Special operations forces are elite military tactical teams trained to perform high-risk dangerous missions that conventional units cannot perform. Special forces soldiers need to be physically and mentally robust and have the confidence, courage, and skill to operate individually or in small teams, often in isolation and in a hostile environment.
Between October 2001 and November 2004, there were 82 SOF fatalities: 35 (42%) from explosions, 23 (28%) gunshot wounds, 19 (23%) aircraft crashes, 4 (5%) motor vehicle crashes, and 1 (2%) fall.
The continued evolution and development of modern SOF is a result of 50 years of experience, including a world war, three large regional wars, many similar conflicts and operations other than war. SOF have witnessed periods of improvisation, rapid build-ups and subsequent rapid drawdowns, some magnificent successes and some equally spectacular failures.
The United States Special Operations Command oversees small, elite units in the military that carry out a variety of missions in hostile territory, many of them classified. Established in 1987, it has about 54,000 active-duty personnel from four branches of the armed services. Adm. William H. McRaven was appointed commander by President Barack Obama in April 2011.
Over the course of the 1990s, the activities of US special operations forces gradually increased so that by 1997, approximately 4,760 personnel were deployed abroad every week, a threefold increase from 1991. With the advent of the Global War on Terrorism, USSOCOM personnel have become stretched even further. As an example, a US Navy sea-air-land (SEAL) member currently spends six months abroad during an 18-month period rather than the previous standard of six out of every 24 months.
The Special Operations Command has grown in size and importance since the attacks of Sept. 11, as the U.S. military focused on combating terrorism. As defense secretary, Donald H. Rumsfeld wanted Special Operations to work unilaterally; he believed that it would be more aggressive in hunting down terrorists than regional commanders, who were tied more closely to conventional forces.
On January 5, 2012, the Administration unveiled its new strategic guidance refocusing U.S. strategic efforts to the Pacific and Middle East and, at the same time, proposing significant cuts to the ground forces. Of potential concern to Congress is that with fewer general forces SOF operational tempo might increase. DOD maintains that it is willing to increase its investment in SOF, there are limitations on expansion because of stringent qualification and training standards, and little is known about how SOF would be employed under this new strategy, or even it has the ability to take on new mission requirements
The U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) components are the U.S. Army Special Operations Command (USASOC); the Naval Special Warfare Command (NAVSPECWARCOM); the Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC); and the Marine Corps Special Operations Command (MARSOC). The Joint Special Operations Command is a USSOCOM sub-unified command. Additional command and control responsibilities are vested in Theater Special Operations Commands (TSOCs), designed to support a Geographical Combatant Commander's special operations logistics, planning, and operational control requirements, and are normally controlled by a general officer.
Special Forces units perform seven doctrinal missions: Unconventional Warfare, Foreign Internal Defense, Special Reconnaissance, Direct Action, Combating Terrorism, Counter-proliferation, and Informational Operations. These missions make Special Forces unique in the U.S. Military because they are employed throughout the three stages of the operational continuum: peacetime, conflict and war.
Another complicating variable is the maintenance of high standards for special operations forces personnel sometimes means that organizations are understaffed to avoid the dilution of expertise, a factor exacerbated by the private manpower drain. Depending on the SOF tier under consideration, only 10 to 30 percent of recruits are successful in their attempts to join. As such, in 2001, US Army Special Forces were at 94%, and the US Navy SEALS remained at 89 percent of enlisted strength in 2005.
The typical special operator: average age is 29-years old enlisted, 34 years old officer; is married and has at least two kids; has 8 years experience in the General Purpose Forces; receives cultural and language training; has attended multiple advanced tactical schools; enjoys games which require problem solving like Chess; is well educated and likely to have a college degree; and is a thinking athlete- water polo, track, wrestling or football.
Tactical Combat Casualty Care (TCCC) is designed to provide all Special Operations Forces (SOF) operators (medical and nonmedical) in deploying units with sufficient medical skills to sustain casualties until evacuation and if necessary, while under fire.TCCC training emphasizes: Tourniquets for extremity wounds with life-threatening bleeding to gain initial control of hemorrhage; Sustained direct pressure for severe external bleeding in an anatomic location where a tourniquet cannot be applied; Proper casualty positioning and cricothyroidotomy instead of intubation for maxillofacial trauma associated with airway trauma; Needle decompression of tension pneumothorax.
Recognizing that the demand for forces to selectively respond to diverse regional concerns will be greater than ever, the following themes will continue to guide the SOF community: Ensure maximum flexibility consistent with full accountability; Encourage unorthodox approaches and unconventional techniques that bring flexible thinking and innovation in addressing unconventional security threats; Invest in science and technology to maintain technical superiority in weaponry, materiel, and delivery systems; Stress SOF utility for forward-basing, quick deployment, and adaptability to regional contingencies; Continue to integrate SOF with conventional forces and other U.S. government agencies to further enhance SOF's ability to support their principal customers (the geographic CINCs, U.S. ambassadors and their country teams, and other government agencies); Design force structure to reflect the mix of SOF missions; and Ensure appropriate missions are tasked to SOF. Special Operations have key elements that distinguish them from conventional operations.
Special Operations Forces are particularly suited for many emerging missions which will flow from the National Security Strategy, many of these missions require traditional SOF capabilities, while others such as counterproliferation and information warfare are relatively new and are the subject of developing SOF doctrine. Recent operations have proven that SOF are invaluable as facilitators and peacetime operators, as well as strike troops. In order to be as effective as possible, SOF face two major challenges: they must integrate -- with conventional forces, other U.S. agencies, friendly foreign forces, and other international organizations (like the United Nations and Red Cross) -- yet they must preserve the autonomy necessary to protect and encourage the unconventional approach that is the soul of Special Operations.