Spec Ops

by Robert "Bilko" Shaw

Article Type: Review
Article Date: January 22, 2002

Product Info

Title: Spec Ops
Sub-title: Case Studies in Special Operations Warfare: Theory and Practice
Category: Book
Author: William H. McRaven
Publisher: Presidio Press
Purchase: Info

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The title is academic sounding but the content, despite being deep, is still accessible to the non-West Point or BUD/S graduate. Spec Ops is by William H. McRaven a U.S. Navy SEAL since 1978 and currently the Commanding Officer of SEAL Team Three. He writes an in-depth study of actual assaults carried out over the last sixty years in several different countries. The book's blurb boasts that you will learn the secrets of the trade and that once you've learned the key skills used by Special Operations teams, you cannot lose.

The Book: Spec Ops

Against All Odds?

What was it that gave the members of special operations teams the courage and willingness to embark upon missions in hostile terriority where, to the casual observer, it looked like they had no chance of survival? I had so many thoughts and questions. What was I going to learn? Would this book have the answers? As McRaven said himself,

No soldier would argue the benefit of superior numbers, but they were the most important factor, how could 69 German commandos have defeated a Belgian force of 650 soldiers protected by the largest, most extensive fortress of its time, the fort at Eben Emael?

Before McRaven began to discuss the operations and their details, he talks briefly about the definition of Special Operations, the scope of his study and what makes special operations unique.

A plan to show achievement

Relative Superiority

Relative Superiority. This is how less means more, well, almost. What it means is that an attacking force, usually with a fewer soldiers, can gain the advantage and control over the larger, defending enemy. According to McRaven, achieving that relative superiority is the decisive moment in the operation and, as he explains, the longer time goes by in the operation, the less likely relative superiority can or will achieved. A few examples of when such smaller forces achieved relative superiority are given and is done so with such clarity that even a non-military type like myself could comprehend.


McRaven provides six principles of special operations.
  1. Simplicity
  2. Security
  3. Repetition
  4. Surprise
  5. Speed
  6. Purpose

Examples of how each principal was used in a real mission are given as well as how the failure to implement any one or more of the principles resulted in failure. In addition to the six principles, McRaven notes the three phases to an operation: Planning, Preparation and Execution. These too must be understood and go hand-in-hand with the six principles. The book states that failure in any of the above will adversely affect a special operations outcome. Of course, as McRaven explains, there are always unknowns that could crop-up during a mission that could affect the success or failure of the overall mission but with a proper understanding and implementation of the principles and phases these unknowns can be mitigated.

A map of Son Tay

The Operations

William McRaven takes eight operations as examples for his study. Each operation is introduced with a brief background which leads into a detailed analysis of the mission itself. Included in the analysis are maps and graphs giving a variety of statistics. Here are the eight missions used:
  • The German attack on Eben Emael on the 10th May 1940.
  • The Italian manned torpedo attack at Alexandria on 19th December 1941
  • Operation Chariot: The British raid on Saint Nazaire 27-28th March 1942
  • Operation Oak: Benito Mussoliniís rescue on 12th September 1943
  • Operation Source: The Midget Submarine attack on the Tirpitz on 22nd September 1943
  • The U.S. Ranger raid on Cabanatuan on 30th January 1945
  • Operation Kingpin: The U.S. Army raid on Son Tay on November 21st 1970
  • Operation Jonathan: The Israeli raid on Entebbe on July 4th 1976

As you can see, six of these special operations were carried out during World War II. I'm not trying to imply that McRaven has some sort of bias toward WWII, I simply think that he chose so many from that era because the number of special operations attempted during that time was so incredibly high. During WWII, virtually half the planet was hostile territory, so its no wonder so many fine examples are drawn from that particular time.

Relative Superiority graph

As previously mentioned, each operation has a background and detailed analysis of relative superiority. Each of the example missions is examined with respect to each of the six principles of special operations in such a way that the reader is given the opportunity to judge and examine the results for himself.

