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Special Forces: A Guided Tour of U.S. Army Special Forces

Special Forces: A Guided Tour of U.S. Army Special Forces

by Tom Clancy

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They are sent to the world's hot spots-on covert missions fraught with danger. They are called on to perform at the peak of their physical and mental capabilities, primed for combat and surveillance, yet ready to pitch in with disaster relief operations. They are the Army's Special Forces Groups. Now follow Tom Clancy as he delves into the training and tools, missions and mindset of these elite operatives.

Special Forces includes:

  • The making of Special Forces personnel: recruitment and training
  • A rare look at actual Special Forces Group deployment Exercises
  • Tools of the trade: weapons, communications and sensor equipment, survival gear
  • Roles and missions: a mini-novel illustrates a probable scenario of Special Forces intervention
  • Exclusive photographs, illustrations and diagrams
Plus: an interview with General Hugh Shelton, USA, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (and the former Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Special Operations Command-USSOCOM)

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781101127421
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/01/2001
Series: Tom Clancy's Military Reference Series , #7
Sold by: Penguin Group
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 614,150
File size: 8 MB
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

A little more than thirty years ago Tom Clancy was a Maryland insurance broker with a passion for naval history. Years before, he had been an English major at Baltimore’s Loyola College and had always dreamed of writing a novel. His first effort, The Hunt for Red October, sold briskly as a result of rave reviews, then catapulted onto the New York Times bestseller list after President Reagan pronounced it “the perfect yarn.” From that day forward, Clancy established himself as an undisputed master at blending exceptional realism and authenticity, intricate plotting, and razor-sharp suspense. He passed away in October 2013.


Huntingtown, Maryland

Date of Birth:

April 12, 1947

Date of Death:

October 1, 2013

Place of Birth:

Baltimore, Maryland


Loyola High School in Towson, Maryland, 1965; B.A. in English, Loyola College, 1969

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Special Forces 101

Fighting soldiers from the sky, Fearless men who jump and die,
Men who mean just what they say, The brave men of the Green Beret.
Silver wings upon their chests', These are men, America's best,
One hundred men we'll test today. But only three win the Green Beret.
Trained to live off nature's land, Trained in combat, hand to hand,
Men who fight by night and day, Courage taken from the Green Beret.
Silver wings upon their chests, These are men, America's best,
Men who mean just what they say, The brave men of the Green Beret.
Back at home a young wife waits, Her Green Beret has met his fate,
He has died for those oppressed, Leaving her this last request:
Put silver wings on my son's chest, Make him one of America's best,
He'll be a man they'll test one day, Have him win the Green Beret
Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler, "Ballad of the Green Beret"

Most of us probably think of them as Green Berets—just like the song says. But some—usually their detractors—call them Snakeaters, after the fearsome reputation they gained during the Vietnam War. In their own minds, however, they are Special Forces—or officially, the U.S. Army Special Forces. The green beret they consider just a nice piece of headgear.

    The past of the Special Forces is wild and colorful, and the nicknames reflect it; but in fact, the preferred name more accurately speaks to their more sophisticated and professional present.

   Organizationally, the Special Forces is part of a relatively new community within the American military known as Special Operations Forces—SOFs. Created as a result of the Nunn-Cohen Amendment to the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Defense Reform Act, they operate under the U.S. Special Operations Command—SOCOM—which is based at MacDill Air Force Base near Tampa, Florida. SOCOM is the newest of the eight "unified" commands that make up today's U.S. military.

    Practically speaking, there are significant differences between SOCOM and the other seven unified commands. These differences will gradually become clear. Meanwhile, let's take a look at what Special Forces do.

    Or, to put this another way, why Special Forces?

    Warfare wears many faces. There is, for example, the official face, with large standing armies, rigid discipline, formal uniforms, and formalized battles (though these are always characterized by rampant chaos). The form and the discipline seem to be the best defense against the inevitable chaos.

    War also wears a less formal face. Call it shadow war, clandestine war, or sometimes guerrilla war. Throughout history, small bands of warriors have used unusual and unconventional weapons, tactics, and organizations to fight and often defeat larger and more powerful conventional forces. Such bands were a very potent weapon during our own American Revolution. And in the Vietnam War, shadow warriors proved to be an equally potent weapon against the large and inflexible American Army.

