Order Code RS21048
October 15, 2001
CRS Report for Congress
Received through the CRS Web
Special Operations Forces in Operation
Enduring Freedom: Background and Issues
Edward F. Bruner, Christopher Bolkcom, and Ronald O’Rourke
Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Trade Division
Special Operations Forces (SOF) are elite, specialized military units that can be
inserted “behind the lines ” through land, sea, or air to conduct a variety of operations,
many of them clandestine. SOF units are expected to play an important role in U.S.
military operations in Afghanistan and possibly elsewhere as part of Operation Enduring
Freedom, the U.S. military campaign against terrorists. This short report provides
background information and issues for Congress on U.S. SOF units and will be updated
as events warrant.
Special Operations Forces and predecessor forces have played a role in most U.S.
conflicts. Congress in 1986 expressed particular concern for the status of SOF within
overall U.S. defense planning and consequently legislated measures to strengthen their
position, having noted in 1985 that SOF provide the United States an “immediate and
primary capability to respond to terrorism.”1
SOF personnel are carefully selected and undergo highly demanding training. SOF
activities, which generally require greater proficiency and specialization than is normally
found in conventional military units, include the following:
Direct Action. Short-duration, small-scale offensive actions such as
raids, ambushes, hostage rescues, and “surgical strikes.”
Strategic (Special) Reconnaissance. Clandestine operations in hostile
territory to gain significant information.
Unconventional Warfare. Advising and supporting indigenous
insurgent and resistance groups operating in the territory of a common
enemy. (For example, the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan.)
Current authorities and definitions for SOF are found in Title 10, United States Code, Section
167. The statement of SOF importance to counter-terrorism was made in P.L 99-145; 99 Stat.760.
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
Foreign Internal Defense. Assisting host nation military capabilities to
forestall or defeat insurgent activities.
Civil Affairs. Promoting civil-military cooperation between U.S. military
forces and the foreign governments and populations within their area of
Psychological Operations. Influencing the attitudes and behavior of
relevant populations to assist in accomplishing security missions.
Counterterrorism (CT). Operations conducted by Special Mission Units
to resolve or preempt terrorist incidents abroad and activities to assist or
work with other CT-designated agencies within the United States.
Humanitarian Assistance. Providing various rudimentary services to
foreign populations in adverse circumstances.
Theater Search and Rescue. Finding and recovering pilots and air
crews downed on land or sea outside the United States, sometimes in
combat or clandestine situations.
Such other activities as may be specified by the President or Secretary of
Many observers expect that SOF operations will constitute a significant part of
CENTCOM activities on the ground in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom.
SOF units reportedly have been assisting indigenous anti-Taliban forces and conducting
clandestine reconnaissance missions. Additional potential roles include locating and
Taliban or terrorist forces, designating them for attack by U.S. aircraft, capturing them in
so-called “snatch-and-grab” operations, and killing them. Some SOF being used in
Afghanistan reportedly have been contributed by allies, such as highly regarded Special Air
Service units from the United Kingdom.
Command Structures and Funding
In 1986, Congress established the U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM)
as a new unified command to oversee training, doctrine, and equipping of all U.S. SOF.
The Commander in Chief of USSOCOM, or CINCSOC, is a four-star General or Admiral
who may be from any Service. USSOCOM is headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base
in Tampa, FL. CINCSOC reports directly to the Secretary of Defense, although an
Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict
(SO/LIC) provides immediate civilian oversight over many of USSOCOM activities.
Although CINCSOC may command SOF operations anywhere in the world -- when
specifically directed by the Secretary of Defense -- it is more normal for CINCSOC to
organize and provide SOF to fight under the command of a regional CINC.
U.S. military operations in and around Afghanistan are conducted by the U.S. Central
Command (USCENTCOM) which also conducted Operation Desert Storm in 1991.
CINCCENT, whose primary headquarters coincidentally is also at MacDill AFB, has a
permanent SOF subordinate command. This command, known as SOCCENT, would
plan for, coordinate use of, and command all SOF forces provided to CINCCENT by
CINCSOC. Most SOF units have trained with SOF units from other services.
U.S. SOF units include a total of roughly 45,000 active and reserve personnel across
all the services, or about 2% of all U.S. active and reserve forces. The current, dedicated
USSOCOM budget is about $3.7 billion per year, or a bit more than 1% of the annual
Army Special Operations Forces2
U.S. Army SOF (ARSOF) include 26,000 soldiers from the Active Army, National
Guard, and Army Reserve who are organized into Special Forces units, Rangers units,
special operations aviation units, civil affairs units, psychological operations units, and
special operations support units. ARSOF Headquarters and other resources, such as the
John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School, are located at Fort Bragg, NC.
Five active Special Forces Groups (Airborne) are stationed at Fort Bragg and at Fort
Lewis, WA, Fort Campbell, KY, and Fort Carson, CO. Special Forces soldiers – also
known as the Green Berets – are trained in various skills, including foreign languages, that
allow teams to operate independently in designated regions of the world. Two Army
National Guard SF groups are headquartered in Utah and Alabama. An elite light infantry,
airborne combat force, the 75th Ranger Regiment, is stationed at Fort Benning, GA.
