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Department of Defense (DoD) Information Paper
Special Operations Forces

Special Operations Forces

Special Operations Forces (SOF) conduct worldwide special operations in peace and war in support of regional combatant commanders, American ambassadors, and the National Command Authorities (NCA). Special Operations Forces serve three strategic purposes that are increasingly important in the current and future international environment. First, they offer a range of options to decision makers confronting crises and conflicts below the threshold of war, such as terrorism, insurgency, and sabotage. Second, they are force multipliers for major conflicts, increasing the effectiveness and efficiency of the U.S. military effort. Finally, they are the forces of choice in situations requiring regional orientation and cultural and political sensitivity, including military-to-military contacts and noncombatant missions like humanitarian assistance, security assistance, and peacekeeping operations.


Special Operations Forces have a dual heritage. They are one of the nation’s key penetration and strike forces, able to respond to specialized contingencies across the conflict spectrum with stealth, speed, and precision. They are also warrior-diplomats capable of influencing, advising, training, and conducting operations with foreign forces, officials, and populations. These two distinct missions are complementary, allowing SOF personnel to gain regional expertise and access that enhances their ability to react to any contingency in any region of the world. One of these two generic SOF roles is at the heart of each of the following special operations core missions:

Counter Proliferation. SOF are a principal part of DoD’s counter proliferation capabilities. SOF provide DoD a ground force option short of a major theater war scenario to seize, recover, disable, render ineffective, or destroy weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and associated technology. Additionally, SOF skills may be used in support of diplomatic, arms control, and export control efforts.

Combating Terrorism. Provide the DoD offensive (counter terrorism) and defensive (antiterrorism) capabilities and programs to detect, deter, and respond to all forms of terrorism.

Foreign Internal Defense. Organize, train, advise, and assist legitimate host nation military and paramilitary forces to enable these forces to free and protect their societies from subversion, lawlessness, and insurgency.

Special Reconnaissance. Conduct reconnaissance and surveillance actions to obtain or verify information concerning the capabilities, intentions, and activities of an actual or potential enemy or to secure data concerning characteristics of a particular area.

Direct Action. Conduct short-duration strikes and other small-scale offensive actions to seize, destroy, capture, recover, or inflict damage on designated personnel or materiel.

Psychological Operations (PSYOP). Induce or reinforce foreign attitudes and behavior favorable to the U.S. or friendly nation objectives by planning and conducting operations to convey information to foreign audiences to influence their emotions, motives, objective reasoning, and ultimately the behavior of foreign governments, organizations, groups, and individuals.

Civil Affairs (CA). Facilitate commanders in establishing, maintaining, or influencing relations between military forces and civil authorities, both governmental and nongovernmental, and the civilian population in a friendly, neutral, or hostile area of operations.

Unconventional Warfare. Organize, train, equip, advise, and assist indigenous and surrogate forces in military and paramilitary operations, normally of long duration.

Information Operations. Achieve information superiority by affecting adversary information, information-based processes, information systems, and computer-based networks while defending one’s own information systems.

Collateral Activities. In the following areas, SOF share responsibility with other forces, as directed by the geographic combatant commanders:

Coalition Support. Integrate coalition units into multinational military operations by training with coalition partners and providing communications.

Humanitarian Assistance. Provide assistance of limited scope and duration to supplement or complement the efforts of host nation civil authorities or agencies to relieve or reduce the results of natural or man-made disasters.

Security Assistance. Provide training assistance in support of legislated programs which provide U.S. defense articles, military training, and other defense-related services.

Combat Search and Rescue. Penetrate air defense systems and conduct joint air, ground, or sea operations deep within hostile or denied territory at night or in adverse weather to recover personnel during wartime or contingency operations.

Humanitarian Demining Operations. Reduce or eliminate the threat to noncombatants posed by mines and other explosive devices by training host nation personnel in their recognition, identification, marking, and safe destruction. Provide instruction in program management, medical, and mine awareness activities.

Counter Drug Activities. Train host nation counter drug forces to detect, monitor, and counter the production, trafficking, and use of illegal drugs.

Special Activities. Plan and conduct actions abroad in support of national foreign policy objectives, subject to direction imposed by Executive Order and in conjunction with a Presidential finding and congressional oversight, so that the role of the U.S. government is not apparent or acknowledged publicly.

Peace Operations. Assist in peacekeeping operations, peace enforcement operations, and other military operations in support of diplomatic efforts to establish and maintain peace.


