United States Army Special Forces

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United States Army Special Forces are both units and a military specialty designation in the United States Army. For many countries, "special forces" is a generic term. For the United States, it refers to specific units, and thus the more general term is special operations force in the Army Special Operations Command of the United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM). The Army Special Operations Command and Special Forces Headquarters are at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. In some cases, USSOCOM has operational control, but Special Forces (and other special operations forces) are usually attached to geographically Unified Combatant Commands.

Special Forces have a core set of seven missions, and may carry out other related duties.

Primary mission Secondary mission
unconventional warfare (United States doctrine) Combat search and rescue (CSAR)
Foreign internal defense(FID) security assistance
Special reconnaissance (SR) Peacekeeping
direct action (DA) humanitarian assistance
counter-terrorism (CT) humanitarian demining
Counterproliferation (CP) Counter-drug operations
psychological operations (PsyOps) --
information operations (IO) --

Unconventional warfare, while less often used operationally today, remains the conceptual core around which Special Forces skills are built. While Robert Gates was Director of Central Intelligence, he said, "If you can do the UW missions, you can do all others." The objective of UW and Special Forces' dedication to it is expressed in Special Forces' motto: De Oppresso Liber (to free the oppressed)." [1]

USSOCOM units or other U.S. government organizations, such as the Central Intelligence Agency, may be the specialists in these secondary areas[2]


Personnel selection and training

Those selected for Army Special Forces Training come from a number of different places: conventional army units, civilians(newly enlisted go through a program called the "X-Ray" program), other branches of service, and from Special Forces Detachments (Those enlisted in Special Forces must re-complete the training to become Special Forces Officers).

All those attempting to become Special Forces must go through something called "selection." Once a man has been "selected" for Special Forces Training, he is permanently reassigned to Special Forces Training Command for the duration of training. Special Forces training is called the "Q-Course" and consists of 6 Phases.

Phase I

Special Forces Assessment and Selection.

Phase II

Individual Skills.

Phase III

MOS Training.

Phase IV

Language Training.

Phase V

Robin Sage Event -- Practical Exercise.

Phase VI

Out-Processing and Assignment.

Unit organization

In Fort Bragg, NC, the Special Warfare Center operates the Special Forces school, doctrinal development, and overall support.

Special Forces Group (Airborne)

A Group is the usual Special Operations Element to a Unified Combatant Command. Some elements, especially when other United States Special Operations Command units are attached (e.g., Army aviation, Navy SEALs and other specialists, Air Force Combat Control teams and other special operators), may be led by a brigadier general.

Groups control three Special Forces battalions, a headquarters company, and a support company. The headquarters company that provides routine administrative and logistical support to the group headquarters. It depends on the group support company for unit-level maintenance of its organic wheeled vehicles, power generation equipment, and signal equipment. If located outside the UCC headquarters, they create a Special Forces Operating Base (SFOB).[3]

Group Support Company

Within the Support Company are several specialized sections:

  • Military intelligence (MI)
  • Services
  • Medical
  • Signals
  • Aviation
Military Intelligence

The MI detachment provides all-source intelligence collection management, analysis, production, and dissemination in support of group-level situation and target development, much as a regular MI unit runs a tactical operations center (TOC). It runs a tactical Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility (SCIF) in the SFOB OPCEN and provides compartmented control system communications. It provides human-source intelligence and counterintelligence support.

Service detachment

The service detachment performs unit-level supply, services, and maintenance functions for the group and its attached elements. It has riggers and other functions required to support deployed teams.

Signal detachment

The signal detachment has two primary functions. It installs, operates, and maintains secure SFOB radio communications with the FOBs and deployed SF teams; this may mean that it provides technical support, but not message handling, for the SCIF. Within the group/SFOB, it provides communications center services, telephone communications, electronic maintenance, and photographic support.

Special Forces communications were used for the proof-of-concept of a military software-defined radio, the AN/PRC-148. An upgrade will make the radio Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS) compatible.

