US Army Special Forces are an elite military unit, the only unit specifically organized to counter the insurgencies and unconventional threats that America faces today, and is likely to face well into the future.
Structured for unconventional warfare, Special Forces teams are task organized into 12-man teams or Operational Detachment-A teams, commonly called ODA’s, or simply A-Teams. Capable of working independently in a decentralized manner, these teams consist of:
- 18A-Team Leader (Captain)
- 180A-Assistant Team Leader (Warrant Officer)
- 18Z-Team Sergeant (Master Sergeant)
- 18F-Intelligence Sergeant (Staff Sergeant or Sergeant First Class)
- 18D-Senior Medical Sergeant (Sergeant First Class)
- 18D-Junior Medical Sergeant (Sergeant or Staff Sergeant)
- 18B-Senior Weapons Sergeant (Sergeant First Class)
- 18B-Junior Weapons Sergeant (Sergeant or Staff Sergeant)
- 18E-Senior Communications Sergeant (Sergeant First Class)
- 18E-Junior Communication Sergeant (Sergeant or Staff Sergeant)
- 18C-Senior Engineer Sergeant (Sergeant First Class)
- 18C-Junior Engineer Sergeant (Sergeant or Staff Sergeant)
Each of these job titles carries with it a unique set of responsibilities, both operationally and administratively. For instance, a Weapons Sergeant trains his team in weapons and tactics, but also writes the team’s Standard Operating Procedures and builds range packets and lesson plans. A Medical Sergeant treats the wounded in combat, but also gives his team vaccinations and makes sure their medical records are up to date. The redundancy of having two soldiers on every ODA in each specialty gives the team the added flexibility of also conducting split team operations.
Additionally, within a Special Forces Company consisting of six ODA’s, there are teams that further specialize in Military Free Fall (HALO), Combat Divers, and Mountain Warfare.
ODAs have seven doctrinal mission profiles:
Foreign Internal Defense: FID is the bread and butter of Special Forces soldiers. Acting as trainers and instructors, ODAs work with and through indigenous troops to conduct combat operations in war and train allied and friendly nations across the globe in military tactics and techniques during times of peace.
Direct Action: DA missions are strike operations against enemy targets. This could encompass the destruction of enemy resupply lines, such as blowing up rail lines, destroying enemy missile sites, raiding enemy base camps, or more frequently today, hunting down terrorist leaders in the cities and urban sprawl. Direct Action missions are of short duration and can be conducted unilaterally by ODAs, but are almost always carried out with the indigenous soldiers that they train and work with.
Special Reconnaissance: SR is conducted to gather strategic intelligence that is reported back to higher headquarters elements. These types of missions can be carried out deep behind enemy lines, laying up in a hide site for weeks on end studying key infrastructure and gathering information on enemy troop movements.
Unconventional Warfare: Generally, UW missions involve an ODA infiltrating into a hostile nation, linking up with rebel guerrilla fighters and working with them to topple rogue regimes. In this manner, Special Forces soldiers operate in austere, non-permissive environments with a loose command and control structure, using irregular tactics and techniques to counter enemy forces. This is exactly what Special Forces soldiers did when they linked up with the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan and crushed the Taliban.
Counter Terrorism: Each Special Forces Group also contains a company of Green Berets that specialize in Direct Action and Counter Terrorism. These soldiers train specifically for strike operations and have access to a higher level of funding and more training opportunities. While distinct from Rangers and Delta Force, these soldiers provide some of the same capabilities, but normally work with an indigenous commando unit.
Counter Proliferation: These types of operations involve preventing terrorist and criminal organizations from obtaining Weapons of Mass Destruction or the components needed to create them. This mission will almost certainly be executed by, with, and through the military of a host-nation government.
Information Operations: Formerly Psychological Operations, most SF missions now have an I/O component which could be as simple as distributing pamphlets and delivering a message to the locals about who you are and why you are in their neighborhood. In one instance, I was in a very remote part of Iraq visiting villages. In each village, I helped introduce my Iraqi counterparts to the locals and made sure they were aware that Iraqi soldiers were available to them in case they had trouble with the insurgents. This is one type of information operation. IO is about influencing, educating, and altering perceptions.
Special Forces, also known as Green Berets, trace their heritage back to the Office of Strategic Services, or OSS of World War II fame. The OSS was a para-military intelligence service that operated behind enemy lines in both the European and Pacific theaters, conducting reconnaissance, sabotage, and other clandestine activities directed against the Nazi and Imperial Japanese forces. Members of the OSS went on to serve in both the CIA and Special Forces.
Special Forces were formally established in 1952 by the indomitable Colonel Aaron Bank, himself an OSS legend, who had parachuted into Nazi occupied France, eventually formulating a plan to capture Hitler if he had tried to flea from Berlin. Located on Smoke Bomb Hill in Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, the Special Forces began recruiting. They had their pick of the best America had to offer: battle hardened paratroopers, former OSS men, and other veterans of World War II and the Korean War. The wearing of the distinctive green beret by Special Forces soldiers was controversial amongst Army leadership until General Yarborough cleared it up for us in 1961.
US Special Forces came into their own, proving themselves in the jungles, villages, and cities of South East Asia, especially in Vietnam. As the Vietnam War escalated, Special Forces soldiers carried out their primary duty as military instructors, coaching and mentoring South Vietnamese forces as they fought against the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army. Special Forces worked with South Vietnamese, Chinese Nung mercenaries, and the Montagnards, some of whom were fresh out of their jungle villages. These tribal peoples turned in their loin cloths for military boots and uniforms, their Green Beret mentors molding them into an effective fighting force.
The heroic actions of Special Forces soldiers in Vietnam are simply too numerous to mention here. Special Forces soldiers also participated in the Phoenix Program, Studies and Observations Group, and Project Delta, all of which are worthy of individual study.
Today’s Special Forces are broken down into five Groups consisting of three or four battalions of Green Berets, plus support elements. In addition, there are also two National Guard Special Forces Groups, 19th and 20th Groups, which are also deployed on a regular basis.