Special Operations Forces

views updated May 29 2018

Special Operations Forces OverviewArmy Special ForcesNavy SEALsMarine Special UnitsAir Force Special Forces
Special Operations Forces: Overview Functionally, American special operations forces have existed since the seventeenth century, but they were only formally institutionalized in the late twentieth century. Habitually comprising a very small portion of the military services, these diverse units perform unusual tasks requiring extensive training and particular skills. The U.S. Army has six types of special operations forces: Special Forces, Psychological Operations, Civil Affairs, Delta Force, Special Operations Aviation, and U.S. Army Rangers. The Navy has the SEALs (Sea, Air, Land) and the air force has the Special Operations Wing. The Marine Corps has no such permanent forces but contained special operations units during World War II, and it periodically conducts training.

Special operations forces share some common characteristics. Unlike conventional combat units, these forces are not organized, equipped, or trained to conduct sustained combat. They depend on stealth, surprise, and speed to achieve their aims and usually operate deep within enemy held territory. In contrast, army psychological operations forces and civil affairs units are not combat units: they perform their missions from rear areas or in conjunction with combat units. Psychological operations units attempt to influence enemy attitudes and those of indigenous populations. Civil affairs units work with civilian governments and nonmilitary organizations to further the aims of American commanders.

Rangers were the first American special operations organization. Skilled woodsmen capable of Indian‐style fighting, Rangers, as early as 1676, were employed in small groups to scout ahead of colonial militia and later British infantry forces. Robert Roger's Rangers were particularly useful in the French and Indian War and Daniel Morgan's Rangers during the Revolutionary War conducted long‐range raids and reconnaissance tasks. Similarly, John S. Mosby's Confederate partisans plagued Union forces from 1863 until the end of the Civil War.

Despite proven utility, these kinds of American units were disbanded after each conflict, only to be recreated during the next one. American Rangers prized independence and individual initiative, bridled at parade ground obedience, and were thus often suspect to professional soldiers. Additionally, these units required a special style of commander and often held loyalties untransferrable to other leaders.

The cycle of wartime creation and peacetime disbandment was tempered after the Korean War. Although Rangers were once again formed, employed, and disestablished, the army retained military government (now civil affairs) and psychological operations units after war's end. In 1952, the guerrilla warfare support function was embodied in a new organization called Special Forces. The latter are mature soldiers, averaging thirty‐two years of age and possessing ten years' military experience, who advise, train, assist, and sometimes lead indigenous irregulars against enemy forces. Special operations forces were rapidly expanded during the Vietnam War, but were just as quickly reduced when American forces were withdrawn from Southeast Asia. President John F. Kennedy had become an enthusiastic supporter of the army's Special Forces (called the “Green Berets” because of their distinctive headgear) and encouraged the other services to create companion elements. In the early 1960s, the navy established the SEALs and the air force organized the Air Commandos, later redesignated the Special Operations Wing. However, in the wake of America's disillusionment with that war, special operations forces were cut back far below pre‐Vietnam levels. In 1978, Special Forces and the Special Operations Wing were at only 60 percent of their 1964 strengths.

Congressional legislation in the aftermath of the failed special operations attempt to rescue U.S. hostages in Iran in 1980 resulted in the reform and expansion of special operations forces. It also led to a wholly new four‐star command, a Department of Defense office to represent these forces, and a separate, enhanced budget. After more than three centuries, America's special operations forces achieved permanence.


Frank R. Barnett, B. Hugh Tovar, and Richard H. Shultz, eds., Special Operations in U.S. Strategy, 1984.
Ross S. Kelly , Special Operations and National Purpose, 1989.
Lucien S. Vandenbroucke , Perilous Options: Special Operations as an Instrument of U.S. Foreign Policy, 1993.
John M. Collins , Special Operations Forces: An Assessment, 1986–1993, 1994.
Joel and and J. R. Wright , Special Men and Special Missions: Inside American Special Operations Forces, 1945 to the Present, 1994.
Susan L. Marquis , Unconventional Warfare: Rebuilding the U.S. Special Operations Forces, 1997.