Army special operations aviation units feature pilots trained to fly the most
sophisticated Army rotary-wing aircraft in the toughest environments, day or night. The
160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne) is stationed at Fort Campbell, KY.
The regiment’s aircraft include MH47-E, MH60-L, and MH-6M helicopters.
The most frequently deployed SOF assets are civil affairs (CA) units, which provide
experts in every area of civil government to help insure that the administration of civilian
affairs in the theater poses a minimum hindrance to U.S. military objectives. The 96th Civil
Affairs Battalion (Airborne) is the only active CA unit; all other CA units reside in four
Army Reserve Civil Affairs Commands located in Pensacola, FL, Mountain View, CA,
Riverdale, MD, and Bronx, NY.
Psychological operations units provide communications to large foreign audiences
through mass media, including radio, TV, Internet, print media, and face-to-face
communication. Soldiers must have technical and language skills paired with knowledge
of regional cultures. The 4th Psychological Operations Group (Airborne) is stationed at
Fort Bragg, and two Army Reserve groups are located in Cleveland, OH, and at Moffett
Federal Airfield, CA.
Finally, Fort Bragg is also home to specialized supporting units and Special Mission
Units that support a variety of ARSOF and joint missions. Notable among these is the 1st
Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta, often called Delta Force, which is
reportedly is based at Fort Bragg and is trained specifically for counterterrorism missions,
including hostage-rescue and snatch-and-grab operations. Although widely discussed in
the press, the Pentagon does not publicly acknowledge Delta Force’s existence or talk
about its operations or capabilities.
Information about current Army SOF was taken from an article by Lieutenant General Bryan
(Doug) Brown, “U.S. Army Special Operations: Focusing on People – Humans are More
Important than Hardware,” Army, October 2001, pp. 157-162.
Air Force Special Operations Forces3
The Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) includes about 10,000 active
and reserve personnel, of which about 22% are stationed overseas. AFSOC is
headquartered at Hurlburt Field, FL, which is also the home of most of AFSOC’s active
units, including the 16th Special Operations Wing, the 720th Special Tactics Group, the
18th Flight Test Squadron, and the U.S. Air Force Special Operations School. The 352nd
Special Operations Group is located at RAF Mildenhall, England, and the 353rd Special
Operations Group, is located at Kadena Air Base, Japan.
Reserve AFSOC components include the 193rd Special Operations Wing, Air
National Guard stationed at Harrisburg, PA, the 280th Combat Communications
Squadron, Air National Guard stationed at Dothan, AL., and the 919th Special Operations
Wing, Air Force Reserve stationed at Duke Field, FL.
AFSOC units are trained for direct action, unconventional warfare, special
reconnaissance, foreign internal defense, and counter terrorism operations. AFSOC's Core
Tasks are grouped into four mission areas: Forward Presence and Engagement,
Information Operations, Precision Employment/Strike, and Special Operations Forces
Mobility. AFSOC personnel deploy with specially trained and equipped forces from each
service. The U.S. Special Operations School provides special operations-related education
to personnel from all branches of DoD, other government agencies, and allied nations.
AFSOC’s three active-duty flying units are composed of more than 100 fixed and
rotary-wing aircraft, many of them specialized variants of the basic C-130 cargo airplane,
that are organized in composite wings and groups. These aircraft include:
MC-130E Combat Talon I and MC-130H Combat Talon II aircraft, which
infiltrate, resupply, and exfiltrate U.S. and allied SOF units during day and
night and in adverse weather.
MC-130P Combat Shadow aircraft, which fly clandestine ( low-visibility),
low-level, single- or multi-aircraft missions, primarily at night, penetrating
politically sensitive or hostile territory to refuel other aircraft. MC-130Ps
can also deliver SOF and equipment by airdrop.
AC-130H Spectre Gunship and the AC-130U Spooky Gunship aircraft,
which conduct close air support, air interdiction and force protection
operations. Close air support missions include supporting troops in
contact, escorting convoys, and urban operations. Air interdiction
missions are conducted against preplanned targets or targets of
opportunity. Force protection missions include air base defense and
EC-130 Commando Solo aircraft, which conduct psychological
operations and civil affairs broadcasts in AM, FM, and high frequency
radio, TV, and military communications bands. Missions are flown at
maximum altitude to ensure optimum broadcast range. Secondary
For additional information on Air Force SOF units, see Wall, Robert. Conflict Could Test
Special Ops Improvements. Aviation Week & Space Technology, October 1, 2001: 30.
missions include information warfare, electronic attack, and some
MH-53J/M Pave Low helicopters, which conduct low-level, long-range,
undetected penetration into denied areas, at day or night, and in adverse
weather, for infiltration, exfiltration, and resupply of SOF.
