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Posted on Jan 9, 2014 in Tactics101, War College

Tactics 101 092 – Integrating Special and Conventional Forces

By Rick Baillergeon and John Sutherland

“Agamemnon and Odysseus”

“For where the lion’s skin will not reach, you must
patch it with the fox’s.”


Spartan General and Naval Commander

In our last article, we completed our look at the OODA Loop.  In our two articles devoted to the topic, we keyed on two basic areas.  First, we discussed in great detail, the OODA Loop and its’ four components – Observe, Orient, Decide and Act.  Second, we provided various ways to speed up your own OODA Loop or slow down your opponents.  We categorized them by each individual component of the cycle.  We hope the discussion on the OODA Loop was beneficial.  Our experience has shown that the OODA Loop can be a huge factor in the outcome of any battle.


This month we will explore the relationship between unconventional and conventional forces.  For many, it would seem the two live in different worlds which never connect.  However, history has shown there is middle ground.  Forces that can effectively utilize the talents of conventional and unconventional concurrently can be immensely successful.  In this article, we will look at two primary areas. First, we will provide some historical examples of conventional and unconventional forces working together.  Second, we will analyze the past, present, and future of this relationship.  Let’s get started.

A Little Bit of History – Part 1


 The Immovable Object meets the Irresistible Force.   Eben-Emael was an impregnable fortress built as a Belgian insurance policy against a German invasion.  In this respect, it resembled its French cousin the Maginot Line.  Eben-Emael was strategically placed between Liège and Maastricht overlooking the Albert Canal; the best spot to guard the intersection of the Belgian, Dutch and German borders.  It was surrounded by water with the Albert Canal to the east and a moat arching around the rest of the fort.  It was believed to be the strongest fort in the world.  As the linchpin of Belgium’s defense, it was the most formidable obstacle blocking an invasion of France from the east.

Eben-Emael was built with WWI in mind; its gun turrets were dispersed, its magazines buried, and it all was built using reinforced concrete.  Harkening back to the misery of the trenches; it housed decent sanitary facilities and living spaces for its troops.  It measured roughly 600m by 700m and sported a lethal combination of 60mm, 75mm, and 120mm guns in turrets and casemates dominating the eastern approaches.  A network of machineguns guarded the big guns from infantry attack.  The fort was manned by 1,200 troops in three groups.  The first group consisted of 200 support troops permanently stationed at the fort.  The other two groups, 500 red-legs each, swapped week long rotations manning the guns or acting as reserve.

Eben-Emael could not be taken by armored assault due to its dominating and powerful guns.  It could not be taken by infantry assault given its extensive obstacle of moats, the canal, and its over-watching machineguns.  Never the less, the Wehrmacht intended to take the fort as a key part of their plan to envelop France from the North.

The Germans planned the assault well in advance.  They rehearsed it on a full-scale mockup in Czechoslovakia.   They decided to take the fort by landing on top of it in gliders thus, avoiding the dispersion of an airdrop.  They used a specially designed, top secret, weapon to penetrate the cupolas—the shaped charge.  Detailed planning, specialized training, and deployment of a new weapons system combined to generate a swift and overwhelming victory.  The Eben-Emael mission was the first to use gliders for insertion and shaped charges to breach the reinforced emplacements.  Below is a synopsis of how it was executed:

On 10 May 1940, 72 German paratroopers landed on top of the fort.  Their mission was to neutralize the guns long enough for reinforcements to arrive and seize the fort after which, the armored spearheads would continue the attack west.

The gliders landed on the roof within 30 yards of their targets and in total silence, taking the defenders by surprise.  The shaped charges destroyed or disabled nearly all of the cupolas and casemates while, flamethrowers and smaller shaped charges took out the machine guns.  Much of the fort’s defensive armament was destroyed in a few minutes. The attackers couldn’t get into the underground bunkers but, they also couldn’t be dislodged from the surface.  Eben-Emael surrendered the following day after the arrival of a follow-on Infantry Regiment.

The German conventional forces could not bypass, seize, or destroy the immovable object that was Eben-Emael.  It took a specially trained, specially equipped, “special force”, to take the fort as the irresistible force.  However, all the Special Forces could do was take the fort; they couldn’t exploit its capture.  That took follow on conventional forces.  The conventional forces and the Special Forces created a cumulative effect greater than the sum of its parts.  It took both, playing to their strengths and minimizing their weaknesses, to achieve a critical operational objective.

The Special Forces side of the operation was characterized by detailed planning, intense rehearsals, and the employment of specially trained personnel using special weapons and equipment.  The conventional side of the operation was characterized by rapid exploitation of the effects created by the Special Forces through the rapid seizure of the critical bridges, reinforcements to clear the fort, and the bypassing of the fort by follow on armored and mechanized units into France.

