M-RCBG Associate Working Paper No. 56

From Fix to Finish: The Impact of New Technologies on the Special Operations Approval Process

Lloyd Edwards, Matt Gibson and David McCarthy



The United States is in danger of missing opportunities to counter nascent threats to national security. Allowing these threats to persist, by choosing not to act against them when there is an opportunity to do so, has detrimental effects on US national interests and threatens the safety of American citizens. Two case studies presented in this paper – the decisions not to take direct action Usama bin Laden in 1998 and Mokhtar Belmokhtar in 2003 – illustrate how severe the effects of missed opportunities can be. The decision not to act against bin Laden led to the largest terrorist attack in US history, trillions of dollars in spending, and the loss of thousands of lives in Afghanistan and Iraq. The decision not to act against Belmokhtar fostered his rise as a hostage-taker, allowing him to receive nearly a hundred million dollars in ransom payments. These funds contributed to the rise of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), now a prominent terrorist organization in North Africa.

Aside from illuminating how high the costs of inaction can be, these case studies establish an understanding of the factors that influence the decision to approve a special operation. They reveal that, in some instances, the options presented to counter emerging threats do not address some decision makers’ key concerns. This paper develops a Direct Action Decision Model to illustrate the relationship between the options presented and the tactical, strategic, and structural factors inherent in the decision environment.

This paper then argues the special operations direct action raid option, improved by new and emerging technologies would better address the critical factors weighed by decision makers. These technologies, including advanced body armor, improved stealth, and nonlethal weapons, would increase the likelihood of mission success, mitigate the risk to force, and reduce collateral damage. This will enhance the direct action capability of special operations, improve the menu of options presented to the decision maker, and make the case for action more compelling. In turn, this could result in the US seizing more opportunities to counter terrorist threats like bin Laden and Belmokhtar.

Beyond the case studies, this paper draws upon information gleaned through interviews from current and former senior government officials in order to develop an exhaustive list of factors that affect the decision to deter or defeat a threat outside of a declared combat zone. These factors fall under three categories: tactical, strategic, and structural. Tactical factors include risk to force, probability of mission success, collateral damage, logistical difficulties, and intelligence fidelity. Strategic factors include importance of the objective, domestic political concerns, national interests, international political perceptions, context, and legality. Structural factors include personalities, organizational stovepiping, and speed of approval. While each special operation is unique, and the weight of these factors will vary for each decision, this list reveals what a decision maker considers when addressing a terrorist threat.

This paper demonstrates the important impact new technologies can have on the decision environment. These technologies will have a significant impact on many tactical-level factors. This, in turn, will mitigate concerns for some strategic and structural factors and allow the decision maker to focus more on the decision’s impact on national security interests, rather than on concerns about tactical risk. Looking forward, terrorist organizations will pose an increasingly dangerous security threat to the US. Improving the decision maker’s menu of options by minimizing tactical risk through new technologies will be critical in preventing the rise of bin Laden or Belmohktar-like figures and reducing the capacity for terrorist organizations to operate. This is pivotal in ensuring the safety and security of the United States, and protecting its interests abroad.

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