SF History

A Brief History of the US Army Special Forces

To Free The Oppressed...

Deployed on every continent, operating in remote areas under spartan conditions, with a tenuous radio link their only connection to higher headquarters, small detachments of U.S. forces are training their allies to defend themselves against dangerous insurgents.

Often they are the sole American military presence in a nation, every day making tough decisions in unheard-of situations, with no one looking over their shoulders. They volunteered for this duty because they prefer the challenge of working in an austere, uncertain and unstructured environment.

The Army’s Special Forces, known popularly as the Green Berets, are specially selected and trained. They are America’s main weapon for waging unconventional warfare in an age when conventional conflicts have become increasingly rare.

In the future as in the past, U.S. Special Forces will be called upon to conduct critical missions in the face of overwhelming odds. It is a task they can look forward to with confidence because the tradition of Army Special Forces is one of excellence. It is because of this record that the modern-day Special Forces remain devoted to their Latin motto, De Oppresso Liber – To Free the Oppressed.

The Origin of Special Forces

The Army’s premier proponent of unconventional warfare, SF traces its historical roots from the elite Army formations of World War II and the Office of Strategic Services, or OSS. The OSS was formed in World War II to gather strategic intelligence and conduct operations behind enemy lines in support of resistance groups in Europe and the Far East. After the war, individuals such as Colonel Aaron Bank, a former OSS operative, and Colonel Wendell Fertig and Lieutenant Colonel Russell Volckmann, both of whom fought as guerrillas in the Philippines, used their wartime experience to formulate the doctrine of unconventional warfare that became the cornerstone of SF. In the Army’s official lineage and honors, the SF groups are linked to the regiments of the First Special Service Force, an elite combined Canadian-American unit that fought in the Aleutians, Italy and southern France.

Special Operations Units of World War II

The First Special Service Force, nicknamed the Devil’s Brigade, was a joint Canadian-American unit formed on July 9, 1942, at Fort William Henry Harrison, Mont. Airborne-qualified and intensively trained in mountaineering, skiing and amphibious operations, the First Special Service Force saw action in the Aleutians; in Italy, where the soldiers scaled the heights of Monte Le Defensa to break the German winter line; at Anzio; and as the amphibious spearhead for the invasion of southern France. The force was inactivated in December 1944 near Menton, France. Menton Day is still observed by the SF groups in honor of this elite infantry formation. The Force adopted the crossed arrows of the U.S. Army’s Indian Scouts, which later became the branch insignia of Special Forces.

The Army Rangers of World War II began with the activation of the 1st Ranger Battalion on June 19, 1942, in Carrickfergus, Ireland. The 1st Battalion was nicknamed Darby’s Rangers for their commander, Colonel William O. Darby. Six Ranger battalions were created during World War II. The 1st through 5th Ranger battalions fought in North Africa, Italy and other parts of Europe. Unaffiliated with these battalions was the 6th Ranger Battalion, which fought in the Southwest Pacific Theater. The 6th Ranger Battalion was created in December 1943 at the direction of General Douglas MacArthur, who saw the need for a Ranger force to replicate the Marine Raider battalions in the Pacific Theater. The Ranger battalions were disbanded at the end of World War II.

