A few weeks ago, when I started this series of columns on the perils of the special operationalization of U.S. national security policy, I briefly argued that U.S. special operations forces are often not as good as they or their commanders believe them to be. I worried about a young Special Forces officer with six months of Arabic convincing himself he was “Sir Richard Burton in a green beret.”
Some of my friends in the U.S. Army Special Forces demanded to know why I was picking on them, while others suggested my own service in the 75th Ranger Regiment explained my obvious bias against “indirect” special operations forces. Nothing could be farther from the truth, and in this column, I will expand on why both special operations forces and their commanders should be more humble about what these forces can and cannot do in complex operational environments.
To begin, U.S. special operations forces are divided into units that specialize in “direct” action and those that specialize in “indirect” action. The former, which include Navy SEAL teams and U.S. Army Ranger battalions, specialize in direct combat action: closing with and engaging the enemy. Boarding and seizing a hostile vessel, for instance, is a bread-and-butter mission for a SEAL team, while for Rangers, seizing an enemy airfield is an example of the unit’s true raison d’être. Direct action units are also more than capable of performing the kinds of kill or capture missions that have been required of special operations forces in Iraq or Afghanistan.