May 5, 2011

After years in the shadows of clandestine war, Vice Adm. William H. McRaven has become famous for preparing the elite Navy SEAL team that took out Osama bin Laden last Sunday. Even though many details of the raid remain closely held, anyone seeking more insight on it is in luck: McRaven has written the book on covert missions.

That would be his 1995 book, “Spec Ops: Case Studies in Special Operations Warfare, Theory and Practice,” a sort of textbook/history of hostage rescues, POW camp raids, battleship assaults and more of the most heart-stopping operations in military history.

In “Spec Ops,” McRaven outlines the principles of successful special operations — simplicity, security, repetition, surprise, speed and purpose — and unpacks eight famous missions, including the 1976 Israeli rescue of hostages from Uganda’s Entebbe airport.

It’s a fascinating read. But if you don’t have time, here’s a cheat sheet on how they conduct special ops at the highest level:

Practice makes perfect: “Certain combat units, such as counterterrorist teams, strategic bombers, and SEAL delivery vehicle teams, perform standard mission profiles as a matter of routine. . . . Most special operations, however, vary enough from the standard scenario that new equipment and tactics must be brought to bear on the problem. When this occurs it is essential to conduct at least one, and preferably two, full-dress rehearsals prior to the mission. The plan that sounded simple on paper must now be put to the test. . . . Invariably when a certain aspect of an operation was not rehearsed, it failed during the actual mission.”

Get it over with: “In a special operations mission, the concept of speed is simple. Get to your objective as fast as possible. Any delay will expand your area of vulnerability. . . . Most special operations involve direct, and in most cases immediate, contact with the enemy, where minutes and seconds spell the difference between success and failure. Of the successful missions analyzed in this book, only in [one] did the attacker take longer than thirty minutes to achieve relative superiority from the point of vulnerability. In most of the other cases, relative superiority was achieved in five minutes and the missions were completed in thirty minutes.”

Go in at night — unless you shouldn’t: “Most attacking forces prefer to assault a target at night, primarily because darkness provides cover, but also because at nighttime the enemy is presumed to be tired, less vigilant, and more susceptible to surprise. But nighttime frequently increases alertness and each mission should consider the ramifications of a night assault. Several of the most successful special operations were conducted in daytime and achieved a high degree of surprise.”

Commit to the part: “The purpose of the mission must be thoroughly understood beforehand, and the men must be inspired with a sense of personal dedication that knows no limitations. . . . In an age of high technology and Jedi Knights we often overlook the need for personal involvement, but we do so at our own risk.”

Cowboys need not apply: “The view of special operations personnel as unruly and cavalier with a disdain for the brass was not borne out in this study. The officers and enlisted whom I interviewed were professionals who fully appreciated the value of proper planning and preparations, of good order and discipline, and of working with higher authorities. They were also exceptionally modest men who felt that there was nothing heroic in their actions and often sought to downplay their public image.”

Carlos Lozada is the editor of Outlook.

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