Merrill’s Marauders was the title given to Brigadier General Frank D. Merrill’s, 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional), a 3,000-man long-range penetration force modeled on the British “Chindits.” The Marauders fought in five major battles and 17 skirmishes in the China-Burma-India Theater. The Marauders’ greatest feat was their march through miles of thick Burmese jungle en route to the capture of the vital airfield at Myitkyina. Decimated by disease and battle casualties, the Marauders were disbanded after the battle and replaced by the Mars Task Force, a similar infantry formation that fought in Burma and China until the end of the war. While with the Mars Task Force, First Sergeant Jack Knight earned the only Medal of Honor awarded to a special-operations Soldier during World War II. In the Southwest Pacific Theater, Lieutenant General Walter Krueger, the innovative commander of the Sixth Army, established an elite reconnaissance unit called the Alamo Scouts. The Scouts ran more than 80 reconnaissance missions in New Guinea and the Philippines, providing accurate, timely intelligence for the Sixth Army. In perhaps their greatest feat, the Scouts led a company of the 6th Ranger Battalion and Filipino guerrillas in an attack on the Japanese prison camp at Cabanatuan, 30 miles behind the Japanese lines, freeing all 513 Allied prisoners. Never numbering more than 70 volunteers, the Alamo Scouts earned 44 Silver Star Medals, 33 Bronze Star Medals and four Soldier’s Medals by the end of the war. In more than 80 hazardous missions, they never lost a man in action. Command Sergeant Major Galen Kittleson, a Son Tay raider, began his career with the Alamo Scouts.

Lieutenant General Krueger also formed the 6th Ranger Battalion to provide his Army with the capability of conducting raids behind enemy lines. Lieutenant Colonel Henry Mucci, the battalion commander, led the raid on Cabanatuan. Captain Arthur “Bull” Simons, a key figure in the early days of Special Forces, served as a company commander with the 6th Ranger Battalion.

Besides these organized special-operations efforts, a number of U.S. Army officers chose not to surrender at Bataan and conducted guerrilla operations behind Japanese lines in the Philippines. Major Russell Volckmann, who later played an important role in the birth of Special Forces, escaped from the enemy and with First Lieutenant Donald D. Blackburn, formed a Filipino guerrilla band in northern Luzon, which by 1945 consisted of five regiments. Colonel Wendell Fertig raised his own guerrilla force on Mindanao that ultimately totaled some 20,000 fighters. These men organized the insurgency against the Japanese and waged a classic guerrilla campaign until the end of the war.

Shadow Warriors: The OSS

The Office of Strategic Services was the product of Major General William O. Donovan, an energetic visionary whose propensity for freewheeling activity earned him the nickname “Wild Bill.” Donovan was a tough and smart veteran of World War I who received the Medal of Honor for heroism on the Western Front in October 1918, and who made a fortune as a Wall Street lawyer during the 1920s and ’30s. When World War II erupted in Europe and threatened to engulf the United States, Donovan convinced President Franklin D. Roosevelt that a new type of organization was needed, one that would collect intelligence and wage secret operations behind enemy lines.

In 1941, President Roosevelt directed Donovan to form this agency, called the Coordinator of Information, or COI, and Donovan, who had been a civilian since World War I, was reinstated as a colonel. COI blossomed quickly, establishing operational sites in England, North Africa, India, Burma and China. In 1942, the agency was renamed the OSS. Donovan became a major general in 1944. The primary combat operations of the OSS in Europe were those of the Jedburgh’s missions and the Operational Groups. The Jedburgh mission consisted of parachuting three-man multinational teams into France, Belgium and Holland, where they trained partisan resistance movements and conducted guerrilla operations against the Germans. The OGs were 34-man elements designed to operate in two sections and perform sabotage missions and raids behind enemy lines. Other OSS operations took place in Asia, most spectacularly in Burma, where OSS Detachment 101 organized 11,000 Kachin tribesmen into a force that eventually killed 10,000 Japanese with a minimal loss of its own. Other OSS detachments operated in China and Southeast Asia. Soldiers John K. Singlaub, Caesar Civitella and Herbert Brucker were among the many former OSS members who later served in Special Forces. After the war, President Harry S. Truman disbanded the OSS, but not before creating a legacy still felt today. Many veterans of OSS were part of the cadre of the early SF groups.

