Specialised forces

I observed something peculiar about specialised forces in strategy gaming (such as WITP:AE) and history: They are very rarely where you need them, even if you try hard to bring them into the best position.

The Japanese torpedo cruisers Kitakami and Oi of WW2 are examples: They were capable of launching dozens of the most fearsome torpedoes of WW2 each. Their torpedo firepower could have defeated the Royal Navy's Home Fleet at Jutland. They did never launch such a salvo. In fact, they weren't even where they would have had the best odds to do so - at the Solomons.

The Italian ramming ship Affondatore was designed with one purpose in mind; sink a powerful warship by ramming. It was present at the battle at Lissa and there was a ship sunk by ramming, but Affondatore didn't ram any ship, ever.

The British battlecruisers of the Furious class were built with some crazy Baltic invasion scheme in mind - and never entered the Baltic.

The early battlecruisers were all about defeating armoured cruisers with superior primary artillery at long ranges - with dozens of battlecruisers, there was but one action ever where such a thing happened.

The French battlecruisers Dunkerque and Strasbourg were designed to sink German Deutschland class heavy cruisers, but they never faced any.

The Deutschland class itself was built for commerce raiding on the oceans. Fast enough to run away from battleships, strong enough to defeat cruisers. The entire class saw very few successful patrols and the only action against cruisers was followed by the scuttling of the Graf Spee itself.

Surcouf was a submarine with extraordinary gun armament - and never used for anything, really.

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These were examples from the naval realm.
There were also examples from land warfare. Leaving technical oddities aside, entire light (Jäger / infantry) divisions were raised by the Wehrmacht for combat at the Caucasus. That didn't happen.

Specialised artillery divisions were raised to lend extra artillery firepower to breakthrough operations, sieges or crisis areas. They were wasted as frontline divisions instead, overstretching their weak infantry component.

Mountain warfare and paratroops formations of WW2 mostly fought like infantry divisions, albeit often in swampy or woodland terrain.

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The one area where highly specialised assets appear to be mostly successful and even often employed according to their purpose seems to be air warfare. The extreme mobility of air power and by comparison static nature of its targets appears to be an important factor. It enables the mission planning to send the specialised assets to where and when they can serve their purpose.

Many specialised air power assets such as jamming aircraft or reconnaissance aircraft tend to be highly dependent on a technological advantage for their missions, though. Old reconnaissance aircraft that became too slow have failed in WW2. A reconnaissance aircraft that gets its imaging radar jammed would fail today. A jamming aircraft that fails to jam effectively is pointless.

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Specialisation appears to be less successful whenever it's directed against few hostile forces or for a relatively small area. Highly specialised minesweepers that faced hundreds of thousands of naval mines were a very successful asset in WW2, for example.

Long story short, I feel we should guard ourselves against the strong pursuit of highly specialised assets at least if they are meant to face a small quantity of threats. Versatile units tended to be more worthwhile and mostly better-suited for what actual action they saw, and I suppose this may continue.
We cannot avoid specialisation entirely, but I suspect we go too much for it if we don't deliberately  guard ourselves against an overemphasis on specialisation.



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    1. Why do you discuss baseball when someone interprets football stats?

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    3. Sorry, but as a blogger it's rather *annoying* when you write a piece on a topic and the comments appear to be about what people think on subjects more or less related rather than signalling that they thought at least a bit about the point(s) made in the blog post.

      It's the blogger's equivalent of talking to a wall.

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  2. As a supplement: an important point in my opinion is that here and today it is not really known how the next war will go, what the picture of this war will be, what will be essential in this war, etc. This is due to the speed of current technological developments, economic-, social- and political-development today (in my opinion) even more significantly than before. For this reason, generalists are more able to adapt to the then possibly completely different circumstances than specialists.

    Precisely because we cannot estimate how the next war will go, a force that is as flexible, adaptable and versatile as possible is required, item an army consisting of generalists that can take on and adapt many different orders. This is imo also an main reason why we should prefere generalists.

  3. As the 10th mountain division famously said to a bootneck when he asked why the yanks were already shagged out in the foothills of Afghanistan. "We dont do mountains"

    Nobody knows where the next war is going to be fought. Specialised units house knowledge and experience. They would form the training base for the wider force should that wider force be deployed in a war that more closely matched to their area of expertise.

    I can see your point with kit. The nazis with their fuhrers toy box full of heavy small production undeployable crap. But not when it comes to training personnel. Knowledge is fungible, and the pursuit of knowledge/ability in itself renders rewards.

    The recce/jammer argument is up at strategic level. 'War of the waves' during WW2. The systems are either countered or not countered. EM, ECM, ECCM, ECCCM, ECCCM... If you can live without aerial recce or EW then dont play. If you cant live without them, the rules of the game are unavoidable.

    1. I see the utility of having platoons of an infantry battalion specialise on specific tasks or environments. I do not see the point of specialising entire battalions or having "special forces".

      An example that I didn't offer so far: Germany evacuated some citizens during turmoil in Albania using heavy lift helicopters and mechanised infantry from Bosnia. The mech infantry clearly didn't do a stellar job, but nobody got killed and mission was accomplished.
      We had 'commando' platoons in light infantry battalions at the time that would have been available, but as mentioned, they were not at the right spot at the right time.
      So how did the establishment respond? They centralised the commandos even more into the KSK that got MUCH more publicity than the commando platoons previously.
      How often was the KSK used in such evacuation missions since? Zero times afaik.
      They were deployed to AFG, but for political reasons they were apparently mostly limited to observation missions. Something that another specialised force (Fernspäher) was meant and trained for.

