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1.0     Introduction

Logo, USSOCOM (2)The role of United States Special Forces (USSF) has transformed over the past 70 years; from defeating the Axis forces in WWII, to facing down the Soviet Union, to their current preoccupation of fighting the global war against terrorism.

The US Government has reorganised its special operations assets to assist ‘the long war’, as it is sometimes called, in a move that signals a willingness to engage in the asymmetric warfare of the 21st century. Governments, around the world, are putting more stock in the need for SF: small, well trained and supported units operating on battlefields where the battle lines are poorly defined with enemies mixed amongst friends.

SF are sometimes referred to as ‘force multipliers’ – a recognition that these small teams of operators can achieve results comparable with much larger forces; whether by being integrated with their own military or by training and operating alongside foreign forces.

In Afghanistan, in 2001, USSF worked closely with Northern Alliance troops, coordinating attacks and calling in coalition air strikes. By employing SF in this way, the coalition was able to oust the Taliban with the minimum of ground troops whilst fostering a positive relationship with the indigenous friendly forces.

This article will provide the reader with an outline of the Special Forces within the Armed Forces of the United States, commonly referred to as the US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), and the supporting units which provide a variety of functions, such as transport and administration.

2.0     US Special Operations Command

Logo, USSOCOM (1)The United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) is one of nine combatant commands within the Department of Defence (DOD) unified command structure, and is commanded by the Commander USSOCOM.

The headquarters (HQ) of the USSOCOM is MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida, and numbers around 2,500-2,600 personnel (Robinson, 2013). The USSOCOM consists of a number of units including the well-known Green Berets, aka US Army Special Forces, and the US Navy SEALs.

The USSOCOM was formed on 16 April 1987 to draw together the various SF units of the US military into a unified command and is tasked with preparing, planning and conducting special operations.

Unlike the vast majority of other countries military (special operations) organisations, there is specific legislation (Goldwater-Nichols Defence Reorganisation Act of 1986 and the Nunn-Cohen Amendment to the National Defence Authorisation Act of 1987) pertaining to its organisation, authority and responsibilities, which include:

  • Development of special operations strategy, doctrine and tactics;
  • Preparation and submission of budget proposals for SOF;
  • Exercising authority, direction and control over special operations expenditures;
  • Training assigned forces;
  • Conducting specialised courses of instruction;
  • Validating requirements;
  • Establishing requirement priorities;
  • Ensuring interoperability of equipment and forces;
  • Formulating and submitting intelligence support requirements;
  • Monitoring Special Operations officers’ promotions, assignments, retention, training and professional military education;
  • Ensuring SOFs’ combat readiness;
  • Monitoring SOFs’ preparedness to carry out assigned missions; and
  • Developing and acquiring special operations-peculiar equipment, materiel, supplies and services.

USSOCOM is one of the largest special operations organisations in the world with approximately 69,000 personnel (as at March 2015) consisting of military (Regular, Reserve and National Guard) and civilian personnel in operator, enabler and support roles (Votel, 2015). In 2012, approximately 33,000 of the 66,594 personnel were special operators (Robinson, 2013) and in 2014 of the 69,300 personnel, 9% were civilian and 91% military (Machina, 2014).

It is interesting to note that the British Army has approximately 80,000 regular soldiers.

2.1     World War II Origins of US Special Operations

Logo, OSS, Office of Strategic Studies, WW2There are a number of units/organisations that can be classed as the progenitors of US modern special operations, and are outlined in this Section. This Section is intended to provide an insight into these units/organisations, and does not act as an authority on their history.

In March 1941 the US Marine Corps (USMC) established two scout companies, one for each Marine division, each consisting of a HQ and three platoons (just under 280 men) (Melson & Hannon, 1994).

On 11 July 1941 the Coordinator of Information (COI) was established as a civilian organisation with the purpose “to gather and analyze security information obtained from agents around the world and from government departments and agencies.” (Liptak, 2009, p.4).

