April 12, 2009

On SOF and Piracy

One of the great things about this blog's readership is the readiness it displays to challenge me when topics drift into things about which I know less than a true subject matter expert. If I were to start holding forth with strong opinions about, say, Canadian politics, I have no doubt my readership would keep me as honest as it has when we talk about economics, health care policy, and insurgencies in regions of the Earth I do not know as well as the Middle East.

By the same token, if you're a blogger who has -- in the past week -- written things such as "Andrew Exum’s idea to dispatch SEAL teams is absurd" and "Exum’s idea to dispatch Navy SEALS is simply silly" then you better have either a) some direct professional experience in direct-action special operations or b) be prepared to explain why that's not a good idea in response to my (what I thought was fairly obvious) suggestion that Navy SEAL teams might be exactly the right answer to a hostage situation on the high seas. If, by contrast, you have no idea about what you are writing and no relevant experience or knowledge but nonetheless have strong opinions, you should keep those opinions to yourself lest the following news emerge 72 hours later:

The operation to rescue Capt. Richard Phillips involved dozens of Navy SEALs, who parachuted from an aircraft into the scene near dark Saturday, landing in the ocean. The SEALs were part of a larger group of Special Operations Forces involved in the effort, according to military officials.

U.S. military observers believed that Phillips was about to be shot. SEAL snipers, who were positioned on a deck at the stern of the Bainbridge, an area known as the fantail, had the three pirates in their sights. The on-scene commander gave the SEAL snipers authority to fire.

"As soon as the snipers had a clear shot at the guy who had the rifle, they shot him and the other two in the hatches," said the senior military official.

A member of the Special Operations team slid down the tow line into the water and climbed aboard the lifeboat. Phillips was then put in a small craft and taken to the Bainbridge.

I do not have the time to explain the training, missions, and capabilities of our nation's special operations forces. To even those without a security clearance or any relevant military or policy background, the value of these forces should be gobsmackingly obvious. And anyone who has closely read what I have written knows that I -- far from being "obsessed" with special operations forces -- have been quite critical about their employment in operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. This criticism is based on both personal experience and a careful study of policies and operations.

No, an average platoon of Marines or Army light infantry does not have the capabilities or the training to carry out the missions executed by Army Rangers, Navy SEALs, and other SOF (to include the SMUs). That's okay. Because in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the so-called "general purpose" forces are the ones responsible for carrying out the main effort. But parachuting into the middle of the Indian Ocean, swimming to the USS Bainbridge and then shooting three pirates from a boat that is rocking up and down and side to side is pretty effing difficult. If this operation to rescue Richard Phillips isn't the damn poster child for why we need special operations forces -- and why it's important that those forces are able to work in tandem with normal U.S. Navy and U.S. Army forces -- I don't know what is.

Sorry. I usually don't go off like that. But I have been holding my tongue for three days. And I don't get angry when genuine subject matter experts respectfully criticize me on issues about which they know more than I -- think Josh Foust on Afghanistan -- but do when others attack me in a know-it-all fashion about things they don't have any experience in or knowledge of.

For the rest of you, meanwhile, this short, fun essay by John Collins at Small Wars Journal should be required reading for all of those who don't know much about special operations but want to know more.

P.S. Hahaha. Great quote from a member of the readership, in an earlier thread: "Well, I think this puts an end to the pirates vs. ninjas debate."