    One obvious drawback to the "normal" practice of shadow warfare is its potential for lawlessness. That is to say, shadow warriors rarely obey international laws and rules of warfare. To shadow warriors, for example, the distinction between combatants and noncombatants is usually meaningless. They rarely hesitate to attack civilian personnel and targets, and often use civilians as human shields. Shadow warfare tends to be nasty, savage, and frustrating.... Who are the bad guys?

    Warfare is hardly an inherently moral act; yet America's SOF warriors have set as their aim to come as close to the moral high ground as possible. Their goal, in other words, is not only to become the most useful, resourceful, and dangerous group on the planet, but to bring some semblance of morality and civility into the least moral and civil form of warfare ... and to teach these attitudes to those who need it most. By using their superior training and knowledge of small unit warfare, as well as by providing guidance and leadership, their hope is to instill in emerging nations that are under attack (or under threat of attack) the kinds of values and ideals civil society requires.

    This is not an easy sell. It is hard to imagine Che Guevara, Slobodan Milosevic, or the Taliban giving lessons in ethics to their irregular troops.

    Such missions—it should be added—are far from the only jobs given to the Special Forces. Because they can operate in a relatively clandestine or "discretionary" fashion, with a small on-the-ground "footprint," American SOF units are proving to be useful in a number of other areas. SOFs are precision weapons, with great sensitivity to political control, regional cultures, rules of engagement, and many other factors that frequently make them superior to conventional forces in many types of missions.

    By comparison, the commitment of a conventional military unit like an aircraft carrier battle group or an airborne brigade is a major political—and news—event.

    Unlike conventional forces, which have utility only when an international crisis is already brewing, SOF units have value across the full spectrum of conflict—from anticipation (by providing defense training and assistance) to cleanup (by helping enforce peace in a postwar situation). SOFs, in short, have value in almost any kind of situation, including open combat, where they provide the American military with deep reconnaissance and ground strike forces.

    First use of SOF units in a crisis gives politicians a chance to achieve their goals quietly, with risk to only a handful of personnel and resources. Later, if a larger and more conventional response is needed, then that option is still available. For heads of state, such options and capabilities are more precious than gold.

    With all of this in mind, it is easy to understand why SOCOM has seen its budget and responsibilities grow—even as almost every other American military community has been slashed to the bone. It also explains why units like the Special Forces have the heaviest operations tempo (OpTempo) in the U.S. military community. The Army Special Forces, for example, frequently spend more than six months out of every twelve on deployment—or "downrange," as they call it.

Special Operations Forces: What Are They?

Just what are "Special Operations Forces" and what do they do?

    The short answer is this: They are specially selected, specially trained, specially equipped, and given special missions and support.

    SOF units are a natural development of modern military doctrine, which tends to create purpose-designed forces for a wider variety of specific roles and missions. By creating superbly trained specialized units for specialized tasks, roles, and missions, particular problems that prove beyond the capabilities of general-purpose forces can be handled by smaller, more focused units.

    There is a downside, however. Elite units come with a high price tag, not only in terms of what they cost to build and maintain, but also in the effect they have on the structure and attitudes of other units. As always, those who dare to rise above the crowd and distinguish themselves will spark envy and resentment. In the highly competitive world of the military, this tendency is even more pronounced. This partly explains why SOFs are often disliked by their more conventional brothers in arms. SOF units and their men are frequently seen as "sponges," sucking up prized personnel and funds at the expense of "regular" units. There is also a very thin line between the necessary freedom to act according to the demands of the situation (that higher command may have no idea of) and the long demonstrated tendency of SF personnel to do what they please. How current SF commanders have managed to keep the independence, creativity, and resourcefulness that SOFs must have, while maintaining proper command authority, will become clearer in a later chapter.

    It is not surprising that something resembling open warfare has from time to time broken out between the SF leadership and the generals at the top of what they call "Mother Army." Even a decade after the legislation that set the SOFs free of their parent services, animosity remains. Both sides have nevertheless lowered the volume of their rhetoric, and are working hard to develop ways to merge their capabilities for their own and their country's good.

