Four months ago, Admiral William McRaven commanded the operation that killed Osama bin Laden. Now, as the new head of U.S. special forces, he argues that his shadowy, secretive warriors are increasingly central to how America and its allies fight.
When the suntanned, towering SEAL testified to the Congressional House Armed Services Committee in September, just a few weeks after he took over his new role, he used posters detailing the growth of his forces. In the decade since September 11, 2001, U.S. Special Operations Command personnel numbers have doubled, its budget tripled and deployments quadrupled.
The Bin Laden takedown is simply the tip of an iceberg of fast-growing, largely hidden action by the United States and its allies. Those with knowledge of such operations say this changing state of warfare could spark a range of unintended consequences, from jeopardizing diplomatic relationships to unwanted, wider wars.
That's not entirely new. Secret wars against communism in Southeast Asia in the 1960s helped spawn larger conventional conflicts. In the 1980s, the "Iran-Contra" arms-for-weapons scandal embarrassed the Reagan administration, while support for Islamist guerrillas fighting Russian occupation in Afghanistan helped produce Bin Laden and al-Qaida.
And it's not just western powers. Just last week, the United States accused Iran of a plot to kill the Saudi ambassador.
The appeal of such tactics is clear. Military operations are far more politically palatable if you keep dead bodies off TV screens. A computer worm planted in Iran's nuclear program, secret help to rebels in Libya, drone strikes to cripple al-Qaida -- all can achieve the desired effect without massive publicity.
In an era of budget cuts, they are also cheap -- particularly compared with the cost of maintaining and deploying a large conventional military force. McRaven said his 58,000 operatives cost a mere 1.6 percent of the Pentagon's predicted 2012 budget.
"Put simply, (they) provide a tremendous return on the nation's investment," McRaven told the unclassified portion of the Congressional hearing. "The special operations forces have never been more valuable to our nation and allies around the world than they are today, and that demand will not diminish for the foreseeable future."
More wars, fewer people
The CIA has long retained its own, much smaller band of paramilitary operatives, sometimes operating with military special forces. Their numbers have also risen sharply in recent years to hundreds or even thousands, security experts say. Under its new director, General David Petraeus, the agency is expected to further increase such deniable operations as assassination and sabotage.
Britain, Israel and others are also believed to have renewed their focus on specialist, hidden techniques, and are plowing resources into emerging fields such as cyber warfare.
As the Iraqi and Afghan campaigns ramp down, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, the Philippines and Mexico are all touted by security and intelligence experts as potential theaters for new operations. U.S. special forces are now deployed in some 75 countries, where their missions range from training to assassinations. Yet even some supporters of the new tactics worry about the lack of public discussion.
"We may find ourselves fighting more wars with fewer people," says John Nagl, a former U.S. Army officer who wrote its counterinsurgency manual and now heads the Center for New American Security, a think tank. "That raises some interesting questions -- like whether we have the right to do that. There is much less public debate. Society doesn't pay the cost and so doesn't ask the questions."
Modern way of war
Quietly, this approach is already redefining how conflicts are waged. Conventional troop surges might have dominated coverage of Iraq and Afghanistan, but behind the scenes the generals were heavily dependent on secret, special operations. Intelligence operators, remote-controlled drones and troops from the SEALS, Delta Force, Britain's SAS and other forces fought hidden campaigns against insurgent leaders and bomb makers, working with local communities to turn conflicts against al-Qaida, the Taliban and their allies.
"There has been a real renewed focus on special operations and clandestine services," says Fred Burton, a former U.S. counterterrorism agent and now vice president for strategic intelligence firm Stratfor. "They were always there, of course, but they had become somewhat sidelined. That's definitely changed now."
To an extent, the shift is down to technology. This provides some entirely new weaponry -- such as the cybermunition Stuxnet, which caused Iranian nuclear centrifuges to rip themselves apart. It also allows force to be more targeted.
"You change your ability to integrate information, which in many ways is at least as important as collection," says Anthony Cordesman, a former senior U.S. intelligence official now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "You have collation of information almost in real time. You can pull together the information and find the target."
