Special Ops missions and their lessons for the Bin Laden raid
On May 2, 2011, nearly 10 years after the fall of the World trade Center towers in lower Manhattan, a small team of Navy Seals raided a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, and killed al-Qaida Master mind Osama Bin Laden. There is a long legacy of special ops missions over the course of the last century, and smaller scale operations have yielded some of the most dramatic moments in the history of the modern military. They also have parallels to what just happened in Pakistan, and lessons that helped the Bin Laden mission become a success. Let’s take a look at six of the best special operations missions.
March 28, 1942: Operation Chariot
The Mission: a British attempt to destroy a nazi dock in occupied St. Nazaire, France
Result: successful, but with heavy casualties
Historians have dubbed it “The greatest raid of all.” British forces loaded an obsolete WWI-era ship, The HMS Campbletown, with self-destructive explosives and obliterated the dry dock controlled by the Nazis in St. Nazaire, France. The blast rendered the dry dock useless for the rest of the war, forcing any Nazi warship to return to Germany for repairs. Because bombing guidance was so rudimentary at the time, trying to destroy the dock from the air would have obliterated the city and Chariot happened earlier in the war, when the allies were more concerned with reducing civilian casualties than they were later on. So Britain began this risky mission, sending 18 other ships (two destroyers, 16 smaller ships) along with the Campbletown to escort it and to bring back the men aboard the doomed ship. The explosion aboard the Campbletown was delayed—the soldiers rammed the vessel into the dock and then scurried off to other ships. The Campbletown just sat there for a while, so the Nazis didn’t actually know it was rigged with explosives that is, until the ship erupted with a thunderous explosion. However, because the raid wasn’t backed up with enough heavy air power, the Nazis were free to fire upon the armada with the full force of artillery surrounding St. Nazaire. Only three ships survived to return to England; the surviving attack team had to escape on foot through France. Of the 622 soldiers who were part of the operation, only 228 returned home in the end. It was a high-risk mission by choice, and it shares that with the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden. Reports indicate president Obama considered bombing Bin Laden’s compound once he was confident that the terrorist leader was there. But the president wanted to be able to test bin laden’s DNA to know the al Qaida chief was truly dead, and so he authorized the riskier mission of sending in Navy Seals.
September 12, 1943: Operation Eiche
The Mission: the Germa-led rescue of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini
Result: A free Mussolini with zero casualties
On July 25, 1943, Italy’s grand council of fascism ordered that Italian dictator Benito Mussolini be replaced and, later, arrested. Adolph Hitler, not wanting to lose a valuable ally, ordered Nazi paratroopers to rescue him. Led by SS Captain Otto Skorzeny, the team glided into the stronghold where Mussolini was being held prisoner: a ski resort called the Campo Imperatore hotel a top a mountain called Gran Sasso. Twelve gliders towed by aircraft were released over Gran Sasso. One of the gliders crash-landed, injuring the manned team on board. But that was the only hitch in this operation, which succeeded without a single shot being fired. Once the SS stormed the hotel, the mission was over in four minutes. Mussolini was later restored to power in the German-occupied portions of Italy, though he would lose power at the end of the war and was executed on April
Navy Seal and special-ops historian William Mcraven writes that the rescue of Mussolini succeeded because it “demonstrates all three
elements of surprise: timing, deception, and exploiting the weak points in the defense.” The american raid that killed Osama Bin Laden, of course, saw shots fired. But its similar emphasis on surprise ensured that no member of the american force was harmed.
January 30, 1945: Raid at Cabantuan
The mission: Rescue more than 500 American prisoners of war from a camp near Cabanatuan City in the Philippines
Result: suCCess With MiniMal Casualties
After the infamous Bataan death march in the Philippines in 1942, some of the American POWs who survived were kept at a prison camp near Cabanatuan City. The conditions at the camp were horrific; mass executions were common. Worried that the prisoners would be executed as they had been at other Japanese camps, U.S. leaders approved a rescue mission. Captain Kenneth Schrieber created an ingenious diversion by flying a P-61 Black Widow over the camp, creating the illusion that his low-flying plane was disabled and would soon crash, which he achieved by shutting down and restarting the engine, resulting in a loud backfire. This distraction caught the Japanese off guard, and a group of 133 U.S. troops with about 250 Filipinos stormed the camp. During the raid, only four Americans—two prisoners and two members of the rescue team—were killed.