Rod Paschall

Special Operations Forces: Army Special Forces Organized in 1952, the U.S. Army's Special Forces, identified by their distinctive, world‐famous green berets, perform guerrilla support, reconnaissance, raids, and other kinds of behind‐the‐lines missions that require experience, maturity, and special skills. Additionally, these forces are capable of training, advising, and assisting foreign military and paramilitary organizations in counterinsurgency. The employment of a few Special Forces troopers has often provided U.S. decision makers a middle course between the use of American combat units or doing nothing militarily.

Conducting small‐unit, clandestine operations deep in an opponent's territory has been a part of the American military tradition since the colonial era. During the French and Indian War, Robert Rogers's “Rangers” staged effective frontier actions against Indians allied with the French. There were also Rangers in the Revolutionary War and Civil War. But it was not until World War II that an organized, behind‐the‐lines American military system was created and employed. This was mostly achieved by the uniformed arm of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), operating under the direction of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In the Southwest Pacific area, Gen. Douglas MacArthur encouraged highly effective Filipino guerrilla support operations without OSS aid. Elsewhere, from 1942 until 1945, OSS led, advised, or supported partisan operations in Burma, China, France, Italy, and Yugoslavia. OSS was dissolved after the war, although some of its activities and personnel were carried over to the Central Intelligence Agency.

During the Korean War, an ad hoc Eighth U.S. Army organization recruited, organized, and employed the more than 22,000 Korean partisans who fought the Communists in North Korea. But in 1952, the first contingent from the newly formed Special Forces began arriving in Korea. Not long after the conflict had begun, the 10th Special Forces Group, an organization created to support guerrilla warfare in Soviet bloc countries in the event of another European war, had been formed. In 1953, the 77th (later redesignated the 7th Group) had been activated at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Soon thereafter, the 1st Special Forces Group was deployed to a Pacific Ocean base, the island of Okinawa.

Under President John F. Kennedy, Army Special Forces attained its greatest notoriety. Seeking an unobtrusive, less costly means of battling Communist‐inspired guerrilla warfare in the Third World, Kennedy settled on Special Forces. By 1963, the newly formed 8th Special Forces Group was assisting Latin American governments in five separate counterinsurgency campaigns; the 5th Special Forces Group was performing the same task in Vietnam; and the 3rd and 6th Special Forces Groups were being organized for Middle East and African contingencies. Kennedy had overruled the army's hierarchy, which was suspicious of this special elite force, and granted the wearing of the green beret at the request of the Special Forces commander, Brig. Gen. William P. Yarborough. Although Special Forces organization was reduced after the Vietnam War, it recovered much of its former strength during the 1980s and performed liaison, rescue, and reconnaissance tasks during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

The popularity of Special Forces among recent U.S. decision makers is due to their maturity, secretiveness, and ability to achieve substantial aims with small numbers. Special Forces recruits chiefly noncommissioned officers. The average age of troopers is 32—ten years older than the average army infantryman or Marine. Troopers therefore have already had considerable experience, extensive training, the ability to teach, and are likely to command more respect than would a younger, less experienced soldier. Additionally, Special Forces troopers are parachutists; they are also required to speak at least one foreign language.

Special Forces units traditionally shun publicity in their missions. They have often worked abroad in civilian clothes. Using a low‐visibility approach, they allow indigenous forces to take credit for achievements. Typically, the unit that Special Forces employs on an independent mission is the twelve‐man “A” Detachment, composed of a captain, a warrant officer, and ten noncommissioned officers. The members of this small contingent possess highly developed communications, medical, engineering, weapons, and intelligence skills. A full‐strength Special Forces Group contains fifty‐four “A” detachments.

