Tuesday, March 18, 2014

20 Characteristics of Special Operations by LTG Samuel V. Wilson

I think it is worth reviewing LTG (RET) Sam Wilson's (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samuel_V._Wilsonwise words on special operations -  in particular the 20 Characteristics of Special Operations (pay attention to numbers 11, 14 and 17 highlighted below) as well as the planning suggestions, 7 principles and 6 requirements for special operations.  I received a xerox copy of these as a young SF officer in the 1980's and have been carrying them around with me ever since.

20 Characteristics of Special Operations
by LTG Samuel V. Wilson

Special Operations is a root term/generic euphemism covering a wide gambit of special activities outside of conventional operations; examples are UW, PSYOP, Terrorism, Counter-Terrorism, Direct Action (raids, snatches, heists), Diversions, and Deceptions,  Special Operations is a form of military judo -

1. Special Operations are POLITICAL in nature.
Special Operations are, by their very nature, more political than conventional operations.  The National Command
Authorities will surely be calling the shots.

2. Special Operations normally involve Three Steps:
            A.  Getting to the location of the operation.
            B.  Accomplishing the operation.
            C.  Returning from the operation.

3.  Joint in Concept, Execution, and Interdepartmental, as well.
Nearly always under the lead agency concept, the State Department will be controlling the situation.  State will exercise authority over the military options.

4.  Special Operations are strategic in impact and nature.

5.  The limitations for Special Operations are not the same as the limitations for Special Operations Forces:
That is, individual force capabilities usually exceed the operational capabilities which can be supported by logistics, OPSEC, INTEL, and POLITICAL concerns.

6.  There must be an upper limit on Special Operations mission force size.
Increasing the size of the forces involved in a Special Operations compromises many aspects of support and OPSEC capabilities.  Almost always a small vs. large force structure must be decided upon.  One must be careful not to see bogeymen behind every bush and go for largest of all available forces to stifle every contingency.  The smallest force to do the job makes possible many more operational alternatives.

7.  Special Operations are  HIGH RISK/HIGH GAIN.

8.  Special Operations are multi-disciplined, multi-environmental, and highly complex.

9.  Special Operations are characterized by centralized planning and decentralized execution.

10.    Special Operations are INTEL driven and INTEL dependent.
Historically, the most serious deficiencies have occurred with the requirements for complete, timely, accurate INTEL.  If there is a shortfall it will occur in this area.  Commonly, HUMINT is unavailable.

11.  Special Operations Forces have a limited number of DIRECT roles:
Special Operations Forces are trained for specific missions.  They are the most highly trained and proficient forces that the US possess but they are not the answer for every small contingency mission that comes along.  Many conventional forces are more proficient at conventional type missions than the SOF.  Even more specialized units exist and they should not be used outside their primary mission.  Just because a select force is in being, does not automatically mean that it is the BEST to use.  Politics will play in this decision, the HIGH RISK/HIGH GAIN nature of the specific operation may cause the political leaders to make this choice, even if better alternatives are available, i.e., such as have SEAL TEAM SIX do a routine beach recon.

12.  Special Operations Forces play at the leading edge of operational and technical art.
SOF may need/develop new tactics.  They frequently need to acquire new and specialized equipment outside normal service/procurement channels.

13.  Special Operations pose the frequent requirement for extraordinary effort from both men and machines.

14.  In war, Special Operations are supplemental to the main issue.

15.  Special Operations, in peacetime, are politically costly if failures, but politically useful nonetheless.

16.  Special Operations Forces are CHEAP.

17.  Special Operations and LIC should not be confused.
Special Operations are activities, LIC is an environment; wherein Special Operations may operate but many conventional units may as well, LIC is not exclusively a Special Operations environment.

18.  Special Operations people are PECULIAR.

19.  Special Operations Forces are perceived differently:
SOF are often viewed by the conventional commanders as a thorn in their side.  They are thought of as threatening because of the political liabilities attendant with Special Operations.  They are seen as "Cowboys, Rambos" etc.  The State Department perceives SOF as "knuckle draggers,"  the military option is one of last resort and when necessary, it is seen as a failure of negotiation and diplomacy, State's primary tools.


            A.  Need to take a moral bath.
            B.  Special Operations are very decentralized in execution and conducive to improprieties.
Improprieties, because of the political sensitivity of SO mission, cause long term mistrust within the command structure that take hard work and many years to overcome.

