Special Operations Lead the Way in Modern Combat

Helicopters rode in radio silence through an Iranian sandstorm in 1980, filled with operatives of the prestigious Delta Force who aimed to free 55 American hostages in what would have been one of the most daring rescues in American history. The mission ended in utter failure, and eight men died without ever making contact with the enemy.

“Thirty-one years after the tragedy at Desert One, our special operations forces have come full circle,” said MichaelLumpkin, acting assistant defense secretary of special operations during a Sept. 22 House hearing on the future of special operations forces, according to a transcript.

Recovering from a damaged image is no easy task for a branch of the military whose every move is kept secret.

Rep. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.) pointed out that not long ago, special operations was “looked upon as sort of a boutique force,” its “efforts were often only known to a few with the right clearances or keen eye observers. Some even question whether we needed SOF at all,” according to a transcript.

Yet, in the war on terror, the invisible force was chosen to lead the war on an invisible enemy, and regular news of their killing or capturing leaders of global terrorist groups has brought them to the forefront in modern warfare. Their killing of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden helped solidify their reputation.

The counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy being employed in Afghanistan and Iraq heavily depends on causing as little harm as possible to civilians. Special operations forces (SOF) are ideal in a COIN strategy, since they can hit specific targets “while making sure the local population doesn’t suffer because of it,” said Max Abrahms, postdoctoral fellow, department of political science, John Hopkins, who studies radicalization and terrorist groups.

The decentralized nature of groups like al-Qaeda also make it nearly unreachable through conventional warfare—which is where SOF comes in, since they can hit targets without requiring the invasion of a country. SOCOM also works closely with intelligence and special operations of other countries to help coordinate these attacks, which has led them to key targets in countries including Yemen.

“It’s a global war on terror where you don’t have, in most cases, specific national enemies,” said Drew Berquist, former U.S. intelligence officer, and author of “The Maverick Experiment.”

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Photo courtesy of Jessica Bruckert, USASOC Public Affairs