As has already been stated below many of the missions currently associated with Special Forces are actually tasks that should be within the capabilities of any competent Infantry force. This does prompt the question
What is special about Special Forces?
One answer is that a Special unit offers skills or capabilities beyond those of a normal infantry unit. To explore this idea let us once again look at some of the missions allocated to Special Forces and the capabilities needed.
Special Forces are best used to undertake operations of a Strategic or Operational Level and must be capable of deploying globally at short notice.
When Special Forces are used for these missions one of the main capabilities they offer is their ability to use special insertion techniques. By this I mean deployment techniques that include HALO, HAHO and Microlight insertion, Mountaineering and the use of SCUBA apparatus.
It can possibly be argued that Reconnaissance/ Surveillance and Direct Action need different skills and sometimes different temperaments. The Reconnaissance/ Surveillance soldier needs considerable patience, observational skills and preferably good linguistic abilities. The Direct Action soldier needs to be skilled in demolitions, CQB and Hostage Rescue. Since many soldiers will not be sufficiently adept in all of these skills we will possibly see a regiment having both Recon Specialists and Assault Specialists.
A Special Forces regiment designed to fulfill the above roles will probably include considerable signaling, intelligence processing and technical support facilities. A pool of support weapons such as Machine guns, Mortars, Recoiless weapons and Missile Launchers will be available as will a pool of foreign/generic vehicles. Reconnaissance Specialists will be well provided with suppressed weapons while the Direct Action elements will have sizable holdings of 7.62x39mm weapons.
Security, VIP protection and Hostage Rescue.
Being able to eliminate an enemy unit while rescuing their hostages is obviously a highly skilled and specialist mission. For most missions it does not require that the unit also have training in high-altitude parachuting or combat scuba. This unit would deal with hostage situations that do not require the HRT to be deployed by special insertion techniques.
The HRT would be a component of a larger Military Security Force, as suggested in the article below and designated Gamma. Gamma would be responsible for the protection of military establishments.
VIP protection is another mission Special Forces often get used for. While they often perform these missions very effectively this is a poor use of their potential. VIP protection should be undertaken by units of Gamma or the Military Police.
Training/Liaison and assistance with Foreign Internal Defence.
A good recent example of these roles are the Special forces troops who moved with Afghan ground troops against the Taliban and controlled American air-strikes.
This is a very important role and the main special skills needed are diplomacy, tolerance of other cultures, linguistic ability and the ability to teach. A regiment of soldiers selected for these characteristics would be a vital component of the SIF.
Covert Action and Unconventional Warfare.
Many of these missions should be carried out by Intelligence operatives rather than military personnel since the special skills needed are often the ability to appear as a local and/or civilian. When there is a requirement for covert direct action it will often be better served by suitably trained intelligence operatives who can pass into a country by legitimate channels. Possibly a section along similar lines to the wartime SOE could be formed.
In my airpower article I touch upon the option of ground-launched surgical strikes being made by Special Forces teams with a variety of suitable weapons such as artillery rockets, mortars or guided missiles. Such actions might be conducted either by Special Insertion units or Covert teams.
Related to these are a type of unit that we might term Imposter Units typified by such units as the Brandenburgers and Selous Scouts. Such units impersonate the military units of enemy armies or terrorist groups. This often needs flawless linguistic skills and a complete familiarity with the customs and practices of the impersonated unit.
Group Reconnaissance Force/ Theatre Reconnaissance Force.
These units perform reconnaissance/ surveillance and possibly direct action but in support of a brigade or division. Not only do these units perform on a more local level and at shorter distances behind enemy lines but they have less need for special insertion techniques and what skills they do have will depend upon the unit that they are supporting. Generally a unit will be parachute qualified, but not necessarily in HALO and HAHO. Group/Brigade Recons for an Airborne or Airmobile force probably will be HALO/HAHO qualified and also serve as Pathfinders for the main force. A GSF in a true Mountain unit might not be jump-qualified but its personnel would be accomplished mountaineers. A GSF for a marine MEU would be equipped and practiced in the combat swimmer role and skilled in missions such as beach reconnaissance.
