The eminent and recently-deceased scholar of strategic theory and military history, Colin S. Gray, once described special operations as “handfuls of heroes on desperate ventures.” Indeed, anyone who has watched popular films such as Zero Dark Thirty, 12 Strong, Lone Survivor, or Blackhawk Down can appreciate the dangers associated with these types of military operations. Given these hazards, one has to wonder: why are special operations ever conducted in the first place?

The answer lies in the consideration of risk. Because policy-makers inherently rely upon some form of popular support to maintain their positions of power, they are also inherently averse to taking risky actions. Thus, when considering solutions to various policy problems, they will seek and select options that present the lowest overall risk—both the risk of failure in resolving the policy problem and the risk of negative blowback.

For problems that are inherently easy, policy-makers will generally be satisfied with options naturally produced by their bureaucracies, because these problems are of such a routine nature that the leader can be assured of successful resolution via orthodox (standard) means, and because standard (orthodox) solutions engender the lowest risk of blowback. The figure below shows various types of operations according to the nature of the policy problem (easy or difficult) and nature of the solution (orthodox or unorthodox). In it, I have labeled orthodox solutions to easy policy problems as “standard operations.”

Orthodox Unorthodox
Nature of Solution
Nature of Policy Problem Difficult Elite Operations Special Operations
Easy Standard Operations Experimental Operations

Difficult policy problems—for example, those that are hard to fully understand or are particularly politically sensitive—pose a different situation. In these cases, policy-makers will be more attuned to the risks of failure and blowback. The bureaucracies will still be inclined to produce orthodox (standard) solutions to those problems, but they will attempt to lower the risk of failure by offering to conduct those operations with elite individuals or units (in some cases also featuring elite equipment or technologies). For example, the 82nd Airborne Division is generally considered an “elite” division within the U.S. Army. For this reason, I have labeled orthodox solutions to difficult policy problems as “elite operations.” Policy-makers attempting to address difficult policy problems will tend to default to elite operations, because they offer a means of lowering the risk of failure while keeping the risk of bureaucratic blowback low (because the bureaucracy typically prefers orthodox solutions).

In some cases, however, even an elite orthodox solution to a difficult policy problem will be viewed by policy-makers as unacceptably risky. In these instances, leaders may choose inaction and either acceptance or mitigation of negative consequences likely to accrue from the policy problem. Or, they may be unwilling or unable to accept those consequences, and may instead ask for unorthodox options that are wholly different from those the bureaucracy might normally produce—that is, ideas or methods that are different from what is usual or expected. Referring back to the figure, unorthodox solutions to a difficult policy problem are labeled as “special operations,” with the following definition: Special operations are unorthodox military solutions to difficult policy problems that lower the level of risk to policy-makers.

One example was the Navy SEAL raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan. While raids are a standard type of U.S. military operation, the fact that the SEALs conducted this particular one over a distance of 162 miles, at night, into a semi-permissible (and possibly denied) area made it an unorthodox solution to the difficult policy problem of trying to capture or kill bin Laden. Why did President Obama choose this option? Because he deemed the other options presented to him—destruction of bin Laden’s compound by B-2 stealth bombers, a surgical air strike from an experimental drone, or inaction—to be too risky relative to his desired policy outcomes.

This is why special operations are conducted: if policy-makers have a difficult policy problem and they are unsatisfied with the level of risk presented by orthodox solutions or inaction, then they will choose special operations.

Policy-makers understand that special operations are risky. But, if special operations—unorthodox solutions—can offer a lower overall risk profile than elite operations or inaction/mitigation, then policy-makers are likely to choose them.

This answer to the question of why special operations are conducted offers four implications for the future. First, policy-makers will always grapple with difficult policy problems. Inevitably, some of those problems will not be resolvable within policy-makers’ risk tolerances and they will seek unorthodox solutions. Thus, there will always be some demand for special operations—for the military, they are a natural feature of the strategic level of war.

Second, there is no guarantee that future special operations will be conducted solely by “special operations forces” (SOF). The existence of modern-day SOF—forces specially assessed and selected to institutionalize the generation of unorthodox solutions—is a historical anomaly, as one can identify special military operations throughout history. Thus, the answer to why special operations are conducted not only suggests that special operations could be conducted by non-SOF entities, but also predicts that this will inevitably happen unless SOF can somehow monopolize the production of unorthodox solutions (which seems unlikely).

Third, at least within the U.S. military, there has been remarkable growth in the size, structure, resources, and responsibilities, as well as institutionalization, of its SOF over the past 20 years. There are two historical aspects of this institutionalization:

  • The desire of U.S. policy-makers to decrease steadily the risk profile of U.S. activities overseas has led to a consistent trend of them asking SOF to solve their most difficult policy problems, but also increasingly to solve their easy ones, too. The net result of this situation is that U.S. SOF are increasingly being asked to undertake elite or, in some cases, standard operations—such as training foreign militaries in peaceful countries—as opposed to being used only for special operations.
  • This situation is compounded by the absence of bureaucratic blowback that might otherwise be expected from a policy-maker’s request for an unorthodox solution. In the U.S. military, SOF are no longer generally seen as secretive, squirrely, fringe elements that should be viewed with bureaucratic suspicion. The net result is that the bureaucracy (e.g., the military services) has mostly accepted both the growth of the special operations enterprise and the drift of SOF into elite and standard operations (indeed, in some instances, the services have deliberately pushed standard operations that they do not want to conduct over to SOF). This carries the risk of the U.S. special operations enterprise becoming less “special” over time, since increased adoption and execution of elite and standard operations necessarily dilutes the focus of the enterprise on those aspects that make it unorthodox.

Extending these trends reveals a fourth implication—that the future is likely to hold significant choices and tensions for leaders of U.S. SOF. Should they chart a course that errs on the side of remaining consistently unorthodox and incur bureaucratic risk (e.g., to resources and prestige) that might accompany a retrenchment of SOF to a narrower focus on special operations as defined above? Or should they give in to the entreaties of the conventional force for greater integration, interoperability, and interdependence—and succumb to the pull of the orthodoxy?

This examination of the reason why special operations are conducted predicts that these tensions about the future trajectory of U.S. SOF will persist, as long as the force designed to be unorthodox remains institutionalized.

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Dr. Jonathan Schroden is the Director of CNA's Center for Stability and Development (CSD), and also directs CNA's Special Operations Program, which focuses on research and analysis on the most complex and challenging issues facing special operations forces (SOF) today and in the future.