Wednesday, June 5, 2013

ArmA 3 Alpha - Vidales, Agia Marina and The Theory of Special Operations - Part 2

Soldiers win battles that can’t be foretold. Scholars foretell battles that can’t be won.

William H. McRaven's theory of special operations. Available from
During the last six months, I've grown a bit distant of my military theory books. It's never too late to catch up with the nerdy side of warfare. And if you can play around (pun intended) with what you read, the better. So here we go with a book that has been unread in my shelf for quite a while and an ArmA 3 mission that was tough to crack.

Amid the seemingly unquenchable thirst of the general public for books about special operations, very few books go into many details about how the special forces accomplish their amazing feats. I'm not referring to special gear, weapons or demolition equipment.

Ever wondered if special forces have their own version of regular/conventional small unit tactics? Do they use bounding overwatch like every other guy in the regular army, or do they have some special trick to it? During an attack, do they divide their men into assault and support teams?

For the most part, field manuals of modern special forces are not available to the general public. So there may be some special ingredients in the special forces cookbook, even for the most common and basic "meat and potatoes" tactical dishes.

However, the spectacular successes and feats of the special operations forces appear to be just above the nitty gritty of the positioning of a machine gun or the formation used to approach an objective.
William "Bill" McRaven, Commander US Special Operations Command.
Enter Admiral William McRaven, Commander of the US Special Operations Command. A former Navy SEAL, he wrote his thesis on the very subject of special operations. This thesis is around in the web somewhere ... I'm just lazy to link you right now, but the book shown above is pretty much the thesis.
Spec Ops is not a picture book, not a shrining of present or past brave men and not an action-packed narrative. It's a thoughtful analysis and a distillation of special operations. That's what makes it so unique.
Here is a summary of the principles of special operations according to McRaven's theory.
The principles build up an inverted pyramid in a rather unstable equilibrium, which doesn't tip to the frictions of war because of the actions of the special operations team. 
  1. Simplicity. Some sort of KISS thing, off course. Limit the amount of objectives, the amount of moving parts and the dependence of those moving parts. McRaven argues that to make a simple plan, the special operations team needs great intelligence.
  2. Security. Even when the enemy knows that you are coming, keep him guessing when, where you are coming from and how you will attack until the last second.
  3. Repetition. Rehearse the mission as much as possible, in a realistic manner.
  4. Surprise. In general terms, the enemy will likely be prepared (i.e. sentries on patrol, guns deployed with good fields of fire, etc.), but a careful analysis of the enemy's vulnerabilities will help to overcome his strengths and take advantage of his weaknesses. Deception and timing do not only surprise the enemy but also help to create vulnerabilities.
  5. Speed. Get to the objective as fast as possible. Insertions near the objective highly recommended. If such insertions are not possible, use concealed approaches. Small, lightly armed teams move faster than their conventional counterparts.
  6. Purpose. No matter what happens during the mission, the objective/s must be achieved.
With all these principles in place, McRaven argues that a special operations team achieves relative superiority. Relative superiority is the very essence of a successful special operation and is not formally defined in the book but rather described by its properties. I will venture to define it as an attribute of a combat engaged force with a high probability of defeating an enemy counterpart regardless of the intrinsic combat power of both.
How does my rescue of agent Vidales look like under this theory? Did I follow the principles shown above?
  • Simplicity. The plan was straightforward. I kept my team together at all times and I avoided extensive maneuvering. The AI bots tend to screw up when they are on the move. As for intelligence ... Well, I edited the mission so I had good intelligence on how the enemy would operate but not so much as to know exactly where they were. Maybe the mission needs a better intel brief, down to the patrol positions?
  • Security. It is kind of non-kosher to make a mission where the AI opponent cheats and spawns a Shilka right into your helicopter landing zone. I didn't do it either for this mission, so the AI opponent had a generic plan that he would follow after contact. Like moving a quick reaction force from the airbase towards Agia Marina. So security was achieved and the enemy didn't know exactly where I was landing. But I can't claim I did anything special here. The whole security thing appears a bit out of scope for a normal ArmA scenario.
  • Repetition. I played this mission to death, but never tried this approach until the AAR you have seen in my blog. I guess one can rehearse by playing a slightly different mission (same terrain, somewhat different enemy forces to simulate unpredictability) ... Like simulating a rehearsal for a simulated mission. Mmmh ... Getting crazy here. I will steer clear of this one.
  • Surprise. It's very difficult to surprise the AI in ArmA. Almost as difficult to make it drive a vehicle down a road. But nonetheless, the enemy vulnerability was his dependence on a quick reaction force. I was lucky to find most of that force in the open and vaporize it with mortar fire.
  • Speed. I landed so far away from the objective and facing so unfavorable odds (right in the middle of the enemy platoon in the airbase) that speed was not the forte of my plan. Speed is relative, though, and I counted on the enemy at Agia Marina not bothering my team while we fought at the airbase. After the airbase success, the vehicle didn't add to my speed towards the objective because the majority of the team moved on foot.
  • Purpose. In the AAR I posted before I didn't face any tough choices. But in my previous tries things got pretty hot and I had to choose between the survival of my team and the objectives. Call me nuts but those were somber moments, even when it was virtual reality filled with virtual characters.
And now a word about relative superiority. After defeating the quick reaction force in the airbase and with the added firepower of the armored vehicle, the enemy crumbled. The shooting was intense at times, but we were relatively in control of the battle. Even when I may have failed to observe the principle of speed, I think I achieved relative superiority.
That's it for today, folks. Keep that book in mind because it is a worthy read if you play the ArmA series.