OSS operative Colonel Aaron Bank and Colonel Russell Volckmann, the Philippine guerrilla leader, remained in the military after the war. They worked tirelessly to convince the Army to adopt its own unconventional, guerrilla-style force. They had an ally in Brigadier General Robert McClure, who headed the Army’s psychological-warfare staff in the Pentagon. McClure convinced the Army that there were areas in the world not susceptible to conventional warfare -Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe especially – but that would make ideal targets for unconventional harassment and guerrilla fighting. Special operations, as envisioned by these men, was a force multiplier: a small number of soldiers who could sow a disproportionately large amount of trouble for the enemy. It was a bold idea, one that went against the grain of traditional concepts, but by 1952 the Army was finally ready to embark on a new era of unconventional warfare.

Special Forces: The Early Years

Special Forces grew out of the establishment of the Special Operations Division of the Psychological Warfare Center, activated at Fort Bragg, N.C., in May 1952. The Army allocated 2,300 personnel slots to be used to stand up the first SF unit when the Ranger companies fighting in the Korean War were disbanded. The 10th SF Group was established with Colonel Aaron Bank as the first commander. Concurrent with this was the establishment of the Psychological Warfare School, which ultimately became today’s John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School.

Bank assembled a cadre of officers and NCOs to serve as the foundation of the new unit and act as a training staff for the fledgling organization. Bank didn’t want raw recruits. He wanted the best troops in the Army, and he got them: former OSS officers, airborne troops, ex-Rangers and combat veterans of World War II and Korea. After months of preparation, the 10th SF Group was activated on June 11, 1952, at Fort Bragg. On the day of its activation, the total strength of the group was 10 Soldiers – Bank, one warrant officer and eight enlisted men. Within months, the first volunteers reported to the 10th SF Group by the hundreds as they completed the initial phase of their SF training. As soon as the 10th Group became large enough, Bank began training his troops in the most advanced techniques of unconventional warfare. As defined by the Army, the main mission of the 10th SF Group was “to infiltrate by land, sea or air, deep into enemy-occupied territory and organize the resistance/guerrilla potential to conduct Special Forces operations, with emphasis on guerrilla warfare.” As Bank put it, “Our training included many more complex subjects and was geared to entirely different, more difficult, comprehensive missions and complex operations.”

After less than a year and a half as a full SF group, Bank’s men proved to the Army’s satisfaction that they had mastered the skills of their new trade. On Nov. 11 1953, half of the 10th SF Group was deployed to Bad Tolz, West Germany. The other half remained at Fort Bragg, where it was redesignated as the 77th SF Group. The split of the 10th and the 77th was the first sign that SF had established itself as an integral part of the Army’s basic structure. For the rest of the 1950s, SF would grow slowly but consistently. By the end of 1952, the first SF troops to operate behind enemy lines had been deployed to Korea on missions that remained classified for nearly 30 years. Anti-communist guerrillas with homes in North Korea and historical ties to Seoul had joined the United Nations Partisan Forces-Korea. Known as “Donkeys” and “Wolfpacks,” the guerrilla units and their American cadre operated from tiny islands off the North Korean coast. The partisans conducted raids on the mainland and rescued downed airmen. Under the guidance of a select group from the 10th SF Group and other U.S. cadre, they eventually numbered 22,000 and claimed 69,000 enemy casualties. On April 1, 1956, the 14th Special Forces Operational Detachment with select members from 77th SF Group, 12th, 13th and 16th operational detachments, under the cover unit of the 8251st Army Service Unit, transferred to Fort Shaffer, Hawaii from Fort Bragg, N.C., in June 1956. Shortly afterward, the 12th, 13th and 16th SFOD (Regiment) were moved to Camp Drake, Japan under the cover unit identification of 8231st Army Unit. 1st Special Forces Group was officially activated on June 24, 1957 at Camp Drake, however, the activation ceremony was held on July 14, 1957 at Camp Buckner, Okinawa. On Oct. 30, 1960, all SF groups were reorganized under the combat arms regimental system. 1st SF Group was regimented 1st SF Group in recognition of its lineage with the First Special Service Force of World War II.

