Special forces

US Special Forces – who they are and what they do

US Special Forces are wide-ranging and complex. Here is your guide to them.

Black-clad super commandos leaping through windows or out of helicopters is probably the stereotypical image most people conjure up when they think of Special Forces.

In fairness, some aspects of this stereotype are accurate. The SAS did rappel down the walls of the Iranian Embassy and blow open its windows in 1980, and members of Seal Team Six did leap out of Black Hawk stealth helicopters before closing in on and killing Osama bin Laden in 2011.

Yet these are just some of the more well-known Special Forces operations of the last several decades. The norm is for Special Forces operations, and those who carry them out, to be less visible.  

Furthermore, even the terminology can be confusing. What precisely is or is not a Special Forces operation anyway?

As far as the American military lexicon goes, “Special Operations Forces”, or SOF, is often used instead of the term “Special Forces”. The exact reasons for this will be discussed below, but for now, the NATO definition is also very useful to help understand what exactly SOF personnel do:

“Special operations are military activities conducted by specially designated, organized, selected, trained and equipped forces using specialized techniques and modes of employment.”

Like any definition, this is open to interpretation, which is probably part of why American Special Forces (or Special Operations Forces) are so much more numerous than their British counterparts. Whereas the Brits have units like the SAS and SBS who are in turn assisted by high-calibre conventional forces assigned to the Special Forces Support Group (SFSG), American Special Operations Forces can encompass both these kinds of troops.

Hence, the available palette of American Special Forces is considerably larger than the British, something also accounted for by the comparatively larger US military.

This can lead to a certain amount of confusion online, and of course much about Special Forces will always remain hidden, by necessity. However, a careful analysis of reliable sources like Americanspecialops.com, military.com and Business Insider can yield a great deal of reliable information about US Special Forces.

What follows is a rundown of the multiple and varied US Special Forces units that are currently known about, broken down by each branch of the US military.     

US Special Forces
Green Berets doing vehicle interdiction training (Picture: US Department of Defense).

US Army Special Forces

The US Army is the ideal branch of the military with which to begin a discussion about US Special Forces.

The reason for this is not only because the US Army has what might be considered the original Special Forces unit (the Rangers), but also because it helps clarify the difference between the terms “Special Forces” and “Special Operations Forces”.

Essentially, as far as US military parlance goes, there is a denotative (as in official) definition of “Special Forces”, and a connotative definition of the term used more widely by the general public.

In strict US military parlance, “Special Forces” refers to US Army Green Berets. When originally formed in the 1950s, their role involved elite Army operators (US Special Forces troopers are usually referred to as “operators” rather than ‘soldiers’) working in small groups alongside foreign allies.

Green Berets have usually spoken foreign languages and would train these allies to fight a common enemy. This is a practice known as FID (Foreign Internal Defence) when concerned with the soldiers of an allied government, and as UW (Unconventional Warfare) when done with rebel or guerrilla fighters against a government the US opposes. Green Berets have also traditionally fought alongside those they equip and train, such as the Northern Alliance, who they worked with to topple the Taliban government in Afghanistan in 2001.

9-11 War in Afghanistan
US Green Berets operating with Northern Alliance forces in Afghanistan in 2001 (Picture: US Department of Defense).

The term US Army Special Forces might also be thought of as including Delta Force, an elite SAS-type unit also within the US Army, though again the tradition of the term goes back to the much older Green Berets.

Because of this, the term Special Operations Forces (SOF) is used more commonly within US military circles to include units like the Green Berets, and also Delta Force, as well as Special Forces throughout the US military more generally. The two terms are used interchangeably here.

Delta Force was established in 1977, and despite the terrible Chuck Norris action movie of the same name, the unit has a truly formidable reputation.

Going by various names over the years such as 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta (1ST SFOD-D), “the Unit” and the Combat Applications Group (CAG), Delta Force was modelled on the SAS. Its main remit is to perform a Counter-Terrorism role (CT), which can involve hostage rescue, fighting terrorist groups and/or killing or capturing the leaders. Some of this blends into what is often termed Direct Action (DT), which might be raids and sabotage operations conducted on a small scale, or raids in order to carry out rescues or assassinations. Delta Force also sometimes conduct Unconventional Warfare like the Green Berets (who in turn also perform Direct Action and Counter Terrorism roles themselves), as well as guarding VIPs, something known as Close Protection.