The most important advantage offered by Special Forces is the ability of the “A” detachment to extend its influence far beyond its small numbers. Each of these units can train, assist, or if need be lead an indigenous unit of 300–500 members. It is this “force multiplier” effect that has attracted U.S. policy makers. By employing Special Forces units, an American ally may solve its own military problems with minimal use of U.S. manpower and resources.


Charles M. Simpson III , Inside the Green Berets: The First Thirty Years, 1983.
Shelby L. Stanton , Green Berets at War: U.S. Army Special Forces in Southeast Asia, 1956–1975, 1985.
Aaron Bank , From OSS to Green Berets, 1986.
Terry White , Swords of Lightning: Special Forces and the Changing Face of Warfare, 1992.
Greg Walker , At the Hurricane's Eye: U.S. Special Forces from Vietnam to Desert Storm, 1994.
Ed Evanhoe , Dark Moon: Eighth Army Special Operations in the Korean War, 1995.

Rod Paschall

Special Operations Forces: Navy Seals Youngest of the American special operations forces, U.S. Navy Sea‐Air‐Land (SEAL) teams, SEAL Vehicle Delivery teams, Special Boat Squadrons, and Light Attack Helicopter Squadrons perform a wide variety of maritime, shoreline, and riverine special operations. The nautical arm of U.S. Special Operations Forces has experienced growth, often over the objections of traditionalist senior naval leadership. In a short time, naval special operations units have developed a distinct culture.

In December 1962, at the insistence of President John F. Kennedy's secretary of defense, Robert S. McNamara, the navy initiated its special operations forces with the primary aim of accomplishing “limited counterinsurgency civic action tasks incidental to counterguerilla operations.” Additional goals were to conduct shallow‐water and riverine boat operations and to “organize, train, assist and advise friendly military or paramilitary forces.” The central focus of this development was the growing American involvement in Southeast Asia. The first naval special operations force was a SEAL team: an organization of ten 16‐man platoons, each composed of two officers and ten enlisted men. As parachute‐qualified underwater swimmers, the SEALs quickly found themselves employed along the littoral and riverine sections of the Republic of Vietnam.

Navy special operations forces have always pushed the outer limits of technology. SEAL teams have been equipped with steadily improving bubbleless, closed‐circuit breathing equipment and underwater communications devices and weapons. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, SEALs were joined by SEAL Delivery Vehicle teams and Special Boat Squadrons. The delivery teams are equipped with free‐flooding mini‐submarines that can carry six SEALs and are themselves launched from a submerged submarine. They are capable of transporting their passengers into an enemy harbor for sabotage missions. The Special Boat Squadrons possess a mix of fast surface craft, inflatable boats, and pump jet propulsion craft capable of rapid movement in shallow water. In the 1980s, small helicopter gunships and transport units were added.

Naval special warfare units experienced some reduction in strength in the post‐Vietnam era, but during the 1980s these forces were substantially enhanced, and they gained their own senior command. In April 1987, the Naval Special Warfare Command, headed by an admiral, was established with the mission to “organize, equip, train, and provide naval Special Operations Forces that specialize in maritime and riverine operations.” SEAL strength grew from twenty platoons in 1981 to sixty in 1993.

U.S. naval special operations forces experienced hard luck during the 1980s in combat operations. At the outset of the 1983 U.S. intervention in Grenada, four SEALs lost their lives in an attempted air‐sea rendezvous with a U.S. naval combatant in heavy seas. However, in a successful operation six years later during Operation Just Cause in Panama, five SEAL platoons under Cmdr. Tom McGrath denied the Panamanian defense forces use of their own patrol craft, isolated some of these forces on an island, and prevented the Panamanian leader, Manuel Noriega, from using his personal jet at Paitilla Airport.


Darryl Young , The Element of Surprise: Navy Seals in Vietnam, 1990.
Richard Marcinko , Rogue Warrior, 1992.
Bill Fawcett , Hunters and Shooters: An Oral History of the U.S. Navy SEALs in Vietnam, 1995.
James Watson , Walking Point: The Experiences of a Founding Member of the Elite Navy Seals, 1997.

