Sometime in March or April 2011, as a colleague and I walked through the Situation Room complex in the White House basement, we observed an odd combination of people leaving the main briefing room: President Barack Obama, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, CIA Director Leon Panetta, and Vice Admiral William McRaven, then the commander of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), the secretive operational component of the U.S. Special Operations Command that employs units like the Army’s Delta Force and the Navy’s SEAL Team 6 to perform the hardest counterterrorism missions.


Relentless Strike:
The Secret History of Joint

Special Operations Command
by Sean Naylor
St. Martin’s Press, 560 pp.

There was something about that combination of people—particularly McRaven—that caused my colleague to whisper, “Something’s up.” I nodded my head and promptly forgot about it. A few weeks later, on May 2, I woke up in the morning to hear that SEAL Team 6 commandos had, in the dead of night, flown into Pakistan in helicopters flown by the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, raided a compound just a few miles away from Pakistan’s elite military academy, and killed Osama bin Laden.

The meeting my colleague and I saw was very likely one of the final planning meetings for the bin Laden operation, code-named Operation Neptune’s Spear. Without question, it was the most spectacular and consequential special operations mission in American history. But as amazing as that operation was, it didn’t seem all that unexpected: the idea that America’s elite commandos could find the world’s most wanted man and deliver long-awaited justice didn’t seem all that extraordinary.

Maybe that shouldn’t surprise us. After all, America has been very publicly at war for fourteen years—from the cities and deserts of Iraq to the mountains of Afghanistan. We have become accustomed to daring tales of brave men and women in uniform performing extraordinary military operations. There is an industry of sorts that, in print and film, tells the stories of units like the SEALs, Delta Force, and the Green Berets. What was once the realm of the so-called “quiet professionals”—those tough commandos who warred in the shadows—isn’t so quiet anymore.

These days we hear about aggressive special operations missions inside Syria, Somalia, and Yemen, and hints of activity elsewhere in the world. The top-secret operation in June 2014 to rescue three American hostages in ISIS-controlled eastern Syria was described in detail by the Washington Post—with White House officials commenting on the record—just a few months later. This reflects the modern media environment, but it also reflects the fact that while America’s overall “boots on the ground” presence may be declining, our special operations forces have become the dominant way to engage our enemies around the world.

While any number of “tell all” books by former special operators (or Hollywood adaptations) can give some flavor to this shadowy world, Sean Naylor’s Relentless Strike: The Secret History of Joint Special Operations Command comes the closest to providing the complete story of how America’s premier special operations units have grown more effective, integrated, and powerful since their formation in the later decades of the Cold War.

Naylor, a well-known military reporter for the Army Times and now at Foreign Policy, is among the few journalists who have covered special operations forces almost exclusively. His last book, Not a Good Day to Die, explored Operation Anaconda, a defining battle against the Taliban and elements of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan in March 2002.

Relentless Strike tells the story of JSOC, the component of the U.S. Special Operations Command that focuses on “direct action” missions—those operations designed to capture or kill terrorists. Naylor begins with Operation Eagle Claw, in a remote staging area in Iran code-named Desert One, where, on April 24, 1980, elite Delta Force commandos were refueling helicopters during an attempt to rescue fifty-two American hostages in Tehran. The ad hoc nature of the mission—with a variety of units who had rarely worked together—contributed to disaster, when a helicopter collided with a plane full of fuel and Delta Force soldiers, killing eight of them.

The Desert One humiliation spurred an intense, decades-long focus on improving America’s ability to rapidly deploy highly trained commandos and their supporting military and intelligence community partners anywhere in the world to perform a wide variety of missions. This is the story Naylor tells so well in Relentless Strike.

The 560-page book is replete with descriptions of dozens of operations, hundreds of interviews by named and unnamed sources, and all the intrigue one would expect from the stories of America’s most highly classified and secretive military units. Naylor organizes the book pretty much as a straight narrative stretching from Eagle Claw in 1980 to Neptune’s Spear in 2011; while this format doesn’t make it easy for the reader to glean many overarching insights, it’s possible to take away a few.

First, the focus of JSOC has depended, unsurprisingly, on the security environment that exists at any given time. In its early years, it focused on fairly large “raiding missions”—dramatic hostage-rescue missions and larger strike forces designed for operations in places like Grenada, Panama, and in Iraq during the 1991 Gulf War. After the fall of the Soviet Union, JSOC focused primarily on countering the spread of weapons of mass destruction, including building very sophisticated units with high-tech drilling and breaching equipment designed to penetrate underground nuclear weapons complexes. After the 9/11 attacks, JSOC shifted its focus to counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. In one of the more interesting descriptions of this period, Naylor captures the debate inside the special operations community about how focused they ought to be on the counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan and then Iraq, and whether concentrating on these theaters posed too great a risk that the U.S. would be unprepared for other global crises. It’s the kind of debate that goes on in the Pentagon constantly—how to deal with the demands of today while training for the challenges tomorrow might bring.

Second, it’s hard to read Relentless Strike without marveling at how much the evolution of technology has changed the way in which special operations missions are planned and conducted. In particular, the former JSOC commander General Stanley McCrystal comes across as especially talented at understanding the value of employing fast-evolving technologies like unmanned drones, social networking, mapping software, and so-called “big data” analysis, all of which were just starting to truly come into their own in the 2003-2008 period in which McCrystal commanded JSOC. U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) has fairly unique authority, compared to the conventional forces, to purchase commercial technologies quickly, experiment with them, and employ them. Sometimes in defense circles the tension between investing in personnel versus investing in technologies can result in arguments for prioritizing one over the other. What Relentless Strike seems to prove is that investing and using both is the key to continued success on the current and future battlefields.

Third, the implications of an organization like JSOC, what Naylor calls “an information age warfighting machine,” are yet to be fully understood. There is much debate about drones and the consequences of the proliferation of advanced robotic systems, but there is less debate about how to use America’s elite forces as the counterterrorism struggles continue in the Middle East and beyond. There are descriptions of what amount to assassination campaigns in Relentless Strike that, if true, feel close to being inappropriate (for instance, employing precise car bombs in Iraq to kill high-level insurgents and terrorists). “It’s a great tool,” Naylor quotes a SEAL on the use of the bombing method, “but as many of us have said—hey, we’re no different than the enemy if we’re just blowing up people with booby traps.” As JSOC and special operations forces continue to be the preferred way to target America’s enemies, a broader discussion about the use of force and thresholds for undertaking what amounts to a perpetual war deserve more fulsome debate.

Relentless Strike is likely the best definitive history of how America’s special operations community rose like a Phoenix from the ashes of the Desert One fiasco to become the most capable elite fighting force in the world. Naylor could have done a bit more to craft these stories together into more of an accessible narrative arc, but in fact he may have chosen the better course: to bring this information together for the first time, tell the stories—warts and all—and challenge his readers to come to their own conclusions.

Reading the book reminded me of seeing Vice Admiral McRaven at the White House that day in 2011; the fact that Obama was willing to risk his presidency on the competency and professionalism of the commandos is proof of how far JSOC and the broader special operations forces have come. It speaks well of the president that he was willing to approve the mission, but it speaks more of those who planned and executed it, and of the many thousands who have worked over decades to hone JSOC into the sharpest of spears.

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Shawn Brimley is vice president of the Center for a New American Security. From 2009 to 2013 he worked as director for strategic planning on the White House National Security Council staff and as special adviser to the undersecretary of defense for policy at the Pentagon.