Order Code RS21048
January 25, 2008
U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF):
Background and Issues for Congress
Specialist in Military Ground Forces
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 greater responsibility for planning and
conducting worldwide counterterrorism operations. Potential increased SOF
involvement in Pakistan and achieving the proper balance between direct and indirect
SOF missions might be issues for congressional consideration. 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. The U.S. Special Operations
Command (USSOCOM) oversees the training, doctrine, and equipping of all U.S. SOF
Command Structures. In 1986, Congress expressed concern for the status of
SOF within overall U.S. defense planning and passed measures (P.L. 99-661) 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
(ASD/SOLIC) provides immediate civilian oversight over many USSOCOM activities.
Army Special Operations Forces. 1 U.S. Army SOF (ARSOF) include
approximately 30,000 soldiers from the Active Army, National Guard, and Army Reserve
who are organized into Special Forces, Ranger, and special operations aviation units,
along with 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 (SF) 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 throughout the world. Beginning in FY2008, the Army will begin
to increase the total number of Army Special Forces battalions from 15 to 20, with one
battalion being allocated to each active Special Forces Group. Two Army National Guard
SF groups are headquartered in Utah and Alabama. An elite airborne light infantry unit
specializing in direct action operations2, the 75th Ranger Regiment, is headquartered at
Fort Benning, GA, and consists of three battalions. Army special operations aviation
units, including the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne) headquartered
at Fort Campbell, KY, feature pilots trained to fly the most sophisticated Army rotarywing aircraft in the harshest environments, day or night, and in adverse weather.
Some of 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
operational theaters. The 95th Civil Affairs Brigade (Airborne) is the only active CA unit,
and plans call for the brigade to expand from one to four battalions by 2009. 3 All other
CA units reside in the Reserves and are affiliated with conventional Army units.
Psychological operations units disseminate information to large foreign audiences through
mass media. The active duty 4th Psychological Operations (PSYOPS) Group (Airborne)
is stationed at Fort Bragg, and two Army Reserve PSYOPS groups work with
conventional Army units.
Air Force Special Operations Forces. 4 The Air Force Special Operations
Command (AFSOC) includes about 13,000 active and reserve personnel. AFSOC is
headquartered at Hurlburt Field, FL, along with the 720th Special Tactics Group, the 18th
Flight Test Squadron, and the U.S. Air Force Special Operations School. The 16th Special
Operations Wing (SOW) relocated from Hurlburt Field to Cannon Air Force Base (AFB)
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, October
2001, pp. 157-162.
Direct action operations are short-duration strikes and other small-scale offensive actions
conducted as a special operation in hostile, denied, or politically sensitive environments and
which employ specialized military capabilities to seize, destroy, capture, exploit, recover, or
damage designated targets. Direct action differs from conventional offensive actions in the level
of physical and political risk, operational techniques, and the degree of discriminate and precise
use of force to achieve specific objectives.
Kevin Maurer, “Newly Formed 95th Civil Affairs Brigade Activates,” Fayetteville Times,
August 18, 2006.
For additional information on Air Force SOF units, see Robert Wall, “Conflict Could Test
Special Ops Improvements,” Aviation Week & Space Technology, October 1, 2001, p. 30.
in 2007.5 AFSOC plans to activate the 1st SOW at Hurlburt Field using elements of the
16th SOW. 6 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.
AFSOC Operational Requirements.7 AFSOC commander Air Force LTG
Michael Wooley, noting that AFSOC plans to grow from 13,000 to 15,000 personnel by
the end of FY2013, cites the need for both new and additional aircraft as well as time to
train with existing and future aircraft as areas of major concern. Although AFSOC has
stood up the 3rd Special Operations Squadron, consisting of six Predator unmanned aerial
vehicles (UAVs), USSOCOM leadership suggests that they could use “dozens more.”
AFSOC is presently preparing to stand up its first CV-22 tilt rotor squadron, which is
expected to be combat ready sometime in 2009. USSOCOM plans to replace its entire
fleet of HH-53 Pave Low helicopters over the next two years with CV-22s, but not on a
one-for-one basis as USSOCOM presently plans to procure only 50 CV-22s by 2017. In
addition, USSOCOM would like to increase the size of its MC-130 fleet to 61 aircraft to
accommodate the growth of Army and Marine Corps special operations forces. AFSOC
has also indicated that it would like to replace its eight AC-130H and 13 AC-130U
gunships by 2020 with a new gunship. AFSOC leadership has also voiced concern that
because special operations aircraft are being used so heavily that they are not as available
for training as they should be, thereby adversely impacting on aircrew training.