Rod Paschall

Special Operations Forces: Marine Special Units In World War II, the Marine Corps formed a number of special units, only two of which remained in combat until the end of the war. These were the “war dogs” and “rocket platoons,” both of which saw action on Okinawa, the final major campaign of the Pacific War. The other disparate organizations were the defense, Raider, and parachute battalions, and the glider and barrage balloon squadrons. Of these, two obtained lasting fame—the parachute and Raider units.

Marine parachutists, or Paramarines, began training in the fall of 1940. The 1st Parachute Battalion came into being on 15 August 1941; the 2nd Parachute Battalion became active 2 September. They were used as infantry in the Solomon Islands campaign because the Corps did not have an adequate lift capability to use them as parachutists. The parachute program was formally disbanded on 29 February 1944, and its Marines were reassigned primarily to the newly organized Fifth Marine Division.

Several Marine Raider battalions formed in the war from volunteers met the apparent need for specially trained commando units that would conduct hit‐and‐turn raids on Japanese‐controlled islands of the Pacific and keep the Japanese off balance. Raider training began 6 January 1942, when the 1st Battalion, Fifth Marines, an infantry unit commanded by Lt. Col. Merritt A. Edson, was redesignated the 1st Separate Infantry Battalion, and then the 1st Raider Battalion on 16 February. Before the war, Edson's reputation had been established by his anti banditry exploits in the early 1930s. On the West Coast, on 4 February 1942, the 2nd Separate Battalion was activated under command of Lt. Col. Evans F. Carlson. It became the 2nd Raider Battalion on 19 February. Carlson had been an observer in China with Mao Zedong's Eighth Route Army during the Sino‐Japanese War. Carlson's executive officer was Capt. James Roosevelt, son of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The 1st Raiders joined the 1st Marine Division in the Battle of Guadalcanal on 31 August 1942. The Raiders suffered heavy losses in the Battle of Bloody (or Edson's) Ridge and were no longer an effective unit when they were withdrawn from the island on 17 October. Carlson's 2nd Raider Battalion went to Hawaii for training in landing from submarines and rubber boat handling. Two companies reinforced the garrison at Midway in the successful repulse of the Japanese attack in early June 1942.

On 8 August 1942, the 2nd Battalion boarded submarines and set out for the Gilberts for a raid on Makin Island on the 17th. The greatest asset of the raid was its effect on home front morale. Carlson's battalion then moved to Guadalcanal, landing there in early November to begin a 20‐day combat patrol, fighting more than a dozen actions and killing nearly 500 Japanese soldiers. In September, a 3rd Raider Battalion was formed in Samoa; and a 4th Battalion was formed on the West Coast that October. Eventually, two Raider regiments were formed. The 1st took part in the capture of the Russell Islands and later participated in the New Georgia operation. The 2nd Raider Regiment (Provisional) reinforced the Third Marine Division in its assault of Bougainville in November. As with the parachute units, Raider regiments siphoned off manpower needed elsewhere; they proved to be a luxury the Marine Corps could not afford. The Raiders also were too small in organization, too lightly armed, and too specialized in their tables of organization and equipment. Unlike the parachutists, they did conduct at least one operation of a type for which they had been trained—the raid on Makin. In early 1944, the Raider organizations were disbanded and redesignated as components of the new Fourth Marines.

The Marine Corps established no lasting special units in the post‐World War II period, during the Korean War, or during the Vietnam War, except for reconnaissance companies and battalions that were organic to larger organizations. In 1985, the Marine Amphibious/Expeditionary Units (MAU/MEU) assigned to the navy's afloat amphibious ready groups were trained for “special operations capabilities.” The tasks assigned to these units centered on the security requirements following a decade of low intensity conflicts instead of war, and they trained for such assignments as raids, hostage recovery, evacuation of civilians from areas of conflict, and humanitarian efforts. The Marine Corps also established surveillance‐reconnaissance‐intelligence groups (SRIG) that combined various units with like missions. The SRIG also operated the surveillance and reconnaissance centers that coordinated the similar assignments during the Persian Gulf War, in Somalia, Haiti, and in Panama during Operation Just Cause.