      Specialised assets not where and when they would fit the bill; that's very common.

    2. Commando unit attached to a commando school, (more) generalist forces rotating through the commando school to fill its schedule.

      Thats the way most do it now. Acts as a central store for instructors and decreases the cost of operating the specialist unit by spreading that expertise across the wider force. I think we're splitting hairs.


    3. Generalist units can also house knowledge and experience and can fight in very different kind of terrains. Especially mountain warfare has proven that despite the most extreme parts of the mountains any standard generalist light infantry can fight there with the same results. This was the same for example in second world war and for that reaon the german command did then not longer use complete mountain divisions but instead ordinary infantry divisions with the add-on of the so called Hochgebirgs-Bataillone (high altitude mountain bataillon) which would enable any other bigger infantry unit as an add on to fight in the whole range of the mountains. That seems to fit your argument that such units can deliver an training base for an wider force, but that was not what was monitored then. Instead the normal standard infantry performed sufficient enough.

      And that is one main point which Last Dingo also mentioned here: it does not matter if some specialised unit is perhaps better in an specific area if the performance of an more generalist unit is sufficient and the job can be done by them too. Perhaps under speical circumstances the more specialised unit could then have done the job better, faster and so on, but it does not matter. Moreover perhaps the specialised force is not even available as Last Dingo stated.

      If you have more overall qualified generalist troops, every one of them can do the job sufficently. If you have many (over)specialised troops then perhaps one of the specialists can not deliver the necessary performance because its not its speciality.

      So overall generalists are better, especially if you do not know the place before. Because: in one case you have for example 10 Units of specialist of which 4 can perform and achieve the task very good and 6 cannot at all. In the other case you have with the same costs 8 units of generalists of whom all 8 can perform the task sufficently. You have then more troops / units / men on the ground for your work.

      So you can do more work in the same time and even if the overall quality is not as good - the greater quantity compensates this more than necessary.

      4 Units with 100% performance are not as good as 8 Units with 70% performance. The greater number can achieve greater succes simply because they are more.

    4. I need to correct myself; the evacuation in Tirana happened two weeks before the KSK was activated, the KSK was founded the year before.
      So there wasn't the mentioned response, but the point remains that the KSK has not seen any such action since, and existing special forces were not employed in the Tirana evacuation op.

      Guys, you could point out such errors of mine! I don't factcheck my comments the way I factcheck my blog posts.

  4. Some things that got used for unexpected purposes.

    B-1B and B-52 bombers - built for nuclear delivery, but got used very successfully for conventional weapon delivery in conventional and counterinsurgency warfare.

    Leopard 2 MBT, built for WW3 in Central and NW Europe which never happened - has never seen serious tank vs tank combat, but highly successful in counterinsurgency (at least until recently)

    Ohio class submarine. Built for nuclear deterrence, but proved very useful for saturation cruise missile strikes when converted to SSGN.

  5. Last Dingo:

    Actually i am reading about General Creighton Abrams in Vietnam, who had an strong anti-special-forces agenda. The reasons and his arguments against special forces were nearly identical to yours:

    1 Every combat-unit could do their jobs - this claim of him resulted from his own II world war experience as he had commanded such special forces assignments such as raids as an young officer with conventional troops. He even did classical special forces jobs with an tank unit as no other unit was available at this point.

    2 He claimed that the special forces takes top personal and concentrates them in one place, denying them to the rest of the units which decreases overall fighting power with only meager gains on the opposite site so that the overall fighting power becomes weaker.

    3 He claims that this degraded the regular units.

    4 The special forces he said did not accomplish anything that was worth the effort and the costs to mantain them, as the results of their operations were meager in comparison to the costs.

    For that reasons Abrams was realy very anti-special forces and he was even against special forces operations at all.

    Interestingly and despite abrams and all this resistance of the high ranking military brass and despite all the heavy restrictions the SOG in Vietnam delivered an outstanding military performance - especially in the question of economy of force.

    IMO never before and never after any unit delivered such an good economy of force and had achieved such tremendous results. And that although the political as the military high command hindered them as much as possible.

    So the realiy in vietnam (laos, cambodia) was quite different from the assumptions of abrams.

    That does not mean that this arguments are wrong. And the SOG was for sure an extrem exception in the history of special forces, especially if you look at their emergence and development.

    So question is imo not so much if special forces are good or bad per se, but instead how special forces can be made good and how they can deliver to the overall strategy of the war and can be involved and integrated into the overall strategy.

    One main difference between todays 0815 special forces and the SOG was for example the extreme combination of native mercenaries of ethnic minorities into this units. Most fighting men were not americans. The same for the Mobile Strike Groups (Strikers) and the same for many other such units led by special forces soldiers but constinting out of natives. Such concepts like the MIKE Force, the CIDG, the SOG Recce and schools like the Recondo School are today not used, but would be imo the best concept to use special forces and would then give them an true purpose which other units could not deliver in this form.

    As many regular infantry also formed LRRP and Ranger Groups and send regular infantry soldiers to Recondo school, such an approach to act as an multiplier is imo the main task for special forces and acting as such an multiplier is not possible for other units in the same case. Therefore this concepts of the vietnam war are an good example for the tactical and operational level.

    And also an good example how such extremly good units can be wasted because of an lack of strategy and an lack of integration and involvment into the strategy of the war.