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Intelligence’s Correlation to Special Operation’s Mission Success

SFC / MDV Kane Tomlin & SFC Aaron Clark

Historical Special Operations Missions have generally fallen into three general categories, unconventional warfare, special reconnaissance, and the Direct Action (DA) Mission, otherwise known as a raid. Modern SO Mission Areas have grown to include: Foreign Internal Defense, Counterinsurgency, Counterterrorism, Combatting Weapons of Mass Destruction, Stability Operations, and Support to Major Combat Operations [1]. In order to review case studies dating back to WWII, the only two mission areas where significant open source data exists are DA Missions and unconventional warfare. Unconventional warfare “consists of activities conducted to enable a resistance movement or insurgency to coerce, disrupt or overthrow an occupying power or government by operating through or with an underground, auxiliary and guerrilla force in a denied area” [1]. These types of activities are difficult to use in case studies because they are a process rather than a project, meaning they are seldom defined by specific start and end dates and do not have a single objective measure of success. In contrast, raids or Direct Action missions are “[s]hort-duration strikes and other small-scale offensive actions conducted as a special operation in hostile, denied, or politically sensitive environments and which employ specialized military capabilities to seize, destroy, capture, exploit, recover, or damage designated targets” [1]. DA missions are variations on the classic raid, where there are a specific start and end point and a limited objective (either to capture, kill, or rescue a small number of people, or render a small objective inoperable). As such these missions provide insightful case studies to investigate the various mission elements and compare and contrast them with mission success or failure. As an example, methods of insertion or extraction could be analyzed, directly compared using the historical data, and best practices identified; similarly, the use of Intelligence in the planning process can be compared between case studies in an effort to identify any causal sub-variables and identify intelligence best practices.

SO missions are audacious, risky, and potentially highly rewarding. Very few conventional forces can have such an outsized impact as SOF. In the raid on Cabanatuan, Philippines, just over 100 Army Rangers and Alamo Scouts were able to rescue 489 Prisoners of War (POWs) well behind enemy lines and kill hundreds of Japanese. There is little argument that a conventional force using combined arms warfare could have replicated that success with so few American assets [2]. These SO missions are not without a high level of risk, during Operation Just Cause, four U.S. Navy SEALs were killed and seven wounded when they were inserted onto an exposed airfield in an overly large group with poor intelligence about their target [3]. With such a small margin of error, especially in traditionally casualty-adverse America, the razor’s edge between success and failure should be subject to intensive research. Special Operations Forces (SOF) are the apex of military training and capability and should be armed with every possible asset that may help ensure their success and limit their casualties. Particularly in the War on Terror, SOF has been and will continue to be a main rather than supporting effort on the ground.

A key ingredient to SOF successes is timely, accurate, and actionable intelligence about the target and the corresponding enemy order of battle. In almost every analysis conducted about SOF since 9/11, intelligence is continually cited as a key ingredient to the success or failure of an operation [1, 2, 4, 5]. When a variable is so highly correlated to success, as it appears intelligence is, the mere presence or absence of the variable is an insufficient explanation in a qualitative study. Best practices should be identified, and the hypothesis changes from simply whether a variable equates to a positive outcome to HOW does the variable contribute to a positive outcome. In this article, these authors will seek to gain insight on how intelligence contributes to success or failure in SO missions.

Target-Centric Intelligence vs. The Intelligence Cycle

Traditional intelligence collection is often referred to as the Intelligence Cycle. The Intelligence Cycle is defined as a closed path consisting of repeating nodes. The stages of the Intelligence Cycle include the issuance of requirements by decision makers, collection, processing, analysis, and the publication of intelligence [6]. There are many intelligence professionals who have found fault with the traditional Intelligence Cycle. They collectively argue that the cycle does not accurately represent what occurs in the operational environment. Policymakers do not always issue requirements; collection, processing, and analysis are seldom performed in step with each other in an asynchronous manner. Often as not intelligence is used to support a decision that has already been made, an egregious example of confirmation bias that nevertheless continues to occur [6-10]. The Intelligence Cycle is the traditional model that is used and has been applied to some SO operations, though there is no evidence the traditional Intelligence Cycle has proven superior to other methods and some evidence that it has led to operational failure.