A Little Bit of History – Part 2
Why it took Agamemnon and Odysseus.
   Agamemnon commanded the Greek Army that sieged Troy but, failed to secure its surrender.  Odysseus led the ‘special forces’ detachment inside the Trojan Horse that infiltrated the walls and opened the gates.  Once this special detachment had accomplished this strategic mission, Agamemnon’s Army exploited the opening and sacked the city.  Agamemnon’s large conventional force and Odysseus’ small special force worked hand in glove to create the complimentary effects and mutual support that led to Greek victory in the Trojan War.


The SF Team.


 SOCOM Emblem

America’s Special Forces were consolidated under US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) formed in 1987 under the Goldwater-Nichols Act.  The idea of a unified special operations command followed the failure of the attempted rescue of hostages at the American embassy in Iran in 1980.  A post mission investigation uncovered a lack of unified command and control coupled with poor coordination and incompatible training and equipment among the service’s special operations forces.  It was decided that Special Forces must work under a unified command that would encourage habitual relationships and the development of interoperable equipment.  SOCOM passed its first test during Operation Just Cause in 1989 and has become a critical component in the Global War on Terror.  Its components include:

U.S. Army Special Operations Forces

  • The Green Berets
  • Delta Force
  • The 75th Ranger Regiment
  • The 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment

U.S. Navy Special Operations Forces

  • Naval Special Warfare Units
  • SEAL Teams
  • SEAL Team Six
  • Special Warfare Combatant-Craft Crewman (SWCC)
  • Surface boats


USMC Special Operations Forces

  • USMC Special Operations Forces
  • US Marine Corps Special Operations Command (MARSOC)
  • Force Recon and Division Recon

U.S. Air Force Special Operations Forces

  • Special Operations Squadrons
  • AC-130 Gunships and other specialized planes and helicopters
  • Special Tactics Teams
  • Combat Controllers and Para-rescue
  • Tactical Air Control Party’s
  • Special Operations Weather Teams


General James Lindsay
First SOCOM Commander


 The SF/CF Team.

Beginning in 2002, America’s military embarked upon a series of large-scale simultaneous operations in multiple diverse and complex environments.  These operations led to the field expedient integration of Special Forces (SF) and Conventional Forces (CF) to multiply the strengths of both, while minimizing their respective weaknesses.  In short; the SF had the skills and the CF had the numbers.  So what changed?

Cold War Segregation.


The Berlin Wall

In the Cold War era, America’s SF and CF were separated by command and space; never would they mix.  Their operations, while complimentary, were nested by operational and strategic level commanders.  Tactical leaders from division and below had little or no visibility on what the SF was doing.    Believe it or not, this was logical given the nature of challenge and the theater—the Soviets in Europe.

  • The Threat.   In spite of all the ‘ankle biters’ that kept America busy from the 50’s to the 90’s; the marquee Cold War threat was the Soviet Red Army.  The Red Army wore uniforms, worked for the state, was mostly accountable to the law of war, and was hierarchical.  It had infantry, armor, artillery, fighters, bombers, battleships, aircraft carriers, and on and on.  It mirrored (was symmetric) our own forces.  It was big.  It was well defined.  It was easy to find and hard to kill.
  • The Battlefield.   The Cold War Battlefield was also well defined—it was Europe.  It was linear and contiguous with one side under Blue control and the other under Red control.  The opposing forces were mirror images of one another; highly lethal, mobile, hierarchical state armies.   There was well-defined division between political affairs and military affairs.  A line ran down the middle of the opposing armies and the forces on either side of the line were dense and concentrated.  Objectives were generally terrain oriented and the tactical tasks included seize, secure, clear, and destroy.  A conflict between these rivals was war.
  • Roles.   In those days, the levels of war (strategic-operational-tactical) overlapped.   Commands and assets were assigned to a specific level.  Combat divisions and below landed squarely in the tactical level and would never see or use assets from the operational or strategic levels.  The Special Forces bounced around between operational and strategic and would never work for or with a tactical commander.
  • The Game.   Cold War conflict was like Football with its offense, defense, and special teams assigned to specific jobs at specific times on the playing field.  Victory relied on disciplined ‘team’ execution of assignments and basics.  Most often, the biggest team with the fastest and strongest guys will win.

Post Cold War Integration.   The collapse of the Soviet Union ended the bipolar world security environment.  Multi-polarity was really a return to normal.  We returned to hegemonic spheres of influence, a multitude of threats—state and non-state, and small wars that wouldn’t, by default, escalate to nuclear desolation.

