An Operation Neptune Spear, which resulted in the death of the world’s most wanted terrorist Osama bin Laden, was executed eleven years ago, but still, people wonder why it was executed by DEVGRU and not by others. SEAL Team 6, Delta Force, Ranger, or Green Berets?
The answer to that question isn’t easy; as I already wrote in some other articles, they were chosen at the time simply as the Delta was selected to carry out the al-Baghdadi raid last year. To compare SEAL Team 6 and Delta Force, both units are considered Tier 1 units directly under the SOCOM (the ones who carry out such operations as Operation Neptune Spear and Operation Geronimo). The other units like the Rangers or Green Berets are considered Tier 2 units that are not planned to execute directly such high-secret missions.
The Force that orders the universe
WELL, if there’s some quarter in which DEVGRU (Development Group, Seal Team 6, ST6) isn’t perceived as the “it” special ops team, it’s not for lack of trying. I draw your attention to a 2011 Washington Post piece in which an anonymous member of DEVGRU describes his cadre as follows:
“We’re the dark matter. We’re the force that orders the universe but can’t been seen.”
Whatever aura currently surrounds the SEALs, I’d suggest, can be traced to the kind of identity cultivation on display here, this macho-mystique thing that American audiences seem to love reading about and reporters seem to love perpetuating and for a group of closed-mouthed toughs, ST6 members can display an impressive capacity for self-promotion.
One former SEAL who wrote a book about the bin Laden raid, for instance, wound up having to forfeit $6.8 million in royalties and appearance fees because he forgot to ask his supervisors for approval.
Secret America’s wars
Meanwhile, the story the Post was reporting is the bigger deal here: how special operations forces like the SEALs are increasingly relied on to fight America’s wars. In places like Iraq and Afghanistan, what we’re up against aren’t traditional armies but extremist ideologies, represented by decentralized bands of non-state actors who aren’t exactly wild about the Geneva Agreements.
Though DEVGRU may get the marquee coverage, as you suggest, there are a bunch of special ops forces in the field today from all military branches—the Army’s Special Forces Regiment, aka the Green Berets, helped Afghans topple the Taliban, for instance.
Special operations forces gained a foothold in the U.S. military in the mid-20th century, as leaders realized that increasingly unconventional wars—think Korea and Vietnam—would require unconventional techniques. The Green Berets were organized in 1952; the SEALs—named and trained for effectiveness on the sea, air, and land—were established in 1962.
Special operations assignments fall into two main categories: direct action, including behind-the-lines combat, manhunts, hostage rescues, etc., and indirect action, which covers (e.g.) coaching foreign forces on fighting their wars. Through the ‘70s, the various units constituted a loosely organized mosaic, each accountable to its chain of command.
Two events help explain what’s changed. First was the failed attempt to rescue the U.S. embassy hostages in Teheran during the Carter administration—an unthinkable black eye for the military. Its response was to gather all special forces under one operational umbrella, the U.S. Special Operations Command, or SOCOM.
Under that umbrella, you’ll find the Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC, which includes elite groups like SEAL Team Six, its Army counterpart Delta Force, and the Air Force’s 24th Special Tactics Squadron.
The second event was, perhaps, needless to say, 9/11. The budget for special-ops forces has quintupled since 2001, and the troop count at JSOC’s disposal has ballooned from around 1,800 to more than 25,000. As we got into Afghanistan, Donald Rumsfeld gave JSOC carte blanche, pre-approving them for a list of operations in 15 countries.
US Presidents and Special Operations Forces
Barack Obama relied heavily on special forces; like drone assassinations, they jibed with his preference for keeping military action small and containable. (And free from meaningful oversight, not to mention legally questionable and morally troublesome—however one may miss the guy, his record here is no snap to defend).
We note, however, that the intellectual seeds of this shift were planted back in the Clinton administration. After the U.S. embassy bombings of 1998, the president was heard to speculate, “You know, it would scare the shit out of al-Qaeda if suddenly a bunch of black ninjas rappelled out of helicopters into the middle of their camp.”
Cue the SEALs. Created after the 1980 hostage debacle, Seal Team Six wasn’t the sixth SEAL outfit to suit up, just the third; the nickname was chosen to psych the Soviets into thinking we had more specialized forces than we did.
The team was conceived as an agile, fast-moving counterterrorism unit—athletes who rappelled out of helicopters, basically, and with the war on terror, their moment had arrived. That moment hasn’t been without complication; various news accounts have raised the alarm over alleged extrajudicial killings, unaccountability, abuse of authority, etc. But the omelet-egg ratio is one the U.S. government can live with.