Copyright 2012 John T. Reed
The reports on the 1/12 Somalia SEAL rescue raid sounds like it was well-conceived, well-planned, and well-executed.
However, I would like to comment on the related stuff around the operation, not within it.
Obama was very involved in this. He should not have been involved at all. It is absurd for him to have been. It is outrageous that this never-served twit would take any credit for this or the bin Laden killing. All he did was give permission. As opposed to what? Giving bin Laden a free condo at Havasu City?
I did not see a head count, but it sounded like a platoon-size operation: 20 to 40 guys.
You gotta be kidding me! The Commander in Chief, the president of a nation with 312 million people is micromanaging a platoon on the other side of the earth!?
If I were the CIC I would give such units standing orders and tell them not to bother me with such matters. First, I do not want them trying to put the blame on me if if fails. Secondly, I do not want to slow up actions which typically need to be swift. We cauld have killed bin Laden during the Clinton administration, but the CIA head who was a wimp called Clinton for permission, Clinton refus d to interrupt a golf game to make a decision, and by the time he was willing to make a decision, the CIA no longer knew where bin Laden was. Thirdly, as president I do not want to give even the slightest suggestion that I am trying to share the limelight with the guys who deserve the credit.
I would rip the officers on the scene who called to ask for my go ahead. Something along the lines of:
What the hell would I know about it, Lieutenant!? I’m sitting in the Oval Office. You’re there. I [Obama, not me] have never been in the military! Aren’t you an Annapolis grad? A SEAL grad? How the hell much damned training do you need before you’re ready to be a big boy and make a fucking command decision!? Accomplish the mission! Take care of the welfare of your men. Don’t get three killed to save two. Use your head. Common sense. And don’t ever call me again. Do you think Marine platoon leaders on Guadalcanal were calling FDR for instructions every time they ran into a couple of squads of Japanese soldiers? Me neither, so why in the hell did you do it? Get off the phone and go do your job.
After the action was completed successfully, I, as president, would not have said anything but “Well done” after all the people involved announced it. I would have told the commander of the rescue on the scene of the rescue to call the girl’s dad. I would have had military people who were on the scene announce the action. If they want to wear a paper bag over their head to conceal their identity or maximize their Hollywood mystique, fine. I absolutely would not have my White House people saying anything about it other than referring media to the officers and men who were actually on the ground at the rescue. I would tell the damned military brass above those guys to keep their faces off TV with regard to the events.
Every time one of these actions succeeds, I fear for the lives of the SEALs, rangers, or whomever. What I am afraid of is that these guys will be viewed as supermen, start believing their own bullshit in that regard, and get thrown into some idiotic, suicidal, ineffective, future hair-brained operation like Blackhawk Down or the Panama SEAL clusters or Operation Red Wing.
Special ops troops are a tool in the military tool box. So are drones, MOABs, AC 130 gunships, and so on.
Special ops get the most publicity and Hollywood hype, but they are not the only tool and they are rarely the best tool. They should not have been used to kill bin Laden. A bomb should have been used. See my article on that.
Let me list the real world limitations of Hollywood’s darling special ops troops (I was an airborne ranger and graduated from West Point).
• They are mere flesh-and-blood human beings and while some are in great athletic shape, that is almost always irrelevant. Bullets and RPGs don’t care.
• They are lightly armed with assault rifles, anti-tank rockets, claymore mines, and demolition explosives. The enemy typically has artillery, mortars, tanks, trucks with heavy machine guns.
• They now call themselves “stealth soldiers.” Well, they damned well better be because they are “behind enemy lines” and as such they are toast if discovered.
• They are few in number. The more people they take, the harder to remain stealthy and undiscovered.
• They must be rescued within minutes once they are unexpectedly discovered or reveal themselves by attacking.
• They cannot operate in daylight unless they have thick vegetation and an uninhabited area.
• They cannot operate within a mile or more of dogs or ducks because the animals will detect them and bark/quack at them.
• They cannot operate for more than the briefest periods—hours—if the weather is inclement in terms of heat or cold or wind or precipitation. They are fair weather soldiers because they cannot carry or use clothing or equipment to cool or heat them. They cannot stay dry in rain or get dried off after they get wet. Accordingly, they are vulnerable to heat-exertion injuries like heat stroke and cold injuries like hypothermia or frostbite. They cannot operate in snow that would show their tracks. They cannot move very far in snow.
• They require stealthy insertion and safe extraction typically by aircraft which can be an extreme limitation in hostile territory.
• They cannot travel very far between their insertion point and target and extraction point. Long travel requires lots of vegetation or a day-time hiding place and travel only at night. Long travel increases their chances of being discovered. Long travel increases the chances of getting lost and not being able to adhere to a necessary schedule because all special ops must be coordinated and synchronized with other units if only for extraction.
• I do not know how far the SEALs can go using their signature, cinemagenic, famous, underwater skills. I would guess not much more than one mile one-way. Also, I would guess that water temperature must be tropical for significant underwater distance movement (after they leave a submarine).
So when you read all those limitations, you realize that special ops troops are extremely fragile, weak, vulnerable units. Compare them to the alternative weapons in the tool box like a MOAB or cruise missile or drone. Those have virtually none of these limitations. Same is true regarding casualty and POW avoidance.
In one Indiana Jones movie, Jones was confronted in a Middle Eastern bazaar by a theatrically costumed guy swinging a sword very menacingly and in a much-practiced manner. After watching the display of sword swinging, Indy shrugged, pulled out his pistol, and shot the stupid son of a bitch dead.