As was the case with last weekend’s raid in Pakistan, intense planning preceded the operation in the Philippines in 1945. The
American forces obtained photos of the campsite, plus commandeered a nearby shack to observe the camp. In five hours, they were
able to produce a map of the camp’s layout with which to prepare themselves before they charged in.
November 21, 1970: Operation Kingpin
The mission: A rescue operation of 61 Americans being held prisoner in North Vietnam
The result: Tactically a success, but failed to rescue any prisoners
American intelligence located a prisoner-of-war camp in North Vietnam, near Son Toy. President Nixon approved the mission and selected a team of 56 soldiers. Similar to the mission to get Osama Bin Laden, The Kingpin team rehearsed the invasion for months at a mockup of the camp built at Elgin Air Force base in Florida. The training paid off: the team made it in and out of the POW camp with only one man wounded. Despite its tactical success, however, the mission was a massive intelligence failure: all prisoners had been moved from the camp more than four months before the rescue mission. The cause wasn’t necessarily bad intelligence, but rather the case of a lack of communication between departments—the joint technical coordinating group that planned the operation wasn’t in the loop with other U.S. intelligence agencies.
By contrast, the raid on Bin Laden’s compound was a smashing success of intelligence sharing reports say that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), National Security Administration (NSA) and the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA) all contributed. The NSA, for example, discovered that the Bin Laden compound had no internet or telephone connections, while the NGA was responsible for maps and recognition software that helped the navy seals during their mission.
July 4, 1976: Operation Entebbe
The mission: An israeli rescue of hostages aboard Air France flight 139
Result: 103 hostages freed, 3 hostages dead
On June 27, 1976, an Air France flight was hijacked on its way from Tel Aviv to Paris. The hijackers ordered the pilots to land in Entebbe, Uganda, and released all the non-jewish passengers upon landing. Led by lieutenant Colonel Yonatan Netanyahu (older brother of current israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu), a rescue mission to get the remaining 100-plus hostages held in an airport terminal commenced on July 4, 1976. The Israeli team drove up to the terminal in Mercedes automobiles like those driven by
Ugandan officials, which momentarily confused the Ugandan soldiers, according to Mcraven. The Israelis nearly made it to the terminal undetected, but they had made one costly oversight: Ugandan officials drove Mercedes with the driver on the right side, and the Israelis assault team drove in Mercedes with the driver on the left. Two Ugandan sentries noticed the discrepancy. The Israeli team quickly killed the sentries, but the element of surprise was gone.
Entebbe was meticulously planned, and like the raids on son toy in 1970 and Bin Laden’s compound this week, mission planners constructed a site mockup where soldiers could practice the mission. The lesson of Entebbe is that any spec-ops mission, no matter how well designed, is high-risk. Israeli forces killed all four hijackers, but the crossfire with Ugandan soldiers killed Netanyahu and three hostages.
April 12, 2009: Raid on the Maersk Alabama
The mission: Rescue the 20 crew members of the Maersk Alabama, which was hijacked by Somali pirates
The result: All crew menbers rescued; three Somali pirates killed by sniper fire
The raid to kill Osama Bin Laden wasn’t the fist time president Obama has used elite Navy Seals at his disposal to snuff an enemy. On april 8, 2009, four Somali pirates boarded the American ship Maersk Alabama. A tense four-day standoff began between the pirates and the American destroyer USS Bainbridge, sent to rescue the crew of The Alabama.The pirates, flustered by pursuit and the resistance by the crew of The alabama—who were highly trained and prepared for a pirate attack, having just participated in a full drill the day before—attempted an escape back to Somalia in a lifeboat with Alabama captain Richard Phillips as their hostage.
The Navy Seals chases the fleeing lifeboat with orders to shoot if Phillips’s life was threatened. Sensing that phillips was in immediate danger, and knowing Phillips’ rescue would become nearly impossible if the pirates reached land, The Seal team shot and killed three of the pirates. The fourth—who was on The Bainbridge attempting to negotiate a deal—was captured and returned to the United States for trial.