Special forces or special operations forces is a term used to describe relatively small military units raised and trained for reconnaissance, unconventional warfare and special operations. These exclusive units rely on stealth, speed, self reliance and close teamwork, and highly specialized equipment.
Traditionally, the mission of the Special Forces are in five areas, counter-terrorism, unconventional warfare, facilitating the internal defense of foreign countries (primarily through the education and training of indiginous security forces) special reconnaissance, and direct action against specific targets, e.g. prision rescue, or destruction of essential infrastructure, such as powerplants. Their elite nature is such that special forces often prevail even against substantially larger forces, recently witnessed in Mogadishu, Somalia 1993, chronicled in the popular 2001 film Black Hawk Down, involving 123 U.S. Rangers against several thousand Somolians. Special forces members are often selected from volunteer candidates, and go through the most rigorous training available, often training exceeds two years, and certain missions may necessitate additional training. They can be described as the "best of the best"; the "most daring" and "most effective" fighting units.
The work of Special Forces is usually classified, and hence candidates are put through extensive trials prior to acceptance into the Special Forces, these trials have an extremely high washout rate. They must also have at least a Secret clearance. Not infrequently, there are ties between intelligence agencies and special forces units, acting rapidly on current intelligence.
Special Forces operatives may also be used to train foreign local forces when military aid is given to other countries, as much of their specialized training includes language and cultural skills. Because of the secrecy surrounding much of their training, and the typically covert nature of their work, Special Forces have an aura of mystery surrounding them and are frequently the topic of military fiction. Coincidentially, those in the Special Forces often refer to themselves as "the Quiet Professionals".
History of Special Forces
Special forces have played an important role throughout the history of warfare when the aim has been to achieve disruption by "hit and run" and sabotage rather than more traditional face to face combat. Other significant roles lay in reconnaissance, providing essential intelligence from close to or among the enemy, and increasingly in combating terrorists, their infrastructure and activities.
During the Napoleonic wars, rifle and sapper units existed who were not committed to the formal lines that made up most battles of the day. They instead held more specialized roles in reconnaissance and skirmishing. The formation of the Bushveldt Carbineers in the Second Boer War may also be seen as an early manifestation of a unit for unconventional warfare.
World War II
During World War II in 1940 the British Commandos were formed following Winston Churchill's call for "specially trained troops of the hunter class, who can develop a reign of terror down the enemy coast." The Commandos were selected from volunteers among existing servicemen and went on to spawn a number of other specialist units including the Special Air Service, the Special Boat Service and the Small Scale Raiding Force of the Special Operations Executive. In the Burma Campaign the Chindits, whose long range penetration groups were trained to operate from bases deep behind Japanese lines, contained commandos (King's Liverpool Regiment, 142 Commando Company) and Gurkhas. Their jungle expertise, which would play an important part in many British special forces operations post war, was learnt, at a great cost in lives, in the jungles of Burma fighting the Japanese.
In the summer of 1942, the United States formed the Rangers who were based on and trained by the Commandos. The US and Canada also formed a sabotage ski brigade for operations in Norway who became known as the Devil's Brigade during their eventual service in Italy. Merrill's Marauders were modelled on the Chindits and took part in similar operations in Burma.
The German army had the Brandenburger Regiment who became a special armoured force used by Rommel in the North Africa campaign for long range reconnaissance as well as raids behind enemy lines. A unit within the Waffen SS commanded by Otto Skorzeny also conducted many special operations.
In Italy the Decima Flottiglia MAS were responsible for the sinking and damage of considerable Allied tonnage in the Mediterranean. After the division of Italy in 1943, those fighting with Germany retained the original name and those fighting with the Allies retitled as the Mariassalto.
Late 20th and early 21st Century
Throughout the later half of the 20th century and into the 21st century, special forces have come to higher prominence as governments have found objectives can sometimes be better achieved by a small team of anonymous specialists than a larger and much more politically controversial conventional deployment. In both Kosovo and Afghanistan, special forces were used to coordinate activities between local guerrilla fighters and air power. Typically guerrilla fighters would engage enemy soldiers and tanks causing them to move, where they could be seen and attacked from the air.
Invariably special forces were used in key military operations such as the Falklands War, Northern Ireland, the first and second Gulf Wars, Afghanistan, Kosovo, Bosnia, the Iranian Embassy siege (London) and the Moscow Theatre siege.
Army Special Operations Command (http://www.soc.mil/default.htm)
Navy Special Warfare (http://www.navsoc.navy.mil)
United States Special Operations Command (http://www.socom.mil)
Air Force Special Operations Command (http://www.afsoc.af.mil/index2.shtml)