Obstacles to Studying Special Operations and Special Operation Forces

Special Operation Forces (SOF) experienced multiple rises and falls throughout the second half of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st century. For instance, the success of the American SOF in Vietnam faded away after the disastrous hostage rescue attempt from the U.S. embassy in Iran. Nowadays, SOF managed to achieve success and rebuild its reputation as they are routinely deployed in a variety of missions — from direct counter-terrorist operations to training and advising allied forces. However, the very notion of success becomes rather vague when speaking about SOF and its operations.

The atmosphere of secrecy and specific features of SOF deployment create obstacles to writing about their activities. The main of those obstacles — usually, only the most apparent tactical results of the special operation are available for analysis after its ending. In other words, due to the lack of unclassified information, the authors can base their works only on the evident military “victories” or “defeats.” The analysis of the strategic aftermath or even the somewhat detailed breakdown of the tactical layer remains largely impossible since only military personnel has access to classified information. As a result, historians become able to cast light on SOF activities only in hindsight, the decades after the events.

For example, when Operation Eagle Claw, an attempt to rescue U.S hostages from the embassy in Tehran, ended on 25 April 1980, it was only possible to state its total failure. Only decades later, when information about tactical planning became available to the public, the scholars managed to point at specific problems that led to an embarrassing result. For instance, it became evident that the plan of operation was staggering in complexity and required the cooperation of aircraft and men from all four military services. In addition, Operation Eagle Claw was planned with a critical lack of intelligence due to a rivalry between the CIA and other intelligence agencies.

As a result, the Delta Force team had little to no relevant information about the embassy building that it was supposed to assault. Given these circumstances, the decision to abort Operation Eagle Claw after the loss of transport aircraft starts looking like a wise step rather than an act of cowardice. If Colonel Charles Beckwith had decided to continue the mission, that could have led to a failure with much higher casualties. However, making that conclusion became possible only in hindsight after the military historians gained access to details around the operation.

Another example of hindsight in writing about SOF performance comes from the Falklands War of 1982. During that war, SAS, the British special force, participated in several operations against Argentinian troops. Of those events, Operation PARAQUET almost ended with disaster; however, Operation PRELIM removed Argentinian air forces from the battlefield, and the assault on Mount Kent also finished successfully. In 1982 those tactical outcomes were the only available pieces of information for scholars and military historians. As a result, it was impossible to write about anything besides the clear British victory.

It took almost 40 years to analyze British SOF performance in the Falklands War from a scholarly perspective. Firstly, in 2007 Robert G. Spulak presented a Theory of Special Operations, in which he underscored the following SOF advantages over the conventional forces:

  • Relative superiority — the ability to gain a temporary decisive advantage even over the larger enemy;
  • Certain access — the ability to move rapidly and stay undetected;
  • Unconventional operation — the ability to act autonomously;
  • Integrated operation — the ability to cooperate with other military forces and agencies;
  • Strategic initiative — the ability to create and maintain initiative over the enemy on the strategic level

The Falklands War took place in 1982; the theory suitable for the performance analysis of British SOF during that war emerged in 2007. Only in 2020 the scholars managed to conclude that Operation PARAQUET lacked Relative Superiority and Certain Access, Operation PRELIM was perfect, and an assault on Mount Kent was closer to a conventional military operation. Similar to the case of Operation Eagle Claw, an opportunity to write a scholarly article on a special operation presented itself several decades after the events in question happened. Previously, the lack of theoretical framework and publicly available information left the possibility of writing only the most basic, descriptive articles.

Surprisingly enough, the problem of special operations analysis and efficiency measuring is actual not only to the scholars but also to the SOF. In 2019 RAND Corporation, a think tank that conducts research for the United States Armed Forces developed a complex methodology for measuring special operation effectiveness. For example, if the special operation includes training of allied Partner Force, the following effectiveness criteria should be applied:

  • Strength and sustainability: manpower and equipment of Partner Force, and its ability to maintain them over time;
  • Operational capabilities: direct capabilities of Partner Force on the battlefield;
  • Morale and professionalism are tracked through the interviews, social media, and recruitment rates;
  • Enemy territorial loss linked with activities of Partner Force;
  • Disruption of enemy operations: change in enemy tactics and operations due to Partner Force’s effectiveness;
  • Enemy losses of personnel and materiel.

The existence of such complex algorithms provides a valuable research tool for scholars. While the exact information related to SOF activities would likely be classified, applying the algorithm to information available from open sources would still be possible. For example, applying RAND Corporation criteria to such Partner Force as the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan’s army would have likely pointed to its inability to defend Afghanistan without American support. In regard to direct military efforts, Spulak’s theory of special operations could be used to analyze tactical outcomes. A researcher might apply key SOF advantages defined by Spulak to their documented activities and evaluate whether SOF met those criteria. However, a significant amount of important information would remain classified, which could affect the accuracy of the analysis significantly.

Isolating the impact of special operations appears to be an even more challenging task. Due to their small numbers and covert nature of activities, SOF is difficult to oversee even for well-informed observers. For instance, when four U.S. special operators died in Niger in 2017, the public and even the politicians in Congress were almost unaware of their presence in that African country. Therefore, any attempt to isolate the impact of SOF activities would probably be limited to the basic tactical level.

A researcher would likely be able to highlight the immediate aftermaths, such as eliminating terrorist leaders or destroying enemy facilities. For example, the tactical results of the British SAS efforts during the Falklands War were quite apparent. However, isolating the strategic impact of special operations would probably require extreme patience and years or even decades of waiting. Overall, the reluctance to reveal classified information due to the possible political implications effectively prevents scholars from prompt analysis of SOF and special operations.


Byman, Daniel and Merritt, Ian A. “The New American Way of War: Special Operations Forces in the War on Terrorism,” The Washington Quarterly 41, no. 2 (2018): 79–93.

Combs, Christina L. “Operation Kingpin and Operation Eagle Claw,” Journal of Homeland and National Security Perspectives 6, no. 1 (2019): 4–19.

Long, Austin. “The Limits of Special Operations Forces,” Prism 6, no. 3 (2016): 35–47.

Redding, Robert, Beier-Pedrazzi, Anna, Salvia, Gina, Mitchell, Stephanie and George, James. “War in the Falklands: Case Studies in British Special Operations,” Special Operations Journal 6, no. 1 (2020): 18–34.

Robinson, Linda, Egel, Daniel and Andrew Brown, Ryan. Measuring the Effectiveness of Special Operations. Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 2019.

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