Finding, Killing, Transforming

David Tucker

January 1, 2003

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld recently announced that he was going to give America’s Special Operations Forces more independence and authority to attack terrorists, and more money and manpower to do it. SOF, as these troops are known, fought with the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, directing American firepower with such devastating effect that the Taliban regime collapsed in a matter of weeks. Based on this performance, one would guess that Rumsfeld did the right thing.

But he did more than this. Rumsfeld has staked the success of his tenure as Secretary of Defense on his ability to transform the U.S. military into a 21st century force. The attacks on September 11 gave new urgency to this task because, as Rumsfeld has stated repeatedly, terrorists are not like the enemies the U.S. military has met before. “In the 20th century,” Rumsfeld said at the press conference announcing the changes he was ordering for SOF, “for the most part our country faced armies, navies and air forces. Today we face adversaries that do not engage us on traditional fields of battle; rather, they target innocent men, women and children.”

To defeat this enemy, Rumsfeld insisted, the military must transform itself. In announcing the increases in authority, budget and personnel that would go to SOF, Rumsfeld touted his move as a key element in the transformation of the U.S. military. If we examine what Rumsfeld has ordered, however, we can see that unfortunately it does not transform how the U.S. military operates. Nor will it help us against the terrorists.

As the details of his proposal make clear, the increased authority and resources that Rumsfeld recently gave SOF will enhance their Direct Action capability, the ability to kick down doors and shoot terrorists, the kind of activity that Hollywood and popular fiction glamorize. This is the activity of SOF most like what conventional military forces do: putting steel on target, as they say in the military. The conventional military puts a laser-guided weapon into a tank. SOF, on the other hand, puts two large caliber bullets into a terrorist’s forehead. This sounds like a good idea. The difficulty is that it is harder to find a terrorist than it is to find a tank.

The conventional way of thinking does not grasp this difficulty. To the conventional mind, killing an enemy is harder than finding it. This is because the conventional military, as the Secretary noted, fights organized armed forces. Organized armed forces, even if dispersed on a future battlefield, create lots of evidence that they are there. But precisely because they are armed and organized, even when they are found, they are generally speaking hard to kill. Terrorists, on the other hand, do not give off signals. They are indistinguishable from lots of people we do not want to kill. The hard part with terrorists is not killing them, but finding them. Once found, they are easily killed.

Our problem in the war on terrorism is not a firepower problem, which is the problem that the conventional military thinks is always the problem. Rumsfeld’s recent proposals on SOF will increase their firepower but this will not help much. Our problem in the war on terrorism is an intelligence problem. SOF generally recognizes this. In Afghanistan, SOF worked to build trust with the locals in order to gain their confidence and, ultimately, to get intelligence on al Qaeda and Taliban remnants. They did this by spending time with the locals, learning their needs and customs and strictly limiting the force they used in dealing with them. The 82nd Airborne, on the other hand, for example, a conventional military force perhaps without equal, had a much more conventional approach. They attempted to find al Qaeda and Taliban personnel by intrusive searches and aggressive questioning of Afghanis. This led to less cooperation from Afghanis and largely futile searches. The conventional approach in Afghanistan was epitomized by the order, given by conventional commanders, that SOF shave their beards and dress in regulation uniforms, an order that made SOF’s efforts to find terrorists more conventional and therefore less effective.

Could Rumsfeld have done something else with his proposals for SOF? In truth, the intelligence problem is not the Defense Department’s alone to solve. But Rumsfeld could have improved SOF’s ability to collect intelligence and thus kill terrorists by bolstering SOF’s ability to operate unconventionally. This would improve not SOF’s ability as a strike force adept at killing terrorists—that capability is about as good as it can get—but its ability as a force adept at working with and to some degree coming to look and think like the people among whom the terrorists try to hide. This is a time-consuming unconventional approach. But it would be more likely both to succeed as a strategy in the war on terrorism and to bring the Department closer to a real transformation.

Why did Rumsfeld not do this? The Secretary is a busy man. He does not have the time to think through every problem he confronts. In the case of SOF, he asked a group of people to come up with some ideas about how SOF could operate more effectively against terrorists. They did, including some ideas for increasing SOF’s unconventional capabilities. But the whole issue is complex and the Secretary is a busy man so the complex arguments had to be boiled down to a few essentials. Those doing the boiling, however, were senior officials in the defense establishment. You get to be a senior official in large part because you fit in and think the way the institution thinks. When asked to boil something down to its essentials for the Secretary of Defense, you edit and select according to what makes sense to you and what you think will make sense to others in the establishment. By the time the essentials reach the Secretary, they are good examples of establishment thinking. They are quite conventional and completely untransformational.

In addition to being busy, the Secretary is intelligent. He understands the problem. Fighting terrorists is different from fighting armies, navies and air forces. His latest effort to address this problem, however, shows that the war against the terrorists will be difficult because the hardest part of transforming the U.S. military is not inventing technology or devising organizations but thinking differently.

David Tucker is a Member of the Board of Advisors at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University and an Associate Professor of Defense Analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School. He is the author of Skirmishes at the Edge of Empire: The United States and International Terrorism. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the Naval Postgraduate School, Navy Department, or Department of Defense.