Where possible a GRF will be stationed near its likely area of operations for some time to allow it to become as familiar as possible with all aspects of the AO. Familiarity with the local language will be encouraged. It is probable that some forces such as the Marines or Airborne will have their own organic GRF while other units will acquire a local GRF when assigned to an area.
Recent discussions in G2mil and events in the news have prompted me to ask two questions:-
"What exactly are special forces for?"
"Are they organized and equipped in the best way to do this?"
The US has a large number of Special forces personnel and units. Whilst a military unit should be versatile there seem to be several different units doing the same job.
The media love terms like "Special Forces" and politicians (and Generals) are often swayed by this. Many of the missions that are assigned to Special forces actually should be within the capabilities of any half decent infantry unit a waste of the SOF soldier's capabilities, training and potential. Sometimes some missions given to Special Forces would be performed more effectively by conventional Infantry or Combined-arms units.
Even for valid Special Forces missions a case can be made that often personnel are over-qualified. Teaching foreign military or staying in an OP for a week do require special qualities but usually these are not that the soldier be a free-fall qualified underwater demolitions expert.
There is a case for having some units that are "Speciality forces"- competent soldiers with the necessary skills, rather than elite super-soldiers.
Typical SOF missions fall into the category of.
Partially taken from
- Training/Liaison with other forces. Foreign Internal Defense (FID)
- Intelligence gathering. Special Reconnaissance (SR)
- Offensive action. Direct Action (DA)
- Unconventional Warfare (UW)
- Combating terrorism.(CBT)
- Special skills mountain climbing, underwater demolition etc.
Caution! I've noticed minor viruses on my machine twice after visits to the www.specialoperations.com pages. Make sure your software is up to date and initiate a manual scan after a visit. The definition of unconventional warfare used here does not strike me as particularly comprehensive: it's a term that could cover a "multitude of sins". This page defines UW as
"A broad spectrum of military and paramilitary operations conducted in enemy-held, enemy-controlled or politically sensitive territory. UW includes, but is not limited to, the interrelated fields of guerilla warfare, evasion and escape, subversion, sabotage, and other operations of a low visibility, covert or clandestine nature. Conduct a broad spectrum of military and paramilitary operations. Long-duration, indirect activities including guerrilla warfare and other offensive, low visibility, or clandestine operations. Mostly conducted by indigenous forces organized, trained, equipped, supported, and directed in varying degrees by special operations forces."
Special Forces are often deployed pre-conflict and if used correctly the intelligence gained or direct action can often avoid a conflict occuring.
For convenience I'm limiting the following comments to "Army" Special forces. A good case can be made that many Special Forces should be Joint-Service and recruit suitable individuals from the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines.
Green Berets-Alpha Force.
For various reasons it is often better to help an ally fight his own battles more effectively than fighting it for him. Successful examples of this include the SOE and Jedburg operations in Europe and Asia and the operations of the Green berets in Vietnam.
To quote a webpage on the Green Berets, they are trained to perform:-
Foreign Internal Defense (FID), Unconventional Warfare (UW), Special Reconnaissance (SR), Direct Action (DA) and Combating Terrorism (CBT). While Special Forces soldiers are capable of performing all of these missions, an increasing emphasis is being placed on FID and coalition warfare/support. FID operations are designed to help friendly developing nations by working with host country military and paramilitary forces to improve their technical skills, understanding of human rights issues, and to help with humanitarian and civic action projects.
Coalition warfare/support draws upon the Special Forces soldier's maturity, military skills, language skills, and cultural awareness. It ensures the ability of a wide variety of foreign troops to work together effectively in a wide variety of military exercises or operations."
FID is a role that requires special abilities. Personnel of such a unit will be ambassadors as much as instructors and such advisors will need to be diplomatic and tolerant of foreign customs and cultures. Linguistic ability and the ability to teach are obviously useful.
Since advisors may end up leading the units they train, and these units will be infantry rather than special forces, familiarity with commanding large units will be needed. In some countries they may be needed to train armoured and artillery units as well.
Advisors will also provide a source of advanced skills for the unit such as demolition, sniping etc. When not deployed overseas such personnel can be used to train other units of US forces in SERE, advanced infantry skills and demolitions. This will keep the instructors practiced while increasing the capabilities of General Purpose forces.