Naval Special Operations Forces.8 The Naval Special Warfare Command
(NSWC) is located in Coronado, CA. NWSC is organized around eight SEAL Teams
and two SEAL Delivery Vehicle (SDV) Teams. Two of these eight SEAL Teams are
deployed at any given time, with each SEAL Team consisting of six SEAL platoons each,
consisting of two officers and 16 enlisted personnel. The major operational components
of NSWC include Naval Special Warfare Groups One and Three stationed in San
Diego, CA, and Naval Special Warfare Groups Two and Four in Norfolk, VA. These
components deploy SEAL Teams, SEAL Delivery Vehicle Teams, and Special Boat
Teams worldwide to meet the training, exercise, contingency and wartime requirements
of theater commanders. NSWC has approximately 5,400 total active-duty personnel —
Michael Sirak, “Air Force Assigns Special Operations Wing to Cannon Air Force Base,”
Defense Daily, June 22, 2006.
Information in this section is taken from Je DiMascio, “Olson: SOCOM Could Use Dozens of
Additional UAVs,” Defense Daily, April 25, 2007; Ann Roosevelt, “U.S.SOCOM Commander
Details Aviation Needs,” Defense Daily, May 17, 2007; Michael Sirak, “Wooley: Training
Proficiency, Need for New Aircraft AFSOC’s Biggest Concerns,” Defense Daily, May 11, 2007;
and David A. Fulghum, “USAF Special Ops Growing in Personnel and Equipment,” Aerospace
Daily & Defense Report, May 14, 2007.
Information in this section is from the U.S. Naval Special Warfare Command’s Official website,
[https://www.navsoc.navy.mil/], accessed on March 6, 2007.
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.
Marine Special Operations Command (MARSOC). 9 On November 1, 2005,
DOD announced the creation of the Marine Special Operations Command (MARSOC)
as a component of USSOCOM. MARSOC consists of three subordinate units — the
Marine Special Operations Regiment, the Foreign Military Training Unit, and the Special
Operations Support Group — totaling approximately 2,600 Marines. MARSOC
Headquarters, the Foreign Military Training Unit, and the Special Operations Support
Group are stationed at Camp Lejeune, NC. The Marine Special Operations Regiment has
its headquarters at Camp Lejeune and has an element stationed at Camp Pendleton, CA.
MARSOC has reportedly deployed Foreign Military Training Teams to Africa and South
America and two Marine Special Operations Battalions have been activated — one on
each coast. 10 By the end of November 2007, the MARSOC commander reported that he
had approximately 65% of his authorized 2,600 Marines and expected to fill the
remaining positions in 2008. 11
Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). According to DOD, the JSOC
is “a joint headquarters designed to study special operations requirements and techniques;
ensure interoperability and equipment standardization; plan and conduct joint special
operations exercises and training; and develop joint special operations tactics.”12 While
not official acknowledged by DOD or USSOCOM, JSOC, which is headquartered at
Pope Air Force Base, NC, is widely believed to command and control what are described
as the military’s three special missions units — the Army’s Delta Force, the Navy’s SEAL
Team Six, a joint unit allegedly designed to conduct clandestine operations, as well as
the 75th Ranger Regiment, the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment and the Air
Force’s 24th Special Tactics Squadron. 13 JSOC’s primary mission is believed to be
identifying and destroying terrorists and terror cells worldwide.
Information in this section is taken from DOD Press Release No. 1127-05, dated November 1,
2005, Subject: Secretary of Defense Approves Marine Special Operations Command; Donna
Miles, “Marine Corps to Join U.S. Special Operations Command,” American Forces Press
Service, November 1, 2005; and Christian Lowe, “U.S. Marine Corps to Create Special
Operations Unit,” Defense News, November 1, 2005.
Statement by General Bryan D. Brown, Commander, U.S. Special Operations Command,
before the House Subcommittee on Terrorism, Unconventional Threats and Capabilities, “Current
Manning, Equipping, and Readiness Challenges Facing Special Operations Forces,” January 31,
2007, p. 4.
Meagn Scully, “Marine Corps Continues to Build Special Operations Force,” National
Journal’s Congress Daily PM, November 29, 2007.
USSOCOM website [http://www.socom.mil/components/components.htm], accessed April 4,
Sean D. Naylor, “JSOC to Become Three-Star Command,” Army Times, February 13, 2006.