SEALs and other special ops units are the guy with the sword. Lots of show, but extremely vulnerable to an opponent with a little common sense. A 12-year-old Somali boy with a dog and a cell phone are Indiana Jones. The dog starts barking when the “stealth soldiers” are 800 yards away. The boy calls the head pirate. 100 guys with AKs and RPGs arrive, as they did in Blackhawk Down, and slaughter the special ops guys. 19 died in Mogadishu. 14 in Red Wing. If the bin Laden killing mission had been discovered and attacked, our 79 CIA and SEALs guys would have been slaughtered. Real world wars are not Hollywood—unless you’re talking about the Indiana Jones versus the swordsman scene.
Another movie scene comes to mind when it comes to “steath soldiers.” In Hombre, Paul Newman was in a gun fight on top of a hill. Richard Boone was his enemy who came up the hill carrying a white flag to negotiate surrender of Newman. When the negotiation failed, Newman’s chracter said,
Hey, I got a question. How are you planning to get back down that hill?
There ensued a comic spectacle of Boone madly scrambling and falling down the hill as Newman blazed away at him.
Boone is the special ops “stealth soldiers” after the enemy discovers them. When special ops perform a rescue, they instantly need to be rescued themselves.
Hollywood may not like military operations with drones or bombs, but the U.S. military is not, or at least should not, choose tactics and tools to please Hollywood.
In the bin Laden killing, the SEALs blew a hole in his wall after their attempt to land a high tech chopper in his yard failed. Blowing holes in walls in not very stealthy. The wall had a couple of locked gates. I said the SEALs should have taken a locksmith to open one of the gates along with some WD-40 to spray on the hinges so they would not make any noise when opened. That would make common sense, but not bang bang manly Hollywood action. Military training, including special ops training, has the purpose of removing your common sense. Angus MacGyver’s approach was what the SEALs and rangers and such ought to use whenever possible, but they don’t, and he was pure Hollywood.
If U.S. military units are going to take their cues and marching orders from Hollywood, they at least ought to pick a smart role model like MacGyver.
Rescues, like this 2012 Somalia damsel in distress operation, The Great Raid in World War II, and the Somali pirate sniping, are excellent examples of special-ops-suited missions. Mogadishu, Panama, and Operation Red Wings are classic examples of “Are you nuts?!” uses of special ops troops as if they were just all-purpose supermen. They got slaughtered in all three.
And if special ops are really no good for much more than hostage rescues, aren't we making too much fuss about them and training too many of them? We are. They are not so much military units as SWAT teams with a license to kill.
SEALs impress teenage boys. Draft dodgers especially chickenhawks profess to be impressed, but it may be the guilt talking.
SEALs reportedly have extrarodinary skills regarding SCUBA, marksmanship, and bigger-than-average muscles and better-than-average stamina. Teenage boys do not have such skills or strength.
But how impressed are the people on the battlefield, especially our enemies? Does an enemy mortar crew fear or have trouble firing effectively at a location where they have been told there is a group of Navy SEALs? I would not think so. Mortar rounds contain a significant amount of high explosive and the shell turns into jagged metal fragments that fly through the air at great rates of speed when the round hits and explodes.
SEALs schmeals. Whatever the above-average abilities of SEALs, defleting shock waves or metal fragments are not among them. The mortar crew would not care other than perhaps the PR boost of killing SEALs rather than less hyped Americans.
Did the group of Taliban who shot down and killed those inside a Chinook helicopter containing 32 SEALs know or care that the passengers therein were SEALs? No.
Nor the Panamanians who were shooting SEALs running across a large concrete airport runway, nor the Afghans who killed a bunch of SEALs on top of an Afghan mountain.
The currency of the battlefield is not biceps or shouting “hooah” or low body fat. It is bullets and explosives. The details of how SEALs and other special ops units differentiate themselves from other military units are irrelevant to bullets and explosives. When you think about it, most of the special skills of special ops troops involve unusual, glamorous ways of moving short distances: parachutes, SCUBA, rappelling down cliff faces, mountain climbing.
Surprise is one of the nine principles of war. It is the forte of the special ops “stealth” fighters. Indeed, once the element of surprise is lost, the special ops unit may be, too.
These guys really cannot be used other than against small, isolated enemy troops in unfortified positions, e.g., three pirates in a life boat, three men in a house with women and children and one Osama bin Laden, 19 Somalis holding two hostages, a Japanese prison camp at Cabanatuan the Philippines.
When you think of the greatest battles—D-Day, Bastogne/Battle of the Bulge, El Alamein, Tarawa, Iwo Jima, Okinawa—where do the SEALs or rangers fit in? The SEALs’ predecessor unit the Underwater Demolition Teams were useful in reconning and/or destroying beach conditions and enemy beach obstacles. Rangers climbed Pointe du Hoc on D-Day, but it turned out to be unnecessary because the big guns they thought were up there were never anything other than telephone poles meant to look like guns. Paratroopers jumped behind the beaches on D-Day, but that was a mixed bag of self and enemy confusion at best. Note that it was also the next-to-last large parachute insertion in history.
Mainly in those battles, what was decisive was artillery, close-air support, flame throwers, tanks, machine guns, and rifles and hundreds of thousands of brave ordinary soldiers, sailors, and marines. Had today’s special ops been available, the commanders probably would have used them as regular infantry or had them do some sort of marginal operation on some isolated enemy radar station or tiny island observation post.
Defense Secretary Panetta just announced we are going to:
• reduce the size of the ground forces (Army and Marines)—I agree at least until they figure out how to fight our current wars “amongst the people”
• enlarge use of special ops—ooookay, as long as the missions fit the list of limitations I just described above, but I fear they will die in foolish supermen missions
• increase the surface navy—I guess Panetta is afraid of the navy political lobby (see my article on the fact that the surface navy has been obsolete for 60 years)
• and increase use of drones—hear, hear
John T. Reed
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