Spec Ops: Case Studies in Special Operations Warfare: Theory and Practice - William H. McRaven (1996)

Chapter 10. Conclusions

Peter Paret in his book On Understanding War outlines Clausewitz’s thoughts on what constitutes an effective theory of warfare. First and foremost, a theory must have a powerful capacity to explain. It must be able to show the relationship between the past and the present. It must not be constrained by the temporary trends in military philosophy or technology, and it must be “sufficiently flexible … [with] potential for further development.”1 If a theory possesses these characteristics, then the student of war, using his experience and knowledge, will be able to make judgments about the future of warfare.

The theory of special operations meets these criteria by using historical case studies to link the past and the present. These case studies span time and nationality and are not subject to trends in military thought or practice. The theory, particularly as expressed in the relative superiority graph, has ample room for development and provides a framework in which to make judgments about future operations. Most importantly, the theory explains why special operations succeed.

The theory states that special operations forces are able to achieve relative superiority over the enemy if they prepare a simple plan, which is carefully concealed, repeatedly and realistically rehearsed, and executed with surprise, speed, and purpose. Once relative superiority is achieved, the attacking force is no longer at a disadvantage and has the initiative to exploit the enemy’s defenses and secure victory. Although gaining relative superiority does not guarantee success, no special operation can succeed without it. Consequently, by demonstrating how special operations forces achieve relative superiority, the theory can help explain the success or failure of a mission.

Analysis of the eight case studies shows that those missions that adhered to the six principles of special operations achieved relative superiority. Although all the missions studied had varying degrees of success, there were aspects of certain missions that failed to adhere to the principles and suffered the consequences.

By using the relative superiority graph to illustrate when relative superiority was achieved, we can show the relationship between theory and reality. In most of the cases, the area of vulnerability, which represents the frictions of war, was minimal, and relative superiority was achieved quickly. In those cases where the area of vulnerability expanded, we were able to see the tenuous nature of success. The raid on Cabanatuan had an exceptionally large area of vulnerability over time, and this correctly portrayed the precari-ousness of the tactical situation. If we accept the need for relative superiority and the relationship between relative superiority and the area of vulnerability, then we can make some judgments about the viability of future special operations.

The relative superiority graph is not a quantitative mission analysis. Nevertheless it illustrates the relationship between certain crucial factors in a special operation. Most importantly it shows the need to quickly gain relative superiority and the importance of reducing the area of vulnerability. How can the area of vulnerability be reduced to improve the chance of mission success? The best approach, of course, is to enter the engagement with relative superiority. As shown in Figure 10-1, this automatically reduces the possible area of vulnerability by half. Entering the engagement with relative superiority can best be accomplished by using stealth, as shown in the two submersible operations. This reduces the possible area of vulnerability because half of what constitutes area of vulnerability—that is, the will of the enemy—is not present. In other cases you can achieve relative superiority before the actual engagement by overwhelming overwhelming the enemy’s defenses at their weakest point. In the latter situation, overwhelming the enemy does not require numerical superiority, merely innovative tactics or technology. The best illustration among the eight case studies is the use of the Campbeltown against the dry dock at Saint-Nazaire. Once the armor-plated Campbeltown, which was loaded with four and a quarter tons of demolition, passed a certain point in the Loire River, the 20mm guns couldn’t prevent the ship from reaching the dry dock. The Campbeltown was, for all intents and purposes, unstoppable.* The key is to develop a plan that makes the enemy’s defenses ineffective and guarantees an advantage before one reaches the point of vulnerability.

Fig. 10–1. Relative Superiority Graph: Entering the Engagement with Relative Superiority

Another way to reduce the area of vulnerability is to move the point at which the attacking force becomes vulnerable. In a graphic sense (Figure 10-2) it means pushing the point of vulnerability closer to mission completion. In a practical sense this means developing enhanced insertion platforms that limit the detectability of the attacking force until the last possible minute. This technique was used by both the Germans at Eben Emael and the Americans at Son Tay. In both cases they were able to push their point of vulnerability closer to mission completion and thereby reduce their area of vulnerability. Intelligence should also be improved to help determine the extent of the enemy’s defenses. By knowing how far the defenses extend from the target and how sophisticated they are, the attacking force can determine its point of vulnerability and take steps to reduce it.

If the point of vulnerability cannot be pushed closer to the target, then an alternate approach may be to limit what constitutes mission completion. As noted earlier, area of vulnerability is a function of the time it takes to complete the mission. Consequently, the longer it takes to complete the mission, the greater the area of vulnerability. Therefore by limiting what constitutes mission completion, we can significantly reduce the area of vulnerability. The Italians knew that if they tried to recover the manned torpedoes after the attack on the British fleet at Alexandria, the submarine Scire would have to remain off the coast until daylight, and the divers would have to reduce their time on target to make the rendezvous. By defining mission completion as a one-way trip, the area of vulnerability was cut in half and the probability of mission completion significantly enhanced. Conversely, had the British defined mission completion as solely the destruction of the Normandie dry dock, they could have achieved their objective within five minutes of being engaged. Instead they planned for two hours ashore to destroy the submarine pens and other targets. This additional time expanded their area of vulnerability to the point of failure. (Although the Campbeltown portion of the raid on Saint-Nazaire was successful, the commando assault was not.) Figure 10-3 shows the effect on the area of vulnerability if one moves mission completion closer to the point of vulnerability by limiting the objectives. Although ordering one-way missions is not palatable in today’s environment, it certainly has its place during all-out war.