Special Operations Forces provide decision makers with increased options for achieving national security strategy objectives. To realize their full potential as strategic assets, SOF receive national level oversight to ensure full integration into planning for conventional operations and interagency planning. Skillful integration with conventional forces allows SOF to be a force and diplomatic multiplier in conventional operations. Optimization of SOF interoperability with conventional forces is DoD’s goal to ensure that SOF is included in strategic planning, joint training, interagency exercises, and DoD educational curricula.

Special operations differ from traditional military operations in degree of political risk, often unconventional mode of employment, independence from friendly support, and dependence on detailed intelligence and indigenous assets. For these reasons, some SOF missions carry an exceptionally high degree of physical risk. Political sensitivities surrounding many SOF missions require close coordination at the interagency level between DoD and other U.S. government agencies.

Many of the skills in the Special Operations Forces inventory are directly applicable to supporting friendly democratic regimes. With their linguistic ability and cross-cultural sensitivities, SOF can quickly establish an effective working rapport with foreign military and paramilitary forces and, when required, government officials. In this capacity, SOF is a force multiplier for U.S. ambassadors and country teams throughout the world. Specifically, SOF (especially civil affairs, psychological operations, and Special Forces) can assess appropriate host nation projects, conduct disaster or humanitarian assistance planning seminars, and assist interagency coordination, foreign liaison, and public information programs. This support for democratization assists friendly nations and supports mutual national interests.


Special Operations Forces are force multipliers for U.S. commanders fighting and winning major theater wars. SOF operate at the operational and strategic levels of war throughout the buildup, war fighting, and post-hostility phases of conflict. They conduct strategic reconnaissance and direct action missions on high value targets deep in enemy rear areas in support of strategic and operational goals. They utilize their language, cultural, and regional skills to conduct coalition support, foreign internal defense, unconventional warfare, information operations, civil affairs, and psychological operations in support of theater and national objectives. During post-hostility operations, SOF provide crucial support in the transition from military forces to civil authorities, enhancing international and civil government efforts to restore or build stable institutions to sustain the peace. Throughout the spectrum of warfare, SOF support national and theater objectives.

Smaller-Scale Contingencies

Special Operations Forces play an important role in smaller-scale contingencies due to their unique capabilities, such as language and cultural skills, as well as the special character of such operations. U.S. participation in smaller-scale contingency operations does not always focus on traditional military objectives. It is often driven by the requirement to establish or reestablish an environment conducive to regional or international stability. Terrorism, lawlessness, subversion, and insurgency may undermine support for U.S. presence, reduce U.S. access and influence, complicate the coordination of collective defense efforts, or lead to direct attacks on Americans, allies, or regimes friendly to the United States.

Counter Terrorism (CT)

Special Operations Forces are DoD’s offensive counter terrorism capability. They provide the means to deter or defeat terrorist attacks against U.S. interests, wherever they may occur. U.S. counter terrorism forces receive the most advanced and diverse training available and continually exercise to maintain proficiency and to develop new skills. They regularly train with foreign counterparts to maximize coordination effectiveness. They also engage with counterpart organizations in a variety of exchange programs which not only hone their skills, but also contribute to the development of mutual confidence and trust. In addition, SOF personnel have conducted assessments of force protection measures for all theater commanders in chief to ensure that U.S. forces have taken all appropriate measures to protect against possible terrorist incidents.

Special operation forces are a ground force option available to DoD short of major theater war plan execution. They can conduct a wide variety of operations to seize, recover, disable, render ineffective, or destroy nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons and associated technologies. Their unique capabilities allow surgical operations and strategic reconnaissance against targets too hardened or deep as to be accessible by any other DoD asset. These operations can be conducted in such a manner as to reduce the risk of collateral damage and contaminant release. When called upon in a domestic terrorist situation, SOF can augment law enforcement and other government agencies, applying highly developed, WMD-peculiar skills to assist in mitigation of a domestic WMD event.


The sensitivity of special operations precludes a detailed discussion of many current operations in this report. However, examples of some recent and ongoing operations include the following:

Special Operations Forces deployed on 3,061 training or operational missions to 144 countries in FY 1997.

SOF conducted humanitarian demining and mine awareness training in 14 countries during 1997.

In support of the African Crisis Response Initiative, SOF personnel conducted pre-deployment site surveys and mobile training team missions in Senegal, Uganda, and Malawi to identify, organize, equip, train, and prepare capable African forces to conduct peacekeeping or humanitarian operations within the continent of Africa.

SOF provided PSYOP and CA support to the humanitarian assistance operation in central Africa. Additionally, SOF air assets provided the joint task force commander with near real-time information required to make critical assessments concerning refugee locations and movement.