By 1958, the basic operational unit of SF had evolved into a 12-man team known as the SF ODA. Each member of the team – two officers, two operations and intelligence sergeants, two weapons sergeants, two communications sergeants, two medics and two engineers – were trained in unconventional warfare, were cross-trained in each others’ specialties, and spoke at least one foreign language. This composition allowed each detachment to operate if necessary in two six-man teams, or split-A teams.

By the time John F. Kennedy was inaugurated as president in January 1961, the three SF groups – the 10th, the 7th (redesignated from the 77th on June 6, 1960) and the 1st – were actively engaged in missions around the world. Under the patronage of President Kennedy, SF flourished. In 1961, President Kennedy visited Fort Bragg. He inspected the 82nd Airborne Division and other conventional troops of the XVIII Airborne Corps. As a student of military affairs, President Kennedy had developed an interest in counterinsurgency – the art and method of defeating guerrilla movements. As he gazed at the ranks of SF troops, he realized he had the ideal vehicle for carrying out such missions. With President Kennedy firmly behind them, new SF groups sprang up rapidly. On Sept. 21,1961, the 5th Group was activated, followed in 1963 by the 8th Group on April 1, the 6th on May 1, and the 3rd on Dec. 5. In April 1966, the 46th SF Company was activated at Fort Bragg. Formerly Company D, 1st SF Group, 46th Company deployed to Thailand to train the Royal Thai Army until November 1967.

President Kennedy’s interest in SF resulted in the adoption of the Green Beret as the official headgear of all SF troops. Until then, the beret had faced an uphill fight in its struggle to achieve official Army recognition. After his visit to Fort Bragg, the president told the Pentagon that he considered the Green Beret to be “symbolic of one of the highest levels of courage and achievement of the United States military.” Soon, the Green Beret became synonymous with SF.

The Story Behind the Green Beret

The Green Beret was originally designed in 1953 by SF Major Herbert Brucker, a veteran of the OSS. Later that year, First Lieutenant Roger Pezelle adopted it as the unofficial headgear for his A-team, Operational Detachment FA32. They wore it whenever they went to the field for prolonged exercises. Soon it spread throughout all of SF, although the Army refused to authorize its official use. Finally, in 1961, President John F. Kennedy planned to visit Fort Bragg. He sent word to the Special Warfare Center commander, Brigadier General William P. Yarborough, for all SF Soldiers to wear their berets for the event. President Kennedy felt that since they had a special mission, SF should have something to set them apart from the rest. Even before the presidential request, however, the Department of the Army had acquiesced and teletyped a message to the center authorizing the beret as a part of the SF uniform.

When President Kennedy came to Fort Bragg Oct. 12, 1961, General Yarborough wore his Green Beret to greet the commander-in-chief. The president remarked, “Those are nice. How do you like the Green Beret?” General Yarborough replied, “They’re fine, Sir. We’ve wanted them a long time.”

A message from President Kennedy to General Yarborough later that day stated, “My congratulations to you personally for your part in the presentation today … The challenge of this old but new form of operations is a real one, and I know that you and the members of your command will carry on for us and the free world in a manner which is both worthy and inspiring. I am sure that the Green Beret will be a mark of distinction in the trying times ahead.”

In an April 1962 White House memorandum for the U.S. Army, President Kennedy showed his continued support for SF, calling the Green Beret “a symbol of excellence, a badge of courage, a mark of distinction in the fight for freedom.”

Special Forces During the Vietnam Era

Nam Dong, Lang Vei, Dak To, A Shau, Plei Mei – these were just some of the places SF troops fought and died during their 15-year stay in South Vietnam. It was a stay that began in June 1957, when the original 16 members of the 14th SF Operational Detachment deployed to Vietnam to train a cadre of indigenous Vietnamese SF teams. The first and last American Soldiers to die in Vietnam due to enemy action were members of the 1st SF Group. On Oct. 21, 1957, Captain Harry G. Cramer Jr. was killed, and on Oct. 12, 1972, Sgt. Fred C. Mick was killed.

