Order Code RS21048
August 15, 2003
CRS Report for Congress
Received through the CRS Web
U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF):
Background and Issues for Congress
Analyst in National Defense
Foreign Affairs, Defense , and Trade Division
Special Operations Forces (SOF) play a significant role in U.S. military operations .
The Administration has given U.S. SOF forces greater responsibility for planning and
directing worldwide counterterrorism operations. The Administration’s proposed
FY2004 defense budget requests about $6.7 billion for SOF forces – an increase of
about 34% over FY2003 – and proposes increasing the total number of SOF personnel.
The expanded use of SOF in U.S. military operations raises several issues for Congress.
The House and Senate Armed Services Committees, in their reports on the FY2004
Defense Authorization Bill (H.R. 1588/S. 1050) included several provisions relating to
U.S. SOF. This report will be updated as events warrant.
Overview. Special Operations Forces (SOF) are small, elite military units with
special training and equipment that can infiltrate into hostile territory through land, sea,
or air to conduct a variety of operations, many of them classified. SOF personnel undergo
rigorous selection and lengthy, specialized training. U.S. SOF units total roughly 47,000
active and reserve personnel in the Army, Navy, and Air Force, or about 2% of all U.S.
active and reserve forces. The U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) oversees
the training, doctrine, and equipping of all U.S. SOF units.
Operations in Iraq. SOF operations in Iraq are currently focusing on capturing or
killing “high-value targets”- an alleged euphemism for senior former Hussein regime
members - combating the growing insurgency threat, and a wide range of civil-military
and psychological operations. According to press reports, Task Force 20, a unit
consisting of about 750-1,5000 troops drawn from a variety of USSOCOM units are
spearheading the hunt for former regime members.1 Task Force 20, which reportedly was
previously involved in the search for weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles,
is believed to have conducted numerous raids in and around Baghdad and Tirkit. Other
Shadowy U.S. Task Force 20 Stalks Saddam in Iraq, Will Dunham, Reuters, August 7, 2003.
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
USSOCOM units in Iraq are involved in a wide variety of missions designed to defeat
Iraqi insurgents, train a new Iraqi army and security forces, as well as traditional civilmilitary and psychological operations designed to bring stability to Iraq.
Operations in Afghanistan and Other Countries. SOF continues to operate
in Afghanistan where they are involved in counterinsurgency operations and continue
their hunt for Al Qaeda and Taliban leadership. SOF are also deployed in the Philippines
and Colombia where they are involved in training those country’s armed forces in
counterrorism and counterinsurgency operations. SOF is also reportedly deployed with
Combined Joint Task Force (CJTF) Horn of Africa as part of the global war on terrorism.
SOF and Defense Transformation. The Administration considers the
enhancement of SOF capabilities to be a key element of its plan for transforming the U.S.
military to meet future military challenges. DOD leaders and other officials view the
highly effective use of SOF units in Iraq and Afghanistan as a validation of some of the
Administration’s transformation proposals.2
Authority for Planning Operations. In January 2003, DOD gave USSOCOM
greater responsibility for planning and directing worldwide counterterrorism operations.
Instead of being simply a supporting command that provides forces to other regional U.S.
combatant commanders, USSOCOM will now be a supported command capable of
planning and conducting operations in its own right.3
Funding. The Administration’s proposed FY2004 defense budget requests about
$6.7 billion for SOF forces (an increase of about 34% over the FY2003 figure), and
proposes increasing the total number of U.S. SOF personnel by 2,653. The budget
increase would fund, among other things, the additional SOF personnel and improvements
to the fleet of aircraft used to support SOF operations. Most of the additional personnel
are to be used to improve USSOCOM’s ability to plan and direct counterterrorism
operations. Some additional personnel will be authorized for civil affairs, psychological
operations, and SOF aviation units and also for operational units. Navy officials
reportedly will add the equivalent of two SEAL teams over the next five years to bolster
their operational capability.4
SOF Capabilities. Specific U.S. SOF capabilities include the following:
! Direct Action. Short-duration, small-scale offensive actions such as
raids, ambushes, hostage rescues, and “surgical strikes.”