Business Insider’s Geoffrey Ingersoll has said the following of them:

“The uncontested number one heavy-weight champ. The operators of operators, crème de la crème — even the SEALs who killed bin Laden wish they were a part of this crew.”

Though in another article, Business Insider has quoted a Delta operator as saying that neither Seal Team Six (covered below) or Delta Force is better or worse, just that each unit has its own unique strengths and weaknesses.

Delta Force sometimes work alongside US Army Rangers, who, from a British perspective, seem to have roles that have an overlap between Special Forces and that of Special Forces support.

While their lineage goes back to before the American Revolutionary War, Rangers were recast essentially as commandos in the Second World War, with a portion of their historical lineage coming from British Commandos. These were historically used for raiding missions, usually of coastal targets, and a number of British Commandos and American Rangers were used during the D-Day landings.

These days, American Rangers are also usually airborne trained as well as well as continuing their commando-like roles as high-end infantry. Their training is truly comprehensive, not only being physically arduous but also extremely varied, giving them a well-rounded knowledge of using small-team infantry tactics in a huge variety of environments, like jungle, desert, mountainous terrain etc.

US Special operations forces
US Rangers train with Italian allies in 2018 – Rangers have a lineage to British commandos, though they are also airborne trained (Picture: US Department of Defense).

When most people think of US Army Rangers, they most likely picture what is known as the 75th Ranger Regiment, which is, like British Paras or Royal Marine Commandos, in many ways an elite group of conventional infantry. They might, for instance, be used for capturing a large important target during a conflict, such as an airfield or airport.

Likewise, just as Paras and Royal Marines largely fill out the Special Forces Support Group (SFSG), Rangers have been known to support Special Forces operators in their missions. A good example was the 1993 Black Hawk Down mission in Somalia (depicted in the film of that name) that saw Rangers secure a perimeter on the ground within the city of Mogadishu while Delta Force went inside one of the city buildings to capture a high-value enemy target. The British Special Forces Support Group may perform a similar role in support of the SAS.

Yet Rangers and Ranger training also go beyond these roles. An element of 75th Ranger Regiment serves directly within the highest-level Special Forces command unit, JSOC (Joint Special Operations Command) – more on this below.

Also, Ranger training is not exclusive, but available to other members of the US military so that they might spread elite small-unit infantry skills more widely.

Beyond this, there are a number of other US Army units that are also considered to be Special Operations Forces, and that might also be thought of in the British context as performing particular kinds of Special Forces support.

One of these is the 160th Aviation Regiment, also known as the SOAR (Special Operations Aviation Regiment), or just the “Nightstalkers”.

This is a helicopter squadron that flies a number of craft, including the aforementioned Black Hawk helicopters, often in support of US Army Special Forces, as well as in support of the Army more generally. The squadron is overseen by ARSOAC (Army Special Operations Aviation Command), which contains other support elements as well, such as a training battalion.

US Army special operations forces
Nightstalkers move one of the US Navy’s Special Boat Teams by helicopter (Picture: US Department of Defense).

Back on the ground, additional Special Forces support comes in the form of the Intelligence Support Activity (ISA), which uses signals and human intelligence to collect important information before certain Special Forces missions (i.e. a hostage rescue in a foreign town.) This can include the recruitment of agents and their use as spies within enemy organisations. The ISA can also perform Direct Action missions itself, since its members receive training from Delta Force personnel.

There is also the Asymmetric Warfare Group (AWG), which is a group of about 400 specialists who provide assistance to other Army units when they engage ‘asymmetric’ enemies, like insurgents or terrorists.

The Army’s 4th and 8th Military Information Support Groups are also a form of special forces support in that they operate under the command of US Army Special Operations Command and SOCOM (Special Operations Command – one of several role-based command structures covering the whole of the US military.)

The 4th and 8th Military Information Support Groups are airborne trained and use PSYOPS (Psychological Operations.) This involves the use of printed leaflets, loudspeakers or radio and television broadcasts to influence civilian populations in other countries being operated in, or enemy forces (i.e. by encouraging them to surrender.)

The US Army’s 95th Civil Affairs Brigade members are also Airborne trained and under Special Operations command. Their remit in fact seems to cover both Special Operations and more general military missions that involve contact with civilian populations. They essentially do what reconnaissance units do on the battlefield, but within populated civilian areas, carrying out civil reconnaissance, analysis of terrain within such areas (what Americanspecialops.com refers to as human terrain), locating useful military assets within civilian area, reducing civilian interference with military operations, and performing an anti-drug role. They also provide medical assistance to civilian populations.

