerable to a war of attrition. Al Qaeda, as a much smaller organization, has less depth, but so far it has had enough to make up its losses, including that of Osama bin Laden. We are left playing what the troops call a game of whack-a-mole.
Is there a way we might inject operational art into raiding and thereby make it strategically meaningful? I think there is.
The answer must begin with recognizing that a “spec op” is only a real special operation if it works on the operational level of war. Otherwise, we are misusing the term “special operations” for what are merely the tactical actions of military SWAT teams.
That in turn requires understanding what “operational art” means. Operational art is that link between tactics and strategy. Its practitioner decides what to do tactically, and how to use tactical events (including sometimes defeats) to strike as directly as possible at an enemy’s strategic center of gravity, a “hinge” in the enemy’s force that, if struck, can cause him to collapse. Inherent in operational art is economy of force: ideally, you only fight tactically when doing so is operationally meaningful, i.e., it holds the potential to be strategically decisive (of course, the enemy sometimes makes you fight when you would rather not). Determining why, where, and when to fight tactically on a strategic basis is the essence of operational art.
A campaign or war of attrition is the nullification of operational art. It seeks strategic victory merely by fighting tactically wherever and whenever possible. In contrast, operational art lies at the heart of Third Generation maneuver warfare.
An excellent example of a true special operation undertaken by a Third Generation military is the abduction of Admiral Horthy, the regent of Hungary, by German special operations forces (they coined the term: Sonderverbände) in World War II. Germany had received correct intelligence that Admiral Horthy was about to change sides from the Axis to the Allies. This was a strategic threat to Germany. Not only would a number of Hungarian divisions turn from allies into enemies, Hungary’s Balaton oilfields were one of Germany’s last petroleum supplies.
The German answer was a special operation, led by the famous commando Otto Skorzeny, that kidnapped Admiral Horthy. It involved almost no tactical fighting, but it was decisive. Hungary remained a German ally.
If we apply operational art to raids against al Qaeda (and to a lesser extent the Taliban, who are rapidly becoming yesterday’s problem as we leave Afghanistan), what does it suggest we do? Again, mere attrition of random al Qaeda leaders is not likely to bring a strategic decision. However, more sophisticated targeting of our raids could.
Like all militaries (including our own), al Qaeda has a few competent leaders and lots of less competent or incompetent ones. Putting incompetent or non-competent leaders into key al Qaeda positions could well be strategically decisive because it could lead al Qaeda to destroy itself. Therefore, our raids would become true special operations if we carefully targeted al Qaeda’s competent leaders while intentionally not targeting the incompetent or non-competent ones. Our operational goal would be to create vacancies that would allow the incompetent leaders to move steadily upward in the organization.
Obviously, this requires very good intelligence to know who in al Qaeda is competent and who is not. But we would at least be asking the intel boys an operational question, not merely a tactical one, i.e., where is someone, anyone, we can go after.
Will it work? No one can ever know a result beforehand in war. But operational art at least opens the door to strategic success, whereas its absence leaves us playing whack-a-mole. We have not defeated a Fourth Generation opponent through attrition yet, and there are no signs we are about to do so. Who thinks, wins.