Commandos raiding a POW camp or an enemy headquarters are considered special operations, along with hostage rescue and clandestine missions.
The secret to successful Special Operations is intelligence and planning. I’m not talking IQ intelligence, I’m talking information intelligence. Elite units receive some of the best training, best weaponry and the best information.
The more information a team has, the better it can plan the mission and the higher its chance of success. Satellite photographs, spies, information from prisoners, information from combat units all can be of critical importance in planning a mission.
Once information has been gathered about the mission, the next phase is planning. A massive amount of effort goes into planning. Backup plans are made.
The next phase is rehearsals. A mockup of the target site is made and the commandos run through it according to the plan. This allows them to get used to the doorways, possible guard locations, ect.
Planning and rehearsals go hand in hand and back and forth. New ideas are being implemented and incorporated into the plan as the rehearsals are conducted. Of major consideration is usually transportation, getting into the mission sight and out and maintaining surprise.
Rehearsals are critical, every single unit worth a dime conducts rehearsals. Combat patrols conduct rehearsals before going out, attacks are rehearsed when possible, getting on and off a helicopter is rehearsed. In the regular Marine Corps infantry rehearsals are constant and they can get boring. It is important to rehearse because when the rounds start flying there is no room for mistakes.
When a unit goes to the field for training all it is doing is rehearsing what it would do in battle. Special Operation Groups are no different except they may have the money and time to build a full scale model of their objective.
For example. One mission in Vietnam was the rescue of POW’s from a NVA camp. A complete model of the camp was built in the US and everyday they took it down at dawn and put it back up at night. This was so Soviet spy satellites couldn’t see the camp and tell the NVA what the Americans were up to. They practiced for several months and when the time came they had planes salt some storm clouds so it would rain heavy and delay or prevent reinforcements from arriving. If I remember the SF troops doing the rescue were only going to be on the ground for less than an hour but each one was carrying over a hundred pounds of gear and ammunition.
Even though they did all the planning and rehearsals they still made several mistakes. Trivia devotees will note that the mission did not fail because of the outstanding troops that carried out the mission, it failed because the NVA had moved the POW’s to another camp.
Raid on Entebbe is an excellent movie based on a real story. In that raid the planning was flawless. The US’s attempt to free US hostages in Iran was bungled because of poor planning and so many agencies trying to get a piece of the pie.
Even small operations like an assassination require a great deal of planning. One time when the Israeli Mossad assassinated a terrorist they used over a hundred different agents to plan and coordinate the operation. The terrorist was assassinated in front of a building by a gunman that basically walked up to him pulled his gun and fired several rounds before fleeing. It sounds simple, in reality it wasn’t. The Mossad assassin was out of the country within the hour and most of the supporting agents were out of the country within twenty four hours.
Why so many? Consider, you need to keep the target under surveillance so you know where he is going and what he is doing. You need drivers and look outs in all stages and you need people to insure the escape route is open.
Although most Special Operations Groups like to brag and boast, and they have every right, they do not just decide to go do something and then run off and do it (like that third rate movie Navy Seals).
The television show “Soldier Of Fortune Inc,” is pretty good in most regards but they do a lot of stupid things for the sake of the viewers, like take out sentries instead of go around them or operate without security.
When a mission goes down it is always a good idea to isolate the target. This means keeping the target from escaping and keeping reinforcements from helping. It also means having an armed force ready to open an exit or rescue the attack force.
For example. The target is some bigshot in a manor in the jungle (drug lord maybe). Intelligence agents would find out when he is there and when he is not, they would also find out when he travels and how he travels. They would find out everything they could about his schedule, his habits, even when he takes a dump. Anything and everything about him they record and pass it on.
The planning group looks at all this data and figures out when the best time to hit him would be. If he goes to review his troops every morning they might ambush him on the road. If he takes a private plane to his grandmothers every weekend they might shoot down the plane. The easiest plan with the least amount of things that can go wrong will be chosen. Minimizing friendly casualties is also a major consideration.
Eventually the planners figure they can only hit the bigshot in his home with an infantry style assault. Next they choose their troops, which unit will they use.
Maintaining tight security, they would then probably build a mockup of the manor, if they had enough information. Using every little detail they had they would then develop an attack plan.
The first step is insertion. How do they get the assault team into the area undetected? What does the team do if they are detected? Are they driven into the area by truck or helicopter? Helicopters best approach is from down wind because wind will carry the noise away from the target. Is there enough fuel for the aircraft to get there and back? Will the helicopter stay in the area or will it return to base? If the distance is long and the mission might take about an hour on the ground, the first flight can return to base and a second flight following behind can be ready to extract the team. However, they do it they will carefully consider all the options.
Okay, two flights of helo’s is going to do the mission, one flight to insert, the second to extract. A company of say, three platoons is going to be used. First platoon might be tasked with the actual assault. Second platoon would provide security and act as the reserve while third platoon might be deployed to stop reinforcements. Third Platoon would be called the Blocking Force, Second would be Security and First would be the Assault Group.
Each platoon would be equipped with the best weapons for the job. First platoon might get a bunch of submachine guns for close quarters fighting. Second platoon might get some snipers, third platoon might get rocket launchers and medium machine guns.
While First and Second platoon might not be far from each other, third platoon could be a few kilometers away in a location where they can ambush reinforcements. Third platoon might even be responsible for creating a diversion.
If the team is lucky they might have artillery support, close air support or maybe some mortars if nothing else was available. The commander might accompany the assault group and the assistant commander might accompany the blocking force or the security force.
Each member of the unit would have seen at least one picture of their target and a camera or two brought along to confirm his death for higher authorities.
During the rehearsals each platoon might do each job several times. This way, if one of first platoon’s helicopters is shot down, second platoon can become the assault group and the remains of first platoon can take over security.
