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A US Navy SEALs Special Warfare combatant-craft crewmen uses a M134 Minigun to lay down suppressing fire during a practice "hot" extraction of forces on a beach.

Special forces is a generic term for elite highly-trained military, police or civilian paramilitary tactical teams that conduct specialized operations such as special reconnaissance (SR), surveillance, sniping, guerilla warfare, unconventional warfare (UW), foreign internal defense (FID), direct action (DA) and counter-terrorism (CT) actions.

Special forces units are typically composed of relatively small groups of personnel operating under principles of self-sufficiency, stealth, speed, and close teamwork, Throughout the later half of the 20th century and into the 21st century, special forces have come to higher prominence, as governments have found objectives which can sometimes be better achieved by a small team of anonymous specialists than a larger and more politically controversial conventional deployment.

In the United States, the term special operations forces (SOF) is often used, as "special forces" refers to a specific unit, the US Army's Special Forces, commonly called the "Green Berets".


Nature of Special Operations

Special forces are small-scale, clandestine, covert or overt military operations of an unorthodox and frequently high risk nature, undertaken to achieve significant political or military objectives in support of foreign policy.[1]

Colombian army special forces doing a demonstration drill at Tolemaida Air Base.

Some special forces operations, such as counter-terrorism actions, may be carried out domestically under certain circumstances. Special forces units are typically composed of relatively small groups of highly-trained personnel equipped with armament, operating under principles of self-sufficiency, stealth, speed, and close teamwork, often transported by helicopter, small boats or submarines, parachuting from aircraft, or stealthy infiltration by land. Special forces are sometimes considered a force multiplier, as when they train indigenous forces to fight guerrilla warfare.[2]


Special forces have played an important role throughout the history of warfare whenever the aim has been to achieve disruption by "hit and run" and sabotage, rather than more traditional conventional army combat using large formations of troops and motorized armor groups. Other significant roles lay in reconnaissance, providing essential intelligence from close to or among the enemy, and increasingly in combating terrorists, their infrastructure and activities.

In antiquity, Hamilcar Barca in Sicily had specialized troops trained to launch several offensives per day. Later, during the Crusade wars, small, highly trained units of Knights Templar attacked individual Muslim units attempting to forage or seize booty. Muslim armies had several naval special operations units, including one which used camouflaged ships to gather intelligence and launch raids, and another which consisted of soldiers who could pass for Crusaders who would use ruses to board enemy ships and then capture and destroy them.[3]

In Tang Dynasty ancient China and later feudal Japan, members of various clans or organizations of mercenary Special Forces operators, called Ninjas, were highly trained in the various forms of martial arts (e.g., Ninjutsu) and special tactics for unconventional warfare and guerilla warfare utilizing the most technologically advanced weapons (e.g., firearms/explosives, snow shoes, water floatations devices etc.) and tactics (e.g., camouflage, stealth, meteorology, geography, psychological warfare) available at the time. They were usually hired by rival leaders for covert operations and black operations such as espionage, assassination, sabotage, security details, and destabilizing the political, social, economic and military infrastructure of a rival territory.

During the Napoleonic wars, rifle and sapper units existed who were not committed to the formal lines that made up most battles of the day. They instead held more specialised roles in reconnaissance and skirmishing.

British Army scouts in South Africa (1893): Frederick Russell Burnham (middle); Hon. Maurice Gifford (right)

For the British Army, it was during the Second Boer War (1899-1902) that the need for more specialised units became most apparent. Scouting units such as Lovat Scouts, a Scottish Highland regiment made up of phenomenal woodsmen outfitted in ghillie suits and well practiced in the arts of marksmanship, field craft, and military tactics, best filled this role. This unit was formed in 1900 by Lord Lovat and early on reported to an American, Major Frederick Russell Burnham, the Chief of Scouts under Lord Roberts. After the war, Lovat's Scouts went on to formally become the British Army's first sniper unit.[4] Additionally, the formation of the Bushveldt Carbineers in 1901 may be seen as an early manifestation of a unit for unconventional warfare.