In 2003, author and retired Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) analyst Dr. Robert Clark developed a new intelligence model known as the Target-Centric Approach. Clark argued that the traditional intelligence model was too linear and that a network-centric, target focused approach to intelligence collection and exploitation would serve the intelligence community more effectively [11]. The target-centric approach also closely aligns with the concept of “bottom-up planning” used by many units within SO and increasingly utilized throughout the militaries’ other various specialized units. SFC Tomlin routinely used bottom-up planning as the Army’s Diving Liaison Officer in Iraq and throughout the world as a Diving Supervisor and Master Diver. SFC Clark also used bottom-up planning almost exclusively in both Engineer Dive and Special Forces missions. Bottom-up planning is the practice of deriving informational requirements and operational alternatives starting from the lowest ranking person on the team. This is done to avoid the myriad of biases that can creep into an operation when subordinates feel stifled by the existing operational plans of the senior leadership [12]. The leadership gains a myriad of alternatives and can then select the best one for the operation.

Target-centric intelligence and bottom-up planning are synergistic practices when SOF utilizes them appropriately. Currently, most SOFs engage in bottom-up targeting and planning envisioned and executed under General McChrystal’s “learning organization” concept [13]. The lowest ranking Operator begins to develop the intelligence needs analysis, which is then carried through the operational chain of command, and a final list of intelligence requirements is delivered to the supporting intelligence apparatus. The intelligence team then focuses on the target of the intelligence effort. The corresponding products are delivered synchronously using many different communication pipelines rather than a single intelligence communication loop. Instead of policy makers determining the intelligence requirements, which has already been impugned by Hulnick, the intelligence requirements are derived from those who will actually be conducting the mission [6]. General McChrystal’s and Admiral McRaven’s F3EAD (Find, Fix, Finish, Exploit, Analyze and Disseminate) concept is arguably the culmination of the target-centric concept and the bottom up planning’s approach in SOF [2, 4, 5, 13]. Throughout these case studies, the Intelligence Cycle and Target-Centric Approach to intelligence will be compared and best practices identified.

Special Operations Mission Intelligence Requirements

Special Operations DA missions have unique intelligence requirements. These requirements are best understood using the target-centric approach to intelligence analysis and a bottom-up approach to mission planning. As ADRP 3-05 Special Operations states: “[t]eams conducting missions are primary providers of information and intelligence for both SOF and conventional forces assigned to a theater of operations or JOA. Mission preparation requires that participants be aware of collection requirements and that procedures are established for reporting and dissemination.” [14]. In contrast, the Military Decision Making Process (MDMP) envisions a Command-driven and Staff supported mission development process [15].

The intelligence requirements also differ depending on the stage of the mission as it progresses. These stages are normally broken up in an Operations Order (OPORD) by the following segments: Pre-mission, Infiltration, Actions on the Objective, Extraction, and Recovery. The intelligence requirements for each stage differ, though they are nevertheless critical to achieving relative superiority over the enemy. Relative superiority refers to the combination of speed, surprise, and violence of action that allows a numerically inferior SOF to seize the initiative in battle and overwhelm an enemy for a small period of time. An infiltration that is detected would obviously prevent any kind of kinetic raid on the objective of the mission [2].

Pre-mission planning for SO missions includes the development of intelligence requirements for the many tactical questions that arise, and a strategic intelligence cost-benefit assessment of the mission, goals, and potential blowback in order to mitigate undesirable diplomatic results. Pre-mission planning includes the collection and dissemination of known intelligence about the target, insertion and egress routes, countermeasures, the likelihood of tactical surprise, and escape and evasion plans. Provided the mission is properly backward planned by the SOF, new intelligence requirements will also be noted and analysts would need to begin developing new information. If enough time exists between conception and execution, the unit would have received a formal Warning Order (WARNO) as the initial step of the pre-mission planning process. This would be an example of an optimal OPORD process and provides the SOF the time to develop their own list of intelligence requirements prior to the development of the ORORD itself [1]. Shorter execution timelines may relegate the pre-mission planning to an ad-hoc affair, however, the general concepts should be adhered to. Failed SO missions can attribute at least one or more intelligence failures at this stage of the SO mission planning process [2].

