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Book Reviews

Special Operations Forces and Elusive Enemy Ground Targets: Lessons from Vietnam and the Persian Gulf War

by William Rosenau
Santa Monica: RAND Project Air Force, 60 pages

Reviewed by Dr. Andrew B. Godefroy

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Book coverIn the current Global War on Terrorism, we are witnessing perhaps the greatest cat-and-mouse game in history, where the world’s only superpower has turned its full military attention to the capture of some of the most intelligent, cunning and elusive adversaries it has ever faced. History is, of course, replete with examples of the hunter and the hunted, and with examples of how the hunted have successfully evaded the hunters. Indeed, throughout the last fifty years the United States military has confronted many strategically important but difficult to locate ground targets in conflicts around the world. Thus, to better understand elusive adversaries, the United States Air Force commissioned a study in 2000 to examine how such opponents operate, why the United States has had only limited success in defeating them, and what might be done to improve American capabilities against such adversaries in future conflicts.

In this brief study, Special Operations Forces and Elusive Enemy Ground Targets: Lessons From Vietnam and the Persian Gulf War, author William Rosenau explores the role of ground observers in the detection, location, identification, and destruction of elusive targets in war. Responding to suggestions that warfare is evolving in reaction to the increasing dominance of air power, stand-off sensors, and precision-guided munitions, Rosenau examines the challenges associated with the employment of ground observers to search large areas for elusive targets. In particular, he draws attention to a number of important lessons from two historical case studies – the employment of the US Special Operations Group against the Ho Chi Minh Trail between 1966 and 1972, and the employment of American Special Operations Forces and the British Special Air Service Regiment in the search for Iraqi Scud missile launchers during the 1990-91 Gulf War.

The Vietnam case study pays particular attention to the early application of electronic detection systems along the Ho Chi Minh Trail and the deployment of forward air controllers with Special Forces units “going over the fence” into Laos. In a number of operations, primitive but expensive listening devices were deployed along the Trail to gather intelligence on potential targets. However, even when sensors were combined with ground teams, it proved challenging, if not at times impossible, to mount effective operations against the North Vietnamese strategic life line. In addition to the difficulty posed by the terrain, highly successful North Vietnamese counter-measures (radio direction-finding of insertion teams, their ability to predict the location of insertion/extraction points and the American tactics, and effective use of human intelligence) quickly limited the effectiveness of Special Forces operations. By 1972, North Vietnamese countermeasures were so effective that American reconnaissance teams regularly found themselves fighting for their lives after as little as six hours into a mission.

The case study of the 1991 Scud missile hunt in Iraq drew some remarkably similar lessons. Again, the task was reconnaissance and location of elusive ground targets, then calling in air strikes on those targets. The terrain was the exact opposite of the jungle, but the lack of cover proved just as limiting as the impossibility of silent movement in the jungle. And there were other similarities. Early in the war, when Scud targets were discovered, British SAS teams had no procedures for calling in aircraft, and had to rely on an emergency frequency beacon to talk directly to the pilots. A better method was needed. When liaison was established between the SAS and the American Tactical Aircraft Control Center (TACC), messages could then be relayed from SAS teams to the TACC, then to an orbiting airborne command platform, then to pilots on station who would engage the targets. The whole procedure routinely took fifty minutes or more, roughly the same time as it did during operations against the Ho Chi Minh Trail in the 1960s.

Overall, the book points to American and allied dependence on technology, and how, even when paired with highly trained Special Operations Forces teams, this combination can still be defeated by the terrain itself or by an educated adversary. Although Rosenau acknowledges that technology will continue to improve, he notes that there remains some uncertainty about whether the return from ground observation against an elusive enemy is worth the political or strategic costs associated with it. When more is known about operations in Afghanistan and Iraq from 2003, this view may be challenged or vindicated. An interesting and perhaps timely publication, this and other works by RAND are recommended for military planners and students alike.

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Dr. Andrew Godefroy is an instructor and course developer at Royal Military College.