On April 9, 1987, the Army Chief of Staff established a separate branch for SF officers (18A).
Previously, in June 1983, the military had authorized a Special Forces tab for SF troops to be worn on the left shoulder. Then, on October 1, 1984, the Army established a separate career management field (CMF 18) for SF enlisted men and the Special Forces Warrant Officer career field (180A) soon followed.
Despite the various changes after Vietnam, the fundamental element — the SF ODA — remained mostly unchanged. The only position to change on a team was that of the executive officer, which was no longer filled by an LT, but by an SF Warrant Officer with years of detachment experience.
The Army’s premier Unconventional Warfare element, SF traces its roots from the elite Army formations of WWII and the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). The OSS was formed in WWII to collect intelligence and conduct operations behind enemy lines. After the war, individuals like Colonel Aaron Bank, a former OSS operative, Colonel Wendell Fertig and Colonel Russell Volckmann used their wartime experience to formulate the doctrine of Unconventional Warfare that became the cornerstone of SF — both Volckmann and Fertig had fought guerilla campaigns against the Japanese in the Philippines.
Within the Army’s official lineage and honors, the SF groups are linked to the regiments of the First Special Service Force, an elite combined Canadian-American unit that fought in the Aleutians, Italy, and southern France.
Special Forces have an interesting tightrope they need to traverse while deployed. As special operations units, Special Forces aren’t necessarily under the command authority of the ground commanders in the country they are deployed. Instead, while in theater, SF units may report directly to a geographic combatant command, USSOCOM, or other command authorities.
In the early 21st century, Special Forces were divided into five active duty (AD) and two Army National Guard (ARNG) Special Forces groups. Each Special Forces Group (SFG) features a specific regional focus. The Special Forces soldiers assigned to those groups receive intensive language and cultural training for countries within their regional area of responsibility (AOR). Thanks to the increased need for Special Forces soldiers for 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.
A released report showed Special Forces as the foremost deployed SOF under USSOCOM, with many soldiers, no matter the Group, serving up to 75 percent of their careers overseas, mostly in Iraq and Afghanistan. In recent years this has begun to change with a mandatory 2:1 dwell. Therefore, for every day head-off-pillow, the soldier must be home for two days. While families love the idea, the demand for SF has only increased globally.
Until 2012, SF Groups consisted of three battalions, but since the Department of Defense has authorized the First Special Forces Command to extend its strength by one third, a fourth battalion was activated in each active component group. The fourth battalion selects, prepares, and employs elite Special Forces Operators to advise the leadership of host nations and support the activities of the U.S. government.
Training with host-nation forces has evolved over the years. Although it started with just training small units on basic combat skills its focus has since evolved to building capacity by mentoring host-nation SOF leadership on topics such as command and control, intelligence fusion, joint operations, and sustainment.
Today, SF Groups continue to deploy to support operational requirements around the globe. But when at home station, there is always the opportunity to reflect on the success of those before them and those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice. Many Groups have Memorial Week in honor of the fallen and their families.