Infiltration refers to all of the steps required to get the SOF from the point of debarkation to the objective undetected. Thorough pre-mission planning would generate reasonably definitive answers to the Operator’s intelligence questions and reduce the frictions of war; however, all of the intelligence variables have to least be reconfirmed during the insertion phase. Critical elements, like the element of surprise, are instrumental in retaining relative superiority [2]. Intelligence requirements during the insertion phase focus on ensuring the critical elements remain in the SOF’s favor; surprise and relative superiority are not lost, and the target(s) of the raid or rescue is present at the targeted location. Loss of any of these elements places the SOF in mortal jeopardy and places the mission at significant risk of failure [16-18]. Intelligence analysts, therefore, scramble during this critical phase to confirm as much of the pre-mission intelligence as possible and communicate to the operational elements any changes to the situation, and they should explicitly iterate unknown variables to provide the team with the critical information requirements that need to be confirmed as soon as possible once the SOF reaches the objective.

“The attack erupts in a powerful and violent assault upon the objective. Its purpose is to destroy an enemy force or to seize the ground it occupies. Agile units are prepared to shift the main effort as conditions unfold” [19]. The actions on the objective during a raid are the critical moment when SOF can bring speed, surprise, and violence of action to bear on a numerically superior enemy to gain relative superiority. As Clausewitz stated above, agile units are equipped, training, and informed in time to shift the effort of battle as conditions develop on the ground. Once the shooting starts, the intelligence support shifts to the discovery of the enemy’s reactionary movements. Time on target is always at a premium and the SOF must be apprised of any unforeseen enemy counterattack that jeopardizes the mission or the force on the ground. Additionally, intelligence needs to be developed about the extraction plan, ensure it is still accurate and viable or selects an alternative extraction plan. Normally on a modern SOF DA missions, time is factored in specifically for intelligence collection, whether it’s from materials on site or persons, during the pre-mission planning process, though this was not always the case. Some exploitation of the objective’s intelligence may be undertaken depending on the security situation at the objective [13, 20].

Much like the insertion phase, the extraction phase is the movement from the objective back to the point of debarkation and out of harm’s way. Depending on the length of transit time and the method of extraction, further exploitation of any intelligence may begin or continue from the objective. This facilitates additional raids in the most rapid manner possible. In Iraq, under General McChrystal “[s]ome assault teams were augmented with embedded FBI case agents who helped to efficiently process sites and instantly interrogate new captives, further streamlining the process” [21]. In addition to the possible exploitation of intelligence, the supporting intelligence effort also must continually review the enemy’s actions and ensure the extraction route is viable. In the event of a major disaster, the escape and evasion plan may need to be implemented and the intelligence effort will by necessity shift to locate and extract the team as they try to evade capture.

The final phase, mission recovery includes the deliberate and full exploitation of the newly accumulated intelligence, development of an After Actions Review (AAR), and ensuring the personnel and equipment are reset for the next mission [1, 22]. In the F3EAD operating concept, the exploitation, analysis and dissemination phases start as early as the tail end of the actions on the objective and continue throughout the recovery process. In longer conflicts with numerous ongoing operations, the dissemination and AAR often develop new intelligence and can lead to an immediate dispatch of a separate assault element to another target. U.S. Special Forces A-Teams (USSF) normally takes care of its own Area of Operation (AO) and new actions resulting from the intelligence collected for their area. USSF will always send the intelligence up and if it affects another AO then the SOF team in that area will act on the intelligence exploited. Deliberate intelligence exploitation and dissemination along with a formal AAR are designed to improve future missions and become a part of the formal record used when conducting the next pre-mission planning session.

Case Studies

The following case studies are designed to illustrate the different operational and intelligence approaches to Special Operations missions. These authors have attempted to organize the missions into groups based on similar timeframes, objectives, and or area of operation in order to best compare the practices that each SOF chose to use when undertaking their DA missions. Any critique in no way diminishes the sacrifice and bravery of the men and women who participated in these raids. It is only through the harsh glare of hindsight that future improvements to SOF can be made.

Comparison: Eben Emael vs. Saint – Nazaire

The raid on Eben Emael by Nazi Germany and the raid on Saint – Nazaire by British Commandos are two of the earliest examples of DA missions to seize a small objective for a short period of time by SOF against a conventional military garrison. Eban Emael was a Belgian fort that occupied the ground that controlled the Albert Canal system and would prevent any German forces from crossing the canal and entering France thru Belgium and therefore bypass the Maginot Line. Lt. Rudolf Witzig was placed in charge of the assault on Eban Emael, and was given total freedom to plan and execute the mission. Enforcing the utmost secrecy, the Nazi’s developed a plan to use gliders to land on top of the fort, subdue the machine guns, spike the cannons, and hold out until reinforced by the main element of the invasion force [2]. Despite the loss of two gliders en route, the objective was seized within fifteen minutes, and the Nazi force was able to hold in place until reinforced by leveraging air support during the extended time on the objective. Though they were only planning to hold the fort for four hours, they actually spent over a day on the objective until they were relieved with only six fatalities among the Germans. The lack of training by the Belgians in infantry tactics and Nazi air superiority saved them from annihilation. This is an example of a raid on a hardened target being executed with complete surprise and supported effectively.

