Located at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, FL, the US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) oversees all Special Operations Forces (SOF) in the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps. Special Operations soldiers are specially trained, equipped and organized to carry out strategic or tactical missions during periods of war and peace. The units continually train to conduct unconventional warfare in any of its forms, such as guerrilla warfare, special reconnaissance, evasion and escape, subversion and sabotage.
During the Bush administration, SOF missions have expanded in size and importance as part of the Global War on Terrorism campaign. This highly specialized wing of the military also has been implicated in scandals in recent years involving a former NFL player-turned-commando and a bribery scheme with defense contractors, as well as reports of secrets missions being conducted inside Iran.
Special Operations units can trace their origins to the early founding of the country, when they were known as rangers or raiders. America’s first unconventional military force was Rogers’ Rangers, named after Major Robert Rogers, who fought during the French and Indian War using hit-and-run tactics. During the American Revolution, Francis Marion, known as the Swamp Fox, led daring guerrilla raids on British forces in South Carolina and Georgia. In the Civil War, Colonel John Singleton Mosby became known as the Gray Ghost after leading a band of Confederate raiders who terrorized the Union army by cutting off communications and supplies, wrecking railroads and raiding Union headquarters behind enemy lines.
It was during World War II that modern special forces began to take shape through such predecessors as the Devil's Brigade, Darby's Rangers, Merrill's Marauders and the Alamo Scouts. Known formally as the 1st Special Service Force, the Devil's Brigade was a joint Canadian-American venture that began July 9, 1942, at Fort William Henry Harrison, Montana. Airborne-trained, the Devil's Brigade saw most of its action in Italy, but also fought in France. Its specialty was close-quarter combat against numerically-superior forces.
Darby's Rangers was the moniker given to the 1st Ranger Battalion in honor of its commander, Maj. William O. Darby. The unit was activated June 19, 1942, in Carrickfergus, Ireland. It fought throughout Western Europe, but achieved its greatest fame when it scaled the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc as part of the D-Day invasion of Normandy.
Merrill's Marauders was the title given to Col. Frank D. Merrill's 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional), a 3,000-man force that fought in Burma.
In the Pacific, Lieutenant General Walter Krueger established a small elite force called the Alamo Scouts, a forerunner of the modern-day Navy SEAL. In perhaps their greatest feat, the Scouts led U.S. Rangers and Filipino guerrillas in an attack on a Japanese prison camp at Cabantuan, freeing all 511 allied prisoners there. Never numbering more than 70 volunteers, the Alamo Scouts earned 44 Silver Stars, 33 Bronze Stars and four Soldier's Medals by the end of the war.
Another important lineage from WWII was the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). Considered the predecessor of the CIA, the OSS also performed functions that latter day Special Ops units would carry out. The primary operation of the OSS in Europe was called the Jedburgh mission, which consisted of dropping three-man teams into France, Belgium and Holland to train partisan resistance movements and conduct guerrilla operations against the Germans in preparation for the D-Day invasion. Other OSS operations took place in Asia, most notably in Burma, where OSS Detachment 101 organized 11,000 Kachin tribesmen into a force that eventually killed 10,000 Japanese at a loss of only 206 of its own.
In 1952 the Army created the Special Forces, based at Fort Bragg, NC, trained to infiltrate by land, sea or air enemy-occupied territory and organize resistance/guerrilla fighters to conduct guerrilla warfare. Special Forces were also designed to conduct deep-penetration raids into enemy territory, gather intelligence and carry out counterinsurgency operations. During President John F. Kennedy’s administration, Special Forces became a key player in military operations in Vietnam, where they earned the moniker Green Berets. They also conducted secret missions in Latin American countries, including the capture of Che Guevara in Bolivia.
The Vietnam War also marked the founding of the Navy’s and Air Forces’ own version of Special Forces. Responding to President Kennedy's desire for the services to develop unconventional warfare capability, the U.S. Navy established Navy SEAL
Teams One and Two in January of 1962. Formed entirely with personnel from Underwater Demolition Teams, the SEALs’ mission was to conduct counter guerilla warfare and clandestine operations in maritime and riverine environments. A year earlier, the Air Force formed the Air Commandos.
Following the US withdrawal from Vietnam, Special Forces became less of a priority under the administration of President Jimmy Carter. But with the taking of 53 American hostages in Iran in 1979, Special Forces were called upon to conduct a daring rescue mission codenamed Operation Eagle Claw
. The plan was to secretly establish a base of operations in a remote desert region of Iran, slip into Tehran unnoticed, free the hostages and fly out to a carrier task force at sea. The mission failed miserably, as Special Operations Forces (SOF) experienced numerous mechanical problems with their helicopters, causing one to crash, killing eight servicemen. The debacle was an embarrassment for President Carter and the SOF unit. Military hawks argued during the 1980s that something needed to be done to improve the military’s Special Ops capability. Congress adopted legislation in 1987 that established the US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), with the mission to organize, train and equip SOF units from the Army, Navy and Air Force. The Marine Corps was added to the command in 2005.