Fig. 10–2. Relative Superiority Graph: Moving the Point of Vulnerability

The relative superiority graph also illustrates why certain types of mission, such as holding actions, are not conducive to special operations. If one defines mission completion as holding an objective, special operations forces are required to maintain relative superiority for a lengthy period of time. Figure 10-4 shows the difference between a raid with a planned withdrawal and a holding action. The holding action obviously has a greater area of vulnerability; and owing to their limited sustainability, special operations forces are placed in a difficult tactical position.

Fig. 10–3. Relative Superiority Graph: Moving Mission Completion

Using the relative superiority graph allows the student of warfare to analyze past special operations and make judgments about future operations. The graph also shows, in somewhat more limited detail, the relationship between the principles of special operations and relative superiority. On the graph, the point of vulnerability is a function of simplicity (innovation and intelligence), security, and surprise; time is a function of speed; and mission completion is related to limiting the objectives and motivating the soldiers. All of these principles affect the probability of mission completion and the location of relative superiority along that mission completion curve.

Fig. 10–4. Relative Superiority Graph: Raid versus Holding Action

I developed the theory primarily to explain the tactical success of special operations forces, but what does the theory tell us about special operations forces in general? Most importantly, the theory validates the need for a standing special operations force that is trained, equipped, and supported at the best possible levels. This is not parochialism, but an honest reflection of the facts. What allows special operations forces to succeed is their ability to effectively use the principles in concert with each other. A standing force with an institutionalized support mechanism will be better able to employ the principles. For example, simplifying a plan requires good intelligence and innovation. The harder the target, the more detailed the intelligence needed. This means ready access, through an established conduit, to national-level intelligence assets. In all but one operation, the raid on Cabanatuan, the special forces received critical intelligence that was available only because of the priority of their mission.

New and innovative technology requires extensive research and development. The German DFS 230 glider was specifically designed and built for the attack on Eben Emael. The British X-craft was also designed, built, tested, and deployed in support of a single special operation. The ability of a force to rapidly identify a tactical problem, submit a recommended solution, and receive an end product will unquestionably improve the chance of success. Manned torpedoes, modified destroyers, shaped charges, and silenced weapons are all examples of how research and development were used to improve the probability of mission completion.

To be effective, security must be tight but not interfere with the preparation and execution of the mission. This requires a security team that routinely works in conjunction with special operations personnel and consequently understands the needs and limitations of operational security (OPSEC). By establishing standardized security procedures, based on real-world constraints, the operation will have ample room for maneuver while still preventing the enemy from gaining an advantage.

In almost every case where there was direct contact with the enemy (the two submersible operations excluded), the special operations forces personnel were outnumbered approximately ten to one. Yet with the exception of the raid on Saint-Nazaire, the special operations forces inflicted heavy casualties and sustained very few. This ability to effectively shoot, move, and communicate in a chaotic environment is directly related to training. Repetition, as manifested in routine training and realistic rehearsals, requires substantial funding and logistic support. To be proficient, special operations forces personnel need to train daily, preferably in an environment that replicates the conditions of combat. For example, to prepare for their attack on Eben Emael, the glidermen trained for months, traveling throughout Germany and Czechoslovakia and working on targets that closely approximated the fortifications marked for destruction.

Depending on the difficulty of the operation, the logistic support for this training can be extensive and expensive. The logistic support for the preparation phase of the Tirpitz attack was phenomenal. It included an entirely new base at HMS Varbel, a dozen support vessels ranging from small trawlers to depot maintenance ships, railroad cars to transport the X-craft, six parent submarines, and a hundred administrative personnel. The task force that was assembled for the raid on Son Tay had similar training and logistic requirements. Although the training of special operations forces personnel is expensive, relative to the return on the investment, the price tag is justified. If Hitler had scrimped on the funding for the glidermen, the Germans might not have taken the fort at Eben Emael, which subsequently helped the entire German army to achieve its objective quickly. Trying to keep the battleship Tirpitztrapped in Norway had already cost the British government millions of pounds in manpower and materiel. For the price of a few X-craft and the cost of training, the German battleship threat was virtually eliminated.

