Overt, Covert, and Clandestine

Spy-vs-Spy-fullThe three are three regimes of operations. Not all elements of an armed force can operate in all three. (Relatively few can, actually). Elements of national-level intelligence services cannot generally operate in all three regimes (some nations like Russia and Iran are exceptions, with intel agencies that also field armed forces of their own).

The three are often defined erroneously. We link here to the official DOD definitions, which differ in important details from some seen on the net.

Overt Operations

The DOD Pub 1 definition is: “An operation conducted openly, without concealment.”

This is the modus operandi of field armies. When the 2nd Guards Tank Army punches through your cavalry cordon, the 2nd Ranger Battalion seizes your airfield, the 2nd Legion routs your Teutonic horde, there’s no doubt about what happened, who did it, or why. A known enemy has conducted a combat operation, and you can basically answer the 5Ws of that operation. In the fog of war, you might not know all the details, like the name of the commander or the enemy units True Unit Identifier, but you know in general the shape of the operation and the forces involved. Indeed, unless your combat intelligence staff is slumbering, you saw it coming to one extent or another.

An operation is overt even if the operator takes great measures to maintain operational security and secrecy prior to and during the operation. If, when the fires are out, the enemy knows what was done to him and pretty much who did it, the operation was overt. D-Day was overt, then, even though it was attended by an enormous deception, concealment, and operations security effort that did succeed brilliantly in misleading the enemy leadership.

Covert Operations

The DOD Pub 1 definition is: “An operation that is so planned and executed as to conceal the identity of or permit plausible denial by the sponsor.”

Covert operations are largely special operations, whether by dedicated SOF troops, task-organized general-purpose forces, third-nation personnel or non-military assets. Note that concealing the identity prior to or during an attack, for example by painting out identification numbers or insignia, doesn’t make the operation covert. Note also that relatively few special operations are actually covert.

Note, certainly, that “plausible denial” falls far short of “impunity before a court of law or public opinion.”

One famous, ill-fated covert operation was the Bay of Pigs invasion. Its covert nature was a key factor in its failure. It was too small to succeed without going overt, yet too big to sustain plausible deniability, so it didn’t. If what you expect from your operation is impossible, you will be disappointed every time.

A much more successful covert operation was the long-standing SOG strategic reconnaissance program in the denied areas of Southeast Asia. In time, the enemy came to know who they were dealing with, but the US maintained deniability of these missions until, in some case, less than a decade ago.

Clandestine Operations

The DOD Pub 1 definition is: “An operation sponsored or conducted by governmental departments or agencies in such a way as to assure secrecy or concealment. A clandestine operation differs from a covert operation in that emphasis is placed on concealment of the operation rather than on concealment of the identity of the sponsor. In special operations, an activity may be both covert and clandestine and may focus equally on operational considerations and intelligence-related activities.”

These are missions that leave no trace that the operation ever happened. Some examples of these are obvious: espionage missions. Special missions to pilfer cryptographic material, a staple of world special operations forces and spies for centuries, are also a perfect example. If Alice steals Bob’s code that he uses to communicate with Charlie, it’s a much bigger calamity for Bob if he doesn’t know she has done so, than if he does. In the latter case, he has the embuggerment of establishing a new secure communications system; in the former, he is unwitting that his private communications are not so private after all.

Why we’re posting this now

It has a bearing on the ongoing discussion of Operation Red Wings. Ideally, a long-range reconnaissance patrol conducting an SR mission (“Reconnaissance and surveillance actions conducted as a special operation in hostile, denied, or politically sensitive environments to collect or verify information of strategic or operational significance, employing military capabilities not normally found in conventional forces. Also called SR”) does so as a covert or clandestine mission.

Red Wings, with its objective to neutralize a particular Taliban-allied militia element, could not have been a covert or clandestine operation, but the associated SR mission could have been. (It needn’t have been, perhaps).

There are obviously hazards to this and trade-offs. (Consider the signature of a helicopter, which are often used for convenience and time factors on infiltration). US SOF have done some great work by walking in, and by using other means of infiltration that do not have the visual and auditory signature of helicopters. Those means have their own limits. Any decent chopper pilot, for example, can set you down safe as houses on a mountain peak. (If his copter can hover OGE at that altitude, anyway). A parachute landing in mountainous terrain is much riskier (although there are means of mitigating some of the risks). And, of course, a helicopter can pick you back up. The AFSOF guys long had a capability to do that fixed-wing, but gave it up in 1996 over a throw-down with the Army over funding. Once you go out the door of the fixed-wing transport in flight, you’re committed to being on the ground for a while.

