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.

A photo of the “Desert One” landing site, a piece of desert in Iran used by U.S. forces as a refueling point in an attempt to rescue U.S. hostages in Iran. (WikiMedia Commons)

“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.

The Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) now falls under USSOCOM

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.