This unit might also contain staff with knowledge and experience in special skills. For a short term requirement these could act as direct action units for special missions. In a long term situation they will act as a cadre to train others in their abilities. A good example of such a unit might be a tunnel-rat/ subterranean warfare unit. This would contain men of small stature, familiar with underground conditions and with a pool of specialized equipment.
What I chose to term "Alpha Force" is in fact the Green berets with a slightly different structure, concentrating on the above missions and leaving the main responsibility for missions such as Counter-Terrorism and Special Reconnaissance to other units. SFGs converted to this structure will be known as Alpha forces or SFOD-A.
Alpha Forces would form an important component of the proposed Special Intervention Force, being familiar with training, guerilla and counter-guerilla warfare, medical care and engineering.
Deep Reconnaissance Force/ Delta.
There is also a need for a strategic reconnaissance force. These are the guys that guide the smart bombs into the enemy's capital and some of their missions may involve clandestine operations such as reconnaissance in disguise.
Operations will probably be by units of no more than four men. Such units will mainly be used for intelligence gathering but may have a small unit direct action role, such as limited attacks, sniping or ambushes.
Delta force is probably the unit most suited to these missions.
Information publicized about Delta indicates that its organization is heavily influenced by the SAS. Delta is supposed to be a Counter-terrorist formation, but in Somalia and the Gulf they were obviously used for raiding and as light infantry. The fact that the unit has HEHO equipment suggests that special reconnaissance is also a mission.
These capabilities support the idea of the unit closely resembling the SAS. The SAS only has one squadron configured for Counter-terrorism, responsibility for this duty being rotated between the four Sabre squadrons.
Does Delta have a bigger commitment to counter-terrorism, or does it follow the SAS pattern in this respect too? Obviously a Delta soldier should be familiar with skills such as hostage rescue and anti-hijacking. However, if organized identically to the SAS in this respect more of the regiment will be in readiness for reconnaissance and commando missions than Counter-Terrorism.
As well as being a deep reconnaissance force, Delta will also be a source of units with specialized skills such as mountaineering, combat diving and advanced parachute techniques. If you really do need a demolitions expert that has to free-fall into the sea and climb a cliff to reach his objective, Delta should be the place to look.
One of the lessons of "Bravo Two Zero" is that if you are in terrain where vehicle use is possible the enemy will use them even if you don't.
Vehicle requirements for Delta will mainly be to transport reconnaissance teams. Motorbikes and ATVs are easily camouflaged and can be inserted by medium helicopters.
SAS and LRDG patrols have operated so deep within the enemy's territory that enemy units encountering them have often assumed them to be friendly. This suggests that some vehicles of Russian origin should be used as the basis of Gun jeeps.
I'm wary of describing a unit as "Anti-Terrorist" or "Counter-Insurgency", since such abilities should be within the scope of any decent infantry unit. Missions such as Hostage Rescue do, however, require of well trained, highly practiced units with special capabilities and equipment.
One regiment of Special forces should be converted into a military security and counter terrorism force. We'll refer to this formation as "Gamma Force".
This will have a similar role to Marine FAST units but also provide a SRT/SWAT capability. Some units of Gamma will be trained and equipped as Hostage Rescue Teams. Gamma would also be responsible for Bodyguard/VIP protection operations. Gamma force personnel will also train and advise other units in security and counter-terrorism.
Gamma squads or platoons will be attached to other units as needed.
Gamma is in some ways similar to Carlton Meyer's MarSec concept.
As well as Special forces under national control there is also a requirement for divisional or Brigade/Group reconnaissance units with similar abilities. The Reconnaissance battalion or C4I battalion should include a Long Range Reconnaissance Platoon/Company.
This would resemble a Marine Force Recon or Vietnam-era LRRP unit, but also have a organic complement of about a dozen vehicles, probably HMMWVs, LRVs, Bv-206s and APCs.
All personnel would be parachute qualified so can enter the enemy rear area by parachute, vehicle, helicopter or foot. Transport helicopters may be used to insert vehicles. Some units may also be trained for boat or scuba insertion. A similar unit to this is described on 1-39 of FM 100-63. Capability of LRRC unit would be similar to that of LRSU but would be organic to the Brigade/Regiment/Group.