  • The Threat.   Just as Rome’s state enemies, the Parthians and Carthaginians were replaced by barbarian hordes, the Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Vandals, Alans, and Huns, so were America’s enemies replaced.  The Soviet state enemy was replaced by stateless terrorists like Al Qaeda, Hizballah, Al Shabaab, and Boko Haram with lesser states like Iran provoking, but not fighting directly.  Our ‘new’ enemy is poorly defined and fleeting.  They don’t wear uniforms or work for a state that can be held accountable.  They ignore the law of war and operate out of networks and cells.  They employ homicide bombers, IED’s, kidnapping, and bombing and have no tanks, bombers, or aircraft carriers.  They are almost opposite (asymmetric) to our forces.  The enemy is decentralized and distributed making them hard to find, but easy to kill.
  • The Battlefield.   Now, states provide the land for conflict, but not the army to fight it.  The battlefield is a poorly defined, nonlinear, noncontiguous, mosaic where good guys, bad guys, allies, and civilians are blended and intermingled.  The battlefield is more urban-like than Verdun.  Its army versus militia, terror cell, and/or guerilla.  The law of war has to share space with civil law and international law.  Politics and military action are intermeshed.  America’s objectives became mostly enemy oriented—capture Bin Laden versus seize Hill 101.  The tasks included capture, cordon-search, stabilize and secure.  The United States had returned to an old idea that was now back in vogue; Operations Other Than War (OOTW).


  • Roles.   Today, the levels of war are nested, one within the other.  When an individual soldier offends local sensibilities the repercussions can ripple all around the globe.   The relationship between strategy, operations and tactics is embedded, yet fuzzy and vacillating.  Tactical players may be called upon to execute strategic and operational missions.  In the old days we could ‘watch our lane’ and focus on the enemy unit to our front.  Today, we have to watch everyone’s lane since the enemy is to our front, rear, and flanks and is typically invisible until he chooses to engage.  CF-SF is not separated in command, time, or space—they act in the same area of operations often under the same overall commander.
  • The Game.   Modern conflict is like soccer rather than football.  You are offense, defense and special teams all at once and the ball could and will be anywhere at any time.  It’s fast paced, unpredictable, and is based on initiative, decentralization, and collaboration.  The winner is light, quick, agile, and responsive.

Let’s look at the differences between Conventional and Irregular (Unconventional) War

image020The Learning Curve.   In 2000, the United States expected to fight the war, support a civilian led reconstruction, and then go home.  It was a neat, logical, predictable sequence.   The US expected stability and security operations (SASO) or counter-insurgency (COIN) or nation building—what we got was all three at the same time.  We needed SF man hunting and targeting AND CF manpower, firepower, and logistics all at once.  We couldn’t afford the luxury of SF and CF pursuing their own objectives in isolation.  We had to ‘team up’ to prevail.  As the new situation in Iraq and Afghanistan presented a new set of challenges we progressed through a ‘combat learning curve’.

  • Adaptation.   First, we had to adjust to the emerging and different conditions.  This meant we had to recognize and acknowledge the problems and attempt to address them.  Small units, CF and SF, made a multitude of small and seemingly random changes to their Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures (TTP), learning through trial and error.  Some things worked and were adopted, while others failed and were discarded.
  • Innovation.   Those best practices that worked became changes to established practices.  More and more best practices were culled together to form new TTP’s that became the basis for deliberate courses of action—learning.  The best ideas were shared among small units and non-standard partnerships were formed.
  • Implementation.   Successful adaptations and innovations were noticed by operational commanders who adopted them.  High level commanders allowed intelligence and operations to develop from the bottom to be pushed up rather than be prepared at the top and pushed down.  It was recognition that the CF company commander and SF team leader knew ground truth and could plan, prepare and respond to it faster than headquarters.
  • Institutionalization.   The final step, still ongoing is to write the emergent best practices into doctrine.



 Catalyst for Change.   From May 2003 through September 2004, Mosul was the model of stability in Iraq.  Therefore the size of the unit stationed there was greatly reduced.  Shortly thereafter; the insurgent, terrorist, and foreign fighter network in Mosul increased dramatically triggered by the flight from the Fallujah offensive.  The incoming unit was not only much smaller, but it also prepared for the stable Mosul instead of the post-Fallujah — Mosul.  The incoming unit in Mosul (Task Force Freedom), adapted by empowering small unit collaboration among each other and with Special Forces.  They also gave tactical units with the best on-site battlefield awareness, access to operational and strategic assets normally reserved for employment by General Officers leading large units.  The result was accelerated operations and greater success.  Task Force Freedom adapted to a degraded security environment by:

  • Empowering and decentralizing operations
  • Streamlining the targeting cycle
  • Sharing targets between CF units and between CF and SF units
  • Lowering the threshold of actionable intelligence
  • Enabling distributed execution
  • Enabling direct collaboration between small units
  • Building fusion centers where CF and SF command posts could share information
  • Creating shared awareness and shared purpose

The End State.   CF and SF units, leaders, and troops established teamwork and trust through their mutual agreement to work together in order to dominate the environment.  They abandoned proprietary planning and execution in favor of collaborative planning and execution.  They used cross-organization and cross-echelon coordination to enhance sharing while merging their intelligence assets.  They pooled responsibilities and risks in common pursuit of emergent best practices.  They minimized compartmentalization in favor of the need to share.