FY2008 Budget. USSOCOM requested $3.28 billion for Operations &
Maintenance (O&M); $374 million for Research, Development, Test & Evaluation
(RDT&E); $1.83 billion for Procurement; and $652 million for Military Construction
(MILCON) for FY2008.14 USSOCOM also reportedly had $391 million in “unfunded
requirements for FY2008, including such items as body armor, laser range finders,
advanced night vision devices, and weapons.15 H.R. 4986, National Defense
Authorization Act for FY2008, recommended fully funding USSOCOM’s $6.2 billion
budget request and also recommended a number of initiatives to “empower SOCOM and
improve its ability to face current security challenges.”16
Increased SOF Role in Pakistan?17 In response to what many perceive as
intensified efforts by Al Qaeda and Taliban militants within Pakistan to destabilize
Pakistan’s government, reports suggest that senior U.S. officials are discussing proposals
to permit U.S. Special Operations Forces and the CIA to conduct more aggressive
operations in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Area, a lawless region bordering
Afghanistan. Current U.S. military efforts involve about 50 U.S. service members
training Pakistan’s Frontier Corps, which operates in the tribal areas and training elite
Pakistani Army units. Expanded operations could involve enhanced training of Pakistani
units and possibly more aggressive operations against Al Qaeda and Taliban insurgents.
SOF and Africa Command (AFRICOM).18 U.S. defense officials are reportedly
in the process a creating a special operations component command to support the newly
created Africa Command (AFRICOM). This component command (SOCAFRICA)
would be responsible for overseeing all special operations activities in Africa. Personnel
assigned to SOCAFRICA are not expected to be stationed in Africa, and it is unclear
whether these personnel will come from current special operations component commands
for U.S. Central Command (USCENTCOM) or U.S. European Command (USEUCOM)
or from another source within USSOCOM.
USSOCOM FY2008/FY2009 Budget Estimates, February 2007.
Jason Sherman, “SOCOM Requires Additional $391 Million in FY-08 for Body Armor,
Weapons,” InsideDefense.com, February 19, 2007.
House Armed Services Committee, House Armed Services Committee Approves Fiscal Year
2008 Defense Authorization Bill, May 9, 2007.
Information in this section is taken from Steven Lee Meyers, David E. Sanger, and Eric
Schmitt, “U.S. Considers New Covert Push Within Pakistan,” New York Times, January 6, 2008,
and from Ann Scott Tyson and Robin Wright, “U.S. Officials Review Approach in Pakistan,”
Washington Post, January 7, 2008.
Carlo Munoz, “Special Ops to Stand Up New Component Command Within Africa,” Inside
the Pentagon, November 15, 2007.
Direct and Indirect SOF Missions.19 Debate continues on the proper balance
of direct versus indirect SOF missions. Some maintain that JSOC-conducted direct-action
missions to kill or capture insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan and terrorists worldwide
detract from SOF’s ability to conduct indirect missions such as training and equipping
foreign militaries. While most agree that direct action missions are needed, many believe
that indirect missions are even more important in combating insurgencies and terrorism
over the long term. The Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low
Intensity Conflict, Michael Vickers, has indicated an increase in emphasis for SOF-led
indirect operations in the long-term U.S. war on terror strategy is needed. Some have even
proposed creating a separate unconventional warfare command within USSOCOM to
oversee indirect action operations.
Issues for Congress
Increased SOF Role in Pakistan. The deteriorating security situation in
Pakistan has defense officials considering a greater role for U.S. forces. While reports
maintain that U.S. SOF will increase training and advisory operations in Pakistan in the
near future,20 there have also been references made to “covert” SOF operations, including
working with or for the CIA. Congress, in its oversight role, might act to review
Administration plans for the increased use of SOF in “covert” and other roles in Pakistan.
In addition to increasing the number of U.S. SOF trainers, Administration officials are
supposedly also considering using U.S. contractors to conduct training.
Direct and Indirect SOF. Congress might decide to examine DOD’s and
USSOCOM’s proposals for addressing perceived inequities in the conduct of direct and
indirect SOF missions. There have been accusations made that DOD and USSOCOM
military leadership have become so enamored with direct action operations that others
within the USSOCOM community wish to literally secede and create a separate command
dedicated to unconventional warfare or “indirect” operations. If this is a true
representation of the current situation within USSOCOM, greater congressional
involvement might be warranted to ensure that a proper balance is achieved and U.S. SOF
are properly postured for what has been described as a global “Long War” on terrorism.
Information in this section is from Sean D. Naylor, “Support Grows for Standing Up an
Unconventional Warfare Command,” Armed Forces Journal, September 2007, and from Carlo
Munoz, “New Balance Seen Needed Between Direct and Indirect Forces,” InsideDefense.com,
November 26, 2007.
Ann Scott Tyson, “U.S. to Step Up Training of Pakistanis,” Washington Post, January 24,