U.S. Army Special Forces, affectionately referred to as the “Green Berets,” are one of America’s most elite and capable special operations units. They have been at the forefront of the fight against terrorism, but their operational relevancy goes back for decades. Special Forces have a plethora of mission sets. Some of these include Direct Action, Special Reconnaissance, Counter-terrorism, Counter-insurgency, Foreign Internal Defense, Unconventional Warfare, Security Force Assistance, Information Operations, and Peace Operations. 

History

Like many special operations forces, the Special Forces trace their lineage back to WWII. Several units laid the framework for Special Forces, among them the Alamo Scouts, Philippine Guerrillas, 1st Special Service Force, and the Operational Group’s Jedburgh Teams within the Office of Strategic Services (OSS).

The Alamo Scouts were a special reconnaissance unit, attached to the Sixth United States Army, working in the Pacific Theater. The Sixth Army commander needed a unit, consisting of small teams, that could penetrate deep behind the Japanese lines, to gather intelligence. It was an all-volunteer unit. As the war progressed, these reconnaissance units took on a more offensive role, attacking the Japanese Army and killing flag officers. They participated in general guerrilla warfare and direct action missions. One of their most notable missions was when they assisted in rescuing 513 POWs at the Cabanatuan POW Camp.

The Philippine Guerrillas were a mix of American civilians and military personnel that evaded capture when the Japanese invaded the Philippines in 1941. This group came together and conducted resistance and intelligence gathering. The U.S. military recognized the group and began officially supporting its operations.

The 1st Special Service Force was comprised of American and Canadian commandos. The unit was created to be dropped behind enemy lines and wage guerilla-like warfare on the enemy. Becoming a member of this unit was tough. The men went through rigorous training in Helena, Montana, participating in airborne training, weapons training, hand to hand combat, land warfare, snow skiing, demolition, and overall fitness. The unit served in the Aleutian Islands, Italy, including the Battle of Anzio, and France.

In WWII, the purpose of the OSS was to participate in espionage, reconnaissance, training local militants, and creating general chaos for the Germans behind their lines. One of their main secret weapons was the three-man “Jedburgh Teams,” which parachuted into occupied Europe and created havoc for the Nazi Army. While the OSS was not a military organization, it laid the framework for the CIA and special operations units such as the Navy SEALs and Special Forces. Members of the Army were assigned to the OSS and would be the ones to help with creating the Special Forces unit.

The Special Forces came into existence in June of 1952, consisting of only the 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne). Soon after, a portion of the 10th split and became the 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne). The Special Forces training school was known as the Psychological Warfare School, later becoming the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School.

Special Forces

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Soon after the creation of the Special Forces, America became locked into a conflict in Vietnam. There, Special Forces would see extensive combat. From then on, the unit has participated in just about every conflict America has been involved in. Their specialization in Unconventional Warfare, Direct Action, and Foreign Internal Defense, have made them a hot commodity in the war on terror.

The Green Beret

Often, when people reference Special Forces, they refer to them as “Green Berets.” The operators get this name because of the green beret that all Special Forces earn and wear once they graduate from training. 

Members of the Special Forces were looking for a piece of headgear that would set them apart, they finally decided on the green beret in 1954. Since the beret was not officially a part of the uniform, there was a push back and the Special Forces members were told by the commander of Fort Bragg that they were not allowed to wear the berets. They did anyway. The commander’s decision was reversed in 1961 and the green beret was made an official part of the uniform. President Kennedy ordered that the “Green Beret” only be worn by Special Forces soldiers. He said the beret was “a symbol of excellence, a badge of courage, a mark of distinction in the fight for freedom.”

A 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne) Green Beret rappels with his weapon from a 60-foot tower at Eglin Air Force Base during the 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne) open house, Oct. 14. The open house for the new cantonment site offered the community a rare opportunity to visit the compound and see the different equipment Green Berets use. (Photo by Pfc. Steven Young)

Special Forces Training

Special Forces training is extensive, demanding, and physically and mentally challenging. The training pipeline can be 53 to 95 weeks long. The length of training is determined by the specific Military Occupation Specialty (MOS) that a soldier chooses to pursue within the Special Forces community. 

