Direct action (military)

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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]" Informally, soldiers call them "kick in the door" missions.

The US and many allied countries consider DA one of the basic special operations missions. Some units specialize in it, such as the 75th Ranger Regiment, while other units, such as United States Army Special Forces, have DA capabilities but focus more on other operations. While Special Forces was originally created for the unconventional warfare (UW) mission and gradually added other capabilities, the United States Navy SEAL teams, and the UK Special Air Service and Special Boat Service, had DA and special reconnaissance (SR) as original missions. SEALs, SAS, and SBS added additional capabilities. Soviet, now 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.

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. Had the hostage rescue force in Operation Eagle Claw actually moved into Tehrān, they would have worn dark, nondescript clothing with American insignia under black tape. Before taking any combat action, they were to remove the tape[2]

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 their 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. 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 Tehrān, 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.

In practice, any military operation that operates at least partially out of uniform may be considered illegal combatants. Formally, being out of uniform while approaching a target is considered a legitimate ruse of war, rather spying, according to the language of the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949[3]. This continues the language of the Hague Convention of 1907[4]. 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 guerrillas 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.

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 attacks a target with its 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[5].


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 United States 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 fuze 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 guerrillas), the force is apt to be treated as other than legal combatants.


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 and angry enemy. Rather than going immediately to the means of exfiltration, they may have prepared a safehouse or some other hiding place near the target, and make a delayed exfiltration.

Examples of Direct Action missions

When studying the history of direct action, it is well to remember that certain operations did not achieve their result due to external factors, such as the Operation IVORY COAST raid on Son Tay prison camp in North Vietnam. US prisoners of war had been removed from the facility, but, looking at the tactical conduct of the operation, had there been prisoners present, they almost certainly would have been rescued successfully.

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, for 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.

A combination of Filipino guerrillas, 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 guerrillas 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 guerrillas 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.

File:Los baños plan.gif
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 guerrillas. Two days later, they marked the Drop and Landing Zones, and then killed the gate guards, as a guerrilla regiment encircled the camp and attacked Japanese they could see.

Next, a paratroop company jumped into a marked drop zone, linked up with additional guerrillas, 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 guerrilla units formed ambushes to stop Japanese reinforcements from moving into the area. 2,147 former Allied POWs and internees were rescued. Two guerrillas 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 (TECHINT) 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 [6]

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 unit, near the camp, they took no casualties (other than a broken ankle from a hard landing). Unfortunately, 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 [7].

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.

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 [8]. 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.

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 [9].

In 1994, part of the requests to UN military headquarters from the on-scene commander, MG Romeo Dallaire, included seizing a broadcast facility, which he considered the chief inciter of violence. He was told such action was outside his authority [10].

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. [11]. 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.