In contrast, the British Commando raid on Saint – Nazaire was a disaster in terms of the casualties inflicted on the assaulting team. Though they did achieve their objective of disabling the dry dock, their losses were disastrous. The impetus to attack Saint – Nazaire was the German battleship Tirpiz. The British planners felt that if the Tirpiz could be supported by the dry dock facilities, she would wreak havoc on Atlantic shipping. Saint – Nazaire is located six miles up the Loire River from the Atlantic Ocean, complicating insertion. The Commados elected to sail the HMS Campeltown, a destroyer disguised as a German boat, along with other support and evacuation vessels upriver in order to ram the dry dock gate with the destroyer modified to become a Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device (VBIED). The Campeltown would then explode, render the gate inoperable, and the Commandoes would disembark the vessels and destroy the pump houses, and generally cause chaos and destruction until exfiltration.

During the planning and rehearsal portions of the mission, several problems were noted, like the difficulty in disembarking men from the boats, but no attempts to fix them were undertaken. On the 26th of March 1942 the raid commenced. The flotilla did manage to avoid discovery for the majority of their trip, they were finally discovered only 14 minutes prior to striking the dry dock. The time fuse was set for eight hours, and the exfiltration was due to begin in two hours. “The main objective of the raid had been achieved before a single Commando soldier had set foot ashore” [23].

Unfortunately, no one accounted for the fierce resistance nor the inability of the smaller pickup boats to remain in the harbor for the required time without being sunk. The Commandos immediately came under fire as they disembarked, which continued to become more effective as the time on target increased. In the first sixty minutes of the battle, half the boat launches have been disabled or destroyed, and many Commandos died before ever even reaching the shore. Once Newman was ready to order the Commandos to withdraw, he learned that it would be impossible to re-board the launches and extract via the planned sea route. He then developed a hasty escape and evasion plan onsite since none was developed earlier in the planning process, and ordered his men to move as a group in an attempt to walk to Spain [2]. The Germans captured over 200 Commandos before the Campbeltown finally exploded.

In both of these missions, the intelligence needs were very similar. The targets were hardened facilities and were therefore unlikely to be radically different from the intelligence available to the planners. First, the development on intelligence requirements should include a strategic assessment of the mission risks and rewards. The raiding party would also need to know the composition of the unit and the insertion and exfiltration route’s enemy security posture. Planners would need to know the route that would best ensure surprise and relative superiority. The target’s presence is a given when attacking large fixed structures. Once on the objective, the unit needs to know the enemies reactions so that relative superiority can be maintained. The extraction plan would also need to be continually reviewed and potentially altered. Intelligence exploitation is not necessary in these two cases, but an escape and evasion plan should be developed to support extraction. Finally, bottom-up mission planning should be utilized wherever possible.

Given the similarities of the missions and intelligence needs, why would the outcome be so different? An analysis of the intelligence provided and the planning methodologies used illustrate some of the mistakes made by the British that were not made by the Germans. The German SOF were given complete freedom to plan their parts of the operation, and intelligence was plentiful. Witzig felt that he had both complete autonomy and excellent intelligence support. Due to this, he realized early on that gliders would be necessary since airborne troops couldn’t carry the shaped charges that would be needed to silence the guns via parachute. Additionally, when the Luftwaffe pilots proved too inexperienced, civilian glider pilots were immediately brought on board. In contrast, the British identified problems with the assault plan but failed to adjust the plan accordingly. The intelligence provided a bleak picture of the British’s ability to extract under fire, and yet no attempt was made to alter the basic tenants of their plan. Additionally, the British failed to disseminate their intelligence properly and thus denied them of their air support during the raid. The bombers targeted with creating a distraction did not maintain the attack because of cloud cover and they were unaware of their real diversionary purpose [2].