There is also the 528th Sustainment Brigade. They are also airborne trained and do signals, medical and logistical support for Special Operations forces in the US Army.

US Army special operations forces
Members of 528th Sustainment Brigade in a training convoy in 2017 (Picture: US Department of Defense).

US Navy Special Forces

The tagline to the 1990 film ‘Navy Seals’ called them “America’s top secret weapon”, which they might have been, but for a major Hollywood film.

Nowadays, Navy SEALs are probably the most well-known US Navy Special Forces group. SEAL means “Sea, Air and Land”, meaning that even if SEALs come from the sea, they are capable of operating well in all environments.

They were formed in the 1960s at the behest of President Kennedy who wanted a specially trained unit that could perform unconventionally, and against terrorists, though trace their lineage back to World War 2 units such as Underwater Demolition Teams (UDTs.)

Like most other high-tier Special Forces units, these days SEALs are versatile and perform Direct Action missions, Unconventional Warfare, FID and Special Reconnaissance as well as counter-terrorism (CT) roles.

US Navy Special Operations Forces
Navy SEAL qualification training (Picture: US Department of Defense).

Since 2011 and the killing of Osama bin Laden, Seal Team Six (ST6) has become particularly prominent. Otherwise known as DEVGRU (the Naval Special Warfare Development Group), Seal Team Six is in a way an elite within an elite, being the only SEAL unit to be part of JSOC, the Joint Special Operations Command. This command gets approval for its missions from the highest level of the US government.

According to Americanspecialops.com, JSOC is also composed of Delta Force, the Ranger Regimental Reconnaissance Company (a part of the 75th Ranger Regiment that is thought to perform Special Reconnaissance missions for JSOC), the Intelligence Support Activity (ISA), and the USAF’s 24th Special Tactics Squadron, which is covered below.

Other SOF units are used more generally within SOCOM (Special Operations Command), which was established to coordinate the use of two or more SOF units together. JSOC is part of SOCOM, coordinating the use of the aforementioned highly elite SOF units for particularly important or difficult missions with the approval of the top of the US Government.

Regular Seal teams (i.e. other than DEVGRU), if one could reasonably refer to the Navy’s elite frogmen as ‘regular’, are also supported by Special Boat Teams. These are crewed by Special Warfare Combatant-craft Crewmen (SWCC), who give them amphibious insertion or extraction from enemy territory during missions.

Underwater insertion or extraction comes in the form of a Mk VIII Mod 1 SDV (Seal Delivery Vehicle), essentially a miniature submarine controlled by a Seal Delivery Team, a unit made up of Seals and associated technicians.

Meanwhile, air support comes in the form of the “Red Wolves”, or the Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 84 (HSC 84.) This is a specialised helicopter unit designated to give support to SEALs and their SWCCs.

US Navy Special Operations Forces
Navy Seals in Afghanistan in 2005 (Picture: US Department of Defense).

US Air Force Special Forces

The US Air Force (USAF) likewise has a number of squadrons dedicated to Special Operations support roles. In fact, so many that they are assembled into a number of entire Special Operations Wings – a wing being a collection of groups, and groups containing a number of squadrons, which have several (perhaps a dozen) of a particular type of aircraft within them.

USAF Special Operations Wings include 1st Special Operations Wing, 24th Special Operations Wing, 27th Special Operations Wing, 352nd Special Operations Wing (based at RAF Mildenhall), 919 Special Operations Wing and 193rd Special Operations Wing. These units all come under the command of AFSOC (Air Force Special Operations Command), which also has under its control the Air Force Special Operations Air Warfare Center (for training), 353rd Special Operations Group and 427th Special Operations Squadron.

The 193rd Special Operations Wing is an Air National Guard unit (i.e. like British reserves), of which there are also several other Air National Guard squadrons and flights under the control of AFSOC, too numerous to list here.

AFSOC also has a number of squadrons that contain ground forces rather than air forces. These are collectively referred to as Special Tactics Teams and they contain a number of specialised troops.

Air Force Special Operations Weathermen direct artillery and bombs from the ground, while also predicting the weather very precisely over a given battlespace in order to facilitate military operations unfolding there.

US Air Force special operations forces
An Air Force Special Operations Weatherman checking wind readings in Afghanistan (Picture: US Department of Defense).

Air Force Combat Controllers act as the USAF’s main reconnaissance forces, coordinating air strikes onto particular targets visible from their vantage points on the ground.

