Direct action (military)

Direct action (military)

In the context of military special operations, direct action (DA) consists of: "Short-duration strikes and other small-scale offensive actions conducted as a special operation in hostile, denied, or politically sensitive environments and which employ specialized military capabilities to seize, destroy, capture, exploit, recover, or damage designated targets. Direct action differs from conventional offensive actions in the level of physical and political risk, operational techniques, and the degree of discriminate and precise use of force to achieve specific objectives."[1]

The United States and many allied countries consider DA one of the basic special operations missions. Some units specialize in it, such as Rangers of the 75th Ranger Regiment, while other units, such as US Army Special Forces, have DA capabilities but focus more on other operations. Unconventional warfare, special reconnaissance and direct action roles have merged through the decades and are typically performed primarily by the same units. For instance, while American Special Forces were originally created for the unconventional warfare (UW) mission and gradually added other capabilities, the United States Navy SEALs teams, and the UK Special Air Service and Special Boat Service continue to perform a primary DA role, with special reconnaissance (SR) as original missions. SEALs, SAS, and SBS added additional capabilities over time, responding to the needs of modern conflict. Russian Spetsnaz are DA and SR units.

Some countries may have standing units for deniable direct action, and others may put together ad hoc volunteer groups for such missions. Under the US Central Intelligence Agency's National Clandestine Service, there is a Special Activities Division that operates without apparent national identification. It is possible that units of the Joint Special Operations Command or the frequently-renamed Intelligence Support Activity may do ad hoc operations.


Risk factors

DA, conducted by special operations forces, uses a small ground team, possibly with air and naval support, which maintains a high degree of secrecy about the intended action. It relies on surprise and skill, rather than mass, and has a "hit-and-run" approach:

  • clandestine approach to the target
  • short, precise, and violent force
  • exfiltration as soon as the objective is completed, making the team's exit as hidden as possible. Direct action is not a suicidal attack.

If the political situation so requires, the DA team may operate completely or partially out of uniform. In some cases, which international law accepts as a legitimate "ruse of war", a direct action force may infiltrate to the target area in civilian clothes, but must make some distinguishing insignia visible before taking any combat actions. While the entire mission was not completed due to a lack of helicopters, the DA force, in Operation Eagle Claw, which was to make the actual attack on the occupied American Embassy in Tehran, would wear nondescript clothing until they reached the assembly point for the attack. At that time, before using any weapons, they would remove black coverings over American flags, putting them in compliance with having a distinctive insignia or uniform.[2] [3]

In practice, any military force that operates at least partially out of uniform may be considered unlawful combatants. Formally, being out of uniform while approaching a target is considered a legitimate ruse of war, rather than spying, according to the language of the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949.[4] This continues the language of the Hague Convention of 1907.[5] Countries do not always honor this legal protection, as with the Nazi Commando Order of WWII, which was held illegal at the Nuremberg Trials.

The status of guerillas acting under a distinct chain of command, complying with the customary laws of war, wearing at least a distinctive armband or other insignia, and carrying arms openly while in combat, is that they technically are legal combatants, but this, historically, is respected even less than for regular military personnel making a clandestine approach to the target.[citation needed]

Operational techniques

Techniques that minimize the chance of detection during infiltration, attack, and exfiltration are preferred.

There is a blurry line between Special Reconnaissance units that never directly attack a target with their own weapons, instead directing air and missile strikes onto a target, and Direct Action, where the soldiers will physically attack the target with their own resources, and possibly with other support. Some special operations forces have doctrine that allowed them to attack targets of opportunity; Soviet Spetsnaz, while on SR during a war, were expected to attack any tactical nuclear delivery systems, such as surface-to-surface missiles, that they encountered.[6]


Direct action teams, depending on training and resources, may enter the area of operations in many ways:

  • Infiltration: Used when the enemy does not have full view of his own lines, such that skilled soldiers can move through their own front lines and, as a small unit, penetrate those of the enemy. Such movement is most often by night.
  • Tactical ground vehicles: The British Special Air Service pioneered in-vehicle SR, going back to North Africa in WWII. In Desert Storm, US SR forces used medium and heavy helicopters to carry in vehicles for the Scud Hunt.
  • Helicopter: Using fast disembarking by rope, ladder, or fast exit, at night;
  • Parachute: Typically by night, and using the HALO or HAHO jump technique so their airplane does not alert the enemy;
  • Boat: Across inland water or from a surface ship or even a helicopter-launched boat
  • Underwater: By swimming or means from a submarine or an offshore surface ship. Some highly trained troops, such as US Navy SEALs or British Special Boat Service may parachute into open water, go underwater, and swim to the target.


