The take down of Usama Bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan and the killing of UBL has created a huge interest in the Special Operations (SO) capabilities our nation possesses. I concur completely with SecDef Gates and Chief of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mullen that we gave away too much information regarding our lads who pulled off the raid. I am going to honor their request that all the retired guys need to stop giving away the store. That said, the American people need to be better informed as to who is who in the Special Operations community, simply because so many folks are speaking inaccurately. What follows is very quick primer on this national treasure. It is given in very general terms and will drive experts crazy. Sorry guys, I am trying to fill in blanks for the uninformed and do it in less than a book length treatment.

My personal “rock” is that the term “Special Forces” (see Green Berets below) is not the generic term for these folks. The correct generic term that covers all the military is “special operations forces,” or SOF. These guys all work for U.S. Special Operations Command, the four-star combatant command that is responsible for the oversight of all manning, training, and equipping of these units, and some of their employment. Below this headquarters are SO components in each of the four uniformed services, and a joint (multi-service) headquarters called Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). Let’s look at what each service brings to the table. This will be quick and dirty. I will repeatedly use a term that is not in the U.S. military lexicon but is understood by many folks. This is “commando missions.” By that, I mean killing people and blowing things up.

The Army has the largest numbers of SOF units and capabilities. They have five Special Forces Groups. SF troops are more familiarly known as the Green Berets. These guys specialize in working together with other nations’ militaries. They are the military’s schoolteachers. They can also execute commando-like, direct action missions, but generally in small groups. They jump out of planes, do scuba or other water-related missions, and can stay behind enemy lines (in more conventional warfare scenarios) for long periods of time. They are mostly deployed in small teams of 12 but can also act as singles or larger units.

Next are the Rangers. They are the premier special light Infantry troops we have. They do larger scale commando missions with three battalions available. The Army Special Operations Aviation Regiment are superb flyers (rotary wing), most of whom are very senior Chief Warrant Officers. These guys always fly at night and never leave anyone behind if they have anything to say about it. If SOF needs to get in and out, these guys deliver the goods.

Also in the Army stable are Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Units (I think the PsyOps name has changed). These critical troops work with indigenous government elements, or use information operations to directly support other military actions.

The Navy has two main capabilities. These are the SEALs and the Special Boat Units / SEAL Delivery elements. The SEALs are commandos also, but they habitually operate near the water and in small groups. They also provide recon capabilities for Navy Fleet amphibious elements. They can and do operate away from the water, in the same way SF units can do water operations. The Special Boat Units / SEAL Delivery folks get the SEALs to their missions.

The Air Force Special Operations Command has a wide array of aviation assets. They have Rotary wing aircraft (many being replaced by the MC-22 Osprey), fixed wing for long-range infiltration, and fire support, and even a flying television station. They also have superb combat controller teams (CCTs) who can jump in and set up airfields and medical personnel known as Para-Jumpers (PJs). Obviously, the AF SOF work with the Army SO Aviators in the mission of getting the gunslingers to the crucial points on the battlefield. The AF elements directly support the Army and Navy “on the ground” forces, with their CCT’s and PJ’s sometimes accompanying them.

The most recent addition to the SOF family is in the Marine Corps. They have a Special Operations command and provide teams that train our allies, and provide recon and selected commando-like capabilities in support of other units.

There are also several units – one in the Navy and two in the Army – that do higher priority missions. They are called special mission units (OK, so we can only be so creative with names) and are commanded by JSOC. Their genesis in the 1980s was the need to have a direct response to terrorist hostage situations. Obviously, with the expansion of the terrorist threat, and out response to it, the missions of this top-of-the-line national forces have grown. Suffice it to say that (in the words of a SOF hero), these guys are the NFL players of the military world. Their missions are always dangerous and while we should admire them (and thank God for them), we should leave them in the shadows to do their jobs. Chasing them like some sort of military celebrities will put them (and their families) in danger. Don’t go there.

The bottom line to all of this is to know that as Orwell said, “ordinary people can sleep well at night because rough men (and some women) stand ready to do violence in their names.” All these true American heroes, many of whom I had the privilege to know, serve with and lead, put themselves at huge risk for our sakes. They work together as a superb team of professionals to do things few could even attempt, and fewer still accomplish. They live the Old Testament verse, “Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?’ And I said ‘Here am I, send me!” (Isaiah 6:8). They have stood up and answered in the same way. Some are young and idealistic; others are mature and vastly experienced. All have accepted a high calling of putting the welfare of others about their own.

I salute them, and you should as well.

Dr. Steven Bucci is director of the Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation. He was previously a lead consultant to IBM on cyber security policy. Bucci’s military and government service make him a recognized expert in the interagency process and defense of U.S. interests, particularly with regard to critical infrastructure and what he calls the productive interplay of government and the private sector. Read More
  • Melissa Bower Lamp

    So helpful. I work on a military installation for a newspaper but have no military background, and I find this all a bit confusing. Thank you for clearing this up!

    • Buccisp

      There are lots more details Melissa, this was very quick and dirty.  If you have other questions, please ask.  Steve

  • Nice overview, thanks. One question: Where is Delta Force in this? Are they a combination or another name for one mentioned or what? Again, thanks for the quick and comprehensive article.

    • Guest

      They are one of the two “special mission units” in the Navy that Mr. Bucci was referencing.  The one unit in the Navy is DEVGRU, also called Team 6.

  • CRE

    Delta Force aka 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment – Delta (1st SFOD-D) is the primary(if not only) SMU within the Army. (that we “know” of…ehemm)

    SEAL Team 6 (renamed DEVGRU for Naval Special Warfare Development Group) is the only SMU within the Navy.