Special Forces pull from three different groups: civilians per the 18X program, enlisted soldiers that are active duty or National Guard, and Army officers of the rank of Captain or Captain-Promotable. Each group of candidates must meet different requirements to be approved for entry into Special Forces training:

Civilian:

  • Must be a U.S. citizen
  • Must be at least 20 years old by ship date to Infantry One Station Unit Training (OSUT) and not have reached 32nd birthday prior to the same ship date
  • Must qualify for airborne training
  • Must meet the Physical Fitness Assessment (PFA) minimum standard of 49 pushups, 59 sit-ups, 15:12 (two-mile run), six pull-ups
  • Must be eligible for a Secret security clearance

Enlisted soldier (Active Duty / National Guard):

  • Must have a minimum rank of E-3 and must be 20 years old at the start of Special Forces Assessment and Selection (SFAS) with a waiver
  • Must not be older than 36 years (waiverable) for SFAS attendance
  • Must be eligible for a Secret security clearance
  • Must be airborne qualified or volunteer for airborne training
  • Must have no more than 14 years time in service (E-3 to E-6)
  • Must have no more than 12 years time in service and nine months time-in-grade when applying for the SFAS course (E-7)
  • Must be either Airborne or Ranger qualified (E-7)
  • Must have an ASVAB General Technical (GT) score of 110 (105 with a waiver) or a minimum Combat (CO) score of 105 (waiverable)
  • Must pass a Special Forces physical in accordance with AR 40-501
  • Must be able to reclassify from his/her current MOS or branch
  • Must have a minimum of 36 months remaining time in service at the time he/she graduates SFQC
  • Must not have 30 days or more lost time under USC 972 within his/her current or preceding enlistments.

Officers:

5th Special Forces Group, Activated 21 Sep 1961, “The Legion”

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  • Must be a first lieutenant or captain to attend Special Forces Assessment and Selection (SFAS). First lieutenants must be promotable to captain before attending the Special Forces Qualification Course (SFQC).
  • Must have a security clearance and meet eligibility criteria for a top-secret clearance
  • Must not have disciplinary information on file
  • Must have a Defense Language Aptitude Battery (DLAB) score of 85 or higher

Special Forces candidates have the ability to choose which MOS to pursue within the pipeline, These are their options:

  • 18B – Special Forces Weapons Sergeant
  • 18C – Special Forces Engineer Sergeant
  • 18D – Special Forces Medical Sergeant
  • 18E – Special Forces Communications Sergeant
  • 18F – Special Forces Intelligence Sergeant
  • 18Z – Special Forces Operations Sergeant

Special Forces Preparation Course 

The first step in becoming a Green Beret is attending the Special Forces Preparation Course (SFPC). The course is six weeks long and designed to prepare students for the rigors and challenges of the Special Forces Assessment and Selection (SFAS). The course concentrates on physical conditioning but also spends time on land navigation proficiency which is an integral part of a Special Forces soldier’s mission. 

Special Forces Assessment and Selection

After completion of SFPC, students attend SFAS. SFAS is a three-week course designed to weed out the weak: It provides a format wherein students can be assessed to determine if they have what it takes to make it through the Special Forces Qualification Course (SFQC) and to go on to be successful Special Forces soldiers. This course is physically punishing, but also mentally challenging. 

Special Forces Qualification Course

After being selected to advance from SFAS, candidates begin SFQC, better known as the “Q Course.” The Q Course is broken down into six major sections:

  • Special Forces Orientation Course (one week)
  • MOS Training / SERE School (Varies, dependent on MOS)
  • Tactical Skills (seven weeks)
  • Collective Training, also known as Robin Sage (four weeks)
  • Regimental First Formation
  • Language and Culture (25 weeks)

Robin Sage

Robin Sage is the culmination of Q Course training. Students are placed in an arena spanning approximately 15 North Carolina counties. There, they are forced to use their training and prove their ability to succeed in an unconventional warfare environment. They are faced with challenges as a team and also individually. They have to navigate through a politically unstable country overcome with armed opposition. The training block involves hundreds of role players, including military personnel, law enforcement, and civilian volunteers.