SOF participated in several noncombatant evacuations in the central Africa region, including those in Liberia and Zaire, and were postured in support of several others. In addition, SOF provided Combat Search and Rescue, Close Air Support, Special Tactics Teams, PSYOP, and Navy Sea, Air, Land (SEAL) units to the noncombatant evacuation of American citizens and third country nationals from Albania.

SOF provided support to the Department of Justice for the conduct of four extraditions in 1997, resulting in the return of known and suspected terrorists from overseas to U.S. courts for trial.

In response to the U.S./German air disaster off the coast of Namibia, in-country SOF personnel conducting training in Namibia provided the initial response, communications, and embassy liaison. Additionally, Special Operations Command, Europe deployed and commanded the joint task force which contributed search and rescue assistance.

SOF continue to play a significant role in the U.S. Stabilization Force in Bosnia, providing civil affairs units for smooth coordination of military tasks with the civilian population, liaison teams to facilitate coordination and provide communications with non-English speaking units, psychological operations to provide factual information to increase cooperation, and aviation support for search and rescue, transport, and logistics.

SOF continue to provide coalition support to the United States Central Command (USCENTCOM) in Kuwait by training with Kuwaiti Armed Forces, providing a forward presence that assists U.S. efforts to maintain regional stability. In addition, SOF units provide helicopter refueling support for Operations Northern Watch and Southern Watch.

SOF continue to support the ongoing operations in Haiti by providing Ministerial Advisory Teams to the Haitian government.

United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) provides United States Southern Command (USSOUTHCOM) with a trained and equipped SOF package needed to assist the joint task force and run the American portion of the Military Observer Mission Ecuador Peru peacekeeping effort monitoring the status of the border dispute between Peru and Ecuador.

SOF continue to support U.S. counter drug operations in the USSOUTHCOM, United States Pacific Command, and USCENTCOM areas of responsibility. SOF trained and provided expert advice to host nation armed forces and police dedicated to the counter drug mission, primarily through exercises, joint combined exchange training programs, planning, assistance, and training teams.

Additionally, SOF supported the United States Atlantic Command by providing advice through training teams to drug law enforcement agencies.


Special Operations Forces are prepared to operate worldwide across a broad spectrum of conflict. SOF are organized into three Service components and a joint command. Approximately 44,000 active and Reserve component personnel from the Army, Navy, and Air Force are assigned to USSOCOM and the theater Special Operations Commands (SOCs). In actual operations, Service component units are normally employed as part of a joint force by the theater commanders in chief through the theater SOC. The SOC normally forms a joint special operations task force, which may be employed independently or in support of a larger joint task force. Psychological operations forces and civil affairs forces are normally constituted separately as a joint PSYOP and a joint civil military operations task force.

Army Special Operations Forces include Special Forces (Green Berets), Rangers, Special Operations Aviation (SOA), PSYOP, CA, signal, logistical, and headquarters units under the United States Army Special Operations Command. Army Special Forces are organized into five active and two Army National Guard groups. The Ranger Regiment consists of three active battalions, based at three locations in the United States. SOA consists of one regiment in the United States and one company in Panama. PSYOP forces are organized into three groups, one active and two United States Army Reserve (USAR). The SOF CA force structure consists of three USAR CA commands, nine USAR CA brigades, 24 USAR CA battalions, and one active duty CA battalion. Ninety-seven percent of the CA force is found in the USAR. Additionally, the U.S. Marine Corps has two CA Groups, and the U.S. Air Force is currently developing a CA capability within the Air National Guard.

Naval Special Warfare (NSW) forces support naval and joint special operations within the theater unified commands. NSW forces are organized into two Naval Special Warfare Groups (NSWG) and two Special Boat Squadrons (SBS). Each NSWG is composed of three SEAL teams with ten platoons and a SEAL Delivery Vehicle team. Each SBS is composed of a Special Boat Unit and Patrol Coastal ships that provide coastal patrol and interdiction as well as the surface mobility for NSW forces. Additionally, Naval Special Warfare Units are located outside of the continental United States to support NSW forces assigned to the theater SOCs or components of naval task forces. The Naval Special Warfare Center conducts basic and advanced training for NSW. They also conduct the initial assessment and training for SEALs and Combatant Craft Operators.

