Analysis: The rise and rise of western covert ops

The appeal of such tactics is clear. Military operations are far more politically palatable if you keep dead bodies off TV screens. A computer worm planted in Iran’s nuclear program, secret help to rebels in Libya, drone strikes to cripple Al Qaeda — all can achieve the desired effect without massive publicity.

In an era of budget cuts, they are also cheap — particularly compared with the cost of maintaining and deploying a large conventional military force. McRaven said his 58,000 operatives cost a mere 1.6 percent of the Pentagon’s predicted 2012 budget.

“Put simply, (they) provide a tremendous return on the nation’s investment,” McRaven told the unclassified portion of the Congressional hearing…

“We may find ourselves fighting more wars with fewer people,” says John Nagl, a former U.S. Army officer who wrote its counterinsurgency manual and now heads the Center for New American Security, a think tank. “That raises some interesting questions — like whether we have the right to do that. There is much less public debate. Society doesn’t pay the cost and so doesn’t ask the questions.”

Quietly, this approach is already redefining how conflicts are waged. Conventional troop surges might have dominated coverage of Iraq and Afghanistan, but behind the scenes the generals were heavily dependent on secret, special operations. Intelligence operators, remote-controlled drones and troops from the SEALS, Delta Force, Britain’s SAS and other forces fought hidden campaigns against insurgent leaders and bomb makers, working with local communities to turn conflicts against Al Qaeda, the Taliban and their allies.