The Germans were able to reassess the intelligence picture once on the ground during the raid and were able to bring combined fires into effect to counter the Belgian infantry’s several counterattacks. In contrast, the British’s reassessment of the battlespace came only after their escape route was effectively closed. The impromptu decision to escape and evade over land was not a part of the pre-mission planning and therefore there had little chance of success in a long overland evasion into Spain. The Germans were also operating in enemy territory but planned a conventional assault immediately following the raid. In essence, German friendly lines moved to meet the raiders rather than the raiders having to be extracted [2, 18]. Finally, and most importantly, the strategic assessment differs radically in each case under scrutiny.

The German’s needed to secure a limited objective (a fort) in order to silence the guns that might destroy three bridges, in order to cross into Belgium with conventional forces. Shaped charges were the only method that could reliably destroy the guns, and bombers could not at that time utilize shaped charges. The rewards, therefore, outweighed the risks, and a DA mission by the Nazis was the only way to obtain their strategic goal. Their superior intelligence picture, dissemination to the lowest level, and bottom-up planning allowed them to achieve a spectacular success. The British’s strategic goal was to limit the utility of the Tirpitz battleship by limited its ability to be maintained. This begs the strategic question; why not just disable the Tirpitz directly? Interestingly, a year later, British SOF using mini-submarines did exactly that. Strategically the raid on Saint – Nazaire was a waste of time. It did serve to raise morale in war-weary England, but it did not directly damage the Nazi war effort.

This case study illustrated various intelligence and intelligence planning variables that are closely correlated to mission success. In these cases, the critical elements are the strategic analysis, bottom-up and backwards planning, intelligence reassessments upon contact, and a proper extraction or escape and evasion plans. These elements were not as adequately developed in the British Commando raid. Had they simplified their objective to the destruction of the dry dock facilities only, and collaborated with the troops on a proper evacuation plan, they would have likely enjoyed a resounding success. Backward planning would have also exposed weaknesses in the plan when the team tried to start with figuring out how to extract instead of viewing the mission as an all but Kamikaze attack. As Commando Eric de la Torre opined, “I thought it was a very good plan, but I thought all of U.S. would be killed. When you saw where all the [German] guns were, you thought, well, we’re not going to come out alive.” [2].

Comparison: The Great Raid vs. Son Tay Raid

Arguably to two most well known American Prisoner of War (POW) rescue missions occurred during two different wars over 20 years apart, nevertheless they provide a useful case study due to the unique nature of a POW rescue during a time of war. Tactically, both missions were deemed to be extremely successful, however, the Son Tay Raid found a “dry hole”, a camp with no POWs in it [16, 17]. The raid on Cabanatuan, also known as The Great Raid began when the Army was retaking the Philippine Islands. In 1945, the U.S. Army re-landed on the Philippines in order to liberate it from the Japanese, who had taken it from the U.S. in 1942. Shortly after establishing a solid beachhead, the Sixth Army learned of the inhumane treatment by the Japanese of American POWs along with their outright massacre of when U.S. conventional forces got close enough to capture the camps. This lead to the decision by Lt. Gen. Kruger to task the newly formed 6th Ranger Battalion to affect a rescue of approximately 500 POWs 25 miles behind enemy lines at a camp in Cabanatuan.

Lt. Col. Mucci, the Ranger Battalion Commander assigned the mission to two companies of Rangers and assigned Cpt. Prince to plan the raid. Cpt. Prince devised a clear, simple plan leveraging the Filipino guerillas and the Alamo Scouts to provide both on-site intelligence and a blocking force for the raid. The Rangers moved overland escorted by locals who could keep the Japanese from discovering the small band of men. Due to the time constraints, they were unable to conduct extensive mission rehearsals, so Cpt. Prince chose to use simple battle drills that the Rangers had already rehearsed often. Once in place, the Alamo Scouts provided their intelligence to Lt. Col. Mucci as they already had the camp under observation prior to the Ranger’s arrival. The presence of additional Japanese troops at the camp delayed the raid. The Rangers assaulted the camp the next night, killed all the guards and rescued all of the POWs. The Filipino guerrillas were able to successfully block the reinforcing Japanese Battalions, and the Americans moved back overland to friendly lines. The mission was a resounding success, over 500 POWs were rescued with the loss of only one POW and two Rangers [2].

