Order Code RS21048
February 9, 2005
CRS Report for Congress
Received through the CRS Web
U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF):
Background and Issues for Congress
Specialist in National Defense
Foreign Affairs, Defense and Trade Division
Special Operations Forces (SOF) play a significant role in U.S. military operations
and the Administration has given U.S. SOF forces greater responsibility for planning
and conducting worldwide counterterrorism operations. Despite a recommendation
from the 9/11 Commission, a recent study reportedly recommends that paramilitary
operations should not be shifted from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to U.S.
Special Operations Command (USSOCOM). The Department of Defense (DOD) has
recently approved a series of retention bonuses for selected SOF non-commissioned
officers (NCOs) and warrant officers in an attempt to prevent them from leaving the
service for higher paying civilian positions. DOD is reportedly also considering
transferring Civil Affairs from USSOCOM to conventional forces. 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 34,000
active and about 15,000 reserve personnel in the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, 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
Operations in the Global War on Terror. SOF forces continue to operate in
Iraq and Afghanistan where they are actively pursuing former regime leadership targets.
Some estimates suggest that about 80 percent of deployed SOF units are currently
operating in Iraq and Afghanistan.1 SOF units operating with Combined Joint Task Force
Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) are involved in training selected regional armed forces in
Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker, “Special Warriors Have Growing Ranks and Growing Pains
In Taking Key Antiterror Role,” New York Times, Aug. 2, 2004.
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
counterterror and counterinsurgency tactics as well as assisting in the apprehension of
terrorists operating in the region. U.S. SOF involvement in the Philippines and in
Colombia is strictly limited to training the armed forces of those respective countries in
counterterror and counterinsurgency tactics.
SOF Enhancements. As a result of Department of Defense (DOD)
transformation initiatives and lessons learned in Afghanistan and Iraq, SOF is undergoing
a number of enhancements in personnel, organizations, and equipment. During the next
three to four years, two additional SEAL teams will be added to the existing five teams;
in 2008 the U.S. Army Special Operations Command (USASOC) plans to add 550 special
forces soldiers to its active duty Operational Detachment-Alphas (A Teams2) and 192 to
National Guard A Teams. 3 The Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) is also
planning to add additional combat controller and combat aviation advisor personnel. 4
U.S. Special Operations Command is also reportedly planning on adding two active duty
and two Reserve Civil Affairs (CA) battalions and two active duty Psychological
(PSYOPS) companies to SOCOM over the next few years. 5
USASOC also plans to form a new MH-47 Chinook battalion and AFSOC plans to
convert four C-130H Hercules transport aircraft into AC-130U gun ships. 6 AFSOC
reportedly anticipates replacing 34 MH-43 Super Stallion heavy lift helicopters with about
50 CV-22 tilt-rotor Osprey aircraft , if those aircraft successfully complete testing,
sometime in FY2009. 7
Authority for Planning Operations. In January 2003 DOD gave USSOCOM
greater responsibility for planning and directing worldwide counterterrorism operations.
Instead of being primarily a supporting command that provides forces to other regional
U.S. combatant commanders, USSOCOM will more often be a supported command
capable of planning and conducting operations in its own right. 8 To facilitate this new
authority, USSOCOM reportedly reorganized its headquarters to better conduct
collaborative planning with DOD, the Intelligence Community, and various government
An A Team consists of twelve multi-skilled Army SOF soldiers and is the basic operating unit
for Army Special Forces (“Green Berets”).
Joshua Kucera, “U.S. Boosts Special Forces to Meet Iraqi Challenge,” Jane’s Defence Weekly,
Feb. 18, 2004.
Hearing of the Terrorism Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, FY2005
National Defense Appropriations Act, Mar. 11, 2004, p. 14.
Joshua Kucera, op.cit.
Jefferson Morris, “SOCOM Changing From ‘Supporting’ To ‘Supported’ Command, Official
Says,” Aerospace Daily, Apr. 2, 3003; Rowan Scarborough, “‘Special Ops’ Gets OK To Initiate
Its Own Missions,” Washington Times, Jan. 8, 2003, p. 8; Rowan Scarborough, “Rumsfeld
Bolsters Special Forces,” Washington Times, Jan. 6, 2003, p. 1.
Harold Kennedy, “SOCOM Creates New Hub for Fighting War on Terror,” National Defense,
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.
Army Special Operations Forces. 10 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, Ranger 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 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.11 The Air Force Special Operations
Command (AFSOC) includes about 10,000 active and reserve personnel, of which about
Information in this section was taken from General Bryan Brown, “U.S. Army Special
Operations: Focusing on People — Humans are More Important than Hardware,” Army, Oct.
2001, pp. 157-162.
For additional information on Air Force SOF units, see Robert Wall, “Conflict Could Test
Special Ops Improvements,” Aviation Week & Space Technology, Oct. 1, 2001, p. 30.
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
Navy and Marine Corps 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, 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.12
About 100 Marines that were formed into a Marine Special Operations Unit and
deployed with Naval Special Warfare Task Unit 1 for six months to conduct operations
have returned from operations overseas and have been stood down as a unit.13 This sixmonth operation was part of a proof of concept demonstration to examine the merits of
forming a permanent Marine Special Operations Unit along the lines of the SEALS or
U.S. Army Special Forces. A decision from DOD on whether or not to permanently
establish such a Marine unit is expected in the near future.
