I have had the privilege of working closely with the Special Operations community during almost a quarter of a century. I greatly admire the skill and capabilities of these men. (Yes, this is a testosterone community of Type A personalities who have levels of strength and endurance not commonly found in the ranks of the military–there are some women, in specialized jobs, but this is a Dude’s world.) But they are not superhuman. They are men. They have proven abilities to endure enormous physical stress while remaining operationally proficient. But they cannot outrun bullets and are just as vulnerable to bombs and mortars and your average private.
The experience of the SEALS on the island of Grenada in 1983 highlights their capabilities and limitations:
Another SEAL Team’s missions included the extraction of Grenada’s Governor-General and the capture of Grenada’s only radio tower. Neither mission was well briefed nor sufficiently supported with timely intelligence; causing the SEALs trouble from the very beginning. Delays in an airborne insertion caused their daytime calm-sea insertion to be pushed back to night time and a bad storm. One of their two transport planes missed its drop zone, and four SEALs were lost in a rain squall off the island’s coast. Their bodies were never recovered.
During the invasion, the SEALs split into two groups and proceeded to their objectives. After setting up at the Governor’s mansion, the SEALs realized that their satellite communications equipment was still on their insertion helicopter. As Grenadian and Cuban troops began surrounding the men, the SEALs’ only radio ran out of battery power. They were forced to improvise, and used the mansion’s land line telephone to call their headquarters to direct AC-130 aircraft fire support on the approaching enemy. The SEALs maintained position in the mansion overnight and extracted the following morning, when they were relieved by a group of Force Recon Marines.
The last sentence is the key point–they were rescued by a Marine tank column because SEALs (and Delta Force) do not carry heavy weapons. Their specialty is carrying out raids and collecting intelligence. Spec Ops bubbas can do some very cool shit. But they are not a conventional force and run into trouble even when fighting a third rate conventional military force, such as Iraq. This point is illustrated in the movie Bravo Two Zero, which shows the problems that a British Special Operations unit–i.e., SAS–encountered in Iraq:
Bravo Two Zero was the call sign of an eight-man British ArmySpecial Air Service (SAS) patrol, deployed into Iraq during the First Gulf War in January 1991. According to Chris Ryan‘s account, the patrol was given the task of gathering intelligence, finding a good lying-up position (LUP), setting up an observation post (OP), and monitoring enemy movements, especially Scud missile launchers: 15 on the Iraqi Main Supply Route (MSR) between Baghdad and North-Western Iraq; however, according to Andy McNab‘s account, the task was to find and destroy Iraqi Scud missile launchers along a 250 km (160 mi) stretch of the MSR. . . .
In late afternoon of 24 January, the patrol was discovered by a herd of sheep and a young shepherd. Believing themselves compromised, the patrol decided to withdraw, leaving behind excess equipment. As they were preparing to leave, they heard what they thought to be a tank approaching their position. The patrol took up defensive positions, prepared their LAW rockets, and waited for it to come into sight. However, the vehicle turned out to be a bulldozer, which reversed rapidly after seeing the patrol. Realising that they had now definitely been compromised, the patrol withdrew from their position. Shortly afterwards, as they were exfiltrating (according to McNab’s account), a firefight with Iraqi armoured personnel carriers and soldiers began.
On the morning of 27 January, McNab’s group of five came into contact with local civilians and police. Consiglio was shot and killed by armed civilians at approximately 0200 hrs.: 172–173 Lane died of hypothermia later that same morning after swimming the Euphrates with Pring,: 163 who along with McNab and Coburn was subsequently captured. During an exchange of gunfire prior to capture, Coburn was shot in both the arm and ankle.: 225
According to McNab, the four captured patrol members (McNab, Pring, MacGown and the wounded Coburn) were moved numerous times, enduring torture and interrogation at each successive location. According to MacGown, however, “incidents such as teeth extraction and burning with a heated spoon did not happen. It is inconceivable that any such incidents could have occurred without them being discussed or being physically obvious.” At the time of the release on 5 March of MacGown and Pring, they were described as “in good shape” by a Red Cross representative.
They were last held at Abu Ghraib Prison before their release.
So why am I writing about this? Because western media continues to speculate that Western Special Operations Forces are on the ground in Ukraine and that they will be a game changer in helping defeat the Russians. Sorry folks, that is a hope born of Hollywood fantasies. No matter how many push ups these guys can do, no matter how long they can go without sleep and food, no matter how good they are at cover and concealment, no matter their expertise as marksmen, they are no match for a conventional Russian military force that can hit them with barrages of artillery, mortars and missiles.
I hope that U.S. and U.K leaders have not made the idiotic decision of sending these elite men into the charnel house that is the front line in Ukraine. This is a fruitless waste of highly skilled men who do not have magical powers to defeat tanks or a battalion of Russian troops attacking their positions. I worry that former members of some of these special ops units may have signed on to fight with the Ukrainians. Regardless of their personal bravery and skill, these individuals are just one more cog in a massive war machine.
The fascination in the West with the abilities of Special Operations Forces is a symptom that the United States and the United Kingdom are fixated on achieving tactical gains on the ground while ignoring Clausewitz’s keen insight that, “War is a mere continuation of politics by other means.” War does not produce food nor ensure access to critical minerals and commodities essential to fuel a sound economy. It is but one element in the broader scheme of the politics that will determine whether a nation or group of nations can achieve their goals and survive.
I want to encourage you to read the brilliant analysis of Big Serge. His recent publication, Politics By Other Means–Putin and Clausewitz, is must reading if you want to understand the current situation in Ukraine and what Russia is trying to do. With that, I wish you a peaceful weekend.