Special Operations Planning Suggestions
by LTG Samuel V. Wilson
(staffs at the OSD, CINC, MACOM level with an interagency perspective)

1.  [To the chief of staff or staff director]  Make sure someone is in charge, the mission is well defined, and everyone knows it.  Give him a deputy, and name a number 3, as well. [Unity of Command]

2.  Use a BIGOT list:  limit the number of players - keep a list of who knows and who needs to know about the operation.

3.  Someone needs to work the response to the press.
            a.  Name someone to handle this area.
            b.  Do not let the media force the action.
            c.  Use a PAO that you can trust with the media.
            d.  Have a MEDIA avoidance plan - never leave out.
            e.  Need a "How to avoid spotlight at end" plan.

4.  DO NOT FORGET THE MAN AT THE END OF THE LINE (Almost invariably the President gets involved), the poor guy holding the dike at the scene gets lost - do not leave him twisting in the wind - get info to him.  Get the troops moving towards the objective, give then advanced warning, move them closer.

5.  Make sure the requisite skills are contained within the planning cell, from the beginning!
            a.  Communicators
            b.  Logisticians
            c,. Political Advisors
            d.  Intel (DIA, CIA, etc.)
            e.  PSYOP
            f.  Legal advisor
            g.  Fiscal officer
            h.  Medical officer
            i. weather officer
Bring in INTEL at the beginning, followed in lockstep by communications and logistics types.  Make them part of the planning process at every juncture.  Then, if they are smart, they will often see what you need before you can articulate your requirement. In this connection, take care in short circuiting the system to get immediate answers to your INTEL questions.  Therein lies the danger.

6.  Start planning in a detailed and complex manner - Categorize--Parse--Mensurize--Simplify.  Get the Vital essence.  Special Operations planning of necessity will be complex in the beginning.  Better to start complex and then simplify, rather than to start simple and evolve to complex levels.

7.  Review existing contingency plans.
            Do not throw out the 1st game plan and reinvent the wheel.

            We cannot afford to not know history and repeat our own or anyone else's' failures.  Use OLD HEADs to review and challenge.

9.  By its very nature, Special Operations planning places a high emphasis on initiative, intuition, and daring. 
Get a WILD thinker, a nut, and let him brainstorm.  The 19th or 20th time around he will have something of value.

10.  Operational Security for Planning
            a.  Sin qua non
            b.  Do not carry OPSEC to extremes, use BIGOT list
            c.  Within the planning circle share everything
            d.  Be sensitive to time zones, especially east (grave yard shifts are work zones in east)         
            e.  Apply/ practice strictest OPSEC with outsiders.

11.  In planning, allow for initiative but include it in the plan.  Cover every conceivable exigency.

12.  Avoid excessive recall and abort points, it invites meddling from above.

13.  Plan to avoid micromanagement from the top.  The tendency to meddle and micromanage is clearly present, plan to overcome it.  Block out/head off opportunities for senior-level micromanagement.

14.  Have someone keep a log of events and decisions for the obvious inquisition.

15.  War gaming is important especially in Risk Assessment of "worst-case" scenarios.  wargame your plans.  Test over and over again.  Find the weak points and shore them up.

16.  Line up all the possible viewers of the event and understand the perceptions of all in a "what-if" environment.

17.  Haste makes waste-- "Pace" rest your people.
            a.  Tell people when you don't know something.
            b.  Don't cause your subordinates problems by pressuring them for answers.

18.  Avoid last minute changes LIKE THE PLAGUE.

20.  Those who write Special Operations plans for contingencies should do the same for exercises, train like you fight.

21.  REST.  Plan for it and see that people get it.

Six Requirements of Special Operations
by LTG Samuel V. Wilson

1.  The requirement for Elite Forces with Multiple Capability.
2.  The OVERWHELMING requirement for security, cover, and deception.
3.  The requirement for force protection capabilities.
4.  The requirement for Highly Secure, Redundant, Lightweight Communication Equipment and Capabilities.
5.  The requirement for Special Weapons and Equipment, often non-standard.
6.  The requirement for a High-level Patron.  Need strong personalities capable of providing effective influence for SOF in both the senior executive and legislative branches.

Seven Principles of Special Operations
by LTG Samuel V. Wilson

1.  Principle of the Initiative.
            The initiative is not reactive.
2.  The Principle of Security.
3.  The Principle of Surprise.
4.  The Principle of Intelligence.
5.  The Principle of Speed/Mobility.
            Operations to be executed quickly and violently.
6.  The Principle of Coordination and Training.
7.  The Principle of Delegation and Authority.
            The plan is centralized, execution must be decentralized.


  1. This is absolutely the worst article I have ever read on SOF. What was the point of the article?

  2. This is not an article but a list of principles and planning considerations from one of the nations eminent SOF practitioners. LTG Sam Wilson is a special forces icon and his principles and planning considerations are timeless. I am sorry that you think these points are worthless but of course you are entitled to your opinion.


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