For more on transformation of U.S. military forces, see CRS Report RS20787, Army
Transformation and Modernization: Overview and Issues for Congress, by Edward F. Bruner;
CRS Report RS20859, Air Force Transformation: Background and Issues for Congress, by
Christopher Bolkcom; and CRS Report RS20851, Naval Transformation: Background and Issues
for Congress, by Ronald O’Rourke.
Morris, Jefferson. SOCOM Changing From ‘Supporting’ To ‘Supported’ Command, Official
Says. Aerospace Daily, April 2, 3003; Scarborough, Rowan. ‘Special Ops’ Gets OK TO Initiate
Its Own Missions. Washington Times, January 8, 2003: 8; Scarborough, Rowan. Rumsfeld
Bolsters Special Forces. Washington Times, January 6, 2003: 1.
Navy Confirms the Addition of 272 New SEAL Slots, Matthew Dolan, Norfolk Virginian-Pilot,
June 13, 2003.
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.)
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.
Psychological Operations. Influencing the attitudes and behavior of
relevant populations to assist in accomplishing security missions.
Humanitarian Assistance. Providing various rudimentary services to
foreign populations in adverse circumstances.
Theater Search and Rescue. Finding and recovering downed pilots and
air crews, sometimes in combat or clandestine situations.
Counterterrorism (CT). Operations conducted to preempt terrorist
incidents abroad and activities to assist or work with other CT-designated
agencies in the United States.
Such other activities as the President or Secretary of Defense specify.
Command Structures. Congress in 1986 expressed concern for the status of SOF
within overall U.S. defense planning and passed measures to strengthen its position.
These actions included the establishment of USSOCOM as a new unified command.
USSOCOM is headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, FL. The Commander
of USSOCOM , is a four-star officer who may be from any service. Commander,
USSOCOM 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 USSOCOM activities . Although Commander,
USSOCOM may command SOF operations anywhere – when specifically directed by the
Secretary of Defense – it is more normal for him to organize and provide SOF to fight
under the command of a regional combatant commander. U.S. military operations in and
around Afghanistan are conducted by the U.S. Central Command (USCENTCOM).
Commander, USCENTCOM, whose primary headquarters coincidentally is also at
MacDill AFB, has a permanent SOF subordinate command known as SOCCENT.
Army Special Operations Forces.5 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
Information in this section was taken from Brown, Bryan (Doug). U.S. Army Special
Operations: Focusing on People – Humans are More Important than Hardware.” Army, October
in Utah and Alabama. An elite light airborne infantry unit, the 75th Ranger Regiment, is
headquartered at Fort Benning, GA and consists of three battalions specializing in direct
action operations. Army special operations aviation units, including the 160th Special
Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne) at Fort Campbell, KY, feature pilots trained
to fly the most sophisticated Army rotary-wing aircraft in the harshest environments, day
or night and in adverse weather.
The most frequently deployed SOF assets are civil affairs (CA) units, which provide
experts in every area of civil government to help administer civilian affairs in the theater.
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 disseminate
information to large foreign audiences through mass media. 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 reportedly is based at
Air Force Special Operations Forces. 6 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 at RAF Mildenhall,
England, and the 353rd Special Operations Group, is 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’s three active-duty flying units are
composed of more than 100 fixed and rotary-wing aircraft. 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
Naval Special Operations Forces. The Naval Special Warfare Command
(NSWC) is located in Coronado, CA, and includes about 4,950 active and almost 1,200
reserve personnel. 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. SEALs are considered the best-trained combat
swimmers in the world, and can be deployed covertly from submarines or from sea-based
aircraft. Although Afghanistan is a landlocked country hundreds of miles from shore,
SEALs formed a significant portion of the total U.S. SOF presence in Afghanistan. 7
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.
Sources for information in this section: Waterborne Commandos . Armed Forces Journal
Until recently, the Marine Corps had no SOF units. In December 2002, the Marine
Corps announced that it had created an 86-man SOF unit called the Marine Corps
SOCOM Detachment. The unit was formed as a 2-year pilot project and will be based at
Camp Pendleton, CA. It was scheduled to begin training in June 2003, to join
USSOCOM in October 2003, and to be ready for deployment (with SEAL teams) in April
2004. If the unit is deemed successful, it may be expanded or duplicated.8 In addition,
Marine Expeditionary Units (MEUs), which contain roughly 2,100 Marines, for many
years have received training in specific special operations prior to deploying, 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.
