Over the past decade, the United States' military and the country's national security strategy have come to rely on special operations to an unprecedented degree. As identifying and neutralizing terrorists and insurgents has become one of the Pentagon's most crucial tasks, special operations forces have honed their ability to conduct manhunts, adopting a new targeting system known as "find, fix, finish, exploit, analyze, and disseminate." They have adopted a flatter organizational structure and collaborated more closely with intelligence agencies, allowing special operations to move at "the speed of war," in the words of the retired army general Stanley McChrystal, the chief architect of the contemporary U.S. approach to counterterrorism.
Implementing McChrystal's vision has been costly. Spending on sophisticated communications, stealth helicopters, and intelligence technology; building several high-tech special operations headquarters; and transforming a C-130 cargo plane into a state-of-the-art flying hospital have consumed a large (and classified) portion of the total special operations budget, which has increased from $2.3 billion in 2001 to $10.5 billion in 2012. The investment has paid clear dividends, however, most dramatically in May 2011, when U.S. Navy SEALs, operating in coordination with the CIA, raided a compound in Pakistan and killed Osama bin Laden.
The target and location of that raid made it exceptional. But similar operations, which in earlier eras would have been considered extraordinary, have become commonplace: during the height of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, U.S. special operations units sometimes conducted as many as 14 raids a night, with each successive raid made possible by intelligence scooped up during the previous one and then rapidly processed. When decision-makers deem raids too risky or politically untenable, they sometimes opt for strikes by armed drones, another form of what special operators refer to as "the direct approach." (The CIA conducts the majority of drone strikes, but special operations forces are also authorized to employ them in specific cases, including on the battlefields of Afghanistan.)
Dramatic raids and high-tech drone strikes make for exciting headlines, so the media