Since then the USSOCOM has overseen secret missions in Panama (Operation Just Cause), Iraq (Operation Provide Comfort and Operation Iraqi Freedom), Somalia (Operation Gothic Serpent), Haiti (Operation Uphold Democracy), Kosovo (Operation Allied Force) and Afghanistan (Operation Enduring Freedom), among others.
In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, SOF units have grown in size and expanded their missions as part of President George W. Bush’s Global War on Terrorism campaign. SOF units have conducted numerous classified missions in Afghanistan and Iraq, and have reportedly carried out secret reconnaissance operations in Iran
During the 20-year history of USSOCOM, the Army has dominated the leadership of Special Operations Command. The only non-Army officers to lead the command are Air Force Gen. Charles Holland and the current USSOCOM commander, Admiral Eric Thor Olson.
Located at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, FL, the US Special Operations Command oversees all Special Operations Forces (SOF) in the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps. Special Operations soldiers are specially trained, equipped and organized to carry out strategic or tactical missions in pursuit of military, political, economic or psychological objectives. These operations may be conducted during periods of peace or hostilities. The units continually train to conduct unconventional warfare in any of its forms, such as guerrilla warfare, special reconnaissance, evasion and escape, subversion and sabotage.
Army Special Operations Forces (ARSOF) consists of Special Forces, Ranger, Special Operations Aviation, Psychological Operations and Civil Affairs, as well as Signal and Combat Service Support units. Approximately 1,400 soldiers are assigned to each group. Rangers specialize in light infantry operations. These include attacks to temporarily seize and secure key objectives and other light infantry operations requiring unique capabilities. Like their Special Forces counterparts, Rangers can infiltrate an area by land, sea or air.
The 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment provides support to Special Operations Forces on a worldwide basis with three types of modified helicopters. The capabilities of the aviation units include inserting, resupplying and extracting US and Allied SOF personnel. They also assist in SOF search and rescue, and escape and evasion activities. In addition to general aviation support, these units provide airborne command and control, and fire support.
Psychological Operations disseminates information to foreign audiences to gain support for US goals and objectives. PSYOP units utilize messages in the form of leaflets, posters, broadcasts and audiovisual tapes. Each unit has its own intelligence and audiovisual specialists.
Civil Affairs units are designed to prevent civilian interference with tactical operations, to assist commanders in discharging their responsibilities toward the civilian population and to provide liaison with civilian government agencies.
The 112th Special Operations Signal Battalion (Airborne) provides communications links and service between the command, joint controlling agencies or commands, and U.S. Army special operations commands in two theaters of operation.
The 528th Special Operations Support Battalion (Airborne) enhances medical, maintenance, supply and transportation capabilities of SOF units
The major operational components of Naval Special Warfare Command include Naval Special Warfare Groups One and Three in San Diego, CA, and Naval Special Warfare Groups Two and Four in Norfolk, VA. These components deploy SEAL Teams, SEAL Delivery Vehicle Teams and Special Boat Teams worldwide to meet the training, exercise, contingency and wartime requirements of theater commanders. NSW consists of approximately 5,400 total active-duty personnel—including 2,450 SEALs and 600 Special Warfare Combatant-craft Crewmen (SWCC). NSW also can draw from a 1,200-person reserve of approximately 325 SEALs, 125 SWCC and 775 support personnel.
AFSOC units are essentially the Air Force's only ground combat force that goes beyond ground defense of air bases. In fact, a key job of AFSOC “operators” is to quickly turn an area of hostile terrain into a fully functional airfield. AFSOC units also scout locations for the delivery of 15,000-pound “Daisy Cutter” bombs designed to destroy large areas of enemy territory.
The newest of the Special Ops commands, the US Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command (MARSOC) was launched in October 2005 to form a unit of approximately 2,500 personnel. MARSOC will reach full operational capability in October of 2008.
MARSOC consists of the 1st Marine Special Operations Battalion headquartered at Camp Pendleton, CA, and the 2d Marine Special Operations Battalion at Camp Lejeune, NC. Each is commanded by a Marine major and capable of conducting special reconnaissance, unconventional warfare and counter terrorism, among other functions. MARSOC also contains the Marine Special Operations Support Group, which provides combined arms planning and coordination, K-9 support and communications support, and the Marine Special Operations School, which screens, recruits, trains and assesses Marine Corps candidates for MARSOC.
Like all branches of the military, Special Operations Command relies on defense contractors to provide equipment, weapons and supplies for SOF units. However, because it buys specialized equipment for its soldiers, USSOCOM has unique authority to buy materiel without going through the purchasing programs of the Army, Air Force or Navy. Much of that spending is classified.
According to The New York Times, Boeing has received millions of dollars in contracts with Special Operations Command. Boeing is one of the largest defense contractors in the US.
Defense contractors also have been known to lavish perks on Special Ops commanders to try to influence their decision-making on procurement matters.
A nonprofit organization called Night Stalkers, which provides entertainment and parties for command officials, has listed Raytheon, Boeing, L3 Communications, Sikorsky, General Electric and Rolls-Royce as contributors.
