The Cult of Special Forces

BY Herschel Smith
15 years, 9 months ago

The Autumn 2008 Edition of the Australian Army Journal contains an important article by Major Jim Hammett, entitled We Were Soldiers Once: The Decline of the Royal Australian Infantry Corps? Several key paragraphs are reproduced below.

There are indicators that the feelings of angst prevalent within the Infantry Corps have festered to the point of public dissent and critical questioning of the Corps’ raison d’etre. This is reflected not only by questions posed to our leadership (including the Minister for Defence and the Chief of Army) across three theatres of operation, but also by recent articles published in mainstream media. Furthermore, anecdotal evidence would suggest that disillusionment regarding the employment and future of the Infantry Corps has been a significant contributing factor to the discharge of personnel from the Corps …

The Infantry have not been tasked with conducting offensive action since Vietnam; Special Forces have been engaged in combat operations almost continuously since 2001. When comparing the role of the Infantry with that of Special Operations Forces (SOF), in contrast to the nature of deployments, the logical deduction is that either the role of the Infantry is now defunct, or that only SOF are considered capable of the role …

‘This cult of special forces is as sensible as to form a Royal Corps of Tree Climbers and say that no soldier, who does not wear its green hat with a bunch of oak leaves stuck in it should be expected to climb a tree’. Field Marshall Sir William Slim was remarkably prophetic when he cautioned against the inclination to consider some tasks capable of being fulfilled by Special Forces only. The parallels between Slim’s ‘Royal Corps of Tree Climbers’ analogy and the current trend of operational deployments accurately summarise the frustrations of the Royal Australian Infantry Corps, who, despite the lack of a ‘green hat’ (or possibly Sherwood Green or ‘Sandy’ beret), consider themselves more than capable of ‘climbing trees’ …

Notwithstanding recent combat actions performed by Infantrymen in Afghanistan, the role of the Infantry component of the Reconstruction Task Force is limited to force protection—rigidly imposed to the point whereby participants have been required to sign formal documents declaring that they have not provoked combat operations— whilst their fellow countrymen from the Special Operations Task Group actively pursue engagement with enemy forces, having been publicly praised by defence and governmental hierarchy for previous tours of duty that involved daily contact with the enemy. In the same theatre, armies with whom we possess a standardisation program (US, Britain and Canada) are employing their Infantry aggressively against the enemy. The lack of Australian participation in combat has drawn adverse comment and questions from the international press …

Since 11 September 2001 Australia’s allies have become embroiled in violent conflicts in the Middle East and Central Asia. Australia has professed itself a staunch ally of the Americans in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and indeed has received significant political kudos for what has been termed as unwavering support. At the coalface, however, such sentiments are dismissed as political rhetoric, as serving members from the United States, Britain and Canada lay their lives on the line in support of their government’s objectives whilst the Australian Infantry appear to do little more than act as interested spectators from the sideline.

Notwithstanding the mutual accolades provided between international political bodies in the interests of diplomacy, Australia’s contributions to both Iraq and Afghanistan have been derided and scorned by soldiers and officers alike from other nations who are more vigorously engaged in combat operations. In Iraq, the much heralded deployment of Al Muthanna Task Group-1 was met with incredulity by British forces deployed on Operation TELIC V. The stringent force protection measures and limitations to manoeuvre applied to the newly arrived (yet very well equipped) Australians were in stark contrast to the British approach of using the benign Al Muthanna province as a respite locality for (not very well equipped) troops who had been in sustained action in either Basra or Al Amarah.

The initial caution of such a deployment is both prudent and understandable, however the ongoing inaction and lack of contribution to counterinsurgency and offensive operations has resulted in collective disdain and at times near contempt by personnel from other contributing nations for the publicity-shrouded yet forceprotected Australian troops.

The restrictions and policies enforced on Infantrymen in Iraq have resulted in the widespread perception that our Army is plagued by institutional cowardice. Rebuttal of such opinions is difficult when all staff at Iraq’s Multi-National Division (South East) Headquarters are formally briefed that the Australian contingent’s national caveats strictly prohibit offensive operations, attack and pursuit. Of the phases of war, this leaves only defence and withdrawal.

Commentary & Analysis

In the Weekly Standard in March of 2007, Michael Fumento had an interesting article entitled The Democrats’ Special Forces Fetish: A Fatuous Promise to Double the Size of Our Elite Military Units. It is worth reading for the volume of information in the article, as well as for a good knock-down argument for why it is impossible to double the size of the Special Operations Forces.

The Democrats’ reflexive push to treat counterinsurgency as counterterrorism is one reason that The Captain’s Journal doesn’t cover or analyze hits against so-called high value targets (HVT). The war on terror isn’t about personalities, even though some of their favorite think tanks do wish to treat it as a police campaign against individuals.