On 07 June 1942 in Carrickfergus, Northern Ireland, the US Army established the 1st Ranger Battalion, although it was officially activated on 19 June. Its core personnel were drafted from V Corps’ 34th Infantry division and the 1st armoured division, both stationed in Northern Ireland. On 08 June Captain William Orlando Darby was promoted to Major and appointed commander of the Rangers, he promoted again to Lieutenant Colonel before the invasion of North Africa in October/November 1942.

The term Ranger (from the famous 18-century Rangers of the French and Indian Wars) rather than Commando was adopted because the US wanted an American-style name (Bahmanyar, 2004). Initially, the Ranger Battalion (consisting of 440+ men in seven companies) was established for the specific purpose of training soldiers in Commando skills and then re-assigning them to other units in order to provide “a well-trained and battle hardened core for the new American units.” (Bahmanyar, 2004, p.5).

After a split on 13 June 1942 part of COI became the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) under the jurisdiction of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS).

On 01 July 1942 the first Rangers went to the Commando Depot, Achnacarry, Scotland to be trained by the British Commandos (Bahmanyar, 2004).

In August 1942, the US Navy formed the Amphibious Scout and Raider School at Fort Pierce, Florida, to train individual soldiers, sailors, and Marines in raiding and patrolling techniques (Melson & Hannon, 1994).

The First Special Service Force (FSSF) was formed in August 1942, and was a joint Canadian/American unit (Werner, 2006). It was established to conduct commando-style raids in a manner similar to the British Commandos, who had been created in 1940. The FSSF initial training consisted of three phases:

  1. 8-weeks of training in weapons, demolitions, small-unit tactics and physical training, and parachute training (2 jumps rather than the normal 5 due to all the other training required);
  2. 6-weeks of training in unit tactics and problem-solving; and
  3. A period of training in skiing, rock climbing, and cold weather and vehicle training.

This initial training had an early emphasis on physical fitness: callisthenics, obstacle courses, and long marches with increasingly heavy packs, culminating in a timed march of 60 miles on the plains and 30-mile treks in the mountains. Other training included advanced skiing, first aid, radio training, mountain warfare, amphibious training, map reading, survival techniques, weapons handling (on a large variety of weapons), bayonet training, hand-to-hand combat, and demolitions.

On 19 April 1943, the 3rd and 4th Ranger Battalions were granted authority for activation (Bahmanyar, 2004).

The Special Operations (SO) branch of the OSS was established to take the war directly to the enemy through the art of unorthodox warfare (direct sabotage of enemy targets and the training of local resistance forces in guerrilla warfare). Operational Groups (OG), established as a separate branch from SO in May 1943, conducted irregular warfare directly against enemy forces by raiding installations, ambushing supply lines, occupying key infrastructure to prevent its destruction, as well as supplying, training and operating alongside resistance groups. In contrast to other OSS operatives behind the lines, OG personnel always fought in military uniform.

“Worn down by the continual fighting since 1942 and with an inadequate replacement system a number of ‘newer’ rangers were transferred [on 25 March 1944] to the American-Canadian First Special Service Force. The older hands returned state side where the [1st and 3rd] Ranger Battalions were deactivated [during August 1944].” (Bahmanyar, 2004, p.10).

In May 1944 the USMCs scout companies were renamed reconnaissance companies and assigned to the division HQs battalion.

Operation ‘Jedburgh’, conducted from June 1944, was a joint effort between SO, the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) and the Free French to establish three-man teams that could quickly organise, supply, train and accompany resistance groups in direct support of advancing Allied armies (Liptak, 2009).

From August 1944, OGs in Europe were collectively identified as 2671st Special Reconnaissance Battalion (Provisional).

The 4th Ranger Battalion was disband on 24 October 1944 at Camp Butner, North Carolina (Bahmanyar, 2004).

On 05 December 1944 the FSSF was dissolved but its spirit and certain icons were revived by the creation of the US Army’s new Special Forces during the latter half of the 1950s (Rottman, 1987; Werner, 2006).