Frank O. Hough,, Verle E. Ludwig,, and and Henry I. Shaw, Jr. , Pearl Harbor to Guadalcanal, Vol. I: History of U.S. Marine Corps Operations in World War II, 1958.
Henry I. Shaw, Jr., and and Douglas T. Kane , Isolation of Rabaul, Vol. II: History of U.S. Marine Corps Operations in World War II, 1963;
Benis M. Frank and and Henry I. Shaw, Jr. , Victory and Occupation, Vol. V: History of U.S. Marine Corps Operations in World War II, 1969.
Charles L. Updegraph, Jr. , United States Special Marine Corps Units in World War II, 1972.
Jon T. Hoffman , From Makin to Bougainville: Marine Raiders in the Pacific War, 1995.

Benis M. Frank

Special Operations Forces: Air Force Special Forces The U.S. Air Force's involvement in unconventional warfare has been episodic, and special operations aviators have operated on the fringes of air force organization and culture.

During World War II, the Army Air Forces organized the 1st Air Commando Group in early 1944 to support Allied irregular operations in North Burma against the Imperial Japanese Army. The “air commandos”—named after Lord Mountbatten's British Commandos—used C‐47s and gliders to transport the troops and P‐51s to fly close air support. They also pioneered in rescuing downed pilots and waging psychological warfare. Flamboyant and unconventional, air commandos adopted the motto, “Any Place, Any Time, Any Where.” Other U.S. airmen in Europe supported Allied unconventional warfare operations by the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and the British Special Operations Executive, such as the 60th Troop Carrier Group that operated in the Balkans in 1943–44.

After 1945, the air force eliminated the air commandos, but they lived on in the public's imagination through Milton Caniff's popular comic strip, Terry and the Pirates. In 1951, the U.S. Air Force organized three “air resupply and communications” wings that supported U.S.–South Korean partisan operations in Korea, Chinese Nationalist forces against the Chinese Communists, and the French against the Viet Minh in Indochina. But these units fell victim to air force reorganization in 1953.

The air force entered the counterinsurgency field in 1961, when it organized the 4400th Combat Crew Training Squadron (“Jungle Jim,” renamed 1st Air Commando Squadron in 1963), and deployed a detachment (“Farm Gate”) to South Vietnam. In 1962, the Special Air Warfare School (later Special Operations School) opened at Hurlburt Field, Florida.

Air force special operations forces grew rapidly in Southeast Asia, while the Central Intelligence Agency created “Air America,” a similar civilian organization that specialized in aerial resupply of irregular forces and rescue of downed American airmen. In 1965, air commandos began using unusual aerial gunships: AC‐47s, AC‐119s, and later AC‐130s (nicknamed “Spooky,” “Spectre,” or “Puff the Magic Dragon”), armed with rapid‐firing mini‐guns and even side‐firing 105mm cannon. Air commandos supported other special operations forces and conducted search and rescue, reconnaissance, direct action, and psychological operations. At the height of the Vietnam War, the air force had in the region 4 special operations wings (as they were renamed in 1968) with 500 aircraft. By then, more modern A‐37s and AC‐130s had replaced the venerable A‐1s, B‐26s, T‐28s, and AC‐47s. Five air crew received the Medal of Honor as air commandos.

After the Vietnam War, the air force dismantled most of its special operations formations and reduced the 1st Special Operations Wing to twenty aircraft. But the air force once again rebuilt its capabilities after 1980 under the 23rd Air Force, procuring the MH‐53J Pave Low helicopter and other sophisticated equipment. A new generation of air commandos played important roles in Grenada, Panama, the “War on Drugs,” and undeclared wars in Central America. In 1990, the 23rd Air Force became Air Force Special Operations Command, a component of U.S. Special Operations Command. In 1991, during the Persian Gulf War, 1st Special Operations Wing pilots of helicopters led the first strike against Iraqi radar sites and hunted mobile missile launchers. Since then, air force special operations forces have seen extensive service in various post–Cold War military operations.


