The participation of Ghana’s Special Forces in the country’s 55th Independence anniversary has ignited debate as first whether it is necessary for Special Forces to be created and second whether it was necessary for the force to be showcased the way it was. It is the belief of this author that per the traditional and non-traditional threats posed to the country and the West Africa sub region it is indeed prudent for such a force to be created. As to whether it was necessary for the force to be showcased the belief is that it depends on the function and role the special force is supposed to play.
What are Special Forces?
The development of Special Forces has a long history. Great Empires of history were built with armies that had Special Forces established in them. In the old Testament of the Holy Bible we are told in 1 Chronicle 11:10-15 and 1 Samuel 25:13; 27:2 that within King David’s regular soldiers of 400 to 600 men there were 30 elite men who helped him to establish and consolidate his monarchy. These 30 elite warriors which included Joab, Yashobeam, Eleazar, Shammah and Abishai are known in military vocabulary as David Heroes (or haggibborim in Hebrew). Colonel Yasotay, an officer in the army of Genghis Khan, the great Mongolian Emperor, is reported to have told General Khan that “when the hour of crisis comes, remember that 40 selected men can shake the world”. Colonel Yasotay was referring to how during missions of national strategic importance or during military campaign, a small but specially trained elite force could change the dynamics and outcome of a complex and difficult situation far beyond any physical measure of their capability.
Special Forces (SF) are smaller secret military units within a country’s armed forces which perform specific assignments in furtherance of the objectives of the state. According to Alastair Finlan, an expert in Strategic Studies at Aberystwyth University UK, Special Forces represent a different kind of soldier who can operate overtly and covertly, not only on the battlefield and behind enemy lines, but also – when necessary – undercover within civil society. Anna Simons and David Tucker both defence experts at the Department of Defense Analysis of the US Naval Postgraduate School, write that Special Forces comprise of specific units with a range of different, but sometimes overlapping capabilities. Sergio Miller, a BBC researcher, adds that Special Forces are silent warriors who combine minimum manpower demands with maximum possibilities of surprise to achieve the impossibilities. They are strategic assets to their militaries helping regular and irregular forces to achieve overwhelming advantage over the enemy.
Many modern armed forces have Special Forces that carry out special and daring missions on behalf of the nation. However, since the 9/11 terrorist attacks in U.S. and the successes of Special Forces during the Afghan and Iraq wars, there have been renewed interest and substantial growth in the number of Special Forces worldwide. It is estimated that there are now more than 70 countries worldwide with their own Special Forces. Since 1948 the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) has relied on three well known Special Forces including Sayeret, Shayetet 13, and Shaldag.
In the British Armed Forces, Special Air Service (SAS) and Special Boat Service (SBS) are very popular units which carry covert and special operations around the world on behalf of the British government. In the United States Special Forces units fall under the command of U.S. Special Operational Command (USSOCOM) and include US Navy SEALs; US Army Special Forces units (popularly called the Green Berets), US Army Rangers, Special Mission Units, the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, Civil Affairs (CA), Psychological Operation forces (PSYOP); US Air Force special tactics teams and fixed wing and rotary wing air assets.
In the U.S. for example Special Forces have transitioned from a marginalised force structure to a prominent and vital part of the strategy of the U.S. military. Jennifer D. Kibbe, Olin Fellow in Foreign Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution, notes that Special Forces have become an increasingly important weapon not only in the U.S. military but also in the broader U.S. national security arsenal.
Matthew Johnson of Missouri State University, points out that the growing importance of Special Forces has made them the force of choice to confront a broad spectrum of irregular threats that dominate the current security environment. According to Steven Lambakis, an analyst at the National Institute for Public Policy in Fairfax, U.S.A., Special Forces have become the force of choice worldwide because they have the ability to perform at different levels of conflict, independently and in conjunction with larger operations. Sergio Miller points out that Special Forces “succeed because they do the undoable. . . Special forces, quite simply, are an army's joker hand”.
Why are Special Forces established?
Special Forces are established for specific reasons. Alastair Finlan quoted above has observed that the imbalance between the British and German Air Forces during World War II forced Britain to establish the Special Air Service (SAS) which went ahead to use unconventional methods and techniques to alter the strategic situation in favour of the British forces. He adds that the SAS was formed “because it appeared to offer a cost- effective means of redressing the balance using men armed with high explosives dropped off near their targets by lorry or jeep”.
Special Forces are also established to respond to unexpected situations such as unexpected attacks by enemy forces, kidnapping and hostage taking by terrorists, pirates and militant groups. Anna Simons and David Tucker quoted above observe that the US Army Rangers for example specialises in seizing airfields while Special Mission Units train specifically for hostage rescue and anti terrorism missions.
