The View From Olympus: SOF and the Operational Level of War

I recently enjoyed a three-day visit by two very bright Special Operations Forces (SOF) officers.  One had already read the whole of the canon, and the other was working on it.  That meant they were familiar with the operational level of war, and one of our topics of conversation was the need to employ SOF at the operational, not the tactical, level.  I have touched on that subject in previous columns, but one of the officers said it would be helpful to his unit if I addressed it again, hence this column.

In the German understanding of the operational level (the Russians, who have a long tradition of operational art, understand it somewhat differently), it is not a “thing” like tactics and strategy but a linkage between those two.  In essence, it is how to think about what to do tactically and how to use tactical events, battles, and refusals of battle, victories and sometimes defeats, to strike as directly as possible at the enemy’s strategic hinge, that which, when struck, collapses his strategy.  Operations are designed to achieve a strategic decision as quickly as possible and with as little battle as possible, because battle costs both casualties and time. Operations can be thought of as meta-level economy of force measures.

SOF, by their very name, should be employed at the operational level.  If used (and used up) at the tactical level, they will contribute little to strategic victory; they are simply too small to matter if used in classic attrition warfare fashion, where strategic victory is supposed to come from accumulating tactical victories.  Conversely, when used at the operational level in the context of maneuver warfare, they have a history of decisive success.  Perhaps the best example is the German special operation to take Fort Eben Emael in Belgium in 1940.  An action by a single company that landed on top of the fort, something the Belgians had not imagined, opened the door to Army Group B’s thrust into Belgium.  The 1940 campaign is itself a brilliant example of thinking and acting on the operational level, not just the tactical, especially in XIX Panzer Corps’ thrust north to the Channel after crossing the Meuse at Sedan.  Other examples of strategically important special operations, using the term correctly, are Skorzeny’s rescue of Mussolini and abduction of Admiral Horthy, the regent of Hungary.

Not surprisingly, most American headquarters do not understand the operational level of war; they practice Second Generation, attrition warfare where the operational level is not important if it is even recognized.  This puts an unrecognized burden on American SOF.  Not only must they be highly proficient tactically and technically, they must themselves grasp the operational level and be able to think operationally.  Why?  Because if they do not tell the headquarters employing them how to use them at the operational level, they will be frittered away tactically with little impact on the strategic outcome–impact they could have had if they had been used right.  Few feelings are more bitter than those suffered when, after taking heavy casualties, you know your efforts were wasted.

The two young officers who visited me are both highly intelligent and could be educated to guide their unit’s employment at the operational level.  That does not mean sending them to the Army Command and Staff College at Ft. Leavenworth to be taught some absurd “method”.  It means copying the way the German Army taught its officers at the Kriegsakademie, with case studies, war games, map problems, and the like.

As General Balck said, only a few can do it; most can never learn.  These two guys could, and I am sure there are more.  Unfortunately, at present, there is no effort to identify and educate such people in the SOF community, because the assumption is that higher headquarters will employ them properly.  They won’t, and the fruit of that assumption will be bitter.