To reduce their chance of detection, if the target could be destroyed by demolition charges, set on a delayed fuse so the team can exfiltrate before the explosion, this would be far preferable to having to fight their way to the target, place demolition charges, and fight their way out of the now-alerted target area.

Skill with explosives and demolition, therefore, is a critical skill for DA units. They also may employ long-range sniper fire. Uniformed forces that kill other uniformed soldiers, firing from cover and never revealing themselves to the enemy force, are in compliance with the laws of war, but, especially if at least part of that operation was conducted out of uniform (e.g., by guerillas), the force is likely to be treated as unlawful combatants.[citation needed]


The team will leave the attack area using any of the means they used to infiltrate, although they will have to deal with the problem of an alerted enemy. Rather than going immediately to the means of exfiltration, they may have prepared a safe house or some other hiding place near the target, and make a delayed exfiltration.

Examples of direct action missions

Norwegian and SOE attacks on German heavy water production

A series of DA missions during WWII involved Allied sabotage of German heavy water production in Norway. Operation Grouse successfully delivered, by parachute, four SOE-trained Norwegian soldiers. They were intended to act as an advanced reconnaissance and guide party for the next group of British personnel, who would actually carry out the demolitions at the Rjukan in the Telemark area of Norway.

Operation Freshman, the next phase, was a disastrous failure. Two teams of Royal Engineers, carried in towed Airspeed Horsa gliders, either were killed in crashes, or captured, tortured, and executed under the German Commando Order. A followup, Operation Gunnerside, successfully parachuted in another six Norwegian soldiers. The combined teams were able to place demolition charges in the plant and make their escape.

As is not uncommon for DA, a followup bombing mission completed the destruction of the plant.

Prisoner of war rescue raids in the Philippines

The US command had become increasingly concerned that the Japanese intended to kill all prisoners, and already had been alerted to several killings. They executed multiple rescue raids. Documents and prisoner interrogation subsequently proved that the concern was fully justified.[citation needed]

A combination of Filipino guerillas, Alamo scouts (6th US Army Special Reconnaissance force) and US 6th Ranger Battalion paratroopers carried out a successful DA raid on the Cabanatuan prison camp, destroying the Japanese guard force and freeing the prisoners. As is frequently done in DA, the infiltration was in phases: the guerillas were already in the area, but the Alamo Scouts came in early, and were guided to the target area by the local fighters. Reconnaissance of the camp provided information to finalize the final raid, which was deferred a day due to a larger enemy presence.

The Rangers parachuted to a landing zone a distance from the camp, aware they would need to crawl to their final jump-off points. Another method often used in DA was to provide a distraction to the defenders, in this case with a low-level pass by a fighter aircraft. The guards were looking to the sky when the Rangers rushed the camp.

After the guards were neutralized, the rescue force ran into another problem common in prisoner rescues: many prisoners were confused or so terribly afraid that they needed to be forcibly removed. Others were sick and unable to walk. Nevertheless, the rescue was successful.

The Raid at Los Baños was also a success. Prior to the attack, Filipino guerillas had established clandestine communications with prisoners, and had precise information about the camp. This was a considerably larger operation for a larger number of prisoners, with a much stronger Japanese presence in the area.

Plan of attack at Los baños

Operations began, as is often typical, with reconnaissance. 11th Airborne’s Provisional Reconnaissance Platoon jumped in and linked up with guerillas. Two days later, they marked the drop and landing zones, and then killed the gate guards, as a guerilla regiment encircled the camp and attacked Japanese they could see.

Next, a paratrooper company jumped into a marked drop zone, linked up with additional guerillas, killed the remaining guards, and secured the prisoners.

The remainder of the paratroop battalion moved, by water using amphibious tractors, to a point 2 miles from the camp. They would land and then move to the camp, and take the prisoners onto the vehicles.

A fourth phase protected the actual escape, diverting the remaining Japanese troops with a strong force including artillery and tank destroyers. Additional guerilla units formed ambushes to stop Japanese reinforcements from moving into the area. 2,147 former Allied POWs and internees were rescued. Two guerillas and two paratroopers were killed, and a small number wounded.