Each man of each platoon would be given specific tasks and objectives and he would know the objectives of his fellows so if they were injured or killed he could take over.
Of course, a small two man (or one man) team could sneak up close, paint the bigshot’s window with a laser and guide in a cruise missile launched from an airplane that is many kilometers away.
Once the commandos stormed the manor, confirmed the bigshot was dead (or captured) they would move to their landing zone where the helicopters would meet them or whisk them to safety. The helicopters might even land next to the manor.
One raid I trained for had us fast rope (slide down a rope like it was a fire pole) down right next to the building while snipers who had sneaked into the area earlier suppressed the enemy. Mounted on the helicopter were additional machine guns to discourage any brave enemy troopers.
In less than five minutes an entire Marine company was on the ground and kicking in doors. I think the whole raid lasted maybe thirty minutes and that was with one squad chasing down some aggressors in the woods. My squad had our objective, an upper floor looking out over a courtyard, under control in under ten, maybe five minutes, and that was after they had barricaded the only door up and draped barbed wire over it.
In the Philippines during a coup in 1989? they had us on standby to fast rope onto the top of some hotels where US citizens might be staying. We had all sorts of plans for evacuating them from the embassy if that became necessary. We had street assignments and everything, the only thing we didn’t have was a chance to rehearse (hard to do onboard a ship) and we didn’t have the go ahead orders. We did ‘rehearse’ on paper though and everyone had to describe what they would do and how.
Another important aspect of special operations is that Special Forces is not Navy Seals or Marine Force Recon or the Rangers. Each Special Operations Group is different in mission, training and equipment. To compare the Navy Seals to Army Special Forces is like comparing sailors to soldiers, almost literally.
For instance, Navy Seals are mainly oceanic. The operate from the sea to the sea. They raid coastal targets and attack primarily naval objectives. They may scuba dive in and out or use small rubber boats. A submarine may insert them into and area and take them out. The Seals also have several different teams, one is hostage rescue, one is underwater demolitions, another reconnaissance, ect.
Special Forces are primarily tasked with training locals. The SF might train the locals for guerrilla operations against the government or as regular military troops. Most SF troops have spent time in regular infantry or ranger units and have acquired a good deal of training and experience before becoming SF. If you were to look at the staff roster for an SF team you would see it has a high number of higher ranking individuals, most of them would be in command of a lesser unit, and maybe at one time were. This amount of experience makes them ideal for training local troops. It also makes them ideal for specialized missions involving small teams.
Special Forces concentrate on parachuting into their assignment area or being flown in. They may scuba dive in on rare occasions. Special Forces groups are usually organized into detachments called A, B, and C. (Remember the A-Team on TV many years ago with Hannibal Smith, BA, and the Face?). An A-team is the lowest ‘rank’ of the three. Most Detachments are tasked with training a certain size unit. In Vietnam for instance, a detachment trained a local unit and worked side by side with that units commanders. A platoon commander might have a SF Staff Sergeant to help him and in emergencies the SF trooper might take command of the local platoon.
Also, each SF member in a detachment is assigned a specialty or two, like demolition, radio operator, light weapons, heavy weapons, medical, intelligence specialist, ect. In most cases when Army troops are sent into foreign countries these are SF troops who are sent to train the locals. These missions usually do not make the news.
Rangers are the Army’s elite soldiers. They are required to maintain higher standards, and they receive better training than regular troops. However, for they are basically just well trained light infantry and the Army relies on them more readily than regular infantry. Because of their ‘elite’ status Rangers have higher standards and can recruit more selectively than other units. This insures Rangers are high quality troops. This does not insure they are the ultimate warriors.
The 82nd and 101st Airborne while both are considered ‘elite’ are little more than an entire division that can be deployed from airplanes. Because they are more likely to be deployed they receive better training and some of the better equipment.
Marine Infantry is a little different. Traditionally Marines fight from the sea in support of Naval operations. This gives Marines several advantages over other special forces, namely support. A Marine unit that goes to battle can enter the fight with what it needs. If tanks are needed they are usually available. Marines have amphibious personnel carriers and attack aircraft.
This is not to say army units don’t. However, because they need to be versatile, Marine units operate differently than Army units. An Army Ranger might never put his foot inside an armored personnel carrier, but every single Marine Infantryman has. An Army mechanized infantryman might never have flown in a helo, but you can bet a Marine Infantryman has. Army units are like set tools, like a hammer. Marine units are designed to be like industrial strength legos and assembled from available parts to get the job done. If the mission requires helicopters, then helo’s are available, if armored carriers are needed, they are available. Most Army units don’t have this much flexibility for various reason.
Somalia is an example of how intelligent commanders could have saved lives. The Rangers are outstanding troops, but they do have limitations. In Somalia they did not have tanks or armored personnel carriers. They did not have a great deal of close air support. Rangers are light infantry. If the Marines had been assigned the mission they would have had much more firepower at their disposal. RPG’s only scratch a tanks armor, they blow up Hummvees full of Rangers.
Marine Recon is primarily concerned with gathering information. Recon gathers everything from beach information to troop movement. Force Recon operates more deeply behind enemy lines with a similar mission and is the elite of the Recon units.
Of course every unit might do some of the same things another unit does and there are several special units I didn’t mention, but you get the idea.
Anybody with intelligence knows that Army troops and Marine troops are almost completely different in mission, training and orientation but to the amateur they may appear similar. A guy with a machine gun is a guy with a machine gun right?
A lot of interservice rivalry goes on because in some cases the unit members don’t know the difference. Of course the bottom line is combat and that is where everyone thinks they are the best.
Recently, the US has begun consolidating the different special forces into a more unified command where specialized units can do their thing and the best unit for a job is used so this may be a trend of the future.