Document created: 3 June 02
Published Aerospace Power Journal - Summer 2002

What’s So Special about Special Operations?
Lessons from the War in Afghanistan

Col John Jogerst, USAF*

* Colonel Jogerst is the Special Operations Chair to Air University, on the faculty of Air War College, Maxwell AFB, Alabama.

Watching the war in Afghanistan and listening to speculation about future US moves, one hears a lot of discussion about US special operations forces (SOF). The consensus seems to be that these forces are tailor-made for the unconventional nature and uncertainty of this war. Every war is unique, but if the uncertainty and chaos of the current war are characteristic of future conflicts, it is important to consider potential lessons from SOF’s success. Lessons learned by SOF over the last two decades and demonstrated in Afghanistan provide some signposts for future conventional forces and the ongoing transformation of the US military.

Lesson One

You don’t know what you need until you need it. A wide range of capabilities in effective quantities is a good hedge against tomorrow’s threat.

Predicting the future is an enterprise with a very poor record unless predictions are so broad as to be useless for setting priorities. The takedown of Manuel Noriega in Panama did not look like any mission the United States had prepared for during the 1980s. Combat in Somalia, the Balkans, and now Afghanistan has differed from the set-piece armored battle Saddam Hussein presented to the coalition in Kuwait and Iraq. Yet, for the most part, the US military force built for the NATO/Warsaw Pact and Korean theaters has provided the right conventional and specialized forces, in sufficient numbers, to fight these conflicts. In each one, SOF provided the commander a critical edge by supplying a variety of niche capabilities and the ability to develop new capabilities rapidly. In the large, conventional conflict of the Gulf War, SOF capabilities proved strategically crucial, though not tactically decisive. SOF’s biggest contribution may have been preventing Israel from attacking Iraq in reaction to the latter’s Scud missile attacks against Israel. Offensive Israeli involvement in the war could have fractured the coalition, but this alliance demonstrated its resolve to defend Israel and defeat the Scud threat by deploying recognized, elite forces and allocating hundreds of sorties to hunt Scud launchers aggressively. Although the number of Scuds killed may be in dispute, the result is not. Israel remained on the sidelines, and the coalition held.

In Afghanistan, SOF began by waging an unconventional warfare (UW) campaign- a mission that has remained low on US Special Operations Command’s (USSOCOM) priority list for the last decade.1 The utility of UW as part of the national strategy seemed low, and threat scenarios requiring these skills seemed unlikely. Yet, the skill sets needed to wage UW- from the Army, Navy, and Air Force- have fitted the conditions in Afghanistan.

Lesson Two

Network-distributed may be more effective than network-centric warfare. The best way to speed up the observe, orient, decide, act (OODA) loop is to shorten it by getting it into the field.

Much of the work in transforming future US military capability focuses on command and control- getting more and better information to the commander so he or she can see and direct the battle. Although this is important, it is also very challenging if the concept requires collecting and passing information to headquarters, analyzing it, and then passing direction back to the battle. John Boyd’s description of the OODA loop in command and control makes this point. Both human action and the mechanical passing of information consume critical time in the cycle. Centralizing control of the battle means that these actions are multiplied at each echelon of command. Field observation and orientation are passed to higher levels of decision making, where another cycle takes place until they reach the command authority. Decisions and actions then repeat at each level in return until they arrive at the battlefield.

One must synchronize and centrally direct a battle against large, conventional forces- those that mass and move relatively slowly. A battle against small, independent, and mobile formations may change too rapidly to allow centralized control in detail. The lesson from Afghanistan is that, with clear mission orders and appropriate technology, each tactical element can become a command, control, and execution node, greatly shortening the OODA loop while still allowing the passing of information on tactical actions and results to higher levels for operational and strategic analysis.

SOF personnel have proven uniquely suited for this networked, distributed warfare. Special forces (SF) teams with embedded Air Force air-control elements provide a tactical force with a broad range of skills and the maturity to execute mission orders without detailed oversight. They can move, shoot, and communicate while employing supporting fires from any source- land, sea, or airpower from US or coalition forces. SOF teams can do this because they are interoperable.

Lesson Three

Interoperability comes by interoperating regularly, routinely, and often. No royal road exists.

Forging an interoperable force is a big job. Interoperability in equipment requirements and design is only a start. Real interoperability requires constant testing and training not only to work out equipment problems, but also- and more importantly- to work out the human problems of command, control, and communications as well as unit tactics.

USSOCOM and its predecessors have spent the last 20 years forging a joint team with interoperable service components. SOF personnel jointly conduct virtually all training above the individual skill level. This training program is tough, extensive, and expensive, but it has succeeded in forging a truly interoperable team. SOF communications link SOF service components- and extend to parent service forces as a result. SOF personnel conduct operations with elements from all services directly integrated in tactical formations- from SF or SEAL teams with integral Air Force air-control elements to tactical helicopter formations combining Army and Air Force aircraft.

This makes SOF ideal for the kind of chaotic and diffuse warfare that probably awaits us in the future. Fighting this kind of war requires coordinated, dispersed teams- not traditional massed forces. In this kind of war, a defined battlefront or safe rear area may not exist.