Air Force SOF are organized into one active Special Operations Wing, two active theater-oriented Special Operations Groups (one each in the Pacific and European Commands), one Air Force Reserve Special Operations Wing, one Air National Guard Special Operations Wing, and one active Special Tactics Group. Within these units are special operations squadrons, which perform a variety of special operations missions. These include long-range infiltration and exfiltration, aerial refueling, resupply, and combat weather missions deep within sensitive, denied, or enemy controlled territory. Other units are equipped to conduct psychological operations, surgical fire support, and terminal air traffic operations within the same environment. These aircraft and personnel are prepared to support both SOF and conventional forces. The Air Force also operates the USAF Special Operations School which is responsible for educating Air Force, Joint, and DoD personnel on many special operations related topics, and a flight test squadron which develops tactics for SOF aircraft and flight tests new equipment.


The DoD Reorganization Act of 1986, as amended by the National Defense Authorization Act of 1987, mandated unique relationships for command, control, and oversight of SOF. The Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict (ASD(SO/LIC)) serves as the principal civilian advisor to the Secretary of Defense on special operations and low-intensity conflict, with oversight of special operations and low-intensity conflict-related policy and resources. The act also mandated the establishment of USSOCOM and assigned it several Service-like responsibilities, including programming, budgeting, and acquisition; training and education of SOF; and developing special operations strategy, doctrine, and tactics. The policy and resource oversight responsibilities of ASD(SO/LIC) and the Service-like responsibilities of USSOCOM create a relationship which is unique within the Department of Defense.


SOF Vision 2020 is the United States Special Operations Command’s framework for building and maintaining the necessary operational capabilities of future Special Operations Forces. This vision incorporates SOF’s two most fundamental strengths—quality people with unequaled skills and a broad-based technological edge—to ensure tomorrow’s SOF are structured, trained, and equipped to counter diverse threats to national security. SOF Vision 2020 builds upon Joint Vision 2010 concepts as they apply to SOF, while complementing Service road maps for the future to optimize the synergism between SOF and conventional forces. Constrained resources will continue to demand improved levels of effectiveness and efficiency.

Recognizing that the demand for forces to respond to diverse regional concerns will be greater than ever, the following concepts will continue to guide the SOF community:

Ensure maximum flexibility consistent with full accountability. SOF missions are fluid, shaped by political context and tactical developments requiring modifications and expediencies. Adherence to rules of engagement and responsiveness to military and civilian authority are paramount.

Encourage unorthodox approaches and unconventional techniques that bring flexible thinking and innovation in addressing unconventional security threats.

Invest in science and technology to maintain technical superiority in weaponry, materiel, and delivery systems, while retaining the ability to use and instruct others in the use of low technology weapons and systems.

Stress SOF utility for forward-basing, quick deployment, and adaptability to regional contingencies. The regional orientation of SOF is an essential ingredient of success.

Continue to improve equipment, training, and facilities ensuring SOF maintains the capability to effectively respond to any contingency.

Continue to integrate SOF with conventional forces and improve SOF interoperability with other U.S. government agencies.

Design force structure to appropriately support the full range of SOF missions. As the sophistication of adversaries grows and the nature of SOF missions evolves, special operations activities may generate increased physical and technical requirements that demand greater specialization in training. The linguistic, cultural, and political needs of the training and advisory mission will increase as the regional security environment becomes more complex.

Ensure appropriate missions are tasked to SOF. Special operations have key elements that distinguish them from conventional operations. The utility of SOF increasingly hinges upon regional knowledge, flexibility, political awareness, and discipline.


Special Operations Forces (SOF) are particularly suited for many emerging missions which flow from the National Security Strategy. Many of these missions require traditional SOF capabilities, while others, such as counter proliferation and information operations, are relatively new. SOF face two major challenges: they must integrate—with conventional forces, other U.S. agencies, friendly foreign forces, and other international organizations (like the United Nations and Red Cross)—yet they must preserve the autonomy necessary to protect and encourage the unconventional approach that is the soul of special operations. SOF language capability, regional and cultural orientation, and expertise in civilian sector disciplines will continue to make them a peacetime force of choice that is mature, discrete, low profile, and effective. Because of its low-cost/high-payback ratio, SOF will continue to be called upon as the nation seeks to promote stability and thwart aggression.

In a world of increased global interaction, SOF will be a unique mechanism for extending U.S. influence, ideals, and values. Faced with an increasingly volatile world, reduced permanently forward-deployed conventional forces and bases, and diminishing resources, SOF will provide access and promote stability with an affordable, yet effective, force for implementing U.S. national strategies. When American interests are faced with unpredictable threats, SOF will provide flexible and precise, lethal and nonlethal options to the National Command Authorities. SOF will provide core competencies not available anywhere else in the military.

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