The contracts with USSOCOM are valued in the millions of dollars and cover items like lightweight communications systems, ammunition, small arms and other equipment carried by Army, Navy and Air Force special forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The consulting firm Strategic Defense International, which represents military contractors, has done business with the command. It also was caught up in a bribery scandal involving its founder (see Controversies).
Financial investigations dog special ops command (by Matt Kelley, USA Today)
Bribe Inquiry Involves Special Ops Command
In a widening scandal at the United States Special Operations Command, federal investigators have examined a bribery scheme as well as accusations of improper influence involving millions of dollars in battlefield equipment used by Navy Seals and Army Green Berets and Rangers. The investigations examined the hiring of a former Special Operations Command official by a military contractor as well as financial contributions by military contractors to a nonprofit organization that ran social events for the Special Forces. Among those under investigation was Gen. Bryan Brown, who headed the command until July 2007.
A civilian procurement official at the command, William E. Burke, pleaded guilty in federal court to having accepted bribes from an individual who represented military contractors seeking to equip commandos. The Special Forces command also investigated all of the contracts handled by Burke since 1999 to see whether special forces troops received inferior equipment as a result of the kickbacks.
As a result of the scandal, the Pentagon began looking into accusations made by current and former employees that a former military procurement official who oversaw millions of dollars in Boeing Company contracts went to work for Boeing after leaving the command.
Special Ops in Iran
In January 2005 investigative journalist Seymour Hersh reported in the New Yorker about the Bush administration’s expanded use of covert military operations, including missions inside Iran as part of preparations to attack the longtime US adversary. Hersh said secret reconnaissance missions, most likely involving Special Ops units, had been taking place inside Iran at least since the summer of 2005. Much of the focus was on the accumulation of intelligence and targeting information on Iranian nuclear, chemical and missile sites, both declared and suspected. The goal was to identify and isolate three dozen, and perhaps more, such targets that could be destroyed by precision air strikes and short-term commando raids.
“The civilians in the Pentagon want to go into Iran and destroy as much of the military infrastructure as possible,” a government consultant with close ties to the Pentagon told Hersh.
The story also told of an American commando task force that had been set up in South Asia, and with the aide of Pakistan, had been penetrating eastern Iran from Afghanistan in a hunt for underground installations. The task-force members used remote detection devices - known as sniffers - capable of sampling the atmosphere for radioactive emissions and other evidence of nuclear-enrichment programs.
Furthermore, according to Hersh, under new anti-terrorism strategies being pushed by the administration, Special Ops units had been set up into “action teams” in the target countries overseas to find and eliminate terrorist organizations.
Pat Tillman Cover Up
Following the 9/11 attacks, NFL star Pat Tillman did the unheard of. He walked away from a million-dollar career playing pro football in order to enlist in the Army. Wanting to fight al Qaeda and capture its leader, Osama Bin Laden, Pat wound up serving in the Army Rangers along with his brother, Kevin.
Pat Tillman’s enlistment grabbed the attention of the nation - and the highest levels of the Bush administration. A personal letter from Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld thanked him for serving his country. Instead of going to Afghanistan, as the brothers expected, their Ranger battalion was sent to participate in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003. The Tillmans saw combat several times on their way to Baghdad. In early 2004, they finally were assigned to Afghanistan.
On April 22, 2004, the Tillmans’ Ranger company was searching for Taliban and al Qaeda fighters in a village called Manah when one of their humvees became disabled. The unit proceeded to split up, and during an ensuing firefight with Taliban fighters, Pat Tillman was killed. Tillman’s death came at a sensitive time for the Bush administration - just a week before the Army’s abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib
in Iraq became public and sparked a huge scandal. The Pentagon immediately announced that Tillman had died heroically in combat with the enemy, and President Bush hailed him as “an inspiration on and off the football field, as with all who made the ultimate sacrifice in the war on terror.”
His killing was widely reported by the media, including conservative commentator Ann Coulter, who called him “an American original - virtuous, pure and masculine like only an American male can be.” His May 3, 2004, memorial in San Jose drew 3,500 people and was nationally televised.
Not until five weeks later, as Tillman’s battalion was returning home, did officials inform the public and the Tillman family that he had been killed accidentally by his fellow soldiers in a case of “friendly fire.” The Tillman family was outraged and sought the help of US Senator John McCain (R-AZ) to find out why they had not been told the truth sooner about Pat’s death. A House committee investigated the matter, and eventually the Army censored a three-star general, Lt. Gen. Philip R. Kensinger Jr., for failing to follow procedures requiring him to notify the Tillman family and top officials about the investigation into the possibility of friendly fire. Some critics contended Kensinger was merely a scapegoat to avoid those higher up in the chain of command from being implicated in the scandal, including Defense Secretary Rumsfeld.
Family Demands the Truth: New inquiry may expose events that led to Pat Tillman’s death
(by Robert Collier, San Francisco Chronicle)
Annual Budget: $6.2 billion
United States Special Operations Command