Today’s USSOCOM (United States Special Operations Command) operates in nearly 100 countries a day as Special Operations troops from all of the combined services do their part in defending U.S. interests abroad.
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, the command (SOCOM) is a relative newcomer to the U.S. military. The creation of the Special Forces branch for Army officers on April 9, 1987, was a big moment for SF and changed everything.
Special Forces was created in 1952 as former members of the OSS (Office of Strategic Services) were assigned with paratroopers and Rangers from the Army to fill out the ranks of the 10th Special Forces Group headed by Colonel Aaron Bank.
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 “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 with Special Forces A-Teams spread all over the country and found themselves a tremendously loyal ally in the Montagnard people of the mountains in Southeast Asia. By the time the war was over, SF soldiers had earned (from SF Assn) 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.
After the Vietnam war wound down, the military cut back on special operations forces and tried to build a large conventional force for a large European land battle with the Soviet Union. As a result, the Army lost numerous Special Forces groups, the 1st, 3rd, 6th and 8th Special Forces groups were deactivated. The 7th SFG narrowly escaped the ax as the Pentagon, never a fan of “specialized” or “elite” units tried to wipe the slate clean of them.
The Special Forces side of the house in the military was left with just three active duty groups. The 5th, 7th and the 10th. Ronald Reagan’s election and the debacle at Desert One in Iran would change all of that. During the attempted rescue of American hostages in Iran, an ad-hoc force of Delta Force commandos, Army Rangers and 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.
The Pentagon and Congress learned what Special Operations troops had long known and later became one of the Command’s “truths” that they live by.
Competent Special Operations 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 being a graduate 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. 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 effective enough. Many of the LTs were former NCOs who had gone thru OCS but there weren’t enough.
So the Army created the Warrant Officer Program for Special Forces troops not long after the CMF 18 was created. The LT’s slot was cut from the A-Teams and the slots would be filled by senior Special Forces NCOs who went thru the Warrant Officer course, held at Ft. Rucker and Ft. Bragg.
Finally, on April 9, 1987, the Army 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 results were a much better, more capable and more experienced core of officers and enlisted men. 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 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 (optempo) 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 they try to limit the amount of “boots on the ground” in the world’s hotspots.
But all of the SF troops come from the humble and austere beginnings of Aaron Bank and the original Special Forces troops formed on Smoke Bomb Hill in 1952.
Photo: US Army
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