The V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft, a Marine Corps priority, is also being developed
for AFSOC. If procured, SOF CV-22s will conduct long-range vertical takeoff and
landing infiltration, exfiltration and resupply missions. The Osprey may provide increased
speed and range, low-altitude adverse-weather penetration, a state-of-the-art electronic
warfare suite, and maneuverability to perform missions that would normally require fixed
wing and rotor wing aircraft.
Naval Special Operations Forces4
The naval special warfare command includes about 4,950 active and almost 1,200
reserve personnel, and is headquartered at Coronado, CA. Navy special warfare forces
are organized into SEAL teams (SEAL stands for Sea, Air and Land), Special Boat Units
(SBUs), and SEAL Delivery Vehicle (SDV) teams based on both coasts. The 4,950 active
personnel include about 2,500 SEAL commandos and SEAL-qualified medical corpsmen,
about 500 combatant craft crewmen, about 1,500 fleet support technicians, and about 200
SEAL teams are maritime multipurpose combat forces trained and equipped to
perform various SOF missions. SEAL commandos are considered the best-trained combat
swimmers in the world, and can be deployed covertly from submarines or from sea-based
aircraft. They typically operate in 16-man platoons and conduct clandestine ground and
waterborne special reconnaissance and direct action missions in a maritime, littoral, or
riverine environment. A SEAL platoon and SBU detachment routinely embark with each
deploying Navy/Marine Corps amphibious ready group. A SEAL platoon embarks with
each carrier battle group deploying from the East Coast and a SEAL platoon is dedicated
to – but does not embark with – each carrier group deploying from the West Coast.
Some observers believe SEALs are unlikely to be used significantly in Afghanistan,
given the country’s landlocked location, hundreds of miles from shore. Others note that
SEALs can be inserted into Afghanistan by ship-launched helicopters, just like other SOF.
The Marine Corps has no dedicated SOF units, but Marine Expeditionary Units
(MEUs), which contain roughly 2,000 Marines, including an infantry battalion and a small
air detachment, can receive training in specific special operations prior to deploying
overseas, in which case they are certified as special- operations-capable (SOC) for the
duration of their deployment and are referred to as MEU(SOC)s.
Sources for information in this section: Waterborne Commandos. Armed Forces Journal
International, January 2000: 31-33 (an interview with Rear Admiral Eric T. Olson, Commander,
U.S. Naval Special Warfare Command); Gourley, Scott R. Setting The Seal On Maritime Special
Operations Forces. Jane’s Navy International, June 1999: 18-21, 23. See also, Worthington,
George. Whither Naval Special Warfare? U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, January 1996: 61-63;
Nolan, Mary I. Warriors Who Come From the Sea. Sea Power, February 1995: 38-40; Waller,
Douglas C. Hell Week. Newsweek, January 10, 1994: 28-33.
Navy ships and Navy and Marine Corps aircraft can also be used to insert or recover
special operations forces of other military services. The aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk was
recently deployed from its home port in Japan with only a partial complement of fixedwing aircraft, and observers speculate that the ship will go to the Northern Arabian Sea
to serve as a launch and recovery platform for helicopter-borne special forces units.
Issues for Congress
Potential issues for Congress regarding SOF include the following:
Intelligence Support. Clandestine direct-action operations, particularly those
aimed at capturing or killing specific individuals or groups, depend for their success to a
large degree on having timely, high-quality intelligence about the targets in question. Are
U.S. intelligence-gathering capabilities against targets in Afghanistan – and
communications links to SOF forces – sufficient to provide SOF units with high-quality
intelligence on a timely (i.e., real-time or near-real-time) basis?
Work with Resistance Forces. What kind of assistance are SOF units providing
to the Northern Alliance and other indigenous resistance forces, and how does this
assistance fit into the broader U.S. anti-terrorism effort? Are U.S. special forces taking
sufficient advantage of the general knowledge and specific intelligence that resistance
forces and local populations can provide? What are the operational risks of having U.S.
special forces work with resistance forces and local populations?
Funding, Equipment, and Organization. Have U.S. special forces been funded
adequately in recent years? Should the budget for special forces be increased, and if so,
how should the additional funds be spent? Is the size and organization of U.S. special
forces appropriate in light of the new campaign against terrorism and other 21st-Century
security challenges, or should it be changed? How will future SOF capabilities be affected
by potential changes to the V-22 Osprey program?
Personnel Retention. Some special forces units, such as the SEALs, have
experienced difficulties in recent years in meeting personnel retention goals. What is the
current SOF personnel-retention situation, and what, if anything, should be done to
Joint and Combined Operations. How much do the special forces of the
various services train with one another for joint (i.e., multiservice) operations? How has
joint SOF training been affected by the creation of USSOCOM? How much do U.S. SOF
forces train with British and other foreign SOF forces for combined (i.e., multi-national)
operations? Do foreign SOF units have any capabilities that U.S. SOF units lack, and if
so, should USSOCOM seek to incorporate these capabilities into U.S. SOF units?