While it could be said that every unit which falls under the “special ops” umbrella is comprised of operators who can move, shoot, and communicate with lethal efficiency, different units developed to address specialized challenges.
As the years wore on, and particularly since the onset of the Global War on Terrorism, lines may have blurred a bit between specialties in many cases, allowing various units to conduct similar operations. But, the specific nature of each continues to inform the internal culture of divisions that fall under the command of U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM), honoring their heritage as well as the prowess their service experience allots.
Many people who understand America’s special operations apparatus are usually most familiar with the elements of one of SOCOM’s subordinate commands, the Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC. Officially, JSOC is tasked with studying special operations requirements and techniques in order to ensure the best methods of unit interoperability are employed, while fielding new equipment and conducting special operations exercises, training, and missions in the best interest of our nation. To be succinct, JSOC has the “best of the best.” It might help to think of them as America’s war-fighting All-Star team.
Units of JSOC include:
- The Intelligence Support Activity, commonly called “The Activity”
- The U.S. Air Force 24th Special Tactics Squadron
- The U.S. Navy’s Naval Special Warfare Development Group (DEVGRU) or the recently popularized SEAL Team Six
- The U.S. Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment: Regimental Reconnaissance Company
- The U.S. Army’s 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta, commonly known as Delta Force
However, listing these names does little to clear up potential confusion, so allow me to elaborate briefly on three of these four units.
DEVGRU, SEAL Team 6, and whatever their current (and classified) operational title may be are all referring to the same group of elite Navy SEALs. Team 6 recruits from within, choosing only the best of the already elite Navy SEAL community. Delta is often compared to Seal Team 6 in terms of operational capabilities and grueling indoctrination and training, but differs from its sea-based brethren primarily in recruiting tactics: Delta operators may come from any branch, and are sometimes even former SEALs.
The Air Force’s 24th Special Tactics Squadron (24th STS) is perhaps the least recognized of the three, which may be because pararescuemen, combat controllers, and Tactical Air Control Parties deployed by the 24th STS usually serve alongside DEVGRU or Delta teams, rather than fielding complete teams on their own. These airmen synchronize and control elements of air support or provide medical assistance to other special operators in the field.
Beyond the elite units housed within JSOC, SOCOM boasts a number of other special operations teams that may be best addressed by dividing them by their representative military branches.
United States Army Special Operations Command
Special Forces (Green Berets)
The term “special forces” is often misattributed to any military personnel working within America’s special operations community. However, the phrase is actually specific to the Army’s elite group of soldiers who specialize in unconventional warfare, reconnaissance, internal foreign defense, anti-terror operations, and direct action combat. Green Berets are considered unique from other special operators for various reasons, most importantly being put to use in times of peace and conflict alike. Their motto, “De Oppresso Liber” translates to “Free the Oppressed.”
The 75th Ranger Regiment
Like the Navy SEALs, a highly specialized company of Rangers falls under JSOC, but the rest of Ranger Battalion answers to the U.S. Army Special Operations Command. Rangers are specifically-selected soldiers who must first complete an eight-week long Ranger Assessment and Selection Program—which replaced the Ranger Indoctrination Program, or RIP, in 2010—before reaching their assignment within the regiment. Once there, they must complete the even more arduous Ranger School in order to earn their Ranger Tab.
The 160th SOAR (Night Stalkers)
The U.S. Army’s Special Operations Regiment (SOAR) provides helicopter aviation support for special operations troops, often flying into extremely hostile territory to deliver and extract elite operators from combat zones. Aviators in the 160th are among the most highly-trained pilots on the planet, and use the latest in new and modified military aircraft to complete missions often deemed too dangerous for many other aviation units. It was the 160th that delivered JSOC operators to the compound in Pakistan on May 2nd, 2011 to kill Osama Bin Laden.
Other units or personnel that fall under SOCOM include skilled civil affairs soldiers, military information support operators, sustainment soldiers, and the training cadre responsible for assessing, training, and educating the Army’s elite war-fighters.
United States Navy Special Warfare Command
Navy SEALs are probably the most famous special operations unit in the world. Countless movies have depicted the heroism of SEALs, and even more books recount stories told by individuals who earned the coveted Trident. Unbeknownst to some, SEAL is an acronym that stands for Sea, Air, and Land—acknowledging the heart of the Navy SEALs’ role as a multi-purpose combat force. SEALs conduct operations in any situation or location, from clandestine reconnaissance to direct action missions.
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Special Warfare Combatant-craft (SWCC) Crewmen and Enablers
SWCC Crewmen belong to Special Boat Teams often tasked with operating small surface craft for coastal operations and to support special operations missions. Primarily focused on aiding in the infiltration and exfiltration of SEAL teams, these Crewmen work where larger vessels cannot operate, providing close fire support and medical care to special operators on mission. Enablers, like the SWCC Crewmen, offer technical assistance to special operations personnel, including everything from cryptologic support to explosive ordnance disposal.
United States Air Force Special Operations Command
Special Tactics Airmen
Special Tactics Airmen offer a wide variety of operational capabilities derived through diverse areas of training and expertise. Combat controllers are certified air traffic controllers that infiltrate combat zones undetected to simultaneously conduct air traffic control and coordinate air support while also participating in direct action missions. Pararescuemen, or PJs, specialize in both conventional and unconventional recovery operations. The Special Operations Surgical Team offers a rapid deploying and lightweight medical element for trauma life support.
Special Operations Aviators
The men and women assigned to the Air Force’s Special Operations Aviators are considered some of the most exceptional pilots in the military. Flying in specialized aircraft, they conduct operations primarily under cover of darkness, and offer varying levels of support to special operations missions, including reconnaissance, infiltration and exfiltration, and command and control operations.
Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command
Critical Skills Operators/Special Operations Officers
Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command (MARSOC) recently reflagged with the historically-consistent moniker of Marine Raiders. They’re the latest addition to the SOCOM organizational structure. For much of the Marine Corps’ history, it operated without any formal association to SOCOM, instead establishing independent Force Recon units in a similar fashion while retaining organizational control. Since MARSOC entered the SOCOM fold, its operators conduct foreign internal defense operations, special reconnaissance, and direct action combat missions.
While this list offers a glimpse into the various facets of special operations units, it’s important to acknowledge that the nuanced differences in culture and conduct exhibited by operators within each can be difficult to quantify.
Each special operations group had to shed aspects of its parent branch in order to better integrate unique skill sets and capabilities with those offered by groups hailing from other branches. However, traditions and culture found within groups such as the SEALs or Marine Raiders remain intrinsically tied to their service birthplaces. There’s always been a fair amount of friendly competition between branches, but once a Soldier, Sailor, Marine, or Airman answers to SOCOM, they must work their way into the new combined culture of the service. SOCOM, in many ways, is an extraordinary beast all its own.
SOCOM operators come from all walks of life, and represent a variety of military occupational specialties established in each of the four branches of American service. Ultimately, these special operators are more than war-fighters: they’re diplomats, problem solvers, and instruments of foreign policy. Only by combining the best and brightest from America’s exceptional military infrastructure can they possibly accomplish so much.
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