By 1945 six USMC division reconnaissance companies and a single-force reconnaissance battalion existed, but by 1946 there were only two division units left.

Effective 01 October 1945 the OSS was disbanded, although it was re-established as the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in September 1947. “…many OSS veterans joined the CIA, including four future directors. Others stayed in the military, and used their OSS experience to make American special operations forces the elite fighting units they are today.” (Liptak, 2009, p.5).

2.2     USSOCOM Mission

The mission of USSOCOM is to synchronise the planning of special operations and provide SOF to support persistent, networked, and distributed Geographic Combatant Command (GCC) operations to protect and advance US interests.

2.3     USSOCOM Key Personalities

The Commander of USSOCOM is a 4-star General (OF-9) and, under US Code Title 10 (Sections 164 and 167), is responsible for the organising, training, and equipping of SOF for current and future challenges.

The Commander USSOCOM is assisted in carrying these responsibilities by the following departments and personalities:

  • Deputy Commander, an OF-8 level officer.
  • Vice Commander, an OF-8 level officer.
  • Command Sergeant Major (CSM), an OR-9 level soldier.
  • Chief of Staff and Command Support Directorate, an OF-7 level officer.
  • Special Operations Forces Acquisition, Technology & Logistics, a civilian post.
  • Special Operations Financial Management, a civilian post.
  • Force Management Directorate, an OF-7 level officer, consisting of:
    • J1 Directorate of Personnel.
    • J7/J9 Directorate of Training, Doctrine, and Capability Development.
    • Joint Special Operations University.
    • Preservation of the Force and Families.
  • J2 Directorate of Intelligence, an OF-6 level officer.
  • J3 Directorate of Operations, an OF-7 level officer.
  • J4 Directorate of Logistics, an OF-5 level officer.
  • J5 Directorate of Strategy, Plans and Policy, a civilian post.
  • J6 Directorate of Communications, a civilian post.
  • J8 Directorate of Force Structure, Requirements, Resources and Strategic Assessments – Air Force, an OF-7 level officer.


3.0     Organisation of USSOCOM

As well as the traditional leadership and staff officer roles identified above, the USSOCOM also consists of the commands identified in Table 1:

Table 1: Elements of USSOCOM
Command Personnel Numbers for 2012 (Robinson, 2013) Personnel Numbers for 2014 (Machina, 2014) Personnel Numbers for 2015 (Vogel, 2015)
Joint Special Operations Command 1,500 (2.4%) Unknown Unknown
Naval Special Warfare Command 9,000 (14.0%) 11,158 (12% civilian, 88% military) 10,000
United States Army Special Operations Command 28,500 (45.0%) 36,698 (7% civilians, 93% military) 27,000
Air Force Special Operations Command 18,000 (28.0%) 18,143 (14% civilian, 86% military) 19,500
Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command 2,600 (4.0%) 3,327 (4% civilian, 86% military) 3,000
Theatre Special Operations Commands 1,425 (2.2%) Unknown Unknown

A fuller description of commands and their individual SF units can be accessed by clicking on the headings below.

3.1     Joint Special Operations Command

Logo, JSOC, Joint Special Operations Command, US, Special ForcesThe Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) was established on 22 October 1980 and is located at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. JSOC is commanded by an OF-8 level officer, who is assisted by a Command Sergeant Major (OR-9).

JSOC is a sub-unified command of the USSOCOM and is responsible for:

  • Studying special operations requirements and techniques;
  • Ensure interoperability and equipment standardization;
  • Planning and conducting special operations exercises and training; and
  • Developing joint special operations tactics.

3.2     Naval Special Warfare Command

Logo, NAVSPECWARCOM, US Naval Special Warfare Command, US, Special ForcesThe Naval Special Warfare Command (NAVSPECWARCOM) was established on 16 April 1987 and is located in Coronado, California. NAVSPECWARCOM is commanded by a Rear Admiral (OF-7), who is assisted by a Master Chief Petty Officer (SEAL) (OR-9).

