Special Operations And Strategy

Source:  Canadian Military Journal

Book Review:

Special Operations And Strategy: From World War II To The War On Terrorism – James D. Kiras

Reviewed by Dr. J. Paul de B. Taillon

In theoretical terms, special operations and their strategic impact as the fourth dimension of warfare have not been well understood. Dr. James Kiras, assistant professor at the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies, Maxwell Air Force Base, has addressed this gap for the benefit of both the members of the profession of arms and students of warfare. As the title suggests, Dr. Kiras ventures into the domain of strategic theory as it relates to the role of special operations forces (SOF). The strategic role of special operations forces is frequently poorly understood, and this book demonstrates, through case studies, how SOF can be employed to strategic effect, especially through the use of attritional operations at the strategic level.

There is a dearth of strategic literature on this subject, and Dr. Kiras provides a timely and relevant study that is both academically sound and intellectually provocative. He walks the reader through his analysis, emphasizing that military and academic communities have ignored or not fully understood the strategic relevance and impact of special operations forces and special operations. This analytical failure to fully comprehend the impact and import of special operations within the context of the strategic realm has been responsible, in some cases, for the misuse of these strategic assets.

To illustrate, Dr. Kiras presents a well-founded argument about the nature of strategy and special operations, commencing with the Second World War sabotage of the Norsk Hydro plant near the town of Vemork, Norway, better known as the Telemark Raid, which, as the author notes, “had all the hallmarks of a quintessential special operation.” This strategic raid was intended to destroy the Reich’s atomic bomb program, but it failed, and five months later, the Norsk Hydro plant resumed heavy water production. In that light, Dr. Kiras puts forth that the basis for an effective special operations campaign is not so much about the ability of special operations forces to conduct “direct action” (DA) operations, but rather, the hallmark for special operations forces is how they perform in the overall campaign being conducted. More specifically, the question to be asked is: How do their operations and performance relate to strategically influencing moral and material attrition, in coordination and conjunction with conventional forces?

Dr. Kiras has noted that military writers have embellished, and, in some cases, have overstated the outcomes and subsequent strategic effect of special operations. He points out the linkages between special operations and strategy, while underlining the incongruous reality that, despite the panoply of books published each year regarding special operations and special operations forces, “the strategic aspects of the subject are barely mentioned.” Rather than ignoring or overstating their strategic purpose, Dr. Kiras argues that “special operations should be defined according to their intended effect: improving conventional performance.” This point may be viewed by some as counter-intuitive, given the increased responsibilities placed upon the special operations community for the Global War on Terrorism, now known as the Long War.

Moreover, Dr. Kiras persuasively argues that the great strategic effects are generated when SOF operates in conjunction with conventional forces in campaigns, and not in the conduct of isolated raids. He offers a definition for special operations, which is employed throughout this study, as “unconventional actions against enemy vulnerabilities in a sustained campaign, undertaken by specially designated units, to enable conventional operations and/or resolve economically political-military problems at the operational or strategic level that are difficult or impossible to accomplish with conventional forces alone.”

The author outlines a number of other special operations, such as the daring seizure of the Belgian fortress of Eben Emael on 10 May 1940, and argues that the strategic aspects of such operations, upon closer scrutiny, diminish dramatically with respect to their true impact. Dr. Kiras adroitly points out that a subsequent British raid on St. Nazaire on 28 March 1942 was announced as a strategic success, because this daring initiative destroyed the “vital” port facility. However, upon reflection, the essential issue pertaining to the strategic effectiveness of this audacious initiative has yet to be fully explored. Indeed, when the raid was “given the go ahead” by the Allied leadership, the German navy no longer required these dock facilities, nor did their destruction diminish the threat of the battleship Tirpitz during this period.

The author then diligently leads the reader through his argument, developing the theoretical foundation of strategy by Carl von Clausewitz, followed by a number of theories that expound what Dr. Kiras describes as “strategic short cuts to victory.” He cleverly, and with great clarity, analyzes the misconception that swirls around special operations, as well as the strategic paralysis theory as it relates to those shallow proponents of the economy-of-force option.

With these fundamentals explained, the reader is then brought into a detailed examination of the strategic paralysis theory that was intellectualized and vehemently supported by the Royal Air Force (RAF), in the hopes that a “moral critical mode existed in the German war economy and that air power could annihilate it.”  The 16-17 May 1943 Dambuster Raid conducted on the Ruhr dams was both innovative and daring, but it did not stop the war production factories in the Ruhr Valley as intended, nor did it deprive Nazi Germany of its industrial capacity to continue the fight. Although it had only a temporary strategic effect, the author’s detailed analysis concludes that this attack on the dams “did not enhance the military or strategic performance of the Allies,” underlining why this operation, although courageous, did not “decapitate” Germany’s war production.

For myself, the essence of this study details special operations conducted before and after the 6 June 1944 invasion of France by the Special Air Service Brigade, examining the tactical and strategic issues that drove the employment of that unit, as well as the impetus regarding how it was to be committed. From a personal perspective, this section was most intriguing, yet frustrating, as, even at this late stage of the war, one comes to the realization that Allied senior commanders did not fully appreciate the “strategic significance” or value of this force. It appears that after nearly five years of conflict, many SOF assets continued to be regarded by many senior officers as an elite tactical asset, and, in turn, they were not coordinated sufficiently to garner the strategic results that could have been achieved had they been well coordinated and properly employed. This legacy, to a degree, remains with us to this day.

This book makes an important and substantial contribution to the field of special operations. The arguments that Dr. Kiras puts forward are supported by well-documented examples that provide readers with much food for thought and a basis for analyzing contemporary special operations and the strategy of their employment. This book alone should spark further academic ventures into this rarely entered area. It is an academically solid effort and a very successful attempt at dealing with an intellectually difficult issue, and it should be read by those interested in understanding the strategic realm of special operations.

Colonel Taillon is a reservist and an adjunct professor at the Royal Military College of Canada.



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