After completion of Robin Sage, students go through a ceremony and are given the right to wear the Green Beret and the Special Forces tab on their uniform. Of course, the work isn’t over. These new Green Berets have to go through another six months of language and culture training.

Once Green Berets arrive at their units, they are immersed in continuous training. They have the opportunity to attend advanced schools such as Military Freefall, the Combat Diver Qualification Course, and the Special Forces Sniper Course.

Unit Composition

A front-line, combat Special Forces unit is called a Special Forces Operational Detachment-A, better known as ODA. ODAs are comprised of 12 team members, usually consisting of an 18A (commanding officer), 180A (Warrant Officer), 18Z (Team Sergeant), 18F (Intelligence Sergeant), two 18Ds (Medical Sergeants), two 18Bs (Weapons Sergeants), and two 18Es (Communications Sergeants). By having 12 members and two soldiers for several of the roles, the team is able to split into two splinter teams when needed. This composition also allows for proper mentoring, since often, these detachments have senior and junior members for each role; lastly, it allows for redundancy. 

There are six detachments assigned to each Special Forces Company. There are three companies per battalion, and four battalions per Special Forces Group. Currently, there are seven Special Forces Groups, five active duty, and two National Guard. These are:

  • 1st Special Forces Group – Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington
  • 3rd Special Forces Group – Fort Bragg, North Carolina
  • 5th Special Forces Group – Fort Campbell, Kentucky
  • 7th Special Forces Group – Eglin Air Force Base, Florida
  • 10th Special Forces Group – Fort Carson, Colorado
  • 19th Special Forces Group (National Guard) – Draper, Utah
  • 20th Special Forces Group (National Guard) – Birmingham, Alabama
Special Forces Soldiers from the U.S. Army’s 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) exfiltrate a Counter Improvised Explosive Device lane in a via MRZR off-road utility vehicle at Panzer Local Training area near Stuttgart, Germany (June. 11, 2020). The Counter Improvised Explosive Device training was a five-day course with both day and nighttime lanes featuring various types of simulated explosives and scenarios.

Special Forces Equipment

Special Forces have a plethora of weapons and equipment at their disposal. Green Berets are trained in and expected to fight in just about any environment that this world has to offer. Therefore, they require tough and versatile equipment to help them do their job. 

Long Guns

The M4A1 is a tried and true weapon that has served as the workhorse for the Special Forces. This weapon has been used for years by the Green Berets and the U.S. military as a whole. What sets the Special Forces’ rifles apart is their modifications, including suppressors, red-dot scopes, and custom-made rifle uppers.

A second rifle that has gained traction within Special Forces and the special operations community, in general, is the MK17 SCAR. The MK17 shoots a 7.62 mm x 45 mm round and has a free-floating barrel. It’s a great rifle for engaging longer distance targets compared to the M4A1.

Sidearms

As a sidearm, Green Berets carry the Glock 19. The Glock 19 shoots a 9mm round and has a magazine capacity of 15 rounds. It’s an ideal choice for Special Forces, allowing for concealment when necessary. It’s easy to carry in a holster due to its compact profile and light weight.

A U.S. Army Special Forces Soldier, assigned to 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne), at a stress shoot range at Ft. Carson, Colorado, Mar. 3, 2016. The stress shoot was designed to test these soldiers for actions seen in combat operations. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Connor Mendez)

Other Weapons Systems

Special Forces are outfitted with machine guns and an assortment of sniper rifles. From the heavy weapons category, they use the M249 Light Machine Gun, a powerful and functional tool. It shoots a 5.56 mm round and can be belt- or magazine-fed. Its larger counterpart, the M240, shoots a 7.62 mm round and is an extremely lethal weapon. Its drawback is its size and weight. M240s will often be found mounted on the trucks and other Ground Mobility Vehicles (GMV). The Green Beret’s’ sniper rifle inventory is impressive. A few to note is the infamous M107 Long Range Sniper Rifle, which shoots a .50 caliber round and is classified as an “anti-material” weapon. A few other common rifles are the MK 11, MK 12, the M 24, and the M110.

