|The San Diego Union-Tribune
September 18, 2001
Special forces could play key role in 'new kind of war'
By OTTO KREISHER
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE
WASHINGTON -- They are trained to operate at night deep in enemy
territory and live off the land if necessary.
In the "new kind of war" the Bush administration plans to wage against
terrorists, special operations forces will probably be the tip of the spear.
Planners expect the enemy to be small, mobile groups of terrorists hiding in
remote camps and caves in difficult terrain, such as the mountains of
Afghanistan. That calls for highly skilled ground troops, specially trained to
strike fast in small units, experts said.
And that is the prescribed mission of the special operations forces, which
include the Navy SEALs and the Army's Green Berets, Delta Force and
Although Pentagon officials have refused to discuss evolving military strategy
against terrorists, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld acknowledged in
weekend television appearances that "it will be unconventional."
The terrorists and their organizations "don't have targets of high value. They
don't have armies and navies and air forces that one can go battle against. . . .
They work in the shadows," Rumsfeld said.
"This isn't going to be a few cruise missiles flying around on television for the
world to see that something blew up. . . . A lot of it will be special
operations," he said.
Using conventional military forces could prove costly in Afghanistan, a remote and mountainous land with a long history of successfully repelling foreign
invaders. From the late 1970s to the late 1980s, it was the former Soviet
Special operations forces are better suited to hunting down Osama bin Laden, the suspected terrorist behind last week's attacks on New York City and
Washington, D.C., and key elements of his network, experts said.
"It is a war against shadowy groups, small in number and dispersed," said
Andrew Krepinevich, a retired Army officer who runs a national security think tank.
The challenge, he said, is not how much force can be brought to bear. "But
can you find them and then move quickly enough? As opposed to mass and
firepower, you need speed and stealth," said Krepinevich, director of the
Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
Retired Navy Rear Adm. Stephen Baker said, "We've always known that
terrorists were in the sewer."
Conventional U.S. forces "do not like to go there. . . . The special forces love
to get into the sewers," said Baker, a senior fellow at the Center for Defense
But some experts warned of problems even special forces would face in
taking on bin Laden's network. The units would be placed in a hostile country, far from friendly territory. Afghanistan's Taliban militia may be armed with
U.S. Stinger anti-aircraft missiles that were provided to mujahadeen
guerrillas, called "holy warriors," when they were opposing Soviet forces. And a "mobile target" such as bin Laden has proved extremely difficult to locate.
"One of the dangers is that with all of the talk of war and striking early and
striking hard, we might rush into something before we're really ready," said
retired Army Col. Daniel Smith, also with the Center for Defense Information.
Some experts warned that the Pentagon may need heavier support if the
special units get caught in the kind of uneven battle that decimated a unit in
Mogadishu, Somalia, where 18 Rangers and Delta troopers died.
With roots in the World War II Army Rangers and Navy Underwater
Demolition Team "Frogmen," the special operations forces peaked during the
Vietnam War, where the Green Berets, SEALs and Air Commandos were
famous for their skill and valor.
Never a favorite of the traditional military, the unconventional units later were
cut back deeply. They failed in a key test against terrorism -- the disastrous
1980 attempt to rescue the hostages at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran.
But Congress stepped in to create a unified command in 1987, with its own
four-star commander and budget. Expanded and with improved equipment,
the special forces played small but crucial roles in the Persian Gulf War.
With its headquarters in Tampa, Fla., the command has about 46,000
fighters, active and reserve, in the Army, Navy and Air Force.
The 2,200-person Navy element, which includes the SEAL teams and their
special boat units, has its headquarters in Coronado and is also based in
The Sea, Air, Land Teams typically focus on commando assaults and
reconnaissance relatively close to water, whether it's a river or an ocean.
Given that Afghanistan is landlocked, their use may be limited. But if bin
Laden's lieutenants are in other countries, SEALs could become more
Still, Krepinevich and Baker predicted that the hunt for terrorists will rely on
special operations units such as the secretive Delta Force and the Naval
Special Warfare Development Group -- formerly SEAL Team Six -- that are
specially designated counterterrorism units.
These units can get into remote areas quickly by parachute or helicopter and
are intensely trained for "close-quarters combat" in buildings and confined
settings. They could be used for quick strikes if intelligence pinpoints the
whereabouts of key terrorists, such as bin Laden.
The Army Green Berets and Rangers are greater in number and better armed
than other special units. They could be used for more intense fights against
If necessary, Army Ranger battalions, which can deploy rapidly to anywhere
in the world, might be used to capture an airfield so larger conventional
military forces could be flown into Afghanistan.
Special forces also are expert in covert reconnaissance missions and could be deployed in small units to find targets for raids by other ground forces or
bombardment by aircraft or missiles.
To get into and out of their operating areas, the special forces ground units
rely on the Air Force Special Operations Squadrons, with long-range
helicopters and MC-130 long-range transport planes, or the Army's 160th
Special Operations Aviation Squadron, with specially equipped helicopters.
The 160th squadron's armed helicopters and the Air Force AC-130 gunships
could provide deadly support from the air if the ground units get into a heavy
In addition to taking the enemy head-on, Green Berets also might help
organize and train Afghan opponents of the Taliban regime. Stirring up
opposition to the Taliban and bin Laden could bring about some results even
if the terrorist leader manages to evade capture for a time.
"We can keep this guy on the run," said Don Fender, a retired command
sergeant major and Vietnam veteran who was in special forces for more than
seven years. "He can't plan a lot of stuff if he's running."
A Dallas Morning News report was used in preparing this article.