U.S. Special Operations Forces

Special Operations Forces (SOF) are a very small percentage of the U.S. military, but they have been called "the tip of the spear". Following a long American tradition that dates back at least to the French and Indian War, SOF engage in unconventional methods and tactics to achieve very specific goals. Their mission might be to prepare the way for a larger, conventional force or it might be to accomplish something that will avoid the need for further action.

In the global struggle to eradicate terrorism, often the SOF are exactly what is needed. SOF is having an expanded role while the methods, arms and equipment of SOF are spreading into the regular forces.

U.S. Navy SEAL Team One, Bassac River, Vietnam, 19 Nov 1967
U.S. Navy SEAL Team One, Bassac River, Vietnam, 19 Nov 1967. Click photo for larger image.

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19 Sep 1944 Finland signs armistice with the Soviet Union.
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Special Operations in World War II -- the OSS

The Office of Special Services was established in the US during World War II to carry out activities deemed "unsuitable" for regular military forces. Under General Wm. ("Wild Bill") Donovan, OSS expanded in 1942 into full-fledged operations abroad, sending units to every theater of war that would have them.

OSS activities created a steady demand for devices and documents that could be used to trick, attack, or demoralize the enemy. Finding few agencies or corporations willing to undertake this sort of low-volume, highly specialized work, General Donovan enthusiastically promoted an in-house capability to fabricate the tools that OSS needed for its clandestine missions. By the end of the war, OSS engineers and technicians had formed a collection of labs, workshops, and experts that occasionally gave OSS a technological edge over its Axis foes.

The Special Operations and Secret Intelligence Branches frequently called on the technical prowess assembled in the Research & Development Branch (R&D) and related offices. R&D proved adept at inventing weapons and gadgets and in adapting Allied equipment to new missions. General Donovan hired Boston chemist and executive Stanley P. Lovell to be his "Professor Moriarty" in charge of R&D. The Division’s products ranged from silenced pistols to limpet mines to "Aunt Jemima," an allegedly explosive powder packaged in Chinese flour bags. Tiny cameras and inconspicuous letter-drops were devised to assist OSS agents in enemy territory. A companion unit, located in the Communications Branch but also confusingly titled the Research and Development Division, developed wiretap devices, electronic beacons for agents in the field, and excellent portable radios (particularly the "Joan-Eleanor" system, which allowed an agent to converse securely with an aircraft circling high overhead).

R&D’s components also fabricated the myriad papers that an agent needed to create a plausible identity behind enemy lines. The latest German and Japanese-issued ration cards, work passes, identification cards, and even occupation currency all had to be secretly acquired, perfectly imitated, and securely passed to operatives preparing for missions that could end in sudden death if any part of their cover stories went awry. An agent’s appearance had to be just as carefully prepared. In the words of the OSS official history:

…each agent had to be equipped with clothing sewn exactly as it would have been sewn if it were made in the local area for which he was destined; his eyeglasses, dental work, toothbrush, razor, brief case, travelling bag, shoes, and every item of wearing apparel had to be microscopically accurate.

The growing number of OSS coastal infiltration and sabotage projects eventually gave rise to an independent branch, the Maritime Unit, to develop specialized boats, equipment, and explosives. The Unit fashioned underwater breathing gear, waterproof watches and compasses, an inflatable motorized surfboard, and a two-man kayak that proved so promising that 275 were ordered by the British.

Some OSS schemes had a Rube Goldberg feel about them that seems almost comical today. Project CAMPBELL, for instance, was a remote-controlled speedboat, disguised as a local fishing craft and guided by aircraft, that would detonate against an anchored Japanese ship. The prototype sank a derelict freighter in trials, but the US Navy had no way of getting close enough to a Japanese harbor to launch CAMPBELL, and declined to develop the weapon. R&D built plenty of devices of its own that looked good on paper but either failed in tests or proved too impractical for combat use. But America was locked in a war for its very survival, and R&D chief Stanley Lovell felt that no idea could be overlooked: "It was my policy to consider any method whatever that might aid the war, however unorthodox or untried." Failures were accepted as a cost of doing business.

Special Operations Forces Today

Special Operations Forces (SOF) are prepared to operate worldwide and across the spectrum of conflict. In the United States military, approximately 46,000 active and Reserve personnel from the Army, Navy, and Air Force are assigned to USSOCOM. SOF are organized into into three service components and a joint command. In actual operations, service component units are normally employed in joint task forces tailored for specific missions. SOF are normally employed at the sub-unified theater Special Operations Command (SOC).

Army Special Operations Forces include Special Forces (Green Beret), Ranger, Special Operations Aviation (SOA), PSYOP, CA, Signal, Support, and Headquarters units under U.S. Army Special Operations Command (USASOC). Special Forces are organized into five active and two Army National Guard Groups. The Ranger regiment consists of three battalions, based at three locations across the United States. SOA consists of one active regiment in the United States and one detachment in Panama. PSYOP is organized into three groups, one active and two reserve. The CA force consists of one active duty battalion and the following U.S. Army Reserve (USAR) structure: seven general purpose brigades and 24 battalions. Ninety-seven percent of the CA force is found in the USAR.

Naval Special Warfare (NSW) forces support naval and joint special operations within the unified commands. NSW SOF is organized into two Naval Special Warfare Groups, each with three SEAL Teams of 10, 16-man Platoons and a SEAL Delivery (SDV) Team; two Special Boat Squadrons with a total of four Special Boat Units and eventually 13 Patrol Coastal class commissioned 170-foot ships; and four Naval Special Warfare Units, which are small command and control elements located outside the continental United States (CONUS) to support other NSW forces assigned to theater Special Operation Commands or components of naval task forces.

Air Force SOF are organized into one active Special Operations Wing, two active Special Operations Groups (one each in Pacific and European commands), one Air Force Reserve Special Operations Wing, one Air National Guard Special Operations Group, and one active Special Tactics Group. These units perform long-range infiltration, aerial refueling, resupply, exfiltration, or combat rescue missions deep within sensitive or enemy-held territory. They can also conduct PSYOP leaflet drops, broadcast radio or television signals, and deliver 15,000 pound BLU-82 bombs (as demonstrated during Operation Desert Storm), in addition to providing close air support, interdiction, and armed escort capabilities. These aircraft support both SOF and conventional forces. Additional important elements of Special Forces operations and support are provided by the USAF Combat Controllers (air traffic controllers who specialize in unconventional missions), and the Air Force Special Operations Command's Pararescuemen (PJs), who are trained and equipped to conduct unconventional rescue operations.

All Special Forces undergo SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape) training, conducted by the Army at the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School, Ft. Bragg, NC, by the Air Force at Fairchild Air Force Base, WA, and by the Navy at the Fleet Aviation Specialized Operational Training Group, Brunswick, ME (FASO DET Brunswick).

Thanks to TSgt David Vick for advice on this page.

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