R. D. Van Wagner , 1st Air Commando Group, 1986.
Philip D. Chinnery , Any Time, Any Place: Fifty Years of the USAF Air Commando and Special Operations Forces, 1944–1994, 1994.
Orr Kelly , From a Dark Sky: The Story of U.S. Air Force Special Operations, 1996.

James C. McNaughton

Special Forces

views updated May 14 2018


SPECIAL FORCES. As elite, specialized military units, Special Operations Forces (SOF) of each military service have participated in most U.S. conflicts since World War II. Exploiting their unique operational capabilities, SOF units can execute a variety of missions, many entailing the clandestine insertion of SOF by land, air, or sea. SOF most frequently conduct activities such as direct action (raids, ambushes, hostage rescues, and "surgical" strikes); strategic reconnaissance, usually in hostile territory; unconventional warfare, including advising and supporting indigenous insurgent and resistance groups; foreign internal defense (assisting a host nation to defeat insurgency); civil affairs and psychological operations; counter terrorism; humanitarian assistance; and search and rescue operations. The strength of SOF in the active and reserve components of the Army, Navy, and Air Force as of October 2001 was about 43,000, or nearly 2 percent of total U.S. military strength. In recognition of the growing importance of special operations, Congress established a new unified command, the U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), in 1986 to oversee the doctrine, training, and equipping of all U.S. SOF. Each armed service also has established its own special operations command, which serve as component commands of USSOCOM.

With a strength of about 26,000 in 2001, U.S. Army SOF consist of Special Forces, Rangers, special operations aviation units, civil affairs and psychological operations units, and special operations support units allocated among the Active Army, the Army Reserve, and the Army National Guard. The U.S. Special Forces (USSF) was organized 20 June 1952 at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, as the first permanent unconventional warfare unit in the Army since World War II. Signifying its elite status, USSF was authorized in September 1961 to wear a distinctive green beret, the term "Green Beret" henceforth being synonymous with the USSF.

Under President John F. Kennedy, the USSF's role in counterinsurgency operations, particularly in Southeast Asia, expanded—initially under the auspices of the Central Intelligence Agency and later under U.S. military control. The USSF mobilized Montagnard tribesmen in support of South Vietnam's struggle against the Viet Cong as part of the Civilian Irregular Defense Group program, organizing village defenses and mobile strike forces. Other USSF teams conducted covert cross-border operations as part of the highly secret U.S. Studies and Observation Group. At their peak strength in 1968, more than 3,500 Green Berets were in Vietnam. Green Berets also served in Latin America during the 1960s and, for example, helped Bolivian forces to track down and execute Che Guevara, the Cuban revolutionary, in 1967.

Since the Vietnam War, USSF teams have carried out foreign internal defense training, counter drug, and humanitarian missions mainly in Latin America and Africa. Together with Rangers and other Army SOF, Special Forces have participated in U.S. operations in Grenada, Panama, Kuwait and Iraq, Somalia, Haiti, and the Balkans. From October 2001 through 2002, Army SOF, joined by Navy and Air Force SOF, have played a significant role in counter terrorist operations in Afghanistan, conducting clandestine reconnaissance missions, advising and assisting anti-Taliban forces, and executing raids and "snatch-and-grab" operations. The First Special Forces Operational Detachment–Delta, or Delta Force, has traditionally conducted highly secret and dangerous counter terrorist, hostage rescue, and other classified operations, often assisted by Rangers and other SOF. The Delta Force took part in the aborted U.S. hostage rescue attempt in Iran in 1980 and in the failed attempt to capture a Somali warlord in Mogadishu in 1993. Civil affairs and psychological operations units are among the most often deployed Army SOF components.

