President Obama deserves credit for not taking the easy way out when it came to ordering the “hit” on Osama bin Laden. He was offered the options of an air strike or the classic Hellfire missile from a Predator drone through the window. Instead, he decided to go with the much riskier option of a direct assault by Navy SEALs on bin Laden’s compound. His decision is all the more courageous given reports that only half his national security team favored a commando assault.
The fact that President Obama had the third option is due not to anything he has done while in office. Rather, it reflects the enormous changes that have been achieved by U.S. military and intelligence forces and particularly by Special Operations Forces (SOF) over the past thirty years. The differences between Operation Eagle Claw, the failed 1980 attempt to rescue American hostages in Iran and the strike on bin Laden cannot be overstated. It also was due to the effort by the Bush Administration to develop the means to conduct a successful counterterrorism campaign against the worldwide threat. Much of that effort occurred in Iraq under the direction of General Stanley McChrystal who led Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) for five years, most of the time in Iraq, while it and the CIA’s Special Activities Division perfected the techniques of intelligence collection and fusion and rapid on the ground actions that basically destroyed Al Qaeda in Iraq. It should come as less of a surprise that the combined efforts of JSOC and the CIA were finally able to bring bin Laden down; they learned how to do this the hard way.
In addition to years of hard work, Special Operations Command and the CIA have also benefitted from the acquisition of new technologies that made it possible to find bin Laden and conduct a successful attack. These include the Predator drones, special surveillance aircraft and very high resolution satellite systems that allowed the CIA to collect extremely detailed and near-continuous imagery of the compound in Abbottabad. Then there are the MH-60 Blackhawk and MH-47 Chinook helicopters that use special avionics, forward looking infrared sensors, and terrain-following radar to achieve low-level ingress and egress from a target site. Once on the ground, the SEALs were able to employ advanced multi-spectral night vision goggles that allowed for operations both in the compound and inside the various buildings. Advanced body armor, cold weather clothing, hands-free digital radios, laser targeting sights and deployable night lights were probably also deployed to secure the battlefield.
Whatever the administration decides to do in Afghanistan, one thing it cannot skimp on is funding for SOF and CIA special activities. The Air Force wants even more CV-22 Osprey’s for special forces missions. There is a requirement for a new SEAL delivery vehicle. Special clothing and equipment is in constant demand. Then there is the need to maintain the broad range of skills and capabilities to manage the kill chain from initial detection of a target though detailed operational planning to the actual attack. Even after we leave Afghanistan, the capabilities that allowed President Obama to order the raid into Pakistan with reasonable confidence of success will need to be maintained.
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