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Six Elements of Special Operations


Disciplines > Warfare > Articles > Six Elements of Special Operations

Purpose | Simplicity | Speed | Security | Repetition | Surprise | See also



Special Operations forces work behind enemy lines on extraordinary missions that require great courage and skill. Vice Admiral William McRaven, in his book 'SpecOps' describes six key elements that make such missions successful. Here are some thoughts on these six elements.


A mission should have a clear purpose that everyone understand well, and towards which all action is directed. This could be something like destruction of a weapons dump, rescuing hostages and so on.

There are many distractions that can appear along the way, such as the discovery of other items of significance, fire-fights with opposing security forces and loss of one's own troops.

In planning also, it can be tempting to add other 'while you are there' activities. This again is hazardous as spreading attention not only divides the troops but also increases the risk of a covert activity being discovered.

What ever happens, the focus must stay on the mission. One step out of the way to check out something curious or pick up a treasure can end up ruining the mission. The basic rule is hence: stick to purpose.


In a special operations mission any complication adds time to the action, gives troops more to think about and generally gives opportunity for greater risk, error and failure. Keeping things simple hence makes the mission more likely to succeed.

Simplicity also has the benefit of supporting the other five elements.

There are limits to simplifying, of course. When things could go wrong, you do need to plan for eventualities, though having a detailed plan for every risk would quickly over-complicate things. It is often better to have generic backup plans, such as having a helicopter standing by for a rapid exit rather than lots of different 'if this happens then we will do that' sub-plans.

The plans may start complex, but a process of simplification for easier operation is always a good idea. Of course one should always remember Einstein's edict, 'A thing should be as simple as possible, but no simpler'.


In any operation where being discovered could lead to facing a superior force, speed reduces this possibility. Getting in, doing the job and getting out again before anyone notices is the ideal process.

Speed also leads to surprise. If you are going into room where there are armed combatants, then you do not want them to have time to pick up and use their weapons.

A danger of speed is that you can trip over, drop things, miss targets and so on. You can also stumble into places where perhaps more caution would be wise. This can be mitigated by careful planning and plenty of practice.


A special operations mission, almost by definition, needs to be kept a close secret. Only those involved should know and then perhaps only at the last minute. Hence close security around the preparations is important.

Security is also important on the mission, with for example perimeter guards who secure the area and the way back out.


Practice makes perfect and for missions where a foot wrong could spell disaster, the troops should repeat and repeat until they could do it all blindfolded (and in darkened buildings it could be almost literally the case). There is no substitute for well-trained troops.

Training can also be used to build the ability to smoothly cope with varying circumstances, such as being found out, or not finding the target where it was supposed to be. Such training also helps with simplicity in planning, as troops will be able to cope on the ground without close management.


The element of surprise in any military encounter cannot be underestimated. If the enemy are not expecting you then they will not be prepared. If you can catch them eating, sleeping or otherwise away from their weapons, you have them cold.

Surprise can easily be created by loud noises and bright flashes as this triggers natural reactions of shock. It can also be created by quiet odd noises that prompt a person to go and investigate.

If they have an inkling of what you might do, whether by intelligence or simple analysis of possibilities, then they may place booby traps, set an ambush or just be on a higher state of readiness.

Surprise needs inventiveness in planning, thinking of ways you can amaze and shock them. It also needs suddenness and speed in operations, keeping the enemy off their balance and unable to predict what you can do.

See also

Distraction in war, Speed in war


McRaven, W.H. (1996). SpecOps: Case Studies in Special Operations Warfare: Theory and Practice, Presido Press


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