Throughout the latter years of the 1950s and early 1960s, the number of Special Forces advisers in Vietnam steadily increased. Their responsibility was to train South Vietnamese soldiers in the art of counterinsurgency and to mold various native tribes into a credible anti-communist threat. Initially, elements from the different SF groups were involved in advising the South Vietnamese. In September 1964, the 5th SF Group was formed exclusively to conduct operations in Vietnam. The 5th Group set up its provisional headquarters in Nha Trang. Nearly six months later, in February, Nha Trang became the 5th’s permanent headquarters. From that point on, all SF Soldiers in Vietnam were assigned to the 5th until 1971, when the group returned to Fort Bragg.

By the time the 5th left Southeast Asia, SF soldiers had earned 17 Medals of Honor, one Distinguished Service Medal, 90 Distinguished Service Crosses, 814 Silver Star Medals, 13,234 Bronze Star Medals, 235 Legions of Merit, 46 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 232 Soldier’s Medals, 4,891 Air Medals, 6,908 Army Commendation Medals and 2,658 Purple Hearts. It was a brilliant record, built on blood and sacrifice.

Not to be overlooked, other SF training teams were operating in the 1960s in Bolivia, Venezuela, Guatemala, Colombia and the Dominican Republic. Counterinsurgency forces of the 8th SF Group conducted clandestine operations against guerrilla forces, carrying out some 450 missions between 1965 and 1968. In 1968, SF-trained Bolivian rangers were involved in tracking down and capturing the notorious revolutionary, Che Guevara, in the wilds of south-central Bolivia.

Southeast Asia, however, was the SF’s primary focus. Through their unstinting labors, SF troops eventually established 254 outposts throughout Vietnam, many of them defended by a single A-team and hundreds of friendly natives.

But fighting in remote areas of Vietnam – publicity to the contrary – wasn’t the only mission of SF. It was also responsible for training thousands of Vietnam’s ethnic tribesmen in the techniques of guerrilla warfare. SF took the Montagnards, the Nungs, the Cao Dei and others and molded them into the 60,000-strong Civilian Irregular Defense Group, or CIDG. CIDG troops became the SF’s most valuable ally in battles fought in faraway corners of Vietnam, out of reach of conventional back-up forces. Other missions included civic-action projects, in which SF troops built schools, hospitals and government buildings, provided medical care to civilians and dredged canals. This was the other side of the SF mission, the part of the war designed to win the hearts and minds of the people.

SF personnel were instrumental in the covert war against North Vietnam. The Military Assistance Command Vietnam-Studies and Observation Group, or MACV-SOG, conducted cross-border operations into Laos, Cambodia and North Vietnam to disrupt the enemy’s use of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. SF-led teams ran in-country long-range reconnaissance patrols under the Delta, Sigma and Omega projects. In one of the most daring missions of the war, 100 Special Forces Soldiers under Colonel “Bull” Simons launched a raid to rescue 70 American prisoners of war from the Son Tay Prison outside Hanoi. Staged out of Thailand, the assault was successful, but unbeknownst to the U.S., the prisoners had been relocated due to the flooding of a nearby river. The valiant attempt, known as Operation Ivory Coast, raised the morale of the POWs and forced the North Vietnamese into improving the treatment of the captives. On March 5, 1971, the 5th Group returned to Fort Bragg, although some SF teams remained in Thailand, from where they launched secret missions into Vietnam. But by the end of 1972, the SF role in Vietnam was over.

The Son Tay Raid

By the spring of 1970, more than 350 U.S. pilots had been downed in North Vietnam and were being held prisoner. Exposed to horrid conditions and frequent torture, most American prisoners of war were never allowed to contact the outside world. In May 1970, reconnaissance photographs revealed the existence of two prison camps west of Hanoi. At Son Tay, one photograph identified large “K” – a code for “come get us” – drawn in the dirt.