Numbering approximately 10,000 personnel, NAVSPECWARCOM consists of Navy SEALs (officially known as Special Warfare Operators), Special Warfare Combatant-Craft Crewmen (SWCC) (officially known as Special Warfare Boat Operators) and enablers.

3.3     United States Army Special Operations Command

Logo, USASOC, US Army Special Operations Command, US, Special Forces (1)The United States Army Special Operations Command (USASOC) was established on 01 December 1989 and is located at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. USASOC is commanded by a Lieutenant General (OF-8), who is assisted by a Command Sergeant Major (OR-9).

Numbering approximately 27,000 personnel, USASOC consists of US Army Special Forces (aka the Green Berets), Rangers, special operations aviators, civil affairs soldiers, military information support operators, training cadre and sustainment soldiers.

3.4     Air Force Special Operations Command

Logo, AFSOC, Air Force Special Operations Command, US, Special ForcesThe US Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) was established on 22 May 1990 and is located in Hurlburt Field, Florida. AFSOC is commanded by a Lieutenant General (OF-8), who is assisted by a Chief Master Sergeant (OR-9).

Numbering approximately 19,500 personnel, AFSOC consists of special tactics, special operations aviators and support air commandos.

3.5     Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command

Logo, MARSOC, Marine Corps Force Special Operations Command, USMC, US, Special ForcesThe Marines Corps Forces Special Operations Command (MARSOC) was established on 24 February 2006 and is located in Camp LeJeune, North Carolina. MARSOC is commanded by a Major General (OF-7), who is assisted by a Sergeant Major (OR-9).

Numbering approximately 3,000 personnel, MARSOC consists of critical skills operators, special operations officers, special operations capabilities specialists and special operations combat services specialists.

3.6     Theatre Special Operations Commands

Theatre Special Operations Commands are sub-unified commands of USSOCOM under the operational control of a Geographic Combatant Command, e.g. US Africa Command. There are currently seven Theatre SOCs, each of which may have a number of sub-units within their geographic area:

  • SOC Africa: established 01 October 2008 and commanded by an OF-6 level officer.
  • SOC Central (Homeland): established 01 December 1983 and commanded by an OF-7 level officer.
  • SOC Europe: established 22 January 1955 and commanded by an OF-7 level officer.
  • SOC Korea: established 14 July 1986 and commanded by an OF-6 level officer.
  • SOC North (America): established 05 November 2013 and commanded by an OF-7 level officer.
  • SOC Pacific: established 01 November 1983 and commanded by an OF-7 level officer.
  • SOC South (Caribbean, Central and South America): established 04 August 1986 and commanded by an OF-6 level officer.
  • NATO Special Operations Component Command/Special Operations Joint Task Force – Afghanistan: established 01 July 2012 and commanded by an OF-7 level officer.

Map, JSOC Sub-commands, TSOC, US, Special Forces

4.0     Roles and Tasks

US Army SF TabsUSSOCOM assets undertake a number of roles, or core activities, with a degree of interaction and interoperability:

  • Direct Action (DA): Short-duration strikes and other small-scale offensive actions employing specialised military capabilities to seize, destroy, capture, exploit, recover, or damage designated targets.
  • Special Reconnaissance: Actions conducted in sensitive environments to collect or verify information of strategic or operational significance.
  • Unconventional Warfare (UW): Actions to enable a resistance movement or insurgency to coerce, disrupt, or overthrow a government or occupying power.
  • Foreign Internal Defence: Activities that support a Host Nation’s internal defence and development (IDAD) strategy and programme designed to protect against subversion, lawlessness, insurgency, terrorism, and other threats to their internal security, and stability, and legitimacy.
  • Civil Affairs Operations (CAO): Enhance the relationship between military forces and civilian authorities in localities where military forces are present.
  • Counterterrorism: Actions taken directly against terrorist networks and indirectly to influence and render global and regional environments inhospitable to terrorist networks.
  • Military Information Support Operations (MISO): Are planned to convey selected information and indicators to foreign audiences to influence their emotions, motives, objective reasoning, and ultimately the behaviour of foreign governments, organisations, groups, and individuals in a manner favourable to the originator’s objectives.
  • Counter-proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD): Activities to support US Government efforts to curtail the conceptualisation, development, possession, proliferation, use, and effects of WMDs, related expertise, materials, technologies, and means of delivery by state and non-state actors.
  • Security Force Assistance: Activities based on organising, training, equipping, rebuilding, and advising various components of Foreign Security Forces.
  • Counter-insurgency: The blend of civilian and military efforts designed to end insurgent violence and facilitate a return to peaceful political processes.
  • Hostage Rescue and Recovery: Offensive measures taken to prevent, deter, pre-empt, and respond to terrorist threats and incidents, including recapture of US facilities, installations, and sensitive material in overseas areas.
  • Foreign Humanitarian Assistance: The range of DOD humanitarian activities conducted outside the US and its territories to relieve or reduce human suffering, disease, hunger, or privation.

