To many observers the NATO air campaign against Serbia in the spring of 1999 represents the future face of war. The long-distance, high-tech application of force is an attractive template as the United States and other nations become ever more casualty-averse. Indeed, Allied Force was the first major operation in which aircraft achieved victory without the need for a land campaign. What really encouraged airpower enthusiasts was the apparent vindication of decades-old theories that air attacks could achieve a psychological effect on an enemy that would force it to yield even when its military remained in the field able to resist.
Allied Force was a manifestation of the revolution in military affairs (RMA). Several types of aircraft dropped precision-guided munitions (PGMs) on urban areas with astonishing accuracy, save for a few well-publicized miscues. In fact, PGMs constituted the bulk of the weapons used, continuing an RMA-derived trend begun in the Persian Gulf War. Advanced command and control platforms such as the airborne warning and control system (AWACS) and joint surveillance target attack radar system (JSTARS)--previewed during Operation Desert Storm--allowed perceptions of the battlespace to reach new levels, especially when combined with information from surveillance satellites and augmented by unmanned aeronautical reconnaissance vehicles such as Predator.
At first blush the achievements of high-tech warfare demonstrated during Allied Force may be troubling for Special Operations Forces (SOF). Of the principal SOF missions, three of the most important and most legendary could face technological shrinkage if not obsolescence: direct action, special reconnaissance, and unconventional warfare. What is the role of the special operator when PGMs can strike high-value targets with relative impunity and effective and pervasive surveillance systems can produce battlefield intelligence without risking lives? Likewise, technology may have a serious impact on traditional SOF peacetime missions. Although other nations once viewed SOF trainers as essential in improving their armed forces, technology may render that need superfluous. This is particularly true as inexpensive, user-friendly software makes operating complex weapons systems relatively simple, thereby obviating the need for training. Software innovations bring self-paced computer-assisted instruction within reach of poor countries. Basic infantry skills can be learned from a computer program which costs less than $50.
Although Special Operations Forces will not disappear any time soon, one cannot assume that they will be unaffected by new technology or the post-Cold War landscape. They will change or atrophy. It is not enough to inculcate new devices piecemeal into existing mission concepts to meet such challenges; instead, the SOF community needs to fundamentally reconsider how it will fit into the 21st century security architecture.
In Search of the Warrior Ethos
Since the Persian Gulf War, much SOF dynamism has gone to what may not be considered classic warfighting. Nonwarfighting missions have grown in scope and importance. While these missions are critical, they cannot maintain Special Operations Forces as organized today. Despite interservice squabbling, the Armed Forces are bonded in the end by the mutual respect of comrades who go into harm's way together. Special Operations Forces lose relevance when alienated from the defense community. Absent a realistic warfighting role, they could become marginalized.
At the same time, the American way of war today suggests that SOF combat missions may be a thing of the past. Few commanders will seriously contemplate ordering a direct action mission against a high-value target if it can be destroyed with standoff systems. As Allied Force illustrates, commanders will readily look to other options in the future, including robotic platforms.
While strikes by Special Operations Forces against command and control nodes and similar targets will become increasingly rare, it does not necessarily follow that the end of the fabled direct action missions is at hand. …