Choppering 25 Navy SEALs into a populated area covered by the air defenses of an unsuspecting sovereign nation. Fast-roping them down into a fortified compound containing unknown numbers of enemies. Killing or capturing the world’s most dangerous terrorist. Extracting them safely and flying them to Afghanistan the same way they came. No one can say the plan to take down Osama bin Laden was timid.
But it had a template. In 1995, William McRaven published Spec Ops, a collection of commando case studies he used to formulate what he called a “theory of special operations.” Since then, McRaven, now a three-star admiral, rose to lead the terrorist hunters of the Joint Special Operations Command, which killed bin Laden. His book, at least among the general bookbuying public, has fallen into obscurity. But the Cliff Notes were on display in Abbottabad on Sunday night.
Spec Ops isn’t exactly a field manual. But it might be considered a guide to audacity. McRaven wants to know what distinguishes a successful mission from a doomed one. Spoiler alert: “Brave men without good planning, preparation and leadership are cannon fodder in the face of defensive warfare.”
At the heart of all special operations is asymmetry. Operators attack “fortified positions,” confronting a superior force. It’s a recipe for being mowed down — unless you achieve what McRaven calls “relative superiority.” It’s a slippery concept, easy to identify after the fact and more difficult to isolate before or during a mission. Basically, it’s the point at which the commandos seize the advantage, leveraging their unique assets — “technology, training, intelligence, etc.” — to turn their opponents’ superior force into a disadvantage. It doesn’t guarantee victory; but not having it guarantees failure.
What’s individually necessary and jointly sufficient for success? According to McRaven: Keeping it simple. Keeping it secret. Rehearsing thoroughly. Surprising the enemy. Getting in and out quickly. And having a clear — and simple — purpose.
Counterintuitively, what’s needed for all of those to knit together into relative superiority is a small force. ”Because of their size,” McRaven writes, “it is difficult for large forces to develop a simple plan, keep their movements concealed, conduct detailed full-dress rehearsals (down to the individual soldier’s level), gain tactical surprise and speed on target, and motivate all the soldiers in the unit to a single tactical goal.” No wonder insurgents and special operators understand each other.