Tactical Air Control Parties are likewise a kind of Special Tactics Team and they often deploy alongside other special operations personnel. They have specialised training themselves and give advice and assistance from the ground on the use of air support for Special Forces missions.

There are also Pararescue Jumpers (or PJs), who conduct rescue missions behind enemy lines, usually of downed pilots. Pararescue Jumpers employ stealth and are also able to use guerrilla warfare tactics when required to deal with an enemy and then extract those they have been sent to rescue.

The USAF’s contribution to JSOC comes in the form of the Aviation Tactics and Evaluation Group (AVTEG) and 66th Air Operations Squadron. According to Americanspecialops.com, the former provides aircraft, pilots and expert aviation analysis for JSOC, a role that apparently saw it test the stealth helicopters used during the raid that killed bin Laden. The latter, meanwhile, is a transport aircraft squadron used by JSOC.

Americanpecialops.com also lists one of the Special Tactics Teams (24th Special Tactics Squadron) as being part of JSOC, and says that it contains Pararescuemen and Combat Controllers.

The US Air Force also has the 427th Special Operations Squadron. As the name suggests, they fly in support of Special Forces personnel and missions, though fixed-wing aircraft rather than helicopters, and they specialise in Short Take-off and Landing (STOL.)

US Air Force special operations forces
Pararescue Airmen get ready to do a training jump over the Atlantic as part of a NATO exercise in 2021 (Picture: US Department of Defense).

US Marine Corps Special Forces

The two main Special Forces units within the USMC are Marine Force Recon (or Force RECON, or Force Reconnaissance) and Marine Raiders, both of which in fact overlap, even while remaining somewhat distinct.

Force Recon is, as the name suggests, primarily an elite intelligence gathering unit for the US Marines. When deployed, the USMC is organised into MAGTFs (Marine Air-Ground Task Forces) than can vary in size from a couple of thousand personnel (these are called MEUs, or Marine Expeditionary Units) to enormous units called Marine Expeditionary Forces (MEFs) that are many times that size and which reside permanently on the east and west coasts of the US and in Japan.

Force Recon marines are those Special Forces marines that have been retained by the Marine Corps for use in its missions. They assist their MAGTFs with, according to americanspecialops.com, amphibious reconnaissance (i.e. scout swimming, beach recon missions), deep reconnaissance of enemy territory as well as some direct action roles. In the case of Force Recon marines, this would usually be maritime interdiction (i.e. stopping and taking over pirate ships) and VBSS, which means visit, board, search and seizure (i.e. of illicit goods on a pirate or enemy vessel.)

Meanwhile, as military.com explains, Force Recon marines were also used to seed newer Marine Special Forces units after 2006 known as Marine Raiders. Rather than being attached to the USMC’s Marine Air-Ground Task Forces, Raiders are under the command of MARSOC (i.e. US Marine Special Operations Command) and SOCOM, and therefore can be used more widely in operations around the world (though of course may also be sent in to help their fellow marines.)

Military.com’s description makes them sound more like conventional Special Forces, since they perform the usual unusual roles that Special Forces engage in: Direct Action, Foreign Internal Defence (FID) and Special Reconnaissance (i.e. recon missions deep inside enemy territory.)

Once again, the USMC also has a number of less well-known troops also considered to be Special Operations Forces.

One of these works with other Marine Corps SOF units. The Radio Reconnaissance Platoon contains specialists drawn from the Marine Corps’ Radio Battalions who are tasked with providing electronic warfare and signals intelligence for their MAGTFs, including Force Recon.

Meanwhile, ANGLICO (which stands for Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company) is a unit of airborne-trained artillery specialists who co-ordinate artillery and air-to-ground fire within a battlespace. They are tasked with liaising with commanders of allied forces on behalf of the MAGTF they are assigned to, and they can direct all kinds of fire, including from off-shore ships, onto a particular battle area. Although they are not tasked with fighting themselves, the need to avoid being killed or captured by an enemy as they work in small teams on the battlefield is why they are trained in SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape.)

The Marine Corps also has its defensive specialists. Fleet Anti-Terrorism Security Teams (FASTs) are tasked with detecting and preventing attacks, particularly terrorist attacks, against US Navy ships. The attack on the USS Cole in 2000 is an example of the kind of attack they would be tasked with preventing, largely through counter-surveillance and physical security.

US Marine Corps Special Operations Forces
Marine Raiders doing CQB (Close Quarters Battle) training in 2018 (Picture: US Department of Defense).