Numbering about 10,000 active and reserve Air Force personnel in 2001, Air Force SOF consist of fixed and rotary wing aircraft units and supporting units whose missions include insertion and extraction, resupply, aerial fire support, air interdiction, force protection, aerial refueling, combat search and rescue, psychological operations, operation and defense of expeditionary airfields, and other specialized missions. Air Force SOF missions often are carried out at night and in adverse weather conditions. During the Cold War, Air Force special operations were conducted in Korea, Tibet, Libya, Cuba, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Iran, Grenada and elsewhere. During the Korean War, Air Force SOF dropped agents behind enemy lines, performed search and rescue missions for downed pilots, conducted psychological warfare and intelligence collection operations, supported partisan warfare, and flew resupply over flights to agents in China and Siberia. Later Air Force SOF were prominent in support of operations in Panama, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait, in U.S. efforts following the Persian Gulf War to contain Iraq, and in support of U.S. interventions in Somalia, the Balkans, and Afghanistan.

Naval SOF include about 5,000 active and 1,200 reserve personnel organized into SEAL (Sea, Air, Land) Teams, Special Boat Units, and SEAL Delivery Vehicle teams. The SEALs evolved from the Navy's World War II Combat Swimmer Reconnaissance Units, which reconnoitered and cleared beach obstacles to assist amphibious landings, and Navy Underwater Demolition Teams (UDT), or "frogmen," which were organized in 1947 as underwater strike units. In response to President Kennedy's mandate to strengthen American counterinsurgency forces, the Navy formed its first SEAL teams in January 1962, using members of the UDTs. Two SEAL teams, each with a strength of about 200 were activated, one team each assigned to the Atlantic and Pacific Fleets. Approximately 20 SEAL units participated in the Vietnam War, serving as advisers, conducting counter guerrilla operations in the Mekong Delta, and executing covert maritime incursions in North Vietnam to gather intelligence and rescue American prisoners of war. SEALs have taken part in nearly all major Cold War and post–Cold War U.S. military operations through 2002, including the invasion of Grenada, the intervention in Panama (in which four SEALS were killed in action), and the Persian Gulf War, in which SEALs conducted pilot rescue operations, located and disabled mines, carried out sea patrols and deception operations, and executed small raids. Their versatility was again demonstrated in Afghanistan where SEALS, inserted by ship-launched helicopters, were among the first American units to enter that landlocked country in the initial stages of counter terrorist operations.

The Marine Corps has no dedicated SOF units, although a Marine Expeditionary Unit of an infantry battalion and a small air detachment can be trained for special operations as required by circumstances.


Haas, Michael E. Apollo's Warriors: United States Air Force Special Operations during the Cold War. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1997.

Hoyt, Edwin P. Seals at War. New York: Dell, 1993.

Marquis, Susan L. Unconventional Warfare: Rebuilding U.S. Special Operations Forces. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institute, 1997.

Paddock, Alfred H., Jr. U.S. Army Special Warfare: Its Origins, Psychological and Unconventional Warfare 1941–1952. Washington, D.C.: National Defense University Press, 1982.

Stanton, Shelby L. Green Berets at War: U.S. Army Special Forces in Southeast Asia, 1956–1975. Novato, Calif.: Presidio Press, 1985.

Vincent H.Demma

See alsoAir Force, United States ; Army, United States ; Marine Corps, United States ; Navy, United States .

Special Forces

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Special Forces ★ Hell in Normandy 1968

Eight specially trained soldiers drop behind enemy lines to rescue prisoners of war in WWII. 90m/C VHS, DVD . IT Peter Lee Lawrence, Guy Madison, Erika Blanc, Tony Norton; D: Alfonso Brescia; W: Maurice De Vries, Lorenzo Gicca Palli; C: Fausto Rossi; M: Italo Fischetti.

Special Forces

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Spe·cial For·ces • n. an elite force within the U.S. Army specializing in guerrilla warfare and counterinsurgency.

Special Forces

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Special Forces. See Special Operations Forces.

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