On April 9, 1987, the creation of the Special Forces branch for Army officers was a gamechanger for the SOCOM and Special Forces communities.

Today’s USSOCOM (United States Special Operations Command) operates daily in nearly 100 countries as Special Operations troops from all of the combined services do their part in defending U.S. interests abroad. SOCOM has a dedicated command of nearly 70,000 personnel.

Special Operations troops are taking on the lion’s share of the fighting in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan as they are an integral part of the United States’ strategy for defeating our enemies there. But it wasn’t always that way. In fact, SOCOM is a relative newcomer to the U.S. military. 

The Army’s Special Forces were created in 1952 as former members of the OSS (Office of Strategic Services) were assigned with paratroopers and Army Rangers to fill out the ranks of the 10th Special Forces Group headed by Colonel Aaron Bank.

Members of the 10th Special Forces Group, “The Originals” trace their origins back to June 1952 at Fort Bragg. They adopted the Trojan Horse Badge in 1955 and adorned their Green Berets with them. The emblem design was by Capt. Roger M Pezzelle. (U.S. Army)

OSS and SF were tasked with training, equipping, and leading indigenous forces in the art of guerrilla warfare. The mission of the 10th according to Bank was “to infiltrate by land, sea or air, deep into enemy-occupied territory and organize the resistance/guerrilla potential to conduct Special Forces operations, with emphasis on guerrilla warfare.”

Special Forces grew steadily and the new unit was heavily involved in Vietnam. Special Forces A-Teams were spread all over the country and found themselves a tremendously loyal ally in the Montagnard people of the mountains of Southeast Asia. By the time the war was over, SF soldiers had earned 20 Medals of Honor, one Distinguished Service Medal, 90 Distinguished Service Crosses, 814 Silver Star Medals, 13,234 Bronze Star Medals, 235 Legions of Merit, 46 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 232 Soldier’s Medals, 4,891 Air Medals, 6,908 Army Commendation Medals and 2,658 Purple Hearts.

Green Berets, SSG Parsons, SSG Brakeman, SFC Simpson, SFC Strick, SSG Sheppard and, 1LT Sullivan in their distinctive Night-Tiger Stripe camo at FOB Kham Duc, Vietnam, in February 1967. Note the M79 40MM grenade launchers and early M16’s in .556 caliber.

After the Vietnam war wound down, the military cut back on special operations forces and tried to build a large conventional force for a European land battle with the Soviet Union. As a result, the 1st, 3rd, 6th, and 8th Special Forces groups were deactivated. The Pentagon, never a fan of “specialized” or “elite” units, tried to wipe the slate clean of them. Nevertheless, the 7th SFG narrowly escaped the ax. 

So, the Special Forces were left with just three active-duty groups, the 5th, 7th, and 10th SFGs. Ronald Reagan’s election and the debacle at Desert One in Iran would change all that. During the attempted rescue of American hostages in Iran, an ad-hoc force of Delta Force commandos, Army Rangers, Air Force, and Marine pilots failed because the pilots weren’t specifically trained for that type of mission.

The planning, training, and execution were set back because the services weren’t accustomed to working together and no unified command existed. The government finally learned that the U.S. military needed a dedicated Special Operations force that was capable of handling any issues that arose, complete with air assets dedicated to Special Operations missions.

Competent Special Operations Forces Cannot Be Created After Emergencies Occur

A Soldier assigned to the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School stands in formation during a Regimental First Formation at Fort Bragg, North Carolina January 28, 2021. The ceremony marked the completion of the Special Forces Qualification Course where soldiers earned the honor of wearing the green beret, the official headgear of Special Forces. (Photo by K. Kassens/U.S. Army)

After the invasion of Grenada in 1983, Congress and the Pentagon learned what Special Operations troops had long known that competent SF forces cannot be created after emergencies occur.

The Army created a Career Management Branch for their enlisted soldiers (CMF 18) in 1984. Now Green Berets in Special Forces groups would no longer have to serve “command time” as senior NCOs in conventional assignments. The Special Forces tab, recognizing graduates of SF training, was adopted in 1983.

But the officers who served in Special Forces were still in No-Man’s Land. Serving more than one tour in Special Forces for officers was considered career suicide as staying in SF would result in achieving no more than a colonel’s rank. And those were few and far between. Something had to be done.

One of the weak parts of a Special Forces A-Team was the XO or 2LT position. Too many of the LTs didn’t have enough of a conventional background or experience to be sufficiently effective. Although many of the LTs in Special Forces were former NCOs, who had gone through OCS, they weren’t enough.

So, not long after the CMF 18 was created, the Army created the Warrant Officer Program for Special Forces troops. The LT’s slot was cut from the A-Teams and the slots would be filled by senior Special Forces NCOs who went through the Warrant Officer course pipeline, held at Ft. Rucker and Ft. Bragg. 

Finally, on April 9, 1987, the Army reluctantly created the Special Forces Branch for Commissioned Officers (18A). Once a captain or 1LT promotable applied he could attend the Special Forces Qualification Course and upon successful completion would become part of the SF Branch. 

The result was a much better, more capable, and more experienced core of officers and enlisted men and troops dedicated solely to Special Forces operations. No longer would officers stick around only long enough to “get their ticket punched” and be forced to move on to other assignments and career fields. During this time frame, both the 1st and the 3rd Special Forces Groups were reactivated and have since served with distinction.

The Special Forces Command has a group area oriented to every specific part of the world complete with language capability and culturally experienced troops that know their area of operations, the people, and many of the personalities involved.

The wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria have put such a burden on the operational tempo of the units that the Army authorized the 4th battalion for each of the Special Forces groups.

Today is a far cry from the lean years of the early-to-mid-1970s where Special Forces were on the brink of being eliminated by backward-thinking officers. The troops today are overtasked as they’ve become a panacea by Washington to fix every problem that the country faces as administrations try to limit the amount of “boots on the ground” in the world’s hotspots.