However, the most probable conflict is not the only type of conflict- and may not represent the most significant threat to the nation. Organized, heavy enemy forces remain a threat in some theaters, and heavy, combined-arms air and surface assets may still be the force of choice for fighting them. The challenge of these conflicts lies in adapting the fundamental lessons learned from Afghanistan to local conditions.

Lesson Four

Existing forces are nothing more than tools to provide the commander with combat capability. This capability and the ability to employ it are what matters- not the specific tool.

The war in Afghanistan has seen Army, Navy, and Air Force helicopters, fighters, and long-range bombers providing interdiction and close air support to US, allied, and associated forces fighting from foot, horseback, high-mobility multipurpose wheeled vehicles (HMMWV), or light armored vehicles (LAV). The joint special operations team has been the key to linking these forces into an effective, interoperable tool to achieve the joint force commander’s objectives. But interoperable does not mean identical. Each of these disparate forces brings particular capabilities as well as definite strengths and weaknesses to the fight.

The Air Force’s long-range bombers provide large weapons loads, precision, and endurance. Navy fighters provide forward forces in-theater, precision, and reconnaissance. AC-130 gunships provide endurance; immediate, direct fire support; and real-time overwatch of operations. Army and Marine conventional forces provide quick-reaction firepower and the ability to secure ground. The only important criterion for the joint force commander and troops on the ground is their ability to use these capabilities effectively.

Lesson Five

The “tooth to tail” ratio may no longer be a relevant measure of merit because it draws an artificial distinction between integral elements of US combat power.

If the only “teeth” in Afghanistan were the few hundred SOF personnel and aviators who initially engaged the Taliban and al Qaeda, then the tooth-to-tail ratio was minuscule. Tens of thousands of US personnel flew reconnaissance, ran ships, moved logistics, processed intelligence, and moved information to support those few hundred troops at the sharp end. However, precisely because of that intricate and massive support structure, the few hundred troops on the ground were able to topple the Taliban regime in a few months with almost no US casualties. That same support structure allowed the US military to reach halfway around the world; commence combat operations in an unexpected, austere theater within weeks; and succeed on an extremely chaotic battlefield.

The only relevant measure of merit is the effectiveness of the entire US force structure. Is there enough “tail” to support full use of US teeth? Is the United States building enough of the “enablers” (tankers; airlifters; airborne warning and control system [AWACS] aircraft; joint surveillance, target attack radar system [JSTARS] aircraft; unmanned aerial vehicles [UAV]; communications bandwidth; information analysis capabilities; etc.) to allow effective employment of the latest generation of “shooters”? Does the force provide a complete capability worth the cost in people and materiel?

Lesson Six

Human beings are more important than hardware.

The war in Afghanistan and the larger global war against terrorism are wars of people. The key to defeating the Taliban and al Qaeda lies in coordinating and supporting the Afghan opposition forces in their fight for their country. The language skills, cultural orientation, maturity, and adaptability of SOF enabled the joint force commander to effectively co-opt Afghan anti-Taliban forces and incorporate them into his campaign. Their success is a result of human action and initiative in employing an extremely wide range of hardware- from horse cavalry to joint direct attack munitions (JDAM)- to conduct the campaign.

Fundamentally, the global war against terrorism- indeed, any war- is about individuals. The war on terrorism features few traditional military targets, such as large military formations or key national infrastructure. The first step in conducting this war is to determine who the enemies are (either an individual or a group of individuals) and what we want them to do- or not do. The second step is to determine how we can get them to do our will (e.g., co-opt, persuade, coerce, or kill them). The United States will need a range of tools- political, military, economic, legal, and informational- to exploit these individuals’ vulnerabilities and achieve national objectives.

The final lesson from the war in Afghanistan may be that the revolution in military affairs has already happened.

Like most revolutions, this one went from the bottom up- not from the top down. While the generals debated how to mandate a revolution, the captains and majors quietly implemented one. Despite a decade of downsizing, parts of the US military have learned to exploit networked information and precision weapons to conduct real-time, coordinated, and precision joint/combined operations against an enemy dispersed over complex terrain in a chaotic theater on the other side of the world. Troops have learned to use a networked, distributed force of coordinated but independent joint combat elements with a wide range of capabilities. They have demonstrated that command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) can be fused and focused directly on a small, effective formation at the tip of the spear, allowing US forces to apply the right tool at the right time in the right place. Ultimately, this capability will prove itself more important than raw firepower. 

Maxwell AFB, Alabama


1. “[Unconventional warfare encompasses] a broad spectrum of military and paramilitary operations, normally of long duration, predominantly conducted by indigenous or surrogate forces who are organized, trained, equipped, supported, and directed in varying degrees by an external source. It includes guerrilla warfare and other direct offensive, low visibility, covert, or clandestine operations, as well as the indirect activities of subversion, sabotage, intelligence activities, and evasion and escape. Also called UW.” Joint Publication 3-05.5, Joint Special Operations Targeting and Mission Planning Procedures, 10 August 1993, GL-13, on-line, Internet, 5 March 2002, available from http://www.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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