Stanislaw Kulczynski, a Lieutenant Colonel at the Polish National Defense Academy, notes that the functions and roles play by Special Forces around the world include but not limited to the following: 1 Conducting intelligence and reconnaissance missions including obtaining the enemy's latest equipment, armaments, military plans, and taking prisoners, and conducting surveillance, reconnaissance, patrol and other similar operations. 2 Engaging in missions to assist the combat operations of conventional forces; 3 Developing and conducting guerrilla warfare (training of a guerrilla force; organization, command, control and supervision of a guerrilla force); 4 Developing and conducting counter guerrilla operations; 5 Conducting diversion and sabotage including disruption of the enemy's chain of command and of their supply lines; destruction of communication systems and impeding transport of enemy troops and materiel; 6 Conducting psychological operations including misinformation; creating an atmosphere of defeat, spreading chaos, panic and terror; 7 Conducting rescue operations including organizing escapes from captivity, rescuing hostages and prisoners of war; 8 Conducting anti-terrorist actions; 9 Training allied units.
From the various functions and roles performed by Special Forces it is relatively fair to say that Special Forces engage in two distinctively different but complementary kinds of combat mission: those involving direct action, and those in support of unconventional warfare including sabotage, penetrating into the enemy territories to gather intelligence and working behind the enemy lines and securing strategic infrastructures on behalf of the country during hostilities.
Some of the operations that Special Forces are known to have been involved in include anti-terrorist operations, rescue operations, intelligence and reconnaissance, diversion and sabotage, counter guerrilla operations, training allied units, interdictions operations and psychological operations.
Exploits of Special Forces
The following accounts give the achievements of Special Forces and explain why they are valued around the world. People who have been following the news in Nigeria from Thursday (08/03/2012) would notice that the UK Special Boat Service (SBS) was involved in the failed bid to free two men (Chris McManus 28 and Franco Lamolinara) who had been taken hostage by members of the Boko Haram in Nigeria.
In May 2011 the US Navy SEALs successfully killed Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan and removed the threat posed by the Al Qaeda leader. In January 2012 members of the Navy SEALs, with support from regular armed forces, freed two hostages (Jessica Buchanan, 32, an American and Poul Hagen Thisted, 60, a Dane) in Somalia after killing about nine of the hostage takers.
During World War II German Special Forces were credited for the surprise taking of the impregnable Belgian fortress at Eben Emael.
In Operation Thunderball which took place on July 4, 1976, a 7 member team drawn from the Israeli Special Forces flew 2500 miles from Israel to Uganda and successfully rescued 105 hostages, killing 7 terrorists and 120 Ugandan soldiers in what has become known as the Entebbe raid.
Timothy Garden author of “Iraq: The Military Campaign” notes that during the Iraq war “Special Forces were deployed to secure key targets, provide intelligence and reconnaissance to optimize air strikes, and for traditional disruption tasks”. He adds that Western Iraq was secured mainly by Special Forces.
In the same Iraq war, Prof. Garden notes that the Australian military had 500 Special Forces operating in western and north-western Iraq. Their work helped to reduce the threat of weapons of mass destruction which Saddam was launching towards Israel. They also helped to secure Al Isad, the second largest airfield in Iraq. The British Special Air Service (SAS) also helped to secure Basra and the oil fields in the south of Iraq. In Afghanistan Special Forces played strategic role not only in toppling the Taliban but also in disorganizing the Al Qaeda terrorist network which saw its leaders fleeing to Pakistan for cover.
Alastair Finlan quoted above notes that the UK SAS played a key role in the Falklands war between Argentina and Britain in 1982. He adds that within fifteen months of its formation in 1941 the SAS destroyed between 250–400 enemy aircrafts on the ground in addition to other targets of opportunity.
The Special Forces demonstrated the viability of conducting operations behind enemy lines through parachute deployments which by 1944 included the means to drop all-important vehicles such as jeeps to preserve the vital mobility element that had proved so successful in North Africa and Italy. One SAS officer is reported to have said that “It was not our numbers but our ideas which made a big difference”.
Sayeret, Shayetet 13, and Shaldag of Israel played key role in helping Israel win the three wars she fought with her Arab neighbours including the independence war in 1948, the Six Day war in1967 and the Yom Kupur War in1973.
By whatever margin Special Forces have indeed become the weapon of choice, an indispensable arsenal not only to wrought havoc within the camp of the enemy but also to remove any threat such enemies might pose. Ohad Leslau of Israel’s Haifa University argues that Special Forces have the potential to play a distinct role, but can also complement the primary military effort. Leslau adds that Special Forces can be a decisive force, and “should therefore be considered a central element in strategic planning”.
Written by Lord Aikins Adusei
Alastair Finlan (2009) ‘The (Arrested) Development of UK Special Forces and the Global War on Terror’ Review of International Studies vol 35 pp.971–982
Anna Simons and David Tucker (2010) “United States special operations forces and the war on terrorism” Small Wars & Insurgencies, 14:1, pp.77-91
Jennifer D. Kibbe, (2007) “Covert Action and the Pentagon,” Intelligence and National Security, 22/1 pp. 57-74
Timothy Garden (2003) “Iraq: The Military Campaign” International Affairs (Royal Institute of International Affairs 1944- ), Vol. 79, No. 4 pp. 701-718