This article is a follow-up to a recent article on the U.S. special operations groups and programs that most people have not heard of, or know little about. This article features several new groups, and also provides a little more info on some of the groups covered in part one.

CIA Special Activities Division (SAD) / Special Operations Group

The U.S. special operations groups and programs you may not know about (Pt. 2)
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The Special Activities Division (SAD), sometimes known as the Special Operations Group, is the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) covert paramilitary operations unit. They are one of America’s most secretive and lowest-profile special ops organizations.

The Special Activities Division, sometimes referred to as the ‘Special Operations Group’, is made up of paramilitary operations officers (former Green Berets, Marine Recon, etc.)

The Special Activities Division has carried out deniable covert operations on foreign soil throughout their history. CIA Special Operations Group paramilitaries are trained in:

  • Counterterrorism
  • Hostage rescue
  • Bomb damage assessment
  • Kidnapping
  • Personnel and material recovery
  • Sabotage

CIA Ground Branch/Global Response Staff

The U.S. special operations groups and programs you may not know about (Pt. 2)
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Known simply as GB, Ground Branch is a CIA paramilitary unit that consists of both CIA employees and private military contractors who are hired through a third party. Something of a good old boy’s club, GB used to be packed full of former Marines, then retired Delta sergeant majors. Today, the CIA likes to hire younger E-6s or E-7s out of the special operations community and raise them up through the ranks of the agency themselves.

When outsiders hear about GB, they automatically have visions of black helicopters and wrist-mounted crossbows, but the reality is that GB officers largely conduct the same mission as U.S. Special Forces (Green Berets)—unconventional warfare. In other words, working by, with, and through indigenous forces to complete their mission. However, those overseeing GB paramilitary programs are often CIA case officers who have little knowledge or experience in military or paramilitary operations. During the Global War on Terror, GB has seen extensive action in Afghanistan and Iraq.

CIA Air Branch – CIA Special Activities Division (SAD)

The U.S. special operations groups and programs you may not know about (Pt. 2)

Air Branch is the aviation wing of the CIA’s Special Activities Division (SAD). Their role is to fly covert missions in support of CIA operations.

The elite pilots of SAD Air Branch, many recruited from AFSOC160th SOAR, and civilian aviation companies, are tasked with flying everything from light aircraft to large transport planes. Roles of Air Branch include:

  • covert insertion and extraction of CIA personnel
  • covert transportation of sensitive cargo
  • airborne surveillance/intelligence gathering

NSA Special Collections Service

The U.S. special operations groups and programs you may not know about (Pt. 2)

In the United States, the NSA and the CIA have created a common agency named the Special Collection Service (SCS), whose activities are highly secret and whose role is to give to Americans, in a very clandestine manner, information on new means to overcome the difficulties encountered by interception operations caused by progress in encryption for protection of world communications.

The existence of the SCS is not officially recognized. It is known only that this new federal agency brings together CIA and NSA teams’ expertise in decryption of transmissions, especially those protected against any intrusion to come from the outside.


The U.S. special operations groups and programs you may not know about (Pt. 2)
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Pararescuemen are known as PJs, short for pararescue jumpers. They hold a very unique position as USSOCOM’s (indeed, all of the DOD’s) only specific CSAR (combat search and rescue) career field, trained and equipped to conduct both conventional and unconventional recovery missions, CASEVAC and MEDEVAC.

They are not simply medics, and they are anything but unarmed. Their motto is That Others May Live, and their trauma medicine capabilities, combined with SOF battlefield skills, make them special even within the special operations community. Their missions take them on a wide array of missions, from combat rescues of downed pilots to patrolling into remote areas with Green Berets and CAG to supporting NASA missions.

A little known fact about PJs: Their officers were for years an all-enlisted force, until recently with the establishment of the combat rescue officer. Over half of all Air Force Cross recipients are pararescuemen. There are a number of PJ units in various locations (including the Alaska National Guard, who conduct more cold-weather civilian rescues annually than they ever do CSAR deployed, which is why they need specialized gear).

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USAF Combat Controllers (CCT)

The U.S. special operations groups and programs you may not know about (Pt. 2)
(U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Kimberly Gilligan)

Combat Control Technicians (CCT) of U.S. Air Force special tactics squadrons are highly proficient in the following:

  • Air-traffic control
    Combat controllers are trained to covertly insert; mark out landing zones (for helicopters), ad hoc landing strips (for fixed-wing aircraft), or parachute drop zones; and then guide air assets in and out. This is their primary role.
  • Joint terminal attack control (JTAC)
    CCTs are capable of calling in fire from aircraft such as fast-moving jets, attack helicopters, and AC-130 gunships. This is not their primary role, and is a function that may be covered by a dedicated Air Force Tactical Air Control Party (TACP) unit on the scene.

USAF CCTs typically work alongside other special operations forces and accompany them on missions. They are proficient in many methods of insertion, such as HALO parachuting and amphibious operations.

NSA Scorpion Program

The U.S. special operations groups and programs you may not know about (Pt. 2)

The Scorpion Program is the National Security Agency’s (NSA) version (albeit on a much smaller scale) of the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) Global Response Staff, or GRS program. The GRS has gained recognition recently due to the role they played in mounting a rescue operation of U.S. diplomats and staff during the Benghazi attack in 2012. The GRS mission calls for the security, sometimes undercover, of the CIA’s case officers on the ground. Five of the last 14 CIA employees killed in recent years were part of GRS.

The NSA’s much smaller footprint in combat zones overseas requires a much smaller security force, but one that is equally capable to their GRS brethren. The Scorpion Program is a force made up of security contractors, many of whom have a distinguished background in the U.S. special operations community.

Tapping of phone lines and Internet cables, manipulating cell phone towers, and establishing satellite uplinks in hostile territory are all jobs performed by NSA technicians on the ground. This is not the type of work that can be accomplished from the safety of the NSA headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland. These technicians and their security contractors operate under the cover of darkness as very small teams in some of the most dangerous enemy territory in order to emplace technology that will directly contribute to the war effort.