5.0     Tier 1 and Tier 2 Special Forces

A number of SF units are sometimes referred to as ‘Tier 1’ SF units because they are the units usually tasked with direct action; e.g. US Navy SEALs. Other units are referred to as ‘Tier 2’ units at they, usually, fulfil a supporting role for the Tier 1 units; e.g. the US Navy’s special warfare combatant-craft crewmen.

6.0     Non-Special Forces Support Units

Non-special forces units that provide USSOCOM-wide crucial training and support roles for SF units are outlined below.

Service-level training and support units are described in detail in the individual commands identified in Sections 3.1 to 3.6 above.

6.1     Joint Special Operations University

The Joint Special Operations University (JSOU) is located at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida. The JSOU has a mixture of Regular, Reserve and civilian faculty members from across the US military who deliver unique SOF educational opportunities through:

  • Distance learning;
  • Residential courses; and
  • Integration of SOF curriculum with Service Professional Military Education Schools.

7.0     Women and USSF

Women in the US military have, for a number of years, been able to serve in a variety of SOF-related roles, including:

  • Intelligence;
  • Military information support;
  • Civil affairs units;
  • Female engagement teams;
  • Cultural support teams; and
  • Air Force special operations aviation roles.

As of March 2015, approximately two-thirds of the roles in USSOCOM were integrated (Vogel, 2015).

On 04 December 2015, the US Secretary of Defence, Ash Carter, announced that beginning in January 2016, all military occupations and positions would be open to women, without exception (Pellerin, 2015).

8.0     Useful Links

9.0     References

Bahmanyar, M. (2004) Warrior 69: Darby’s Rangers 1942-45. Oxford: Osprey Publishing Ltd.

Liptak, E. (2009) Elite 173: Office of Strategic Services 1942-45: The World War II Origins of the CIA. Oxford: Osprey Publishing Ltd.

Machina, F. (2014) Resourcing Special Operations. Available from World Wide Web: http://www.asmconline.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/30-Machina.pdf. [Accessed: 16 December, 2015].

Melson, C.D. & Hannon, P. (1994) Elite 55: Marine Recon 1940-90. Oxford: Osprey Publishing Ltd.

Pellerin, C. (2015) SecDef Opens all Military Occupations to Women. Available from World Wide Web: http://www.therecruiterjournal.com/secdef-opens-all-military-occupations-to-women.html. [Accessed: 04 December, 2015].

Robinson, L. (2013) Council Special Report No.66, April 2013: The Future of U.S. Special Operations Forces. New York, NY: Council on Foreign Relations.

Vogel, J.L. (2015) Statement of General Joseph L. Vogel, U.S. Army Commander United States Special Operations Command before the House Armed Services Committee, Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities, March 18, 2015. Available from World Wide Web: http://www.socom.mil/Documents/2015%20USSOCOM%20Posture%20Statement.pdf. [Accessed: 29 December, 2015].

Werner, B. (2006) Elite 45: First Special Service Force 1942-44. Oxford: Osprey Publishing Ltd.