Afterwards, the Japanese retaliated by killing 1,500 Filipinos, who were not involved in the raid and rescue. The Japanese commander was later convicted of war crimes and hanged.

Israeli raid on Soviet radar used by Egypt

In 1969, Israel became aware that Egypt was using an advanced Soviet radar. Originally, an air attack was planned to destroy it. The air attack was cancelled, however, and the mission assigned to helicopter-carried Sayeret Matkal special operations troops, who believed they could capture the radar, and return at least significant pieces.

In Operation Rooster 53, the raiders quickly suppressed the local security, and then began taking apart the radar to return critical components for technical intelligence analysis. After consultation between the ground special operations soldiers and the helicopter pilots, they packaged the entire radar and successfully carried it as external loads on their CH-53 helicopters, operating at the edge of the helicopters' lift capability .[7]

Attempted prisoner of war rescue in North Vietnam

Operation Ivory Coast was a long-range US raid, in 1970, to rescue POWs believed to be held in the Son Tay prison camp. The rescue force, of 56 Army Special Forces personnel plus Air Force special operations personnel, flew clandestinely from Thailand into North Vietnam, while Naval aircraft conducted diversionary activities.

Although the ground force fought a sharp engagement with North Vietnamese and a never-identified, probably foreign[citation needed] unit, near the camp, they took no casualties (other than a broken ankle from a hard landing). The prisoners had been moved to other camps, but the raiders successfully exfiltrated.

Even though the raid failed in its specific purpose, its tactical execution was near perfect. It did have a significant strategic effect on the North Vietnamese, who became concerned about other raids behind their lines and reallocated significant resources to internal security .[8]

US prisoner in Panama rescued by Delta Force

During the 1989 invasion of Panama, one of the many objectives was to free Kurt Muse, an American suspected, by the Panamanians, of working for the CIA. Operation Acid Gambit was one of the few acknowledged operations by the US Delta Force.[9]

The DA force landed on Modelo prison at night, carried by light MH-6 special operations helicopters. AH-6 helicopter gunships suppressed potential snipers on nearby building, while AC-130 fixed-wing gunships put heavy fire into other military buildings of the complex. The Delta operators secured the roof, and a team fought to Muse's cell, where they blew down the door and rescued him.

During the exfiltration, one of the MH-6 helicopters crashed, wounding everyone besides Muse .[10] Taking cover, they signalled to one of the gunships, and were soon retrieved by an armored personnel carrier from the 5th Infantry Division extracted Muse and the retrieval team.

Killing of Osama bin Laden

On 1st May 2011, Red Squadron from the United States Navy's elite Naval Special Warfare Development Group, also known as DEVGRU, undertook a covert mission to capture al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, acting on intelligence suggesting that he was located at a compound in Abottabad, deep inside Pakistan. Launching the mission from neighbouring Afghanistan, US helicopters flew across Pakistani airspace at very low altitude to avoid radar detection, and the DEVGRU operators were delivered to the courtyard of the compound, descending from ropes. After a brief firefight, bin Laden was located and killed by the US forces. The forces then retreated, taking bin Laden's remains with them, and they were back in Afghan airspace before the Pakistani forces could respond to the unknown disturbance. Bin Laden's body was immediately taken to a US Navy ship and buried at sea, to guard against the possibility that his grave could become a shrine or a focal point for unrest. The whole operation inside Pakistan was monitored from Washington in real time by the Obama administration, and lasted for 40 minutes in total. Subsequent revelations of the success of this bold and daring operation were to draw praise from across the political spectrum and from around the world.

Physical destruction of propaganda facilities

Direct action has been used, or planned and not authorized, against radio and television facilities used for propaganda, or even for tactical coordination, in several operations. During the 1989 US invasion of Panama, special operations teams removed critical components from a television station, doing minimum damage. They did so, however, a day into the operation; greater speed would have had greater effect .[11]

In 1994, during the Rwandan Genocide, part of the requests to UN military headquarters from the on-scene commander, MG Roméo Dallaire, included seizing a broadcast facility, which he considered the chief inciter of violence. He was told such action was outside his authority .[12]

Another multinational operation, NATO SFOR in Bosnia was operating under peace enforcement, not peacekeeping rules of engagement. It was cleared, in 1997, to neutralize Serb radio-television facilities. .[13] It should be noted that taking control of television falls under the mission of information operations as well as direct action.