Timeless Principles

As well as the eight main operations used in the study there are others briefly mentioned as examples of how an operation failed or even succeeded. The added examples are used in a concise and proper way as to not distract from the purpose of each chapter. Again a good example of keeping to the trail so to speak.

I found it interesting that neither the time period nor available weaponry changed the applicability of the six principles and three theories. My guess is that they would apply equally well to pre-modern era warfare special operations as well.

This book is a fascinating read even for non-military types like myself. That's not to say that it treats the subject lightly, as I'm sure it is required reading for spec ops professionals and enthusiasts alike. The book also reveals how important special operations are to the outcome of the larger campaign. Each of the sample operations in the book, although not be as well-known and publicised as such major actions as the Normandy Invasion, Battle of the Bulge, or the Six-Day War, were very significant indeed.

A Gamer's View

Operation Flashpoint has such good realism that the US military are using a version of the game engine for training purposes. For more info on this, check out Bohemia Interactive's VBS1 (Virtual Battlefield System)

The difficulty levels are also very high. Many have struggles and complained and with this in mind Operation Flashpoint is a good example and comparison for the principles and theories mentioned in Spec Ops.

Take a mission from Operation Flashpoint, you have the operations objective(s), you have notes, a map, a compass, voice comms and you know roughly the whereabouts of the enemy. Could you complete the operation successfully? After reading Spec Ops Iíd have to say yes.

To use Operation Flashpoint in conjunction with the theories and principles stated in the Spec Ops book, I had to go back to those failed missions and try again. Planning, preparation and execution are the three main theories. While the six principles quoted were as follows: simplicity, security, repetition, surprise, speed and purpose. When you analyse where actual wartime or even Operation Flashpoint missions failed, you begin to see how important these theories and principles become to success or failure.


How far did you want to go in training? In Spec Ops the missions cited usually had pre-planning and training schedules lasting months. Operation Flashpoint training tends to take the form of practising the actual mission. Nobody, however, is expected to sit at their computer practising a manoeuvre or simple task for hours every day and days every month. This approach of playing the whole mission isnít a loss though; youíre getting inside the mission so you will have the advantage of hindsight.

Spec Ops has taught me that every soldier must have a mission objective; to go into a mission without a plan, or without giving your each of your AI players a specific task usually results in an early exit for them and you. There must be no dithering about at waypoints waiting for directions from youóthis is just basic stuff that everyone had to know where they were going before the mission began, and yet how often do we fail to observe this simple tenent? Too often!

When playing Operation Flashpoint online, one thing we never seemed to discuss prior to the mission was a plan B. Most spec op missions had one, even if it meant escaping to the forests and living off the land and evading hostiles, it was a plan. I canít even remember falling back in Operation Flashpoint.

By far the most important part of an operation is communication. Each and every person must be aware of the others and where they are in the ensuing battle. This is a major failure in players of Operation Flashpoint. Failure here can bring about the failure of the mission.

An Operation Flashpoint Map

Oh No! 6 is down!

One reason my teammates or I did not complete the mission are mentioned in the book. I went back to the first chapter, where I found the six principles of special operations and the three phases of an operation. Did I really fail to plan, prepare and execute my missions so badly that if it was for real I would be dead and buried long ago? Son Tay for example had many months of planning as well as two months of practice. The positioning of all the guards was known, even where they eat and slept. In a simulation like Operation Flashpoint youíll not know unless youíve built the mission or played it at least a dozen times.

Of course there were special operations where the members of the team didnít always know the full whereabouts of enemy troops, so this isnít necessarily something you must know before playing a mission in Operation Flashpoint.


Success of a mission isnít always about bringing all your men back alive. When the British Commandos went in to the port of SaintĖNazaire to take out the dry dock many had been told they werenít coming back. Many men lost their lives (160 out of 611) and 200 where captured. McRaven debates the success of the mission, even doubting if it was worth the risk, but the main objective was successful.

Whether you play Operation Flashpoint or a similar special operations simulation, Spec Ops: Case Studies in Special Operations Warfare: Theory and Practice is not only an enjoyable read but also a valuable training tool.

Purchase: Info

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