These newly integrated CF/SF units were decentralized, which meant small unit leaders could assess, decide, and act without orders from above.  They were collaborative, which meant they could coordinate and act with each other directly without higher approval.  They were empowered by their respective commanders to make immediate decisions and take decisive action based on the information they collected on battlefield, thus lowering the threshold on actionable intelligence.

These CF/SF teams came together when needed and took action based on the on- the- ground situation—they swarmed.  They resembled local police responding to an all-points bulletin rather than like rigid military units confined to their sector and task.   Together they learned that action led to intelligence and intelligence leads to more action.  This increased the tempo of operations and led to greater success.  It was a cascading or domino effect that allowed them to seize and hold the initiative.  In summary it:

  • Empowered and skilled small units executed initiative oriented operations in pursuit of common goals.
  • Enabled immediate collaborative action—swarming
  • Flattened Command and Control accelerated decentralized execution and Operational Tempo (OPTEMPO)
  • Distributed assets supported distributed operations—access to operational tools
  • Small unit leaders became Joint minded given access to Joint tools
  • Small units could make their own decisions and could self-organize and self-task

Lessons Learned from CF-SF collaborative operations

  • A culture shift from Top Down to Bottom up planning, execution, and intel flow
  • Bottom up execution was enabled by:
  • ­   Shared vision and common goals
  • ­   Shared intel and battlefield awareness through information fusion
  • ­   Shared targeting
  • ­   Collaborative execution  via direct communication between small unit leaders
  • ­   Mutual trust and teamwork

One size need not fit all.
   We have to remember historical cycles; only the dead have seen the end of war.  While we may use integrated CF/SF teams in irregular war, we must retain the ability to shift back to more traditional roles and mission separation in the event of the return to state on state positional war.

  • War will be back—be ready and able
  • If you over emphasize irregular war then you may be equally unprepared for regular war.  This is what happened to TF Smith in Korea and the IDF in the 2nd Lebanon War.  In both cases, the forces were dulled due to extended occupation duties that left them ill trained and equipped for a shooting war.

To defeat the threats of an adaptive, asymmetric enemy, CF and SF units in shared space evolved by changing how systems are used and how units and capabilities are organized and integrated.  These Joint minded small units were grounded in the fundamentals of irregular warfare.  They worked together, and with access to national and joint operational assets, were able to accelerate operations.  They were more effective and efficient when acting as a team.  They learned from the success of adaptive and innovative units and shared their techniques with others.  In so doing, they forced organizational, procedural, and technological changes that improved performance in Counter-Insurgency (COIN) irregular warfare.

We cannot be held culpable for failing to accurately predict the future, but we will be held responsible for failing to adapt to the present.  You’ll find that the integration of Special Forces and conventional forces is easier than you think and its effect outweighs the friction.  The two, when working in tandem, exceed the sum total of their parts.

SF/CF teaming and swarming is especially effective when engaged in irregular warfare against insurgents and terrorist networks.  It essentially builds a blues network of shared practices to counter the threat network.  In Iraq and Afghanistan as in Belgium, the Special Forces had the skills to pursue operational objectives, but they lacked the manpower to exploit the results.  The conventional forces had the manpower, but not the full set of skills.  When combined, they made a quick and decisive force.

“A leader is a man who can adapt principles to circumstances.”

image026General George S. Patton

Our next article will begin an extended series on small unit tactics.  We will look at a variety of units such as light infantry, mechanized infantry, and armor units.  Within each, we will delve into the organization of the unit, how the particular unit maneuvers (formations), and how the unit is employed in the offense and defense.  Within each, we will dissect how each smaller unit builds upon one another.  For instance, in our article we will analyze light infantry units.  This will include looking at the individual Infantryman, the Fire Team, the Squad, the Platoon, and the Company.  In a subsequent article, we will focus on the light infantry Battalion and the light infantry Brigade.  We think this focus will provide you a good foundation for not only studying military history, but in fighting on your particular battlefield.

“Let us be clear about three facts: First, all battles and all wars are won, in the end, by the infantryman. Secondly, the infantryman always bears the brunt; his casualties are heavier, he suffers greater extremes of discomfort and fatigue than the other [combat] arms. Thirdly, the art of the infantryman is less stereotyped, and far harder to acquire in modern war, than that of any other arm.”

image028Field Marshal Earl Wavell