But beyond this, there has grown up around SOF a sort of cult following and hero worship that clouds informed judgment and clear thinking. SOF, it is believed – perhaps based on the Rambo persona – can do anything, and tend to be the real warriors deployed when the fighting gets tough. Hard core kinetic operations is reserved for SOF. Gone are the days when special operations has to do with specialty billets such as language, reconnaissance, airborne, and other qualifications that is is just too expensive to grow in the armed forces. Enter the days of SOF as supermen.

But the advent of each new story about SOF that kills some high profile name, while riveting for the non-military reader, continues the same lesson that Rumsfeld took into Afghanistan with his vision of airmen with satellite uplinks guiding JDAMS to target, CIA operatives, and alliances with rogues in the country who could knock out the Taliban. Afghanistan is a failing campaign precisely because of this view. Counterinsurgency requires infantry and force projection, those things necessary to ensure security for the population.

While Fumento’s view might be applicable to the Army, Navy and Air Force, since The Captain’s Journal is a USMC blog, we’ll take a uniquely Marine view of things. While some Recon Marines have been split off from their units, Recon primarily still supports infantry, and the Marine force structure is uniquely aligned to conduct kinetic operations, whether conventional or counterinsurgency.

In order to help explain this, a conversation is given below. In this conversation, TCJ is The Captain’s Journal, M is some unnamed Marine, and City is the location in which this Marine happened to be during his deployment. It is left to the reader to surmise whether this is a real or fabricated conversation.

TCJ: Did y’all ever conduct distributed operations in the city?

M: Units of how large?

TCJ: Two, or three, or a fire team.

M: No. If you went into the city with less than a squad you died. Usually a platoon, always at least a squad. If a squad, the fire teams conducted a satellite patrol to throw the enemy off.

TCJ: What about snipers? Didn’t you have and use them?

M: Yea, we have the DM (designated Marksman) specialization who is also still part of his unit.

TCJ: How did he deploy into the city?

M: A platoon or squad delivered him to his location. When he was finished a day or two later we picked him up and escorted him back to the FOB or outpost. If he got into trouble, we were a radio call away.

TCJ: What if the population saw you deliver this DM and knew he was there?

M: So what?

TCJ: Well, if they knew he was there, so did the insurgents, and they would then know to avoid that area altogether.

M: Right. So whether the DM shoots or merely uses his known presence to pacify an area, you’ve met your objective, right?

TCJ: I understand. So the idea is to provide maximum force protection while also contacting the population.

M: Look. Combat in the Marines is engaged by the infantry. Infantry lays maximum metal down range when needed, beginning with the SAWs.

TCJ: So no one, including Recon, sees more combat than infantry?

M: It’s all still infantry. Recon is attached to infantry. DMs are attached to infantry. Artillery supports infantry. No one person is more special than anyone else. They are all billets, and the Marine does his job and fulfills his billet. Everyone is billeted to support infantry, and infantry protects everyone else. Infantry is king. It’s the focus of everything.

Major Hammett’s disdain for the lack of respect for and utilization of his infantry is both obvious and understandable. While Australian forces were inside the borders of Afghanistan prior to U.S. forces post 9/11, they were special operations forces. No infantry has been deployed to engage in kinetic operations in either Iraq or Afghanistan.

For a picture of what the Democratic proposal for structuring the armed forces of the United States would look like, see the one painted by Major Hammett. Special operations conducts black operations against high value targets, and infantry sits in the States training. The war on terror will not be treated as a counterinsurgency campaign. It will be understood to be a policing action requiring the SWAT team of U.S. special operations forces.

There are some who favor equipping, training and preparation for a near peer conflict who might like this picture. But before jumping too quickly, the reader should consider the unintended consequences of such an approach. According to Major Hammett, such consequences can be (but are not limited to) an Army that suffers from the perception of “institutional cowardice” and (as Major Hammett discusses later in his paper) the loss due to lack of job satisfaction of the very soldiers who the institutionalists wish to retain, and loss of the very soldiering that they wish to press due to inexperience.

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  1. On October 1, 2010 at 2:12 am, Stephen Karsai said:

    If this is the track the Australian Defence Force is going to go all our efforts in previous wars were an absolute traversty people died invain.This Armchair cowgirl should get out of her airconditioned office and experience a conbatants role instead of persecuting them After all IT IS WAR NOT A WALK IN THE PARK ON SUNDAY
    Now If the polititians are for real and want to support our troops along with the brass send in supporting units such as artillery and air cover lets not rely on the U.S

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You are currently reading "The Cult of Special Forces", entry #1293 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Australian Army,Counterinsurgency,Featured,Marine Corps and was published September 14th, 2008 by Herschel Smith.

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