US Coast Guard Special Forces

Some might forget that the fifth main branch of the US Military is actually the Coast Guard, which provides maritime security and law enforcement as well as search and rescue off the coastlines of the US.

They have a number of their own specialist units that help perform these larger goals, including their own anti-terrorism security units known as MSSTs (Maritime Safety and Security Teams.) These units are tasked with protecting seaports from terrorist attacks.

The other side of this same coin are the Coast Guard’s MSRTs (Maritime Security Response Teams), which perform a counter-terrorism role out at sea, something that can include Direct Action against a terrorist threat.

Port Security Units (PSUs) could perhaps be thought of as a cross between MSSTs and MRSTs, since they protect ports both within the US and overseas.

Uniquely, the Coast Guard also has the NSF (or National Strike Force.) The role of the NSF differs from most Special Operations units since its role is to rush out to areas affected by a large-scale disaster. This can include events like oil spills as well as MWD events – namely, the use of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons. The NSF would also be used for a radiological attack like a dirty bomb being detonated at a US port.

The Coast Guard also has Tactical Law Enforcement Teams (abbreviated as TACLET), which are units tasked with interdicting narcotics smugglers, or other sea-based threats to the US.

US Coast Guard special operations forces
A member of a Maritime Security Response Team boards a training vessel (Picture: US Department of Defense).

Other Special Operations Units

Whereas the Coast Guard have an actual specialist law-enforcement team, the other branches of the US military have their own units with a kind of law-enforcement or security-style remit. Some of these units have been described as military SWAT teams (with SWAT standing for Special Weapons and Tactics, and SWATs being police units that provide a kind of military backup for police in difficult situations.)

The Army, for instance, has its Special Reaction Teams (SRTs), which are military police units tasked with handling specific challenging situations such as shooting sprees at a base, hostage rescue, terrorism, high-risk arrests and VIP protection.

The US Air Force, meanwhile, has its Tactical Response Force (TRF.) Business Insider has described these units as being like Air Force SWAT teams, which are trained to patrol and recapture Air Force-controlled nuclear-missile silos. They are also tasked with protecting missiles when they are transported in a convoy.

For its part, the Marine Corps has its own response teams. One of these is the Recapture Tactics Team (RTT), which is trained to protect facilities and vessels from threats. Rather than being deployed as and when needed, they are permanently assigned to a particular site or vessel. They are on hand and prepared to recapture these sites or vessels if they ever fall under the control of an enemy. In this regard, they are similar to Air Force TRFs.

The Marines also have their own Special Reaction Teams (SRTs), which, like the SRTs in the US Army, are specialist military police units from the USMC’s trained to deal with particularly challenging or important situations like terrorism, hostage rescue and VIP protection.

No doubt, there are other Special Operations Forces who are not publicly known, and others that are known but are too numerous to list and for whom there is not a great deal of information available. Americanspecialops.com’s JSOC page has several more SOF units that look to perform various Special Forces support roles.

Indeed, as noted, both the vast size of the US military and the tendency to include what the British might think of as Special Forces support as part of “Special Operations Forces” contributes to the huge number of US SOF units. The present count here is 37, if one takes the USAF’s various Special Operations Wings as one umbrella group, and includes DEVGRU as well as Navy SEALs.

Yet, when trying to determine just how many Special Forces units a particular country has, it is worth remembering that the “special” in Special Forces does not necessarily mean ‘better’. Whereas the SAS and Navy SEALs certainly contain very high-calibre soldiers (or “operators”), they are not necessarily superior to others in their respective militaries. For instance, an RAF fighter pilot might be thought of as being just as good at what they do as members of the SAS are at performing their roles. The difference is that an RAF fighter pilot is more conventional, whereas Special Forces often operate more unconventionally.

Lieutenant Colonel Stewart “PR” Parker makes a similar argument in Business Insider, advocating for thinking of Special Forces as merely “special”, as in trained for a unique and different role, rather than ‘elite’, as in better.

At the same time though, from the available evidence, it seems clear that the various American SOF units perform their sometimes very niche roles to a very high standard. And no doubt, JSOC and SOCOM will continue to work to make sure that, together, these various SOF units amount to more than the sum of their parts, and that they make the overall US military effort as effective as possible.

US Army special operations forces
A US Army Special Reaction Team doing active shooter response training in Hawaii in 2014 (Picture: US Department of Defense).