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Kiras, Special Operations and Strategy

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Author background: James D. Kiras is an assistant professor at the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies, Maxwell AFB, where he teaches on the subject of terrorism and insurgency. He is also an Associate Senior Fellow for Strategic Studies Division of the Joint Special Operations University, Hurlburt Field, and has worked on a number of US special operations policy efforts since 2001. He was awarded a Ph.D. from the University of Reading in 2004—this book is based on his doctoral thesis.

Thesis: The central argument of this work is that understanding how SOF perform in extended campaigns, by inflicting moral and material attrition in conjunction with conventional forces, is crucial in order for special operations to be effective strategically (112). The cumulative effect of numerous disparate special operations, working towards a common goal in conjunction with conventional forces, is the attrition of an adversary’s key moral and material resources (113).

SOF is a facilitator and enabler with lower risk/cost than employing a large army. They are high value assets. UK SOF losses in the Falkland war (heli crash) took a generation to replace….


- The heroic effort in the special operation conducted by the men of 617 Squadron had little impact on the Third Reich as plans for it reduced the moral component of strategy to a tangible center of gravity, overestimated the moral effects of a single strike, and misjudged the material complexity of the German industrial system, not to mention the moral resilience of the leadership and population.

- The difficulty with special operations lies in conducting a sustained campaign, in conjunction with conventional forces, to extend and expand upon the moral and material of facts they both generate cumulatively, although not always sequentially, at the strategic level.

- Competing interests between different SOF organizations, the rapid expansion of the SAS, dysfunctional command arrangements, political constraints, friction, and German adaptation ensured that the SAS played a marginal role in eroding German moral and material reserves.

Implications for Strategy:

- Special operations have not been well understood theoretically. Attrition, as a strategic concept, has been misinterpreted as well. Special operations misuse has resulted, in large part, because political and/or military leaders could not resist the appeal of an apparently simple, direct and low-cost solution to difficult strategic problems. There is a danger that SOF might succumb to attrition, or otherwise be grossly expanded to the point that their unique qualities are diluted. The strategist must recognize that SOF success in Iraq or Afghanistan could be for naught over time if they are not used in an integrated and coherent strategy that deprives global jihadis of not only their leaders and key logistical elements, but also the moral hub that fuels recruitment and sustains their will to continue: their ideology.

- The baseline of the argument is virtually identical to most airpower theory…use SOF forces to what they are designed (what they want to do) and don’t waste them on other menial tasks that could distract them from their import vision of themselves.

Do not seek the great battle; use the asymmetry to achieve your goals.

SOF not a silver bullet, their action must be well tided to the grand strategy. Unwise to use them in large formations, takes away their biggest advantage of stealth, flexibility and speed!

Strategic attrition; psychological and material gradual destruction that gradually makes everything harder, this cumulative effect have impact over time

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