    What, then, is the makeup of an SOF unit? First of all, those on the "muscle" end of things will all be men. While this restriction is in principle based upon U.S. Code Title 10 limits upon the units women can be assigned to, the truth is that very few women will be able to stand up under the physical strains and exertions special operations require of personnel. This is not male chauvinism so much as a statement of fact. SOF combat personnel must be able to carry—on foot—heavy loads over long distances, and do it quickly.

    After the basic physical prerequisites have been satisfied, there are other, less obvious requirements:

    Specialized missions (paradoxically) require a broad range of general capabilities and skills. So, for example, the Army's Special Forces soldiers, while physically fit, tend to be more balanced (like triathletes) than specialized (like marathoners or weight lifters). Don't expect to find Rambos in the Special Forces.

    Most are senior enlisted personnel in their thirties, with at least ten years of military service. They possess above-average intelligence, have attended numerous service schools, and are voracious readers and "news junkies" (who keep one ear tuned to a radio or CNN). They tend to be mature "self-starters," with excellent problem-solving abilities and better than average people skills; all speak a minimum of one language in addition to English (many speak several); and they are optimists, who see opportunity when others are ready to quit and go home.

    Despite their inherent intelligence, few come to Special Forces with college degrees (but those without degrees usually pick them up).

    Most have been divorced (sometimes more than once). Youthful marriages don't stand up well under the strain of time spent deployed away from home (added to the normal personal problems of the young). Despite the strains, SF personnel tend to be married. In the marriages that last, you're likely to find in the mate the same qualities of independence, intelligence, and caring that you'll find in the SF guy.

    Finally, most are solitary and shy, yet most associate comfortably with each other (the traditional rewards and badges of rank and accomplishment count for very little among SFs). Unlike the rest of the (more traditional) Army, where officers and enlisted personnel are rarely seen together away from their units, SF soldiers of all ranks enjoy socializing with their own kind. In fact, they prefer it. Getting asked into this family is not easy, but once you're in you're in.

    Once men have been chosen for Special Forces, they are formed into tightly bonded teams, usually composed of a dozen or so specialists who train together intensively and for a very long time. Each team member is skilled in a variety of tasks.

    SF units are not new. Throughout history we find stories of men of extraordinary training and dedication conducting tremendously difficult feats of military arms. One only need look at the Spartans at Thermopylae, King Henry's archers at Agincourt, or Stonewall Jackson's "foot cavalry" in the Shenandoah Valley to understand what well-led elite forces can do.

    The first application of modern Special Forces principles occurred during World War I, when the German Army trained special infiltration units prior to their western offensive in the spring of 1918. After four years of stalemated trench warfare, the Kaiser's generals were seeking a way to break through the Allied lines into the clear countryside of Flanders. To accomplish this, they created specially trained Stosstruppen (shock troop) squads, designed to infiltrate the Allied trenches and open breaches for followup infantry units. The strategy worked, creating havoc in the Allied armies before the German tide was stemmed.

    Specially selected and trained units were used even more widely in the Second World War.

    The Germans under Adolf Hitler (who loved elite forces more than he loved women) created a variety of SOF units in the Wehrmacht and SS, in the Luftwaffe, and in the Kreigsmarine, and some of these proved very successful. The Koch Assault Detachment, for example, stormed the Belgium fortress of Eben-Emael in the war's early days; and Hitler's greatest commando, Otto Skorzeny, led elements of General Kurt Student's 7th Parachute Division to rescue Benito Mussolini (after his first tall from power) from captivity in a mountain fortress. By the end of the war, however, the Axis forces were so overendowed with SOF units, that they were falling over each other, fighting for resources, men, and missions.

    The Allies used SOF units in a much more balanced way, and British and American SOF units made major contributions to the eventual victory—from British commandos conducting raids along the Atlantic coastline, to American agents of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) supporting native guerrilla fighters against the Japanese in Burma.