That is already changing the shape of western militaries. A drone can be flown remotely by just one pilot, but it takes around 20 analysts to interpret and assess the data it collects. This in turn produces a much larger array of potential targets. In Afghanistan alone last year, McRaven says his forces conducted some 2,000 raids against identified high-value adversaries.
Like Lawrence in Arabia
To work with tribal groups and win their loyalty, language skills and cultural awareness are essential. Special forces helped shape both the "Sunni awakening", which swept al-Qaida and its allies from much of Iraq, and the more recent rebel victory in Libya. McRaven said he believed the Afghan "village program", working with local communities and police, might prove his forces' most important contribution to that war.
The need for such skills is not new, of course. McRaven demands all his officers and NCOs learn a second language. Others in the field read ancient histories or the writings of idiosyncratic English archeologist T.E. Lawrence, better known as "Lawrence of Arabia".
Often dressed as a local Bedouin, Lawrence worked with Arab rebels against Turkish forces during World War One, selecting the leaders he felt had the best chance of success and supplying them with arms and tactical advice. It was better and more sustainable, he believed, that local forces do the job than for outsiders to do it for them.
"What you need is people who can put themselves in harm's way, understand the different cultures and think fast enough to be able to adapt to events," says retired Lieutenant-General Graeme Lamb, a former director of Britain's special forces. "We don't have a huge number of these people, but... there are enough out there who have read Lawrence, dealt with people like Sunni insurgents and are comfortable in that kind of environment."
This or the 101st Airborne?
But some argue the most important force driving the new tactics is an almost visceral objection to more conventional warfare in the wake of the Iraq conflict, and Israel's wars in Lebanon and Gaza.
"It's almost always a matter of political will," says Nigel Inkster, a former deputy chief of Britain's Secret Intelligence Service (MI6). "The new technologies do give you some new options, but broadly these capabilities have always existed. The question is whether you choose to take the more covert route or send in the 101st Airborne."
Cash flow is also key. Those with knowledge of western strategy toward Libya say it was driven more by what could not be done than what could. A wider military intervention was politically impossible and financially unaffordable, yet politicians demanded something be done.
Some of the most successful strategies were not conventional. British officials say the secret "oil cell" that helped starve Muammar Gaddafi of fuel supplies was key to rebel victory, yet involved the use of little or no military force.
Besides straining budgets, the global financial crisis has also made great powers more reluctant to risk the economic shock of serious conflict. One reason Stuxnet was such an appealing tool, security experts say, is that it carried less risk of Iranian military retaliation against shipping in the Gulf. That would have sent oil prices soaring.
A senior Israeli official has said cyber warfare offers a less politically dangerous option for nations in a media-saturated age. Israel suffered widespread international scrutiny and frequent condemnation for its wars in Lebanon and Gaza.
"War is ugly, awfully ugly," Israel's Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor -- who overseas spy services and nuclear affairs -- told diplomats and journalists at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs in February. "War is all the time on television... people see this and can't take it... Because it is difficult, one looks for other ways. One of these ways is the intelligence community ... are trying to do things that don't look that ugly, don't kill people."
Risk of blowback?
But the secret campaign against Iran's nuclear program has not been entirely bloodless. Sabotage might be relatively clean, but Israel's Mossad is also suspected of being behind the killings of several of Tehran's nuclear scientists.
With so much now taking place behind the scenes, a handful of critics is expressing concern that there is simply far too little scrutiny.
"The implications are vast," says Patricia De Gennaro, a counterinsurgency expert and professor at New York University who has worked with U.S. forces in the Middle East. "There is no accountability. People have been basically brainwashed, with the help of the media and others in the Beltway, into believing we don't have a right to know what their military is doing."
In an era that may see heightened state-to-state rivalry -- not least between older western powers and increasingly assertive emerging states such as China -- any operations that go awry could heighten tensions further.
The information revolution may also be making it harder to keep operations secret. The Bin Laden raid was reported by a local resident on Twitter within minutes of the helicopters touching down.
It would be a delusion to see covert operations as a simple solution to global problems. "This comes in cycles," says Cordesman.
"There is a tendency to grossly exaggerate success and underestimate the cost... These things are never under control, not even in a democracy. Nothing you ever do with violence is going to be clean or simple. But sometimes you just have to look at the options, look at the consequences of not acting, and then do it."