Green Berets like to make things go boom, which is why they have a plethora of grenade launchers and missile systems at their disposal. Among them are the infamous M79 grenade launcher and the M203 which attaches to the barrel of an M4. The MK 19 grenade launcher, a large, weapon-mounted system is another mainstay in their arsenal. To round it out, Special Forces carry the M72 Light Anti-Tank (LAW) weapon and FGM-148 Javelin to take out larger targets and armor.

In order to accomplish operations and do their job effectively, Special Forces are outfitted with some very expensive night vision equipment, kits, and ballistic gear. Nowadays, the night vision equipment is cutting-edge, allowing for a clearer view while maintaining functionality even in very low ambient light conditions.

Land vehicles are a mainstay in the Special Forces arsenal and a requirement in order to complete their missions. The most common vehicle that has seen extensive action over the past 20 years is the Ground Mobility Vehicle (GMV-S) Humvee. More recently, they have been utilizing a variant of the Army’s General Dynamics GMV. These performance GMVs can be upgraded with additional armor, based on mission requirements.

Green Berets assigned to 3rd Special Group (Airborne) prepare an exfiltration on August 15, 2019, near Hurlburt Field, FL. The exercise was a part of a 3rd SFG (A) training rotation which encompasses various tactical techniques and procedures, including call for fire, full mission profiles, and combat diver requalification. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Peter Seidler)

Special Forces High-Profile Operations

It was in Vietnam that the Special Forces built their legacy and laid the framework for their mission set. Starting in 1957, Members of the 1st Special Forces Groups began arriving in Vietnam to “advise” and help train the South Vietnamese. As the war gained momentum, Green Berets continued to train the South Vietnamese in counter-guerilla operations. That concept became what we know today as Foreign Internal Defense (FID).

Throughout the Vietnam war, the 5th Special Forces Group did most of the heavy lifting. It participated in many covert missions with Military Assistance Command Vietnam Studies and Operations Group (MACV-SOG). Many of the missions involved going into Laos and Cambodia. The death rate was high for these types of missions. The Green Berets participated in many reconnaissance and direct action missions, along with training local fighters and other military units. By the war’s end, 16 Medals of Honor and a Presidential Unit Citation would be awarded to the 5th Group.

After the attacks of September 11, 2001, America wanted to strike back quickly. The solution was Special Forces. Task Force Dagger and Task Force K-Bar were created in October 2001. Task Force Dagger was comprised of ODAs from the 5th Special Forces Group. TF Dagger’s role was to covertly insert ODA units into northern Afghanistan, linking up with the Northern Alliance. TF K-Bar was a mix of ODAs and SEAL Teams. Their role was to conduct special reconnaissance and site-exploitation. Once inserted, these units began wreaking havoc on the enemy, calling in airstrikes, and waging war against the Taliban and al-Qaeda with their Northern Alliance counterparts.

Special Forces were also the first units to enter Iraq in 2003 if we exclude JSOC and CIA operatives. ODA units in Western Iraq were tasked with securing Iraqi missile launch sites and providing intelligence for the main conventional force that was coming. Members of the 10th Special Forces Group were inserted into northern Iraq by helicopter. 10th Group members engaged in Operation Viking Hammer, where they killed 300 terrorists and discovered chemical weapons material left by al-Qaeda.

Special Forces units continue to deploy to Iraq and Afghanistan on a regular rotation. In addition, they deploy throughout the rest of the world, meeting their assigned roles and responsibilities. The demand for FID and Unconventional Warfare missions is not going away. The Special Forces are a key component in projecting the United States’ dominance and bringing the fight to the enemy.