by Leigh Neville
Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2019. Pp. vi, 382.
Illus., index. $40.00. ISBN: 1472824296
A Guide to Special Operations Forces
In today’s conflicts, special operations forces (SOF) shape the future. “Little green men” allowed Putin to annex the Crimea, redrawing borders where divisions of tanks could not. In Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, US and coalition SOF fight the wars and train local forces. SOF operate across domains – land, air, sea, undersea, cyber – in joint and multilateral operations. US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) and NATO are among those investing in head-quarters and training to make SOF vital for both statecraft and warfighting into a darkening future when conflicts boiling throughout the spectrum, from great power competitors to local hostage-takers, will call for SOF’s expertise. No one has an answer to how to live in a dangerous new world of deepening divisions between great powers and allies alike, continued violent extremism and socio-political networked polarization. But SOF will be asked to improvise one when things go bad.
Considering the significance of its subject, it is unfortunate that the first thing that needs to be said about Leigh Neville’s The Elite, The A-Z of Modern Special Operations Forces is that it suffers from a misleading title; “A-Z” implies comprehensiveness. In London, I always carry a paperback book called an “A-Z” because it shows all that metropolis’ streets (which only cab drivers can navigate without a map); not just a selection of the most interesting ones. This is not a comprehensive or encyclopedic book. Much that would make it so is omitted and what is included is somewhat idiosyncratic if understandable (reflecting the availability of sources) in its prioritization; the author’s decision on what to include is unlikely to satisfy all readers. But it is, within these constraints, a useful reference source aimed at the enthusiast.
It is a sizable hardcover book (360 pages plus an index) yet selling for a reasonable price (the flyleaf says $40.00 in the US). This is significant at a time when military reference books’ prices keep them out of all but a few libraries and collections or they are on the Internet behind paywalls, pricing themselves towards extinction.
The nature of this subject means many sources required for a comprehensive treatment are simply not going to be available. Any information captured between hard covers will inevitably be dated. Even though the author defines “modern” as basically post-2001, there have been a number of changes – in organizations, equipment, deployments -- in recent years that did not make it into the book. But the quality and timeliness of the information provided is generally high.
The Elite does not have the scope to be comprehensive. Making it more difficult to provide information, it does not include even a single graphic, chart, table, organizational diagram, order of battle or map. Information has to be extracted from the text (with the aid of the index). Despite these obstacles, the author, who has also written a number of volumes in the series of well-illustrated monographs published by Osprey, has provided much information to be so extracted. The Elite consists of entries on units or forces (80 of these), weapons (28, all infantry weapons), equipment (11, no communications or sensors), vehicles (13 examples from land, air, sea and undersea), tactics, and missions (17, without much asymmetric and political warfare or internal security coverage) and operations (12, going back to the 1980s). The author focuses on the forces rather than the megatrends in special operations: national and international organizations and training/exercises; the rise of hybrid warfare, Gaza-style underground tactics, cyber operations, UAVs and unmanned ground systems; new technology sensors and networked communications. Post-2001, SOCOM and much of international SOF moved from supporting “conventional” forces to being central to achieving national and coalition objectives at the strategic level. The issue, looking at the book’s coverage of units and forces, is to see how this has been reflected in the forces expected to deliver these results. The numerous illustrations are all color photographs, largely those available from Internet sources such as the US Department of Defense and press agencies.
The author concentrates on land SOF (especially English speaking and NATO) and shows himself familiar with them and their operations, especially at the tactical level.
He does not aim to contribute to the super-soldier image that has enticed leaders looking for a way to fight sustained conflicts with minimal political costs at home, but rather recognizes the impact of an unsustainable operational tempo, reports of criminal behavior and alarming suicide rates. He identifies the increased importance of female personnel to SOF. While a lot about the vast subject is left out or passed over, the author knows those parts he emphasized, while where it appears he has had to rely on published sources (there are no footnotes), he is less able to show what each force does and how it is changing in a dynamic environment. While providing the details of this, the book is a blank canvas as to the larger picture. Rather it reflects the view – though not the judgments – of the operators at the unit level that were surely the source of much of the author’s information.
Once past the issue of a misleading title, with a heavyweight comprehensive reference on all the world’s SOF unlikely to appear, either between covers or on the Internet, for a reasonable price, this one seems good for what it actually presents, making it valuable to enthusiasts. While not aimed at them, professionals will certainly learn something about the details of the “sharp end” of SOF and their operations.
Our Reviewer: David Isby’s writings on special operations include Leave No Man Behind, Liberation and Capture Missions (London: 2004, Harper & Row) and articles for Shephard’s Special Forces magazine and Faircount’s Year in Special Operations. A veteran historian, defense analyst, and war game designer, Isby has quite a number of other books, articles, and games to his credit covering the Second World War, the military institutions of the Soviet Union, and military aviation in general. During the Soviet-Afghan War he observed the fighting on the front lines, and he is the author of Afghanistan: Graveyard of Empires: A New History of the Borderland. His previous reviews include A Military History of Afghanistan
Note: The Elite is also available in several e-editions.