Brigadier General Donald D. Blackburn, who had trained Filipino guerrillas in World War II, suggested that a small group of SF volunteers rescue the prisoners of war. He chose Lieutenant Colonel Arthur D. “Bull” Simons to lead the group. Because the compound was more than 20 miles west of Hanoi, planners of the operation believed that Son Tay was isolated enough to enable a small group to land, release prisoners and withdraw. A full-scale replica of the compound was constructed at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., where a select group of SF Soldiers trained at night. The mock compound was dismantled during the day to elude detection by Soviet satellites. Despite security measures, time was running out. Evidence, although inconclusive, showed that perhaps Son Tay was being emptied.

On Nov. 18, 1970, the Son Tay raiders moved to Takhli, Thailand. Only Simons and three others knew what the mission was to be. Five hours before takeoff Nov. 20, Simons told his 59 men: “We are going to rescue 70 American prisoners of war, maybe more, from a camp called Son Tay. This is something American prisoners have a right to expect from their fellow Soldiers. The target is 23 miles west of Hanoi.” As Simons left the room, the Soldiers broke into applause.

The Navy provided diversionary fire as the raid began. The raiders had less than 30 minutes to complete their mission or face North Vietnamese reinforcements. Nine minutes into the raid, Simons was outside the prison walls after his chopper mistakenly touched down at another site. Most of the 60-plus guards at Son Tay were dead or wounded, but a disturbing fact was becoming obvious. There were no prisoners – they had been moved to another camp when a nearby river threatened to flood.

The Son Tay raid ended after 27 minutes. Simons had not lost a single man, and although there were no prisoners to rescue, the operation itself was nearly flawless.

Special Forces: Post-Vietnam

The years immediately following Vietnam were lean ones for SF. The 1st, 3rd, 6th and 8th SF groups were inactivated, and there was a general de-emphasis of special operations as the Army concentrated once more on conventional warfare, turning its gaze from the jungles of Asia to the plains of Central Europe.

To prevent a further reduction of their capabilities, SF leaders adopted a program called SPARTAN – Special Proficiency at Rugged Training and Nation-building. SPARTAN was designed to demonstrate the multiplicity of talents SF troops possessed, showing that they were not outmoded simply because the Vietnam war was over. Under the aegis of SPARTAN, the 5th and 7th groups worked with Indian tribes in Florida, Arizona and Montana to build roads and medical facilities, and they provided free medical treatment to impoverished citizens of Hoke and Anson counties in North Carolina.

However noble SPARTAN was, it was not what SF was designed for. SF existed to train and fight unconventional warfare, and when President Ronald W. Reagan took office in 1981, they got that chance again. During the Reagan presidency, national defense received renewed emphasis. SF in particular was among the beneficiaries of this new attention. The need for SF capabilities had become apparent with the rise of insurgencies as far away as Africa and Asia, and as close to home as Central America. To meet the challenges of a changing world, the Army revitalized SF.

The Special Forces Qualification Course, or SFQC, was made longer and tougher to ensure that the highest-caliber Soldiers joined the ranks of the Green Berets. In June 1983, the Army authorized a uniform tab for wear on the left shoulder by SF troops. The Army established a separate career management field (CMF 18) for SF enlisted men on Oct. 1, 1984. The Special Forces warrant officer career field (180A) soon followed and, on April 9 1987, the Army Chief of Staff established a separate branch for SF officers (18A). Despite the numerous changes after Vietnam, the basic element – the SF ODA – remained largely unchanged. The only detachment position to change was that of the team executive officer, no longer filled by a lieutenant, but by an SF Warrant Officer with several years of detachment experience.