In the section "Physical Destruction Operations in Task Force Eagle: The Seizure of Bosnian-Serb Radio/Television Towers," a Center for Army Lessons Learned (CALL) analyst observed that after the Bosnian civil war, few broadcast media remained, but were extremely influential. "In May 1997, the North Atlantic Council granted authority to SFOR to take actions against any media undermining the peace accords."

"During the early summer of 1997, a power struggle erupted between the rival factions of the Bosnian Serb leadership...The struggle caused a split within state television, with journalists and editors from the Banja Luka studio deciding to split away from [one faction] direction after [its leader] manipulated a broadcast on SFOR searches in police stations. SFOR and OHR tried to exploit these developments to their advantage..." offering to keep the stations open if the faction reduced its inflammatory propaganda, but continuing to do so would result in military action. The propaganda continued, such as accusing SFOR of using "low-intensity nuclear weapons," during the 1995 attacks on VRS positions around Sarajevo, Gorazde, and Majevica in 1995. In another propaganda piece, Serbian Radio Television (SRT) showed alternating images of WWII German Army and present-day NATO forces while the commentator drew the comparison, likening SFOR soldiers to a Nazi occupation force. NATO officials have expressed concerns that such "venomous propaganda" threatens the safety of the NATO-led peace operations force."

TV station secured by SFOR

Eventually, "under the authority of the GFAP and orders from the NATO Council and the Office of the High Representative, SFOR seized four SRT transmission towers, considerably reducing the footprint of SRT. The seizure of these towers was a physical destruction mission in that SFOR targeted the TV transmitter towers for neutralization, which is a condition achieved by physical destruction operations...On October 1, 1997, TFE units executed the physical destruction operation, securing the Bosnian-Serb television/radio transmitter complexes on Hill 619 in Duga Njiva, Hill 562 near Ugljevik, Trebevica (near Sarajevo) and Leotar. In pre-dawn raids, SFOR French, Polish, Scandinavian and American soldiers secured the sites and immediately fortified them against anticipated resistance."

"At Hill 619, US Engineers operating Armored Combat Excavators (M-9 ACE) constructed protective berms for the troops, and cleared fields of fire, while other engineers emplaced a triple-standard concertina barrier around the site. At Hill 562, 200 Bosnian-Serb protesters staged a 15-hour confrontation in which the protesters hurled rocks and attacked with clubs, damaging several vehicles.


  1. ^ US Department of Defense (2007-07-12). "Joint Publication 1-02 Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms". Retrieved 2007-10-01. 
  2. ^ Smith, Michael (2007). Killer Elite: The Inside Story of America's Most Secret Special Operations Team. New York, New York: St. Martin's Press. ISBN 0312362722. 
  3. ^ Beckwith, Charlie A.; Knox, Donald (2003). Delta Force: The Army's Elite Counterterrorist Unit. Avon. ISBN 0380809397. 
  4. ^ "Fourth Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War. Geneva, 12 August 1949, Article 29". International Red Cross. Retrieved 2007-11-11. 
  5. ^ "Convention (IV) respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land and its annex: Regulations concerning the Laws and Customs of War on Land, Article 29". International Red Cross. 18 October 1907. Retrieved 2007-11-11. 
  6. ^ Suvorov, Viktor (1990). SPETSNAZ: The Inside Story Of The Special Soviet Special Forces. Pocket. ISBN 0671689177. 
  7. ^ "Operation “Rooster”— Israel Captures Egyptian Radar In War of Attrition". Retrieved 2007-11-21. 
  8. ^ Manor, Leroy J. "The Son Tay Raid, November 21, 1970". 
  9. ^ Powell, Colin (March 2003). My American Journey. pp. 145. ISBN 0345466411. 
  10. ^ "The Caldwell Family". 
  11. ^ "Just Cause: how well did we do? - invasion of Panama". National Review. 1990-01-22. 
  12. ^ Ringle, Ken (2002-06-15). "The Haunting: He Couldn't Stop the Slaughter in Rwanda. Now He Can't Stop the Memory". Washington Post: C01. 
  13. ^ Tulak, Arthur N. (1999-03-15). "Physical Attack Information Operations in Bosnia: Counterinformation in a Peace Enforcement Environment". Air & Space Power Journal - Chronicles Online Journal. Retrieved 2007-11-24. 

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