Johan said...

Book tips are always nice, thanks JC! I'm going to have to take a look at that book, because the quality of the PDF version of the thesis is unfortunatelly awfully bad.

If anyone is still interested, it can be found here: Link

Just scroll down a bit and look for: CDR Bill McRaven: The Theory of Special Operations

NW said...

It is my experience in several thousand ArmA 2 missions, that:

- Security is as simple as having the lads in your unit maintain 360 degree observation. If I can detect the enemy's action I can redirect my unit to take care of it, if necessary, or get out from under it, but I have to see it coming first and for that, having my guys "pull security" is vital. When operating alongside friendly forces, as part of a defined plan, I can sometimes forego security in some directions, relying instead on a friendly unit to protect a flank.

- Slow is smooth, smooth is fast: time compression is an interesting psychological event. I have controlled firefights that felt like twenty minutes but only took five. Reduced friction by doing things at a comfortable, measured pace increases overall tempo, as opposed to rapidly jerking from task to task. To illustrate using a micro-example: Slowly advancing towards a target through the woods in a patrol column with 360 security, then forming up in my FUP and attacking the target after a final recce of it, generally takes 15-20 minutes. In that time I am prettymuch undetectable unless a patrol bumps me directly (in which case I can often destroy it with an instant action drill) and I gain vital intelligence and time to ensure any other moving parts are in place and ready to initiate. If I jog through that forest, I can lose half the team to a patrol we stumble across, or if we "rapidly jerk" onto the objective by attacking down the road in our Stryker, taking maximum speed because we think that will increase our tempo, we become sticky goo smeared across a roadway.

- You bitch about the AI, but at least they lack free will and do as they are told, and are patient enough to let the enemy walk around a corner and get shot rather than sticking their heads around the corner to shoot him first. Honestly though, the AI can be a real challenge and it is a real pleasure playing with a drilled team of humans instead: I've invited you to these games via e-mail if you're interested, it is a standing offer. You'll find that simplicity rules all: if a unit is detached for any reason from the main body, it is for a very simple mission and it rejoins the main body as soon as possible. Having a lot of moving parts spread around is a recipe for failure. As a Ukrainian friend said: "We will form one first, and we will hit them until they die from it." Unless it is necessary to simultaneously shut down multiple targets (as was done in one innovative ArmA 3 mission recently where the players must destroy three GSM/VHF radio towers in a thirty second window, separated by several kilometers each) it is preferable to keep that fist closed, and just let it roll along with the abovementioned Smooth is Fast tempo.

Relating this directly to the matter of SOF: In the past twelve years the main mission of SOF has changed in the public consciousness from special reconnaissance (recce in depth) to direct action raids. They have become assault groups. In the UKSF (British SOF), the recce mission has even been assigned to a completely new unit, the Special Reconnaissance Regiment rather than maintained as an SAS and SBS task, who also perform direct action raids as needed. In US SOCOM, the mission does not appear to have been "a thing" since the disbandment of MACV SOG and instead was performed by the institutionalized LRRP teams of the Long Range Surveillance Detachment units. Previously, for SOF, a key component was patience and the steady tempo I keep getting back to which gets you further, faster, than risking friction stopping you completely as you jump from A to B to C.

Gowan James Ditchburn said...

Ah yes a good nerdy book.

Like my American Warpower Book! great for getting all that unneeded knowledge on the weapons and other important components of the US Army, navy and air-force. though this is a really nerdy book as it is from 1981.

or my books of the soviet Army from the mid 1970's. apparently the soviets preferred to lose men during training than on the battlefield so it was common for some live fire training against "enemy positions".

but never mind that.

I do like the special forces, though I do like the big, conventional battles, often I made scenarios where I lead or am part of a special forces team involved in a larger battle.

But my main complaint about the AI in Arma 2 at least would be their ability to out perform me in aiming, as they do not appear to be affected by the same things the player suffers (exhaustion, wounds, obscured vision, camouflage). that does make it harder for me but it can be a real pain, especially when your attacked in the woods.

My own belief is that this is the reason why its hard to do an accurate special forces mission in Arma 2. trying to do the sudden shock, hard hitting, raid is suicide.

speed is important but like you say is relative. when the SAS? were sent to rescue some hostages in east Africa a sniper/recce team was first deployed who slowly moved through the forests before watching motionless for days before the sudden attack.

as for AI driving... terrible... I always drive myself. often I'll get in another vehicle (usually a 4x4) so that I can lead the others in their APC. I am more likely to get killed (so I have to re-do the mission) but its the only real way to get them to use the roads and to escape from ambushes.

though really if you are with an APC as in some missions there should be more than one or at least air support as a stranded and damaged APC is a death trap.

JC said...

Thanks for your comments, fellows!

NW: great insight. Much appreciated. I bitch about the AI, but I don't play any other shooter ... And I am always playing among bots! It's a love-hate thing...