Surprise is achieved as a result of all the factors mentioned above, namely intelligence, innovation, security, and training, but it also frequently relies on deception to divert the enemy’s attention or delay their actions. Captain Edward McCleskey, USAF, noted in his thesis, “Applying Deception to Special Operations Direct Action Missions,” that most missions that used deception succeeded.2 Depending on the difficulty of the operation, deception can be a major contributor to success. But, in order for operational deception (OPDEC) to be effective, it must be completely synchronized with the assault plan. A failure to achieve this synchronization can result in another Saint-Nazaire.*Once again, this requires an institutionalized integration of the special operations and OPDEC planners.

The rapid execution of the mission (speed) is a function of the training and motivation of the assault force. Training, as previously discussed, must be as realistic as possible to replicate the conditions expected on the target. This allows the special operations forces to refine their plan prior to the engagement and, once engaged, move rapidly to achieve their objective. Provided it is properly supported, a standing force has time before the crisis to perfect its combat skills on mock targets such as aircraft, oil rigs, buildings, and ships. All this training will make movement on the target flow smoothly in the face of the frictions of war.

The one constant that prevailed throughout the eight case studies was the motivation of the individual soldier. Every operation was conducted by volunteers, and every volunteer was screened through a rigorous training and selection program. This elite training program did not necessarily make the soldiers either morally, ethically, or even physically stronger than the average soldier. What it did accomplish was to strengthen the bond between the graduates of the selection course. It also developed exceptionally strong unit cohesion and improved the self-esteem and confidence of the graduates. The more physically demanding the course, the tighter the unit became, which was instrumental in the success of the missions. Additionally, the training program established a baseline of performance that could be used by the planners to judge the limitation of the force. It is impossible to determine how an individual will react under fire, but the strength of a special operations force is not its individuals but its unit cohesion. The German glidermen, the British commandos, and the Rangers at Cabanatuan were composed almost entirely of troops with no prior combat experience. The other units had combat veterans but also a large percentage of inexperienced troops. Nonetheless, they all performed with equal bravery and professionalism. Why? They had unit integrity, born not from combat, but from the elite training. Clausewitz says that “a soldier is just as proud of the hardships he has overcome as the dangers he has faced.”3 The hardships encountered at basic Sea, Air, and Land (SEAL), Special Forces, Ranger, and Airborne training are absolutely essential if a special operation is going to succeed in the face of a difficult enemy.

Can a special operation be successfully conducted without a standing force? Absolutely, but the price for establishing and training an ad hoc organization is time. And the more time expended during a political crisis or a military campaign, the less the chances of success.

What else does the theory tell us about special operations? In order to achieve relative superiority, those men leading the operation must understand what actually makes a special operation succeed. It is not just bravado and boldness. Brave men without good planning, preparation, and leadership are cannon fodder in the face of defensive warfare. Lieutenant Rudolf Witzig, Lt. Luigi Durand de la Penne, Capt. Otto Skorzeny, Lt. Godfrey Place, Lt. Col. Henry Mucci, Lt. Col. Bud Sydnor, and Lt. Col. Jonathan Netanyahu were all conventional soldiers before they became special operations soldiers. They understood the importance of detailed planning, constant rehearsals, and precise execution. The view of special operations personnel as unruly and cavalier with a disdain for the brass was not borne out in this study. The officers and enlisted whom I interviewed were professionals who fully appreciated the value of proper planning and preparations, of good order and discipline, and of working with higher authorities. They were also exceptionally modest men who felt that there was nothing heroic in their actions and often sought to downplay their public image.4 Boldness, courage, perseverance, and intellect unquestionably have their place in combat, but as the theory shows, they must exist in harmony with the principles of special operation in order to achieve success.

In conclusion, what allows special operations forces to achieve relative superiority is their ability to effectively utilize the principles of special operations. The better the principles are integrated, the greater the relative superiority. Although no amount of planning and preparation can guarantee success, by reducing the area of vulnerability an attacking force can achieve relative superiority quickly. Once relative superiority is achieved, success favors those with initiative who, by virtue of their planning, preparation, and rapid execution, can exploit the weaknesses of the defense and defeat the enemy. This is how special operations succeed.


1. Peter Paret, Understanding War: Essays on Clausewitz and the History of Military Power (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1992), 103.

2. Edward R. McCleskey, “Applying Deception to Special Operations Direct Action Missions,” Master’s thesis, Defense Intelligence College, Washington, D.C., 1991.

3. Carl von Clausewitz, On War, ed. and trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1976), 659.

4. Adm. Godfrey Place, interview by author, tape recording, England, 17 June 1992.

*If not for the shoal waters of the Loire River, the Campbeltown would have arrived at the point of vulnerability with relative superiority. As it was, she still achieved relative superiority well before the engagement with the enemy.

*The Royal Air Force was tasked to conduct an air raid as part of the OPDEC for the raid on Saint-Nazaire. The bomber pilots were not told the nature of their mission and consequently executed only a brief portion of the air raid. This resulted in the commandos aboard the motor launches losing the element of surprise, and their mission subsequently failed.