Unlike the raid at Cabanatuan, the SOFs that would attempt to rescue the POWs at Son Tay in Vietnam had to contend with severe strategy induced tactical complications, beginning with the fact that U.S. conventional forces were not operating in North Vietnam, nor was the capture of North Vietnamese territory ever a U.S. strategic objective during the Vietnam War. In May of 1970, the Son Tay prison camp was discovered by aerial reconnaissance. Planning began immediately for a rescue mission. Training for the mission did not begin until August and concluded on November 8th, 1970. The mission did not officially begin until November 20th, 1970, when the helicopters flew into North Vietnam behind a C-130 airplane, using an excellent low-level radar avoidance flight path and a diversionary airstrike supported by the U.S. Navy. Upon landing, the assault elements successfully eliminated all organized resistance and achieved relative superiority over the target in ten minutes and without casualties. Unfortunately, no prisoners were found. The team eliminated all resistance and extracted in less than 30 minutes even with one element landing at an incorrect target. The prisoners had been moved in July due to the potential of the well running dry and were just a few miles away at another camp. The POWs actually heard and saw the attack on Son Tay [16].

Strategically and morally, it is obviously preferable to rescue the intended targets. Unlike the case studies during WWII there are additional facets to the Son Tay raid that complicated the planning, intelligence, and execution of the raid. Many have argued persuasively that the Vietnam War was overly micro-managed by the political leadership [16]. Despite the near perfect plan, train-up, and execution of the Son Tay mission, the failure to rescue any POWs would cause significant strategic and political problems for the Nixon administration. Unfortunately, excellent tactics cannot overcome poor strategy. A critical review of the intelligence failures of the Son Tay raid is warranted in light of the risk undertaken by the Special Forces Soldiers even in the face of last-minute intelligence stating the prisoners had been moved [16, 17].

These two rescue missions were tactically very different due to the technology and strategy differences between World War II and Vietnam. Additionally, the numbers of POWs were also different. Despite these facts, the missions are similar enough for qualitative analysis. Both units needed to know the composition and strategy of the enemy, infiltration route to avoid detection, location, number and condition of the prisoners, and the route to exfiltrate with the new, larger sized, and slower force. Tactically, once the mission profile had been roughly developed, the SOF planners then requested specific details. In both missions, specific details about the prison camps personnel were available. Both missions were effectively planned at the lowest level. However, the Son Tay raid was routinely briefed upwards and numerous fingers were in the pot, which delayed the final mission execution. Infiltration and actions on the objective were both executed with a reconfirmation of intelligence as the teams moved into place, with the notable exception of the prisoners’ location at Son Tay, though that intelligence was not planned to be reconfirmed by the planners [2, 16, 17]. The Alamo Scouts reconfirming the intelligence for the Rangers in Cabanatuan likely saved the mission from disaster by delaying it a day to let the visiting Japanese Soldiers leave.

The abundance of tactical intelligence and support of the traditional forces provided to the SOF involved in the rescue of American POWs is indicative of the universal urge of militaries to repatriate their Soldiers. In both cases, almost no stone was left unturned to provide the information needed by the planners. The only request that was rejected was the decision not to confirm the presence of the American POWs prior to conducting the raid at Son Tay. Even then, there was some evidence that was available to the decision makers that the prisoners had been moved. A mid-level Vietnamese CIA asset stated the prisoners were at Dong Hoi and not Son Tay and photo evidence supported rather than disputed the Vietnamese human asset’s assertions. Groupthink, conflicting strategies, and layers of oversight likely prevented the mission from being redirected. The real strategic blunder in intelligence was the failure to confirm the target, a mistake that would thankfully not be repeated in Operation Neptune Spear, the assault on Osama bin Laden [2]. An “Operation Dong Hoi” in early 1971 instead of Son Tay in late 1970 might very well gone down as the greatest raid in American SOF history.

Groupthink and overaggressive bureaucratic oversight tend to stifle bottom-up planning and execution. The Son Tay raiders did not care about political implications and bargaining at the Vietnam Peace Talks, their only objective was to rescue prisoners. Unfortunately, higher level policymakers did care about “sending a message to North Vietnam” and not just about rescuing Americans [16]. This may have led to the decision not to further investigate the new intelligence about the prisoners’ location since the mission’s execution would send a political message regardless of the outcome. However, the only objective of the Department of Defense (DoD) was the actual rescue, therefore they would have likely held off if they were not worried about the mission being canceled outright. In this case, the two perspectives negatively affected the mission. The DoD was afraid of altering the mission for fear it would be outright canceled and the President saw advantages to the raid itself outside of the rescue. Thankfully, the close proximity of the POWs and the forced reaction by the North Vietnamese did have a positive impact. The morale of the POWs soared, and they were moved to Hanoi where they were housed in larger groups ending some of the prisoners’ isolation for years [16].

