Defense Primer: U.S. Special Operation Forces

The following is the Nov. 21, 2022, Congressional Research Service, Defense Primer: Special Operation Forces. From the report Special Operations Forces (SOF) are those active duty and reserve component forces of the military services designated by the Secretary of Defense (SECDEF) and specifically selected, organized, trained, and equipped to conduct and support special operations. Special […]

The following is the Nov. 21, 2022, Congressional Research Service, Defense Primer: Special Operation Forces.

From the report

Special Operations Forces (SOF) are those active duty and reserve component forces of the military services designated by the Secretary of Defense (SECDEF) and specifically selected, organized, trained, and equipped to conduct and support special operations. Special operations frequently require unique modes of employment, tactics, techniques, procedures, and equipment. SOF often conducts special operations in hostile, politically, and/or diplomatically sensitive environments, and are characterized by one or more of the following: time-sensitivity, clandestine or covert nature, low visibility, work with or through indigenous forces, greater requirements for regional orientation and cultural expertise, and a high degree of risk. SOF’s core activities are:

  • Direct action
  • Special reconnaissance
  • Countering weapons of mass destruction
  • Counterterrorism
  • Unconventional warfare
  • Foreign internal defense
  • Security force assistance
  • Hostage rescue and recovery
  • Counterinsurgency
  • Foreign humanitarian assistance
  • Military information support operations
  • Civil affairs operations

Selection of SOF Operational Personnel

SOF operational personnel (often referred to as “operators”) undergo a rigorous screening and selection process characterized by a low selection rate. After selection, they receive mission-specific training to achieve proficiency in a variety of special operations skills. SOF operators tend to be experienced personnel and many maintain competency in more than one military specialty. Selected operators have regional, cultural, and linguistic expertise. Some SOF personnel require highly technical and advanced training for anticipated missions such as Military Freefall training, Combat Diver training, and Sniper training.

Command Structure and Components

In 1986, Congress, concerned about the status of SOF within overall U.S. defense planning and budgeting, passed legislation to strengthen special operations’ position within the defense community and to strengthen interoperability among the branches of U.S. SOF. The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) of 1987 (P.L. 99-661), established an Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict (ASD (SOLIC)) and a new four-star command to prepare Special Operations Forces (SOF) to carry out assigned missions and, if directed by the President or SECDEF, to plan for and conduct special operations.

Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict (ASD (SOLIC))

The ASD (SOLIC) is the principal civilian advisor to the SECDEF on special operations and low-intensity conflict matters. The ASD (SOLIC) has as their principal duty overall supervision (to include oversight of policy and resources) of special operations and low-intensity conflict activities. The ASD (SOLIC) falls under and reports to the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy (USD (P)). Congress, wanting ASD (SOLIC) to exercise greater oversight of USSOCOM, enacted Section 922, FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act (P.L. 114-328) to facilitate and resource ASD (SOLIC)’s originally intended Service Secretary-like authorities.

U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM)

Activated on April 16, 1987, and headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, FL, USSOCOM is the unified Combatant Command (COCOM) responsible for organizing, training, and equipping all U.S. SOF units. Headquarters, USSOCOM consists of approximately 2,500 military and civilian personnel, and overall, the command has more than 70,000 personnel assigned to its headquarters, its service components, and sub-unified commands. The USSOCOM commander is a four-star general officer from any Service, who reports directly to the SECDEF. After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, USSOCOM’s responsibilities were expanded in the 2004 Unified Command Plan (UCP), assigning USSOCOM responsibility for coordinating the Department of Defense (DOD) plans against global terrorism and conducting global operations as directed. Since 2016, USSOCOM has also been assigned the roles coordinating authority over countering violent extremist operations (CVEO) and counter weapons of mass destruction (CWMD) operations.

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