World War I

During World War I Colonel Bassi of the Italian Army formed 27 battalion-sized "Reparti d'assalto" (Assault Units) called Arditi. They were assigned the tactical role of shock troops, breaching enemy defenses in order to prepare the way for a broad infantry advance. The Reparti d'assalto were successful in bringing a degree of movement to what had previously been a war of entrenched positions. The Arditi were not considered infantry troops, but were seen and organized as a separate combat arm and therefore received extended tactical training, the best and newest weapons and a distinct new uniform. Thus they are some of the modern world's first special forces. On the German side, the success of the Spring Offensive reflected on their successful employment of specially trained stormtrooper or Sturmtruppen units, who used unconventional infiltration tactics.

World War II

British SAS in North Africa (1943), in jeeps with mounted heavy machine guns

During World War II, in 1940, the British Commandos were formed following Winston Churchill's call for "specially trained troops of the hunter class, who can develop a reign of terror down the enemy coast." The Commandos were selected from volunteers among existing servicemen and went on to spawn a number of other specialist units including the Long Range Desert Group, the Special Air Service, the Special Boat Service and the Small Scale Raiding Force of the Special Operations Executive.

The Wehrmacht also adopted early-on special forces units of sorts during the War. The Waffen-SS, formed from the Schutzstaffel, originally served as guards of the National Socialist Party, and were converted into elite paramilitary regiments that played a major role in the War, especially the Eastern Front, where every SS regiment was sent. At the War's end, the SS had dissolved, however, and become little more than a handful of conscripts and soldiers. The last real combat the SS saw was at the Battle of Berlin, where they fought in conjunction with marines and citizens to stop the Soviet advance.

In the Burma Campaign, the Chindits, whose long range penetration groups were trained to operate from bases deep behind Japanese lines, contained commandos (King's Regiment (Liverpool), 142 Commando Company) and Gurkhas. Their jungle expertise, which would play an important part in many British special forces operations post war, was learnt at a great cost in lives in the jungles of Burma fighting the Japanese.

The United States formed the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during World War II under the Medal of Honor recipient William J. Donovan. This organization was the predecessor of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and was responsible for both intelligence and Special Forces missions. The CIA's elite Special Activities Division is the direct descendant of the OSS.[5]

In mid-1942, the United States formed the Rangers. The United States and Canada also formed a sabotage ski brigade for operations in Norway who became known as the Devil's Brigade, officially known as the First Special Service Force, during their eventual service in Italy. Merrill's Marauders were modelled on the Chindits and took part in similar operations in Burma. The foundation date of No 2 Dutch Troop, 22 March 1942, is considered to be the foundation date of the Korps Commandotroepen (Dutch special forces)

In late November 1943, the Alamo Scouts were formed to conduct reconnaissance and raider work in the Southwest Pacific Theater under the personal command of then Lt. General Walter Krueger, Commanding General, Sixth U.S. Army. Krueger envisioned that the Alamo Scouts, consisting of small teams of highly trained volunteers, would operate deep behind enemy lines to provide intelligence-gathering and tactical reconnaissance in advance of Sixth U.S. Army landing operations. In 1988, the Alamo Scouts were individually awarded the Special Forces Tab[citation needed] for their services in World War II and included in the lineage of today's U.S. Army Special Forces.

The German army had the Brandenburger Regiment, which was originally founded as a special forces unit used by the Abwehr for infiltration and long distance reconnaissance in Fall Weiss of 1939 and the Fall Gelb and Barbarossa campaigns of 1940 and 1941. Later during the war the SS- Jagdverbände, a unit within the Waffen SS commanded by Otto Skorzeny, also conducted many special operations.

On October 21, 1944 Adolf Hitler — inspired by an American subterfuge which had put three captured German tanks flying German colours to devastating use at Aachen — summoned Skorzeny to Berlin and assigned him to lead a Panzer brigade. As planned by Skorzeny in Operation Greif, about two dozen German soldiers, most of them in captured American army Jeeps and disguised as American Military Police officers, penetrated American lines in the early hours of the Battle of the Bulge and sowed disorder behind the Allied lines by mis-directing convoys away from the front lines. A handful of his men were captured by the Americans and spread a rumour that Skorzeny was leading a raid on Paris to kill or capture General Dwight Eisenhower. Although this was untrue, Eisenhower was confined to his headquarters for weeks and Skorzeny was labelled "the most dangerous man in Europe".

