Order Code RS21048
June 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. The Department of Defense
(DOD) is presently examining options for creating a dedicated Marine Corps special
operations unit. A recently approved a series of retention bonuses for selected SOF noncommissioned officers (NCOs) and warrant officers is currently being offered in an
attempt to keep senior SOF personnel in service longer. DOD is reportedly also
considering transferring some Civil Affairs units from the U.S. Special Operations
Command (USSOCOM) to conventional forces. This report will be updated as events
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. By the end of FY2006, SOF is
expected to grow to an end-strength of almost 53,000 personnel.1 The U.S. Special
Operations Command (USSOCOM) oversees the training, doctrine, and equipping of all
U.S. SOF units.
Operations in the Global War on Terror. SOF forces continue to operate in
Iraq and Afghanistan where they are actively pursuing key insurgents. Approximately
1,000 SOF troops — primarily from Europe — will reportedly train African troops from
Senegal, Niger, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Algeria, and Tunisia during June 2005 in a
variety of military skills that can be used in counterterror and counterinsurgency
2005 Annual Report, United States Special Operations Command, p. 17.
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
operations.2 U.S. Naval Special Forces have also recently conducted small-scale
counterterrorism training exercises with Indonesian forces.3 U.S. SOF continue their
involvement in the Philippines and Colombia where their role is strictly limited to
training the armed forces of those respective countries in counterterror and
SOF Enhancements. As a result of DOD transformation initiatives and lessons
learned in Afghanistan and Iraq, SOF is undergoing a number of enhancements in
personnel, organization, 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 Teams)4 and 192 to National Guard A
Teams.5 The Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) is also planning to add
additional combat controller and combat aviation advisor personnel.6 U.S. Special
Operations Command is also reportedly planning on adding two active duty Civil Affairs
(CA) companies, two Reserve Civil Affairs (CA) battalions, and two active duty
Psychological Operations (PSYOPS) companies to SOCOM over the next few years.7
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.8 AFSOC
reportedly anticipates replacing 34 MH-43 Super Stallion heavy lift helicopters with about
50 CV-22 tilt-rotor Osprey aircraft sometime in FY2009.9
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. commanders, USSOCOM will more often be a supported command capable of
planning and conducting operations in its own right.10 To facilitate this new authority,
Charlie Coon, “U.S. Special Ops Troops Preparing to Train Foreign Soldiers in Africa,”
European Stars and Stripes, May 15, 2005.
“U.S. Navy SEALS in Indonesia Anti-Terrorism Drill,” Reuters.com, May 9, 2005.
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.
USSOCOM reportedly reorganized its headquarters to better conduct collaborative
planning with DOD, the Intelligence Community, and various government agencies.11
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. 12 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 airborne light 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.
Harold Kennedy, “SOCOM Creates New Hub for Fighting War on Terror,” National Defense,
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.
Air Force Special Operations Forces.13 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.14 The Naval Special Warfare Command
(NSWC) is located in Coronado, CA. The major operational components of NSWC
include Naval Special Warfare Groups 1 and 3 stationed in San Diego, CA, and Naval
Special Warfare Groups 2 and 4 in Norfolk, VA. These components deploy SEAL Teams,
SEAL Delivery Vehicle Teams, and Special Boat Teams world wide to meet the training,
exercise, contingency and wartime requirements of theater commanders. NSWC has
approximately 5,400 total active-duty personnel — including 2,450 SEALs and 600
Special Warfare Combatant-craft Crewmen (SWCC) — as well as a 1,200-person reserve
component of approximately 325 SEALs, 125 SWCC and 775 support personnel. SEALs
are considered the best-trained combat swimmers in the world, and can be deployed
covertly from submarines or from sea-based aircraft.
Issues for Congress
Creation of Marine Special Operations Forces. The Marine Corps will reportedly
form a new organization, tentatively named the Foreign Military Training Unit (FMTU),
to support USSOCOM and regional commanders in the training of regional militaries.15
The Marines have been involved in a number of training missions in recent years in places
such as Chad, Niger, and the former Soviet republic of Georgia and these new units will
be built in partnership with Army SOF and the U.S. Special Operations Training
Command. According to reports, there will be 24 FMTU teams, consisting of 13 members
each, who will receive special training in foreign languages and cultures, and these teams
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.
Information in this section is from the U.S. Naval Special Warfare Command’s Official
website, [http://www.navsoc.navy.mil/navsoc_missions.asp], accessed on May 26, 2005.
Information in this section is from Jon R. Anderson, “Marine Corps Creating Training Unit
to Aid Local Militaries in Foreign Hot Spots,” Stars and Stripes, Feb. 25, 2005; “Marine Corps
to Support U.S. SOCOM in Training Foreign Militaries,” Inside the Navy, Apr. 25, 2005; and
Bradley Graham, “Larger Special Operations Role Being Urged on Marines,” Washington Post,
May 8, 2005.
will be aligned to four regions: the Middle East, Europe, the Pacific, and Latin America.
The Marines reportedly plan to have the FMTU fully operational by the end of 2005.
DOD, USSOCOM, and the Marines are reportedly considering options for
developing a Marine unit of approximately 3,000 Marines to be permanently assigned to
USSOCOM to participate in combat missions in support of the war on terror.16 According
to reports, DOD, USSOCOM, and Marine Corps leadership have met to discuss this
proposal on several occasions, but a decision has yet to be reached. If such a unit is agreed
upon, some argue that by taking 3,000 or so of the Marine Corp’s best Marines away
permanently to form this unit, that the Marines Corps could suffer an appreciable loss of
leadership which could have operational ramifications for conventional Marine forces.
If such a course of action is decided upon, Congress might act to review how such
a proposal might impact Marine Corps conventional combat forces, particularly if this
proposed Marine Corps special operations unit is non-commissioned officer (NCO) and
junior officer-heavy — as are Army SOF A-Detachments and SEAL Platoons. Such a loss
of some of the Marine’s best leadership could have a more pronounced impact on the
smaller Marine Corps than it does on the much larger Army and Navy.
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.17 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.18 USSOCOM also
reported that they were ahead of their recruiting schedule for the first quarter of FY2005.19
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 section is from Bradley Graham, “Larger Special Operations Role Being
Urged on Marines, Washington Post, May 8, 2005 and Jason Sherman, “Rumsfeld Eyes Marines
to Boost Commando Ranks for Terror War,” InsideDefense.com, May 19, 2005..
Information in this section is taken from Thom Shanker, “Pentagon Sets Bonuses to Retain
Members of Special Operations,” New York Times, Feb. 6, 2005 and Associated Press,
“Incentives Offered to Retain Special Forces,” Los Angeles Times, Feb. 5, 2005.
U.S. Army Special Operations Command, “Special Forces Recruiting Exceeds Year-End
Goals,” U.S. Army Special Operations Command News Service, Jan. 7, 2005.
jobs.20 Some suggest, however, that private sector demand for experienced SOF
personnel from all services may be softening some after the initial surge of hiring in
2003-2004.21 Even if this is indeed the case, USSOCOM personnel experts maintain that
it is still too early to tell if these new bonuses will have an impact on retention.22
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.23 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 better funding under USSOCOM which some argue makes them ultimately
Information in this paragraph is taken from Rowan Scarborough, “Green Berets’ Numbers Fall
Short,” Washington Times, Feb. 8, 2005, p. 1.
Richard Lardner, “Senior Soldiers in Special Ops Being Lured Off,” Tampa Tribune, Mar. 21,
Information in this paragraph is taken from Thomas Ricks, “Army Contests Rumsfeld’ Bid on
Occupation,” Washington Post, Jan. 16, 2005, p. 6.