LRRC units will be equipped to establish and maintain OPs.
Offensive action with Special forces is usually to secure a strategic objective or to attack a behind the lines target. This includes raiding operations (short duration) and guerilla activity (long duration) and usually involves attacking the enemy's lines of communication and supply.
Ground forces should not be used for this sort of mission unless aerial or artillery bombardment is not a practical alternative. Targets for the latter options can be located and directed by reconnaissance forces.
There is a tendency to think of Special Forces soldiers as "Super-soldiers" capable of defeating far greater numbers. While the histories of many units contain examples of Special forces prevailing under such odds it is not something to rely on. As the old joke goes:-
"If you find yourself in a fair fight you didn't plan your mission properly."
A small stealthy unit can often achieve more than an overt action by a larger force but such a unit needs to have a backup plan too. In other words you may only need two men to go in and photograph a code book but if discovered they'll need at least a squad's support fire to get them out with the information.
Sometimes stealth can't be used. Operations such as the attempt by Rangers to capture one of Bin Laden's lieutenants were preceded by aerial bombardment, presumably to weaken defences. The average drug-lord, warlord or dictator's bodyguard often runs to more than 40 men with automatic weapons and RPGs. With the advantage of cover an attack on such a group is effectively an assault on a dug-in platoon position, so needs at least company strength, and preferably direct and indirect fire support.
Given these considerations, I'm a little skeptical that small unit attacks are really that practical in many situations.
The alternative is to use larger forces with the required insertion/infiltration ability. This usually means the Rangers. The Ranger manual, FM 7-85 actually lists limitations of the Ranger formations such as limited anti-armour and anti-aircraft weapons, shortage of organic indirect fire systems and lack of organic transport. The latter is particularly bad for a force that is supposed to utilize "tactical mobility".
Ranger units should be re-organized to increase their organic resources. In addition to the current assets each battalion should have:-
The resultant unit, which we'll term a "Raider Battalion" would be rather like a USMC MEU(SOC) but smaller and with airborne qualified-personnel.
- A Support company with additional light, medium and possibly heavy mortars; Automatic grenade launchers, MANPADS, Anti-Material Rifles, HMGs, Recoilless Rifles, Anti-tank systems etc.
- An attached unit of helicopters. These will probably be armed transport/utility types.
- A pool of light armour such as STOATs and M113s.
- A pool of "Junkers" vehicles that can be used for transport but are regarded as expendable if necessary. Many of these might be captured or obsolete vehicles.
The second change that I'd make is that troops become practiced in operating as independent platoon, squad and even team formations. All combat personnel would be adept in four-man patrol techniques, allowing the target to be attacked with the size of force most appropriate.
Troops will be familiar with foreign weapons for sustained behind to lines missions.
I've called this formation a "Raider Battalion" rather than "Ranger" because it occurs to me that the operations that it will undertake could also be undertaken by other units. Being dropped behind the lines and causing as much trouble as possible is exactly what paratroop regiments were created to do. Using paratroopers in this way is a far more effective use for them than simply using them as line infantry. Likewise some Marine units might also be designated as "Raiders".
Rangers will remain as a nationally controlled strike force while Paratrooper or Marine raiders may be under the control of the theatre commander.
Training/Liaison Missions will mainly be the responsibility of the Green Berets, and these missions many involve operations within enemy territory.
Special reconnaissance will be the duty of Delta Force. This includes guiding airstrikes, artillery, naval gunfire or finding targets for Raider forces.
LRRC units will be responsible for long range divisional reconnaissance and OP operations.
Gamma force handles military security and counter terrorism needs and training in conjuction with other counter terrorist and security units, including Delta and the FBI.
Offensive operations ranging from a squad to a battalion are the responsibility of Raider formations. These units have organic resources of weapons and vehicles to help achieve their mission.
Delta provide direct action in situations when Raider formations lack the necessary skills.
Alpha (Green beret) Direct Action teams provide direct action when Delta lacks the required skills or trains other units in these skills.
Phil, Fresh look at an old subject. Particularly liked this comment:-
"I'm wary of describing a unit as "anti-terrorist" or "counter-insurgency", since such abilities should be within the scope of any decent infantry unit."
This is something that our military seems to forget.