Chemical detachment

When available and required, a Special Forces qualified element for chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear warfare (CBRN) is attached to the group. It has capabilities for CBRN reconnaissance, decontamination and training.

Operational Detachment C

Below the Group level are Special Forces battalions, or C teams, commanded by a lieutenant colonel, command three B teams and provide regimental/brigade support. The Battalion Support Company provides intelligence, signals, and combat service support.

The battalion has three SOT-A signals intelligence and secure communications detachments; the AN/PRD-13(V)2 is their primary sensor. It also has attached teams for human-source intelligence and counterintelligence.

Operational Detachment B

Organized as a Special Forces Company, the B detachment, led by a major commands three A teams, and provides support for a battalion-sized guerrilla force. At least one of the A teams will be qualified as combat divers, and another qualified in free-fall parachuting.

Operational Detachment "A"

The basic building block of Army Special Forces is the twelve-man A detachment (A-team). Composed of a commanding officer (captain), executive officer (chief warrant officer), operations and intelligence sergeants, and pairs of weapons, engineer/demolition, communications, and medical specialists, it is a nucleus to train and lead a company-sized unconventional warfare or foreign internal defense unit. It also can form two six-man split A detachments, which are a good working size for a special reconnaissance or diect action force if all 12 men are not needed.


At any level, there may be augmentation with four-man SOT-A SIGINT and secure communications teams, or two-main counterintelligence & human source intelligence teams.

Specialists from Air Force Special Operations Command may be attached, such as Combat Control teams and special operations weather.

Areas of Responsibility


In some theaters, the Special Forces group and other elements are the overt "white" representatives of USSOCOM. There may be other, covert elements. For example, during the Gulf War, COL Jesse Johnson headed the overt SOCCENT, while a larger force from the Joint Special Operations Command, the "black" part of USSOCOM, was under MG Wayne Downing. The overt Special Forces used their cross-cultural, language, and training skills to train and coordinate allied forces, and also carried out special reconnaissance missions, typically as split A detachments. JSOC's role is still largely classified, but they were deep in Iraq, hunting SS-1 SCUD launchers, guiding air strikes, and attacking command & control.

JSOC ran Task Force 11 in the Afghanistan War (2001-2021), while 5th Special Forces Group was "white". In the Gulf War, both 10th Special Forces Group and 5th Special Forces Group were acknowledged, while JSOC ran the "black" Task Force 20.

While very little is known about JSOC operations, a larger JSOC formation will often have a company-sized unit from the 75th Ranger Regiment for backing up the special operators from Delta Force (nominally 1st Special Forces Detachment D), U.S. Navy SEALs, and other units. In the Gulf War, the Ranger force carried out a mission of its own, RANGER RUN I, probably after the combat backup role was not seen as still needed.

Unconventional warfare

The United States defines UW as guerrilla warfare conducted or supported by United States Army Special Forces (SF) and other units in the United States Special Operations Command. Guerrilla warfare is one aspect of the broader term insurgency. The United States definition of UW is:

"Military and paramilitary operations, normally of long duration, predominantly conducted by indigenous or surrogate forces who are organized, trained, equipped, supported, and directed in varying degrees by an external source. It includes guerrilla warfare and other direct offensive, low visibility, covert, or clandestine operations, as well as the indirect activities of subversion, sabotage, intelligence gathering, and escape and evasion"[4]

Foreign Internal Defense

Foreign Internal Defense is, in many respects, the mirror image of UW: its original definition assisting a foreign government to resist insurgency directed against it. Depending on the situation, the Special Forces role may be as far from battle as advising and training command staffs, to leading combat forces. Increasingly, Special Forces personnel, with language and cross-cultural skills, extend the FID mission beyond counterinsurgency. During the Gulf War, Special Forces trainers worked with Kuwaiti and Saudi armored forces; some training sergeants had never served a day in an armored unit, but said their training skills were such that they were able to stay one chapter of the manual ahead of their students.

Special Reconnaissance

Special Forces often conduct behind-the-lines special reconnaissance, usually as a 6-man "split A" detachment, possibly with signals intelligence or other augmentation.