The Special Forces (Special Forces, SF, or Green Berets) are the foundational branch of the larger elite special operations forces (SOF), which is now a part of the United States Army Special Operations Command (USASOC), a component of United States Special Operations Command (SOCOM).
Special Forces units are tasked with eight primary missions:
- Unconventional warfare
- Foreign internal defense
- Special reconnaissance
- Direct action
- Psychological operations
- Information operations
The first two emphasize language, cultural, and training skills in working with foreign troops. Other duties include coalition warfare and support, combat search and rescue (CSAR), security assistance, peacekeeping, humanitarian assistance, humanitarian de-mining and counter-drug operations; other components of the United States Special Operations Command or other U.S. government activities may be the specialize in these secondary areas Many of their operational techniques are classified, but some nonfiction works and doctrinal manuals are available.
Their official motto is De Oppresso Liber (Latin: "To Liberate the Oppressed"), a reference to one of their primary missions to train and assist foreign indigenous forces.
Currently, Special Forces units are deployed in Operation Iraqi Freedom. They are also deployed with other SOCOM elements as the primary American military force in the ongoing War in Afghanistan. As special operations units, the Special Forces are not necessarily under orders from the ground commanders of those countries. Instead, while in theatre, operators report directly to United States Central Command.
The Green Beret
Edson Raff, one of the first Special Forces officers, is credited with introducing the green beret, which was originally unauthorized for wear by the U.S. Army. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy authorized them for use exclusively by the US Special Forces. Preparing for an October 12 visit to the Special Warfare Center at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, the President sent word to the Center's commander, Brigadier General William P. Yarborough, for all Special Forces soldiers to wear the beret as part of the event. The President felt that since they had a special mission, Special Forces should have something to set them apart from the rest. In 1962, he called the green beret "a symbol of excellence, a badge of courage, a mark of distinction in the fight for freedom." Aside from the well-recognized beret, Special Forces soldiers are also known for their more informal attire than other members of the U.S. military.
"It was President Kennedy who was responsible for the rebuilding of the Special Forces and giving us back our Green Beret," said Forrest Lindley, a writer for the newspaper Stars and Stripes who served with Special Forces in Vietnam. "People were sneaking around wearing it when conventional forces weren't in the area and it was sort a cat and mouse game," he recalled. "When Kennedy authorized the Green Beret as a mark of distinction, everybody had to scramble around to find berets that were really green. We were bringing them down from Canada. Some were handmade, with the dye coming out in the rain."
Special Forces have a special bond with Kennedy, going back to his funeral. At the commemoration of the 25th anniversary of JFK's death, Gen. Michael D. Healy, the last commander of Special Forces in Vietnam, spoke at Arlington Cemetery. Later, a wreath in the form of the Green Beret would be placed on the grave, continuing a tradition that began the day of his funeral when a sergeant in charge of a detail of Special Forces men guarding the grave placed his beret on the coffin.
The men of the Green Beret caught the public's imagination and were the subject of a best selling, if semi-fictional, book The Green Berets by Robin Moore, a hit record, Ballad of the Green Berets written and performed by Barry Sadler, The Green Berets (film) produced, directed, and starring John Wayne and a comic strip and American comic book Tales of the Green Beret written by Robin Moore with artwork by Joe Kubert. See United States Army Special Forces in popular culture.
U.S. Army Special Forces is divided into five Active Duty (AD) and two Army National Guard (ARNG) Special Forces groups. Each Active Duty Special Forces Group (SFG) has a specific regional focus. The Special Forces soldiers assigned to these groups receive intensive language and cultural training for countries within their regional area of responsibility (AOR). Due to the increased need for Special Forces soldiers in the War on Terror, all Groups—including those of the National Guard (19th and 20th SFGs)—have been deployed outside of their areas of operation (AOs), particularly to Iraq and Afghanistan.
SF Operational Detachment-Alpha (ODA) composition
A Special Forces company consists of six ODAs (Operational Detachments Alpha) or Alpha Detachments. Formerly, they were referred to as "A-teams", but this has fallen out of favor since the 1980s. The number of ODAs can vary from company to company, with each ODA specializing in an infiltration skill or mission set (e.g. HALO, combat diving, mountain, maritime operations, etc).
An ODA typically consists of 12 men, each of whom has a specific function (MOS or Military Occupational Specialty) on the team. The ODA is led by an 18A (Detachment Commander), usually a Captain, and a 180A (Detachment Technician) who is his second in command, usually a Warrant Officer One or Chief Warrant Officer Two. The team also contains the following enlisted men: one 18Z (Operations Sergeant), usually a Master Sergeant, one 18F ( Assistant Operations Sergeant), usually a Sergeant First Class, and two each of 18B (Weapons Sergeant), 18C (Engineer Sergeant), 18D (Medical Sergeant), and 18E (Communications Sergeant). The B's, C's, D's and E's work in senior/junior roles with the seniors, ideally having the rank of Sergeant First Class, and the juniors having the rank of Staff Sergeant or Sergeant.
SF Operational Detachment-Bravo (ODB) composition
A Special Forces company, when in need, will deploy an Operational Detachment Bravo, (ODB) or "B-team," usually composed of 11-13 soldiers. While the A-team typically conducts direct operations, the purpose of the B-team is to support the A-teams in the company. There is one B-team per company.
The ODB is led by an 18A, usually a Major, who is the Company Commander (CO). The CO is assisted by his Company Executive Officer (XO), another 18A, usually a Captain. The XO is himself assisted by a company technician, a 180A, generally a Chief Warrant Officer Three, and assists in the direction of the organization, training, intelligence, counter-intelligence, and operations for the company and its detachments. The Company Commander is assisted by the Company Sergeant Major, an 18Z, usually a Sergeant Major. A second 18Z acts as the Operations NCO, usually a Master Sergeant, who assists the XO and Technician in their operational duties. He has an 18F Assistant Operations NCO, who is usually a Sergeant First Class. The company's support comes from an 18D Medical Sergeant, usually a Sergeant First Class, and two 18E Communications Sergeants, usually a Sergeant First Class and Staff Sergeant.
Note the distinct lack of a weapons or engineer NCO. This is because the B-Team generally does not engage in direct operations, but rather operates in support of the A-Teams within its company. Each SF company has one ODA that specializes in HALO (military free fall parachuting) and one trained in combat diving. Other ODA specialties include military mountaineering, maritime operations, and personnel recovery.
The following jobs are outside of the Special Forces 18-series CMF, but hold positions in a Special Forces B-Team. They are not themselves considered to be Special Forces, as they have not completed SFAS and SFQC:
The Supply NCO, usually a Staff Sergeant, the commander's principal logistical planner, works with the battalion S-4 to supply the company.
The Nuclear, Biological, Chemical (NBC) NCO, usually a Sergeant, maintains and operates the company's NBC detection and contamination equipment, and assists in administering NBC defensive measures.
In a regular force troop, this level of command could be compared to a company (although the commander is a Major (O-4) and not a Captain (O-3))
Special Forces MOS descriptions
- 18A - Special Forces Officer
- 180A - Special Forces Warrant Officer
- 18B - Special Forces Weapons Sergeant
- 18C - Special Forces Engineering Sergeant
- 18D - Special Forces Medical Sergeant
- 18E - Special Forces Communications Sergeant
- 18F - Special Forces Assistant Operations and Intelligence Sergeant
- 18X - Special Forces Candidate (Active Duty Enlistment Option)
- 18Z - Special Forces Operations Sergeant