During the 1980s, SF teams were deployed to dozens of countries around the globe. Missions varied from training allied nations to defend themselves to offering humanitarian aid, like medical care and building construction, in remote villages of Third World countries. SF proved particularly successful in El Salvador and Honduras, preventing the civil war in neighboring Nicaragua from spreading beyond its borders. In Colombia, SF teams conducted a long-term program of upgrading the capabilities of the Colombian military in its counterinsurgent fight against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia insurgency and the drug cartels.

In December 1989, SF was called upon in Operation Just Cause, the invasion of Panama. Designated Task Force Black, Soldiers from the 7th SF Group, many of whom were already stationed in Panama, supported the entire operation by conducting surveillance and implementing blocking tactics. At H-hour, Task Force Black secured a bridge at the Pacora River, engaged units of the Panama Defense Forces in an intense firefight and, despite being outnumbered, succeeded in preventing PDF reinforcements from reaching U.S. Rangers.

During Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm in 1990-91, elements of the 3rd, 5th and 10th SF groups deployed in support of the coalition. The teams performed strategic-reconnaissance missions and supported training for the forces of the allies. From 1992 to 1995, SF teams from the 3rd and 5th groups worked with the UN to re-establish stability in Somalia. This highlighted SF’s first exposure to military operations other than war in a peacekeeping environment.

Special Forces in the Modern Era

As conflict continues to threaten U.S. allies throughout the world, the Defense Department looks to the unique training and experience of the Green Berets. Fort Bragg’s John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School, where prospective SF Soldiers are carefully selected, is training more men than ever for SF qualification and dangerous tasks like free-fall parachuting, escape and evasion, and maritime operations.

The June 1990 reactivation of Fort Bragg’s 3rd SF Group brought to five the number of SF groups on active duty. Other SF groups are the original 10th Group, stationed at Fort Carson, CO, with its 1st Battalion stationed in Stuttgart, Germany; 1st Group at Fort Lewis, WA, with 1st Battalion stationed in Okinawa; 5th Group at Fort Campbell, KY; and 7th Group at Fort Bragg. National Guard units include the 19th and 20th Groups.

In September 1994, U.S. forces were deployed to the Caribbean island of Haiti. The 2nd Battalion, 3rd SF Group’s, mission was to support the Multinational Force-Haiti in establishing and maintaining a stable and secure environment in order to facilitate the transition of the new government of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

The signing of the General Framework Agreement for Peace, commonly known as the Dayton Accords, ended the three-and-a-half year war that ravaged Bosnia and Herzegovina, and it led to another mission for SF. SF in Bosnia participated in Operations Joint Endeavor (December 1995 – December 1996), Joint Guard (December 1996 – June 1998), and Joint Forge (June 1998 – December 2004)]. A combined joint special-operations task force, lead by the 10th SF Group, served as the command and control headquarters for three NATO-controlled division areas. Each division (U.K., U.S. and French) was assigned a special-operations command and control element, or SOCCE, to provide the division commanders with command and control of SOF in their sectors, ensure dedicated and secure communications to SOF elements, coordinate SOF and conventional force operations, and advise the division commanders on SOF capabilities and employment options. Each SOCCE controlled several coalition support teams, or CSTs, to provide their non-NATO counterparts with five capabilities: close air support, medical evacuation, secure communications with higher headquarters and other units (for obvious reasons, NATO was unwilling to simply hand over secure satellite equipment and cryptological codes to non-NATO countries), intelligence connectivity with higher headquarters, and liaison support. While the 10th SF Group took the majority of the mission, ODAs from 1st, 3rd and 7th SF groups served as CSTs during the operation. The CSTs changed their designation to liaison coordination element by the summer of 1996, but little changed with the mission. In December 1996, SF added the joint commission observer, or JCO, mission. JCOs’ primary mission was to serve as the commander’s eyes and ears on the ground and to verify information or intelligence derived from other sources. A typical JCO team of 10 included support and Civil Affairs personnel, and sometimes was augmented with up to 10 Soldiers as a quick-reaction force. USSF provided JCOs in as many as 19 locations in Bosnia.

