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Alexander PowellElizabeth YangAnnaleah WesterhaugKaia Haney
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Warring sides have undertaken sabotage operations throughout history to generate battlefield effects, with varying degrees of success. In many cases, the forces conducting these operations have been special operations forces (SOF), their predecessors, or intelligence agencies. During World War II, for example, the US Office of Strategic Services built a reputation for conducting sabotage across several theaters of operation and in multiple domains. However, over the past 20 years, SOF have focused heavily on counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations, resulting in a current dearth of experience with sabotage against nation-state targets.

In light of SOF’s history with sabotage and recent renewed interest in the subject, CNA initiated a quick-look study to examine past instances of sabotage in order to derive lessons and best practices for the future conduct of such operations. To increase the utility of the study for US Navy and US Marine Corps organizations, and because of the dearth of prior research on the topic, we focused our efforts on examining sabotage in the maritime domain. To conduct this study, we employed a five-step methodological process, as follows: (1) define key terms, (2) conduct a literature review of analytical works on sabotage, (3) build a maritime sabotage dataset, (4) code that dataset to derive analytic findings, and (5) distill implications for the future.

Upon review of existing US military doctrine and literature on sabotage, we were unable to find a common definition for this term. As such, we propose the following definition: sabotage is a mission (conducted via individual act or as part of a campaign) to secretly disarm, obstruct, or destroy enemy war materiel or infrastructure for military advantage. Using this definition and a thorough review of existing literature, we built a dataset consisting of 21 examples of maritime sabotage. We then coded these examples according to a set of variables that we identified as being of interest through our review of historical literature.

Using the results of the coding process, we conducted two sets of analyses. The first, which was descriptive in nature, explored trends in the conduct of maritime sabotage according to variables such as the type of military operation, the force conducting the sabotage act, and the overall success of an operation in achieving its desired objectives. Among the findings from this descriptive analysis are the following:

  • World War II appears to have been a heyday for maritime sabotage; almost half of the identified instances in our dataset occurred during that conflict.

  • More broadly, most instances of maritime sabotage occurred during periods of largescale combat operations (LSCO) (Figure 1).

  • In more than half of the maritime sabotage instances in our dataset, the force  employed for sabotage was composed of SOF or SOF-like personnel.

  • Of the instances examined, 85 percent were successful in achieving their desired tactical objective (Figure 1).
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DISTRIBUTION STATEMENT A. Approved for public release: distribution unlimited. Public Release.


  • Pages: 50
  • Document Number: DRM-2021-U-030772-Final
  • Publication Date: 10/1/2021