Comparison: Operation Gothic Serpent vs. Operation Neptune Spear

The final comparison is about two High-Value Target (HVT) missions that the United States has undertaken in the last 25 years, arguably the renaissance period for SOF after Vietnam. Operation Gothic Serpent was the Joint Special Operations Command’s (JSOC) mission to kill or capture Mohammed Farah Aidid, a Somalian warlord accused of starving his people, and immortalized in the book and movie entitled Black Hawk Down [24]. Adid was not captured; the U.S. got embroiled in a major pitched urban battle that cost the lives of 18 servicemen and thousands of Somalis. Early in September of 1993, the mission to locate Adid was suffering from a serious lack of intelligence and the decision was made to instead break apart his circle of advisors and staff [25]. Multiple raids were conducted during both the day and night over several weeks with a very similar tactical mission profiles. In early October, a human source working for JSOC identified a building in the Bakaara Market (a known Adid stronghold) as a meeting site of high-level Adid minsters. The decision was made to conduct a daytime raid of the building.

The raid was designed with a combined helicopter air assault with a follow-on vehicle convoy to reinforce the building and extract the prisoners, the same tactics that had been used repeatedly in Somalia. The convoy arrived late, and an injured Ranger forced the forces to split to evacuate the casualty. Things began to unravel quickly when the resistance was greater than expected, the air cover was insufficient to deter the attackers, and Task Force Ranger lost relative superiority. They became bogged down in a block-to-block slugfest where they were unable to utilize their tactical or technical advantages over the numerically superior enemy. They could not be extracted from the city until the following morning after suffering heavy casualties throughout the night. The strategic defeat ultimately led to the withdraw of U.S. forces from Somalia and the destabilization of the country that continues to this day [25].

In contrast, Operation Neptune Spear is arguably one of the greatest SOF success stories of the modern era. The world’s most wanted man, Osama bin Laden, had been on the run for over a decade when the CIA and JSOC intelligence apparatus thought they had located him in Abbottabad Pakistan. They spent months observing the house via drone, satellite, human intelligence agents, and they even tried to get a Pakistani Doctor to gather DNA evidence [4]. Though they were not able to prove the target was bin Laden, the intelligence team was reasonably confident they had found him. President Obama gave the green light to plan and execute the raid on the compound and seconded JSOC’s assets to the CIA to provide the necessary legal cover. The unit traveled by helicopter from Afghanistan to Pakistan under the cover of both drones and fixed-wing attack Close Air Support (CAS) in the event major resistance or Pakistani reinforcements arrived.

Once the team arrived on the objective, one of the helicopters developed a vortex ring state where the walls of the compound caused a loss of lift and the helicopter crashed. Instead of assaulting from the roof and ground level simultaneously, the SEALs adjusted their assault plan on the fly and both assault elements took down the house from the ground floor. The team achieved relative superiority in less than 15 minutes, located and killed bin Laden, gathered troves of intelligence from the compound and exfiltrated within 38 minutes of hitting the ground. One of the Chinook helicopters designed to be used as a Quick Reaction Force (QRF) was seconded to the assault element that lost their helicopter so extraction delays were minimal. The team was able to extract without casualties and with the body of bin Laden, a computer, and dozens of thumb drives safely from Pakistani airspace.

In both raids, the primary intelligence need was the location of the target. In the case of Somalia, the inability to locate Adid led the JSOC forces to attempt to dismantle his command and control infrastructure. This was a viable strategy, however, it allowed the Adid militia several opportunities to observe the tactics of the Delta Operators and Rangers in daylight. Countermeasures were developed that were effective at delaying the convoy and downing two helicopters because the Task Force Ranger forces did not alter their mission profile in any meaningful way [24, 25]. Additionally, both forces would need to develop an intelligence picture of the disposition of the enemy and their response time once the assault began. Finally, the supporting forces would need to be identified and a safe insertion and exfiltration route established. Both forces had multiple raids prior to the case study so it is assumed that they were equally well versed in the OPORD’s plan and objectives.

