Key point: Special forces have been of great utility against insurgents in the War on Terror, but how will they adapt in a new century of great power competition?
Special operations forces have been at the forefront of U.S. combat operation in the last two decades. They are nearly at the forefront of risky combat missions—and suffer higher casualties as they are often deployed to remote locations and exposed to greater risks.
A companion article details the special operations units of the U.S. Army and the distinction between various tiers of special operations units.
In this second part we’ll dive into the special operations units of the U.S. Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy, and look at recent challenges facing the special operations community.
The Marine Raider Regiment
The Marine Corps historically resisted the creation of elite special operations units, instead designating some reconnaissance units as ‘Special Operations Capable’ with training for airborne and seaborne insertion.
Today, these include four Force Reconnaissance Companies, primarily assigned to support to Marine expeditionary forces, and three Divisional Reconnaissance Battalions which incorporate Deep Reconnaissance Platoon including specialized combat divers to perform beach and landing zone reconnaissance, and direct air and artillery strikes.
During World War II, however, the Marines briefly operated two unconventional Raider battalions involved in some spectacular island assaults, including an epic submarine-launched raid on a Japanese seaplane base. But the Marine brass disliked the concept and disbanded the units in 1944.
The Marines were finally compelled to form dedicated special forces battalions 2003 by Special Forces-loving Rumsfeld defense department. In 2015, Marine special forces battalions were then integrated into a new Raider Regiment based at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.
The Raider Regiment counts three Raider battalions consisting of four companies. Each company has four fourteen-man teams called MSOTs. There’s also a Raider Support Group with three more battalions including specialist multi-purpose canine handlers, surveillance and forward observers.
Raiders trainees undergo a three-stage screening, followed by a nine-month training program in skills ranging from demolitions, diving, foreign languages, close-quarters combat and wilderness survival. Raiders have been involved in actions ranging from brutal urban warfare against ISIS in Mosul, Iraq and Marawi in the Philippines, to counter-terror actions in Mali.
The U.S. Navy’s Sea, Air and Land (SEAL) teams have their origin in underwater demolitions teams assigned to scout out beaches and clear defensive obstacles ahead of amphibious landings in World War II ranging from Omaha Beach to the fortified island of Tarawa.
The SEALS were officially formed in 1962 and were soon engaged in spy missions and riverine combat tasks in Vietnam, and participated in Operation Phoenix, a program to assassinate village leaders sympathetic to the Viet Cong.
Later SEAL ops include securing the governor-general of Grenada in his palace, infiltrating Iraqi-occupied Kuwait City, and taking back oil tankers seized by pirates.
Just to begin training, SEAL candidates must demonstrate extraordinary physical endurance. The over year-long training program spans topics ranging from airborne and diving operations as well as marksmanship and demolitions.
But of those that pass initial screening, only one out of three make it through the initial physical conditioning unit, the third week of which is known as ‘Hell Week,” in which trainees perform 20 hours of intense physical activity per day.
The basic SEAL unit is sixteen-man SEAL platoon, which sub-divide into two squads. The Navy has roughly 3,000 Navy SEALS in eight SEAL teams, each consisting of six platoons and three eight-person special task support units.
Additionally, there are two sixteen-man SEAL Delivery Vehicle Teams equipped with specialized Mk.VIII Mod. 1 submersibles which can carry up to six SEALs for underwater insertion, and three teams operating small boats for littoral operations.
The Naval Special Warfare Development Group (DEVGRU) is more popularly known by its former designation SEAL Team 6. Its operators are all experienced Navy SEALs who have undertaken an even more grueling training process with a 50 percent washout rate and occasional fatalities.
Like the Army’s Delta Force, DEVGRU is a Tier 1 unit involved in counter-terrorism and preemptive assassination operations, famously including the killing of Osama Bin Laden in 2011. Unit members also specialize in hostage rescue and protect high-ranking individuals.
DEVGRU is organized into four assault squadrons (Red, Gold, Blue and Silver); an over 100-strong sniper/advanced reconnaissance squadron (Black); a special boat squadron (Gray); and a training squadron (Green).
Air Force Special Operations
The Air Force has its own 15,000-person strong Special Operations Command, first formerly established in 1983. These involves a mix of aviation and commando-style units.
Special Ops air wings fly a wide range of unique aircraft which often work closely with special forces units of other branches.
Many of these fly variants of the venerable C-130 transport plane. For inserting and recovering commandos behind enemy lines there are MC-130 transport planes modified for low-altitude insertion and recovery and refueling helicopters, as well as CV-22 tilt-rotor aircraft.
To provide long-endurance precision air support, there are ponderous but deadly “Spooky” gunship transports bristling with howitzers, Gatling guns and missiles. And to impede enemy communications and remotely detonated mines, there are EC-130H aircraft with powerful jammers.
To map out just where hostiles are in the first place, AFSOCOM has a fleet of small U-28, C-145 and C-146 surveillance planes stuffed to the gills with hi-tech sensors used in low-profile spy flights across Africa and Southwest Asia alongside MQ-9 Reaper drone squadrons.
Special Tactics Squadrons
But there’s also a ground-pounding side to Air Force Special Ops in the form of Special Tactics Squadrons. These include specialists that are detached to support other special operations units.
Air Force Combat Controllers help assess landing zones and airfields in remote, and perform traffic control in these austere conditions. Two-man Tactical Air Control Parties focus on directing air strikes in support of other ground forces. Pararescuemen, or PJs, assist in search-and-rescue missions behind enemy lines or difficult to access areas, as well as provide emergency medical care.
There are even Special Operations Weathermen designed to assess weather conditions in the field that could impact the success of a mission.
Most STSs are grouped under the the 24th Special Operations Wing, including the 24th STS, a Tier 1 unit that habitually embeds personnel with Delta Force and DEVGRU.
Challenges for U.S. Special Forces
Despite official secrecy, units like DEVGRU have been celebrated in press coverage and films like American Sniper, The Green Berets and Lone Survivor.
But as special forces undertake a large share of military efforts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Mali and Syria, they are subject to being word down with near continuous combat deployments abroad
Furthermore, despite the axiom that one “cannot mass produce special forces,” the ranks of U.S. operatives have more than doubled in size since 2001 in an effort to keep pace with demand.
These stresses may be contributing to an institutional crisis. In the last few years, there have been several exposés of breakdowns in discipline and systemic misconduct in special forces units, ranging from the murder of a Green Beret in Mali by Navy SEALs and Marine Raiders in North Africa to reports that SEAL teams were exhibiting high rates of drug and alcohol abuse, and mishandling or even mutilating with hatchets the remains of enemy combatants.
These scandals are leading for calls within the community to acknowledge the problem and reestablish standards and norms of conduct.
Another challenge lies in the shifting priorities of the Defense Department. While SOCOM will likely remain at the forefront of future counter-terrorism/insurgency operations in Africa and West Asia, the Pentagon is reorienting itself away from such missions towards preparing for possible ‘great power’ conflict with Russia and China.
Special Operations forces may thus develop new tactics on how their unique capabilities could counter Russia’s own unconventional warfare tactics in Eastern Europe, or employed to surveil and raid militarized islets in the Pacific Ocean.
Kyle Mizokami is a defense and national-security writer based in San Francisco who has appeared in the Diplomat, Foreign Policy, War is Boring and the Daily Beast. In 2009 he cofounded the defense and security blog Japan Security Watch. You can follow him on Twitter: @KyleMizokami. This article first appeared last month.
Image: U.S. Army Flickr.