Operation Neptune Spear: The New Textbook for Special Operators

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The tail of a crashed American helicopter sits beside the wall of the compound where Osama bin Laden hid until he was killed in a raid on May 2, 2011.

One year removed from the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, hundreds of hours of programing and print pages are being devoted to to telling us what it all means. In this week’s issue of TIME, journalist Peter Bergen and historian Graham Allison walk us through the events that led up to Navy SEALs storming bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan on a moonless night one year ago.

But to truly understand what the raid means in the study of special operations, you have to go back much further, past Operations Eagle Claw, the disastrous 1980 attempt to rescue hostages from the American Embassy in Tehran, to Operation Thunderbolt. In July 1976, Israeli commandos stormed the airport at Entebbe, Uganda and rescued 105 hostages held by pro-Palestinian hijackers (the animation on this video is second rate, but it gives a good overview of the raid).

But wait a minute. What does a 36-year-old Israeli commando raid have to do with killing Osama bin Laden?

Until last May, Operation Thunderbolt was considered the textbook direct action mission for students of special operations. For the past few years, Austin Long, an assistant professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, taught the Entebbe raid in his class on special operations in low intensity conflicts. This year, he’s teaching the bin Laden raid as the new textbook example of a direct-action mission. Long talked to Battleland about the lessons that can be learned from both operations, and why the success of the bin Laden raid points to an even brighter future for U.S. Special Operations forces.

Why is the Entebbe raid so important in the understanding of special operations?

Entebbe was fundamentally a special operation that had strategic as well as tactical consequences. It also showed the ability to conduct special operations at a very long range. Previously, most special operations were launched from somewhere relatively close by. At Entebbe, you have a special operation conducted at a range of hundreds of miles from Israel. It almost seemed impossible that they could pull this off. It’s the combination of distance and scale–you’re going to go hundreds of miles and rescue, not two hostages or ten hostages, but an entire planeload of hostages in a country that’s pretty hostile.

It was extraordinarily impressive, what the Israelis were able to accomplish one of the textbook special operations, certainly the most textbook modern special operation conducted over a long distance.

What are the most important lessons you’re teaching your students about the bin Laden raid? 

The thing I point out that made it a success is the intelligence preparation. There was a fairly tight timeline, but still good intelligence preparation.  In the bin Laden raid we had a lot better imagery than the Israelis had access to in the 1970s. We had some intelligence collection on the ground, which the Israeli’s didn’t have. And I highlight the importance of rehearsal. In both cases, the two organizations did as much rehearsal as they could. The U.S., partly due to resources, was able to do a little more in terms of building an accurate model to do the rehearsal.

The bin Laden raid goes off extraordinarily well. You have the helo crash, but you don’t really lose anyone. The target’s actioned more or less perfectly.  I teach from Admiral [William] McRaven’s book and highlight the importance of repetition; purpose–the bin Laden raid had a very clear purpose; speed of action–there was no real loitering on the target; all of these things McRaven talked about in his book were clearly present in the bin Laden raid. That helps explain why it was so successful.

Columbia / Saltzman Institute

The American Navy SEALs didn’t have intelligence on the inside of the house. How important was their ability to be flexible and adapt to a foreign environment in raid with this kind of speed? 

That flexibility is crucially important. Here the U.S. had a little bit of an advantage over the Israelis at Entebbe in the sense that, as several special operators have pointed out, some U.S. Special Operations forces have been doing operations similar to the bin Laden raid essentially nightly. The basic way you do that kind of building takedown, U.S. Special Operations forces have practiced almost nightly for a decade. There’s an enormous competency that’s been built up in what’s called Close Quarter Battle.

And how important was the relationship between the Joint Special Operations Command and the CIA in preparing and executing the bin Laden raid? 

The military and the Agency have had a sort of checkered past. It kind of went south after the Iran hostage rescue. There were a lot in the U.S. military who thought the Agency let them down in terms of intelligence support. But the Agency had worked a lot, and the military had worked a lot in the 90s to try and make that better, but nothing compared to being forced to work cheek by jowl, not only in Iraq and Afghanistan, but in other places as well.

The bin Laden raid was conducted under Title 50 authority; it was a considered a covert action. So you had an elite special operations unit, or pieces of units, that were essentially put under CIA authority. That shows the level of comfort the Agency and the military have come to over the past decade.

What are the most important lessons we can take away from the bin Laden raid, moving forward? 

The bin Laden raid is going to be one of the most studied operations in history. Like Entebbe, it had not just a tactical success, but a strategic success. It’s not the end of al Qaeda, but it’s a huge victory for the United States and gives the American people a sense of closure in the same way the rescue at Entebbe validated the Iraelis’ ability to resist being terrorized. They’re alike in that sense. They show that special operations can have a tactical impact, but also a strategic impact.

MORE: Special Ops–A Photo History