Trying to trace America’s special operations units back to their roots can be a daunting task, in part because of how we perceive the missions these elite war-fighters carry out. Unconventional warfare may sound like a term describing a manner of fighting that lies outside the traditional methodology employed by the United States military, but the fact of the matter is our nation was forged on battlefields where American patriots employed non-traditional methodologies and mindsets in order to snatch victory from a foe with superior numbers and equipment. In many ways, unconventional warfare has long been an American convention; we simply provided the tactic with a formal organizational structure and began tailoring training to that end in an official capacity in the early 1940s.
On June 8th, 1942, William Orlando Darby was given command of the 1st Ranger Battalion, a group that would soon come to be known as Darby’s Rangers. His team, along with Frank Merrill’s Marauders (formally known as the 5307th Composite Unit) and other specialized groups tasked with using guerrilla-style tactics during World War II would establish the groundwork for the coming 70-plus years of special operations units. Some five years later, the Air Force would authorize its first special operations-style pararescue teams.
The Marine Corps first began fielding Force Recon teams in 1957, with Navy SEALs following soon thereafter in 1962. Delta Force would join in on the fun in 1977 and the 160th SOAR followed suit in 1981, but America’s Special Operations Command, or SOCOM, wouldn’t make the scene and begin institution inter-service coordination until 1983. Although special operations have a long and illustrious history in American war-fighting, the formation of SOCOM represented an important shift in how our nation employed its special operations units. Unfortunately, that shift only came as the result of a tragedy.
On April 24th, 1980, a combination of deteriorating funding for special operations troops and a post-Vietnam decline in the capability set employed by our elite operators resulted in a failed attempt to rescue 53 American hostages from a desolate location in Iran known as “Desert One.” Eight men died that day, and the hostages would not see freedom for months. America’s failure at Desert One was an embarrassing blemish on the otherwise legendary reputation American special operators had earned on the battlefield. Within the defense community, it served as a wake up call: America could do better, and it was time that they set about doing so.
“That crushing failure at Desert One and its consequences told everyone, despite the enormous talent we had, we hadn’t put it together right and something had to be done,” said retired Lt. Gen. Sam Wilson in a statement given in April of 2017. Wilson’s varied career had led to him serving as a CIA field case officer, a Special Forces group commander, and as the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency.
“That conclusion was reinforced by the superficially successful operation in Grenada. Once again, our service components could not talk with each other, the forces had not lived together, trained together, nor did we share the same doctrine. The operation was like a pick-up basketball game. Desert One and Grenada were the two main events telling us something must be done,” Wilson said.
By 1983, a growing sense that reform in the special operations community was necessary had begun to take hold in the U.S. government, leading to the formation of the Joint Special Operations Agency on January 1, 1984. The agency, which served as a sort of precursor to SOCOM, was hindered from the very outset, however, due to it lacking any form of operational or command authority over actual special operations units. Congress had initiated its inception with the distinct purpose of fixing the systemic issues found in America’s SOF units, but failed to enact any real or meaningful changes. The hunt for a valid way to restructure the special operations community continued.
In 1986, two separate bills were discussed on the House floor, with many former SOF commanders appearing before lawmakers to discuss the potential benefits of a new organizational structure. They called for a four-star-level SOF command, providing the elite units with the military clout they would need to secure adequate funding and enact changes as appropriate. Although many offered important recommendations and analysis, the testimony provided by Army Major General Richard Scholtes is widely regarded as the most influential.
“Gen. Scholtes has a reputation for integrity and principle. He would tell it like it was. That was important to the (Armed Services Committee) members,” said former Sen. William Cohen, who also served as Secretary of Defense from 1997 to 2001. “The Pentagon was waging a frontal and rear assault in opposition to the creation of a special operations command. Without his testimony, USSOCOM might not have happened, or we might have created a command with only two or three stars.”
Securing the authority of a four-star-level command was paramount in the minds of lawmakers like Cohen because it would provide SOCOM’s leaders with the ability to interact with the command structure of other branches on a peer level.
“There were fundamental flaws in how we were operating and we needed a four-star in charge of the command to deal with his counterparts,” said Cohen. “SOCOM’s profile needed to be raised to get the money, the appropriations, and the authority to start the command in a way that it would be significant.”
Both bills presented to the House and Senate were ultimately passed before going to a conference committee for reconciliation. Although the House had hoped to retain the civilian oversight allotted by the Joint Special Operations Agency, they ultimately conceded the point, and the final bill to establish SOCOM was attached as a rider to the 1987 Defense Authorization Act, where it was ultimately passed.
President Ronald Reagan approved the establishment of the new command on April 13th, 1987, and the Department of Defense activated it just days later, on April 16th.
SOCOM was established to bring the disparate elements of America’s special operations apparatus under the same roof, where they could not only work to combine skill sets into the most versatile and functionally capable combat force on the planet, but to establish a joint culture that prized cooperation over all else but mission accomplishment. Prior to SOCOM’s establishment, America’s special operators had done the best they could with what they had available to them. As SOCOM matured, America’s elite war-fighters found themselves benefiting from new funding streams and the breadth of expertise offered by warriors who hailed from different branches and diverse occupational specialties.