In both cases, the intelligence provided was good and showed evidence of bottom-up planning. However, during the operation in Somalia, resources requirements that were developed and requested during the bottom up planning phase; namely close air support aircraft; were denied by Washington because they did not want to be seen as overly aggressive in the political arena. In contrast, no expense was spared on the raid to kill bin Laden, drones, attack aircraft, and even an experimental stealth helicopter was developed to aid the assaulting force [20]. One could argue that both missions were micromanaged by the White House, but given the instantaneous communication available by today’s technology this sort of involvement is probably impossible to avoid and not as much of a hindrance as it was on the Son Tay raid where planning briefs were done in person and included significant travel-related delays. There was a small communication delay due to technology which did become an issue during the Battle of Mogadishu, it was not however critical. Overall, the intelligence challenges in Somalia meant that multiple raids had to be conducted which led to the Adid militia’s development of countermeasures to the U.S. assault plans. This was not an issue on Neptune Spear because the SEALs were able to act on solid intelligence to attack the “head of the snake” on the first strike rather than roll up a network.

In this case study, it becomes apparent that the frictions of war increase as SOFs expose themselves to the enemy without drastically altering their tactical silhouette [19]. Exposure of the Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures used by SOF to the same enemy leads to the development of countermeasures, which may not be anticipated by the SOF planners. When JSOC conducted two separate HVT raids deep into enemy lines, the correlation of intelligence demonstrates that target centric intelligence should focus on the actual objective in an attempt to score a “one shot, one kill” raid on the leader. If a bottom-up dismantling of the leadership is required, intelligence services need to obtain intelligence about enemy countermeasures and planners should work diligently to alter the HVT raids as much as possible. Furthermore, when bottom-up planning identifies resources that are required, policymakers should not take those requests lightly. Denying a request for support should only be made when those requests are impossible to fulfill. When the Special Forces team asked for a full blueprint of the guard tower at Son Tay, there simply was no possible way to obtain it. In contrast, an AC130 gunship or armored vehicles that JSOC requested in Somalia were available and were simply not used for political reasons.

Analysis of Intelligence as Causal Variable

The use of target centric intelligence in almost all of the tactically successful cases illustrates that for SOF, the Intelligence Cycle is a poor model that does not reflect the reality on the ground. Small, specialized units operate best when they develop their own intelligence requirements as a part of a bottom-up planning process, where those closest to the objective design the operation. For example, it is unlikely that the modern JSOC organization would have mandated the use of Marine Corps helicopters during operation Eagle Claw because they had never trained or operated with the Marine Corps at that point in history. The failure of Operation Eagle Claw was the reason JSOC was developed in the first place as the disparate combatant command structure led to too many planners wanting a piece of the mission. Dictates from the political level of government seldom improve the mission profile for SOFs [26]. In contrast, the Air Force Special Operations assets leveraged a working relationship dating back to the Vietnam War and worked seamlessly with the Delta shooters attempting to rescue the Iranian hostages.

Intelligence is critical to SOF missions, and intelligence best practices should be identified and emulated for future SOF missions. As the War on Terror progresses, additional raids will be conducted in remote territory outside the sphere of conventional military influence. These case studies illustrate that the most successful Special Operations missions are those that use target centric intelligence, bottom-up and backward planning techniques and let the planners drive the intelligence requirements synchronously with the delivery of intelligence to the planners rather than a cyclical top-down process envisioned by the Intelligence Cycle. Additionally, the resource requirements for SOF missions should originate with the planners and any resources denied to the raiding force must be carefully deliberated against the impact on mission success.

In summation, we also argue that the planning and intelligence techniques that have successfully transitioned SOFs into learning organizations and drastically reduced their reset time between intelligence-led DA missions should be emulated, codified in doctrine, and trained to other small teams operating in low-intensity conflicts like counterinsurgencies. Technology and small unit tactics that have developed since the initial invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan have dramatically outpaced the doctrinal changes within the military. Today’s infantry squad leader has a better grasp of his battlespace than most Battalion Commanders did during WWII. By pushing the initiative down to the lowest tactical leader and allowing for bottom-up planning and target centric intelligence practices, conventional forces can leverage the SOFs planning and intelligence process successes when they must operate in small units away from their higher headquarters while leveraging technology to keep all command elements informed of the developing situation on the ground.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any agency of the U.S. government. Examples of analysis performed within this article are only examples. They should not be utilized in real-world analytic products as they are based only on very limited and dated open-source information. Assumptions made within the analysis are not reflective of the position of any U.S. government entity.


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Intelligence’s Correlation to Special Operation’s Mission Success


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