In Italy, the Decima Flottiglia MAS were responsible for the sinking and damage of considerable Allied tonnage in the Mediterranean. After the division of Italy in 1943, those fighting with Germany retained the original name and those fighting with the Allies retitled as the Mariassalto. Also there were other Italian special forces like A.D.R.A. (Arditi Distruttori Regia Aeronautica). This regiment was used in raids on Allied airbases and railways in North Africa in 1943. In one mission they destroyed 25 B-17s. The Z Special Unit was an Australian commando unit which sunk several Japanese ships in Singapore Harbour as part of Operation Jaywick. In Finland, Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols (Kaukopartio) were used extensively to perform reconnaissance missions deep behind Soviet lines. Occasionally they were also used to destroy strategic targets.

Late 20th and early 21st century

SWAD commando during training period  
Lt. Gen. S.S. Soin of Para Commandos (India) fires an M-4 at an U.S Army range.  
Polish GROM during sea ops. training  
Philippine Navy SWAGs during a maritime boarding exercise  
American Special Forces at the Fall of Mazar i Sharif, November 2001  

Throughout the later half of the 20th century and into the 21st century, special forces have come to higher prominence, as governments have found objectives can sometimes be better achieved by a small team of anonymous specialists than a larger and much more politically controversial conventional deployment. In both Kosovo and Afghanistan, special forces were used to co-ordinate activities between local guerrilla fighters and air power. Typically, guerrilla fighters would engage enemy soldiers and tanks causing them to move, where they could be seen and attacked from the air.

The US-led invasion of Afghanistan involved coalition special forces from several nations, who played a major role in removing the Taliban from power in 2001-2002. Coalition special forces have continued to play a role in combating the Taliban in subsequent operations. Special forces involved in these operations, occasionally working together, included US Special Operations Forces, UK Special Forces, the Australian Special Air Service Regiment, the Canadian Joint Task Force 2, the Polish GROM, the German KSK, the New Zealand Special Air Service, the Netherlands Korps Commandotroepen and the Norwegian Forsvarets Spesialkommando and Marinejegerkommandoen. Special forces from other nations have supported the parallel NATO mission in Afghanistan.

Special Forces have been used in both wartime and peacetime military operations such as the Vietnam War, Falklands War, The Troubles in Northern Ireland, the first and second Gulf Wars, Afghanistan, Kosovo, Bosnia, first Chechen War and second Chechen War, the Iranian Embassy siege (London), Operation Defensive Shield, Moscow theater hostage crisis, Operation Orchard, 2006 Lebanon War, Japanese Embassy hostage crisis (Lima) and in Sri Lanka against the LTTE.

Special forces units

Many countries have military organizations which describe themselves as being special forces.

See also


  1. ^ Gray, Colin. (2007). Another Bloody Century: Future Warfare. Page 252. Phoenix. ISBN 0304367346.
  2. ^ "Chapter 4: Special Operation Forces in Annual Report to the President and the Congress (1998)". US Government. Retrieved 2007-06-30. 
  3. ^ Christides, Vassilios. "Military Intelligence in Arabo-Byzantine Naval Warfare". Institute for Byzantine Studies, Athens. Retrieved 2007-03-05. 
  4. ^ John Plaster (2006). The Ultimate Sniper: An Advanced Training Manual For Military And Police Snipers. Paladin Press. pp. 5. ISBN 0-87364-704-1. 
  5. ^ The Office of Strategic Services: America's First Intelligence Agency, Michael Warner, CIA History Staff, Center for the Study of Intelligence, United States Central Intelligence Agency (2000)

External links

Simple English

Special Forces are elite soldiers in a military. They perform very dangerous missions, usually behind enemy lines, that are too difficult or not appropriate for normal soldiers to do. Special Forces also are used to train rebel fighters to overthrow governments. Special Forces soldiers are highly trained. They are skilled in parachuting, military diving, camouflage, and survival.

Special Forces soldiers usually wear special combat equipment suited to the tasks they must accomplish: these include night vision goggles, thermal vision goggles, laser sights and silencers for their weapons, special hunting knives, tactical grenades (flashbangs and smoke grenades), c4 explosives, and diving equipment, among others.

Special Forces are also termed Special Ops and some well-known units include the US Army Green Berets, British SAS, and US Navy SEALs. A more complete list appears here[1].


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