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Where special ops forces are headed

Gen. Wayne Downing, the retired commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, looks at how his former troops may be employed in Iraq.
/ Source: contributor

Special operations forces exist to attack targets of a strategic nature that cannot be attacked by any other means or that are so important that they must be attacked in several ways to ensure they are destroyed, neutralized or captured. As former commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, I know what these diverse, exquisitely trained units can accomplish.

If it comes to war in Iraq, special operations forces will be used to attack leadership targets, prevent the use of weapons of mass destruction and to target the most important units in Saddam Hussein’s military: the Republican Guards, the Special Republican Guards and his Special Security Service. The troops attached to special operations units, whether Navy SEALs, Army Green Berets and Rangers, or Air Force Special Operations Combat Control Teams, represent the most talented people in the military. They are superbly trained, armed with state-of-the-art weaponry and equipment, and nearly all of them — even the youngest soldiers in the Rangers — recently were “blooded,” as we describe exposure to combat, in Afghanistan.

There has been great speculation about how these forces might be deployed. As something of an insider, I can say for certain that special operations forces have a greater role in the current war plan than they had in the first Gulf War. For one thing, conventional commanders in the “regular Army” have greater familiarity and confidence in them than Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf did when he commanded the Gulf War coalition in 1990-91. In contrast, Gen. Tommy Franks, the current commander of U.S. Central Command, likes and trusts special operations forces and used them extensively in Afghanistan.


Here are some of the jobs special operations forces may be asked to perform:

Key leadership targets: Killing or capturing key Iraqi leaders, including Saddam, his sons and other key military and political leadership, will be a high priority. Also in the leadership category: critical command and control facilities and means of communications. Both precision air attacks and special operations forces raids may be employed to cripple the reflexes of the Iraqi leadership. I estimate there are between 100 and 200 such targets that will be hit. Whether special operations forces get this job will depend on the availability of accurate and detailed intelligence.

This type of intelligence is extremely difficult to obtain by technical means alone. Generally, human eyes (preferably American) must obtain this kind of intelligence for commanders to be willing to risk U.S. lives on raids of this kind. That would mean intelligence-gathering by spies inside Iraq, perhaps aided by special operations force teams. This is dangerous and difficult, but if the target is crucial to success, risks will be taken.

Weapons of mass destruction: Neutralizing Saddam’s chemical and biological weaponry, plus any nuclear facilities that may exist, will be a high-priority target for all forces. Collection of intelligence on this vital area has been ongoing for years but certainly has been in a higher gear since Sept. 11, 2001. If possible, precision air power will be used to neutralize this capability. But some targets may be too risky to bomb for fear of accidental detonation of a hidden nuclear weapon or the release of a chemical or biological agent. In these instances, special operations forces would be used to conduct surgical raids to gain control of and neutralize these devices.

Special operations units have trained for this mission for over 20 years — a role made official in 1994 by former Defense Secretary William Perry. Several hand-picked special operations force teams receive special training on these techniques from experts in the scientific and technical world. They can disarm and render safe most devices known. Again, obtaining the latest intelligence is crucial to success.

Scuds and other missiles: The delivery systems for chemical or biological weapons also will be a major priority. Scud missile launchers must be neutralized, if not destroyed. Special operations forces, along with British SAS units, had this mission during the last Gulf War. They managed to deter an unknown number of Scud launches during the course of the war using a combination of ground patrols and attacks by special operations forces-armed helicopters augmented by precision airstrikes.

Some of the most effective work occurred when special operations force ground teams helped guide airstrikes that delivered air-dropped minefields, which bottled up the Iraqi Scuds in their bunkers.

‘Psy-ops’ and public support: Special operations force psychological operations, or “psy-ops,” units attempt to create an atmosphere that would deny Saddam the support of his people, his Army, the Republican Guards and other elite units. This is a daunting task. Psy-ops units currently are using television and radio broadcasts, leaflets, videos and other means to sow discord and doubt as they did in the run-up to the 1990-91 Gulf War.

Using fixed and aerial platforms, these units can deliver carefully calibrated messages to Iraqi civilians and, just as important, Iraqi troops. One leaflet currently in use warns Iraqi anti-aircraft radar operators that switching on is tantamount to suicide. These types of operations were credited in the last Gulf War with persuading 50,000 to 70,000 Iraqi troop defections. These efforts often support CIA operations designed to sow the seeds of discontent among key groups inside Iraq.


These battlefield roles will be augmented by other supporting operations such as search and rescue and civil affairs.

Civil affairs operators will provide care for displaced people and the civilian victims of war. They will restore civil services (power, water, sanitation, medical care) and ensure that schools and relief distribution points are re-established as quickly as possible. These units work with relief agencies, both public and private, and their plan is an integral part of the overall military plan. These units performed magnificently in Kuwait and in southern and northern Iraq in the messy aftermath of the last Gulf War. Civil affairs units are drawn about 95 percent from the reserves, and as many as 30 percent of these units are women.

Together with the larger regular Army and the Navy, Air Force and Marines, these special operations forces hope to offer military commanders the means to strike quickly at the hardest and most important targets in Iraq in the hope that striking hard, fast and deep will lead to a shorter war and, most important, fewer lives lost.

(Gen. Wayne Downing, former commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, is an NBC News military analyst.)