Issues for Congress
SOF and Paramilitary Operations.14 The 9/11 Commission’s recommendation
that CIA paramilitary clandestine and covert operations should become the responsibility
the U.S. Special Operations Command was not included in the Intelligence Reform and
Terrorism Prevention Act (P.L. 108-458). On November 23, 2004, President Bush issued
a letter requiring the Secretary of Defense and the Director of Central Intelligence to
review matters relating to the 9/11 Commission’s recommendation and submit their
Sources for information in this section: “Waterborne Commandos,” Armed Forces Journal
International, Jan. 2000, pp. 31-33; Scott R. Gourley, “Setting The Seal On Maritime Special
Operations Forces,” Jane’s Navy International, June 1999, pp. 18- 23.
Information in this paragraph is from a conversation with the USSOCOM Congressional
Liaison Office, Washington D.C., February 7, 2005.
For a detailed discussion of this issue see CRS Report RS22017, Special Operations Forces
(SOF) and CIA Paramilitary Operations: Issues for Congress.
advice to him by February 23, 2005. This review directs the examination of all aspects
including legal, funding, operational, and supporting infrastructure.
Reports suggest that a recent Pentagon-contracted study recommends that
paramilitary operations should not be shifted from the CIA to USSOCOM.15 According
to the study, there appears to be “an emerging consensus among current and former
defense, military, and intelligence officials that it is more logical for the CIA to retain its
relatively modest paramilitary force.” One senior DOD official reportedly stated,
regarding paramilitary operations, that “nobody in DOD wanted to take it over, and
nobody in the CIA wanted to give it up.” One concern supposedly was that if USSOCOM
did take over paramilitary operations, that “pressure would probably grow in Congress to
subject military covert operations to the same requirements for presidential findings
imposed on the CIA ... that would unnecessarily tie the hands of military forces.” The
109th Congress may decide to examine this issue, bearing in mind that a report on this
matter from DOD and the CIA is due to the President on February 23, 2005.
SOF Retention Bonuses and Recruiting. In response to the growing number
of senior special operations personnel leaving the service for higher paying security jobs
in the private sector, DOD reportedly approved a series of retention bonuses aimed at
senior sergeants, petty officers, and warrant officers — offering up to a $150,000 bonus
if they sign up for an additional six years of service.16 Shorter service extensions also are
eligible for bonuses, down to $8,000 for one year. Reportedly, about 1,500 special
operations personnel qualify for these bonuses. In addition, about 7,000 mid-level special
operations personnel will get an additional $375 a month in pay and senior operators with
25 years or more of experience will get $750 a month more.
According to USSOCOM, U.S. Army Special Forces recruiting exceeded its FY 04
recruiting goal of 1,600 soldiers by recruiting 1,628 soldiers.17 USSOCOM also reported
that they were ahead of their recruiting schedule for the first quarter of FY2005.18 Army
officials credit the creation of three-man recruiting teams to conventional Army units,
which were either preparing to deploy or that just returned from deployment, for helping
to exceed FY2004 recruiting goals.
Although recruiting in FY2004 exceeded its goals, U.S. Army Special Forces Groups
are reportedly operating under the authorized strength, allegedly due to high attrition rates
in the lengthy and demanding Special Forces Qualification Course and also because of
senior special operations forces personnel leaving the Army for higher paying civilian
Information in this paragraph is taken from Ann Scott Tyson, “Study Urges CIA Not to Cede
Paramilitary Functions to Pentagon,” Washington Post, February 5, 2005.
Information in this paragraph is taken from Thom Shanker, “Pentagon Sets Bonuses to Retain
Members of Special Operations,” New York Times, February 6, 2005 and Associated Press,
“Incentives Offered to Retain Special Forces,” Los Angeles Times, February 5, 2005.
U.S. Army Special Operations Command, “Special Forces Recruiting Exceeds Year-End
Goals,” U.S. Army Special Operations Command News Service, January 7, 2005.
jobs.19 According to reports, the five active duty special forces groups are currently
manned at 98 percent — up from 94 percent just prior to the September 11, 2001 attacks.
These additional soldiers are the result of increasing the number of soldiers put through
the Special Forces Qualification Course - although officials maintain that the course’s
high standards (only about one third of the soldiers who start the course successfully
complete it) have not been compromised.
It is possible that Congress may explore the effectiveness of this new retention
program and continuing efforts to recruit and train new special operations personnel.
Such an examination could possibly prove useful in potential deliberations regarding
expanding the size of special forces, as some in Congress have suggested.
Civil Affairs Units Transferred to Conventional Forces. According to a
report, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is considering shifting Army Civil Affairs
units from under USSOCOM to the conventional Army. 20 The reported rationale behind
this possible move is to improve the Army’s security and stabilization efforts which have
been criticized by some as ineffective, largely because conventional Army commanders
do not understand how best to employ USSOCOM’s civil affairs units. Another result
of this move is that it would permit USSOCOM to focus more exclusively on direct
action missions designed to kill or capture terrorists.
The Army reportedly opposes this proposal, stating that it would “undermine the
systems and relationships carefully developed between the Army and USSOCOM since
the mid-1980s,” and “would not be wise, given our involvement in current operations and
the Global War on Terrorism.” Some civil affairs officers suggest, however, that their
relationship with special operations forces has never been particularly comfortable and
that they might fit in better with conventional forces.
Congress might act to review the merits and drawbacks of this proposal. While such
a move might, over time, improve the Army’s ability to conduct security and stabilization
operation, some suggest that civil affairs units enjoy greater freedom of action and
funding on USSOCOM which some feel makes them more effective.
Information in this paragraph is taken from Rowan Scarborough, “Green Berets’ Numbers Fall
Short,” Washington Times, February 8, 2005, p. 1.
Information in this paragraph is taken from Thomas Ricks, “Army Contests Rumsfeld’ Bid on
Occupation,” Washington Post, January 16, 2005, p. 6.