There are all kinds of interesting hybrids of overt, covert and clandestine operations possible. (Imagine a unit in position to do X, unaware that their real major function is to provide cover for an embedded element tasked with Y).

It is always complicated, costly, and exhausting to operate at the higher levels of deniability. So it’s often best to stay overt as much as possible.

Is it possible the lightly-armed SR team on Operation Red Wings was trying too hard to be clandestine or covert? Out of force of habit, or rigidity of template?

We have no way of knowing, but we’re pretty sure that the SEALs themselves have been discussing this a lot. (They had similar discussions after the Grenada and Paitilla Airfield operations, after all).

5 thoughts on “Overt, Covert, and Clandestine

  1. Tom S

    I agree re Operation Redwing.

    Inter service rivalry? walk in as the marine unit did before they were inserted.

    Special units who endure and pass rigorous training and selection are perhaps not the best judge of when to say NO nothing is impossible to them that is why they are tasked.
    Higher leadership should be involved and be prudent. The common failure of special ops use is the leadership: Impossible missions that should not be attempted ;too short a timetable ;overestimating our strength while underestimating the enemy. and always the ability to keep mistakes a secret, in this case a brave sailor published the events….so we can recognize bravery and …..to see if their was a better way so it does not happen again.

    Doing the impossible led to over 19 seals who,paid the ultimate, a whole graduating class. An epic failure.

    In Force Recon Command by Lt.Col.A.Lee the problem he had was staff colonels who did not understand did not care and back seated from an office their activities. An infection in both the Army and Marine Corps. Col.Lee’s unit performed in an outstanding military manner but was always understaffed and once the General he chose him to operate this unit in this manner rotated out the staffers had more of their way.

    the shame was his men never got the acknowledgements/awards that they were due. His unit might be an example that you do not always need to have members with school badges to perform ; nice to have,but not a given that that”badge” = great performance.

    1. Hognose Post author

      The USMC has always done very well at distilling the idea that every Marine is elite into every Marine. From the outside looking in, it’s an egalitarian ethos that means the whole organization performs at a high level, but it’s culturally hostile to internal elites — the nail that sticks up gets hammered down. The Traditions are Marine traditions, not branch or unit traditions. Again, that’s an opinion from outside.

      Commanders who don’t understand special units often waste them. They can be internal commanders (Beckwith and B-52 in Vietnam) or external commanders (all the Army guys who expended the Ranger companies as shock infantry in Korea). In the first case, RTs were deliberately placed in nonsurvivable positions to provide a sort of human trip flare to enemy locations, largely because the Army’s line infantry sucked at dismounted patrolling.

      1. Tom S


        There is also as a result of their indoctrination/training special status some become almost suicidal.

        In WW2 the 1st special service force lost some men who recklessly jumped into trenches to get the enemy when other tactics would have resulted in a dead enemy and a live trooper.

        In Afghanistan a navy seal crossed a small stream at flood stage…..and drowned

        if you are special yes risk is part of the job description but is should not be reckless.

  2. RobRoySimmons

    Small detail, I read an account of a SAS man who was there in the 80s, and he wrote that his wearing boots brought more heat to his group he was with since it was obvious there was an adviser with a group wearing the usual tire tread sandals. He then had to make a solo trip back across the Kush and he wrote that made it a real problem since then anyone could tell he was solo. Don’t know what they wear there now, probably a mix. Any average tracker cutting their trail could tell a lot, especially if their boot prints stand out against the usual local’s Uniroyals.

    1. Hognose Post author

      Not tire tread sandals so much as rubber molded shoes. Damndest things, they have the design of a boat shoe or work oxford molded into them, laces and all… think they come from India or Pak. In 01-03 if you saw boot tracks it was hardcore TB or foreigners (Chechens, IMU Uzbeks, etc). I’m told that the TB, HIG and Haqqani crumbs close to the border were booted up pretty well by the mid-oughts. Vast quantities of US gear is stolen enroute across Pakistan so the guys are popping TB in our own GD boots these days.

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