Issues for Congress
Potential issues for Congress include the following:
Congressional restriction on the use of SOF. According to press
reports9 a classified Senate report accompanying S. 1025, Intelligence
Authorization Act for FY 2004, would require DOD to first obtain a
presidential finding or directive before deploying SOF forces on some
clandestine missions to countries where the U.S. role is not publically
acknowledged. The House version, H.R. 2417, does not contain similar
provisions. Many critics of this measure believe that such a requirement
would have a detrimental impact on the war on terrorism and limit SOF’s
ability to kill or capture terrorists. Congress may wish to consider the
impact of this proposed restriction on current and future SOF operations.
Role of SOF in war on terrorism. What is the proper overall role of
SOF forces in the global war on terrorism? What are the potential
operational, legal, and diplomatic advantages and disadvantages of
having USSOCOM exercise direct control over major portions of the
military effort in the overall U.S. war on terrorism?
SOF size and funding. Are SOF units adequately sized and funded?
How many additional SOF personnel, and how much additional funding,
are needed to support USSOCOM’s expanded role in the global war on
terrorism? Given the very high standards of selection and training for
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: 6163; 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.
Steele, Jeanette. Marines Plan Special-Ops Unit. San Diego Union-Tribune. December 19,
2002; Lowe, Christian.
Marine Corps To Activate Special Operations Force.
MarineCorpsTimes.com, December 17, 2002.
Sources for information in this section: Congress to Restrict the use of Special Ops, Bill Gertz,
Washington Times, August 13, 2003 and Covert-Action Curbs Fought by Pentagon, Bill Gertz,
Washington Times, August 14, 2003.
SOF personnel, how difficult will it be to increase the size of
SOF and defense transformation. What does recent experience with
SOF in Afghanistan and elsewhere reveal concerning possible directions
for transforming conventional U.S. military forces, particularly land
SOF operational tempo. With significant numbers of SOF personnel
currently deployed overseas, some observers are concerned that SOF
forces are being stretched too thin. How does the use of significant
numbers of SOF forces in Iraq affect USSOCOM’s ability to meet
demands for SOF in Afghanistan and elsewhere?
FY2004 Defense Authorization Bill (H.R. 1588/S. 1050). In its report
(H.Rept. 108-106 of May 16, 2003) on H.R. 1588, the House Armed Services
Committee recommended funding increases for several SOF-related programs (see, for
example, pages 50, 122, 123, 191-192, 233, 241, and 249). The committee lauded U.S.
SOF, expressed support for increased spending on SOF, noted its own recommended SOF
funding increases, supported increasing the number of SOF personnel, concurred with
SOF leaders that such increases must not compromise SOF personnel standards,
supported DOD’s decision to designate USSOCOM as a supported command in some
cases, expressed concern that the existing language of 10 U.S.C. 167 relating to this issue
may be too restrictive to permit the timely execution of some missions to be performed
by SOF, and directed DOD to review the issue and report by February 1, 2004 on whether
any changes are needed (pages 355-356).
In its report (S.Rept. 108-46 of May 13, 2003) on S. 1050, the Senate Armed
Services Committee recommended funding increases for several SOF-related programs
(see, for example, pages 3, 38, 115, 116-118, and 237-239). The committee noted
problems that have occurred in a program to acquire a miniature submarine to be used by
SOF forces called the Advanced SEAL delivery system (ASDS). The committee
recommended a reduction in advanced procurement funding for the program and directed
DOD to review the program’s acquisition strategy, particularly with regard to maximizing
the benefits of competition (pages 115-116). The committee included a provision
(Section 341) regarding reimbursement of pay and allowances of certain reserve SOF
personnel who are called to active duty (page 292). The committee supported DOD’s
decisions to expand USSOCOM’s role in the war on terrorism, to make USSOCOM a
supported command in some cases, and to request increased funding for SOF. The
committee stated that it needed more information on how DOD’s decisions on these
matters would affect USSOCOM’s nine existing statutory missions and that it was
concerned that these decisions be implemented within the parameters of existing
international law, with full executive and legislative oversight. The committee included
a provision (Section 923) directing DOD to report on these issues within 180 days (pages