Between September 1997 and early 1999, the 3rd SF Group trained battalions of the Senegalese Army as part of the African Crisis Response Initiative. SF engagement in Africa reflected the global mission of SF as the U.S. entered the 21st Century.

Operation Enduring Freedom

When the U.S. was attacked on 9/11, SF played a major role in the U.S. response. The U.S. retaliated quickly against the Taliban, which supported the al-Qaeda terrorists who perpetrated the 9/11 attacks and sought protection in Afghanistan, by launching Operation Enduring Freedom, or OEF. The 5th SF Group formed a joint special operations task force known as Task Force Dagger to control special operations in northern Afghanistan. Beginning in October 2001, 5th Group operational detachments supported the tribal coalitions know as the Northern Alliance and drove the Taliban out of its strongholds in the north and retook the capitol city of Kabul. By December, the Taliban had been routed from the cities, and the campaign transitioned to hunting the insurgents in the mountain valleys of eastern Afghanistan. The initial campaign ended with the establishment of Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-Afghanistan (CJSOTF-A) and the formation of a duly elected Afghan government.

Operation Enduring Freedom continued with subsequent rotations from all the SF Groups with the 3rd and 7th Groups forming the core element of the CJSOTF-A. Training and fighting with the Afghan National Army, the Afghan police and security forces and continuing the search for high-value targets were the primary missions of the SF teams. In October 2006, the U.S. led coalition turned over operations in Afghanistan to NATO-ISAF (International Security Assistance Force), with SF groups continuing to form the core of the CJSOTF. Concurrent with OEF was Operation Enduring Freedom-Philippines, a campaign to provide support to the Philippine government in defeating the Islamic insurgency on the island of Basilan. Operational detachments from the 1st SF Group trained Philippine army units who conducted combat operations against the insurgency and hostage-rescue missions on the island. The establishment of CJSOTF-Philippines continued the rotations of 1st Group teams in support of one of America’s key strategic partners.

Operation Iraqi Freedom

March 19, 2003 signaled the start of the second major campaign in the United States’ war on terror, Operation Iraqi Freedom, or OIF. The U.S. led coalition that invaded Iraq to overthrow the government of Saddam Hussein included two SF groups. In the south, the 5th SF Group, in a reprise of Task Force Dagger, had the mission of “Scud-hunting” to prevent the launch of Iraqi missiles against Israel coalition forces and Israel. The ODAs of TF Dagger ranged far and wide in the trackless desert, preventing the deployment of missiles and halting the reinforcement of Saddam’s forces by outside terrorist groups.

In northern Iraq, the 10th SF Group augmented with one Battalion from the 3rd SF Group, operating as Task Force Viking, worked with the Kurdish militias to fix the Iraqi divisions stationed along the political boundary known as the Green Line and prevented their reinforcing Saddam’s army in Baghdad. Executing a classic SF mission, TF Viking trained and supplied the Kurdish forces that subsequently drove the Iraqi army out of the towns of Mosul and Irbil and secured the northern flank of the U.S. coalition. OIF rotations have continued with the 5th and 10th SF groups training the rebuilt Iraqi army and police forces, as well as conducting operations to capture high-value targets.

SF and the War on Terror

Special Forces have been a key element of the U.S. campaign against terrorism worldwide. The SF groups regularly rotate through Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Philippines, as well as Africa and South America. In addition these rotations, the traditional support to partner nations in Central and South America, the Far East, and other locations continues as SF units are deployed around the globe.

The demand for SF today has resulted in an increased production from SWCS. A retooling of the selection-and-assessment process and a reorganization of the SFQC now produce more than 700 SF enlisted graduates each year. In addition, a fourth battalion has been authorized for each SF group as the demand for expertise in UW increases.

[A special thanks to the JFK Special Warfare Center and School for their assistance in providing this Brief History of Special Forces]

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