A new book examining the ethics of military special operations, co-written by a UNSW Canberra academic, attempts to shine a light on the complex relationship between ethics and special forces.

The Ethics of Special Ops: Raids, Recoveries, Reconnaissance, and Rebels, provides insight into the ethics that guide the most complicated, high-risk and often controversial activities carried out by military forces – something the authors argue had previously been overlooked.

The book was written by UNSW Canberra Associate Professor Deane-Peter Baker, Arizona State University’s Dr Roger Herbert and Director of the Kings College London Centre for Military Ethics, Professor David Whetham.

UNSW Canberra also recently launched the Military Ethics Research Lab and Innovation Network (MERLIN), a world-first initiative that will conduct research examining ethical decision-making in military and security environments. It highlights the ongoing commitment UNSW Canberra has made to support research in this vital area.

Associate Professor Baker said while military ethics had done a respectable job of keeping up with modern advances, such as the ethics of drones, artificial intelligence and weapons, the operations of special forces had largely been ignored.

“I was first invited to teach a session on ethics for Australian special forces soldiers almost a decade ago,” Associate Professor Baker said.

“Preparing for that session I set out to familiarise myself with what had been written on the ethics of special operations. I essentially found nothing.

“That triggered a process of collaborative research over the following years which resulted in this book.

“We want to take this research forward by establishing MERLIN, our brand new ethics lab in Canberra. We will conduct experiments and broader empirical research to better recognise what puts our soldiers, sailors and aviators at risk of sub-optimal ethical decision-making, and help us to find ways to mitigate those risks.”

Dr Herbert said military ethics desperately needed to give more attention to special operations, as reliance on them would only grow.

“As it becomes increasingly dangerous for great powers to compete directly against each other, they will seek out ways to hurt each other without crossing those redlines that might lead to outright war,” Dr Herbert said.

“Special operations forces will play an important role in the so-called ‘grey zone’.

“There have been several high-profile examples of moral failures involving the special operations forces of Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

“This suggests there may be something about special operations – or special operators – that make adhering to ethical principles uniquely challenging.

“More importantly, Australian, UK, and US special forces have been at war since 9/11. They have been fighting for decades.  It’s not enough to give them the tools to prevail on the battlefield. 

"We must also provide the tools to ensure they return home with honour and as whole human beings.”

Wars and military operations can be viewed within the doctrine of the just war theory, which is a set of criteria that aims to ensure the act of going to war and actions within war can be ethically justified.

Professor Whetham said the book attempts to answer the fundamental question of whether special operations are somehow different, in ethical terms, from conventional military operations.

“It’s the nature of special operations to press up against and challenge the just war conventions and even international law,” Professor Whetham said.

“Should the just war principles that guide and constrain military forces generally also apply to special forces? Or are special operations too important to be limited by traditional ideas of right and wrong?

“We conclude that the laws and norms that govern the conduct of conventional military formations are sufficiently robust and flexible to serve our special operators as well.

“Furthermore, given the political sensitivity of special operations and the independent decision-making required of even the lowest ranking operator, it is essential, as with all their other skill sets, that special forces are masters of the ethics of warfighting.”

The Ethics of Special Ops: Raids, Recoveries, Reconnaissance, and Rebels was published by Cambridge University Press and is available now.

The book is a result of collaboration supported by the Security & Defence PLuS initiative.

Author biographies

  • Associate Professor Deane-Peter Baker is Director of the UNSW Canberra Military Ethics Research Lab and Innovation Network. He was previously an Assistant Professor of Ethics at the US Naval Academy and has held numerous research positions in the US and South Africa.
  • Dr Roger Herbert served for 26 years as a US Navy SEAL, including service in SEAL Team 6 and command of SEAL Delivery Vehicle Team 2, Naval Special Warfare Unit 3, and the Naval Special Warfare Center. He then served as Robert T. Herres Distinguished Military Professor of Ethics at the U.S. Naval Academy and is now a Research Fellow in the Future Security Initiative at Arizona State University.
  • Professor David Whetham is Director of the Kings College London Centre for Military Ethics. He was appointed as an Assistant Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force in 2020 and contributed to the Brereton Inquiry into Australian Special Forces operations in Afghanistan.