    The OSS, led by the legendary "Wild Bill" Donovan, was a centralized agency, with not only intelligence collection and analysis bureaus, but the ability to conduct clandestine paramilitary and other special operations behind enemy lines. For these missions, Donovan recruited America's best and brightest—physically, mentally, and even spiritually—to become his foot soldiers. The best source for the best and brightest, in his view, was Ivy League colleges, and that's where he obtained them. Though he was arguably mistaken in this judgment, these recruits became not only the backbone of the OSS, but the core of the postwar intelligence community leadership.

    By contrast with the German proliferation of SOF units, Allied SOF units were generally kept small and few, thus allowing them to retain the core characteristic that made them "special" in the first place: special people. In any pool of military recruits, only a select group of personnel can thrive under the rigors and requirements needed by SOF units. These are just a tiny percentage of the total, maybe as small as one or two percent. Any attempt to force into SOF units personnel who are not endowed with the necessary requirements is a futile exercise.

    In short, "It's the people, dummy!"

    What can you do with such units? The principal SOF missions can be broken down as follows:

· Counterproliferation (CP)—It's hard to turn on the news or read a newspaper without hearing about the dangers of the uncontrolled spread of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs—nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons). SOF forces have taken an active role in limiting the acquisition of WMDs by rogue nations. Their CP missions include intelligence gathering and analysis, site surveys, and even force protection of "special" personnel (such as diplomats, scientists, etc.), diplomatic support, arms control, and enforcing import/export controls, sometimes in concert with other government and Allied agencies. They also might be tasked with going in and taking out a site where WMDs are being developed or produced.

· Combating Terrorism (CBT)—CBT continues to be a critical SOF mission, especially as the terrorist threat evolves from hijackings and hostage taking to use of truck bombs and WMDs to send political messages. The range of CBT tasks encompasses not only antiterrorism and counterterrorism missions, but also actual prosecution and resolution of terrorist situations.

· Foreign Internal Defense (FID)—In these missions, SOF forces organize, train, advise, and assist military, paramilitary, and national police forces of foreign host nations. These forces can then be used either to protect their societies or free them from subversion, lawlessness, insurgency, and terrorism.

· Special Reconnaissance (SR)—One of the traditional SOF missions—usually covert. SR teams conduct reconnaissance and surveillance activities in support of national, military, and other governmental agencies. These clandestine missions are a key SOF contribution to the national defense.

· Direct Action (DA)—Another long-time SOF mission, DA is a fancy term for a raid. Designed to be conducted as a short-duration operation, a DA mission can be tailored to seize, capture, recover, or destroy designated personnel, equipment, or facilities in a particular area.

· Psychological Operations (PSYOP)—One of the most subtle and effective of SOF missions, PSYOPs are designed to positively reinforce and tailor the attitudes of enemy combatants, noncombatants, and other individuals toward friendly forces and operations. PSYOPs are made of various mixes of news, entertainment, information, and coercion. Properly planned and executed, PSYOPs have toppled governments and won wars without a shot being fired in anger.

· Civil Affairs (CA)—CA missions are aimed at the civil population of an area where friendly military forces are going to operate. The idea is to keep the indigenous population's attitude toward our forces as positive as possible. Thus their mission is part intelligence, a bit of civil engineering, lots of public relations, and a dash of theater. CA units tend to be made up of Reservists and National Guard troops, whose skills are based upon what they do in everyday life—that is, public relations and advertising professionals, as well as civil servants and media personnel. Properly executed, CA missions act as "grease" for military units who might normally be disruptive to the civilian population in the area of operations (AOR).

· Unconventional Warfare (UW)—UW is a long-duration version of the FID mission, where SOF teams actually form part of the fighting forces engaged. A more common term for UW is guerrilla warfare.

· Information Operations (IO)—A relatively new type of SOF mission, IO missions are designed to adversely affect enemy information and information systems (computers, phones, networks, etc.). The idea is to disrupt these systems (to limit the enemy's information and his command and control) as well as to confuse, decoy, or even deceive him about our intentions or actions.

    In addition to their primary missions, U.S. SOF units also conduct a number of collateral missions, which include the following:

· Coalition Support (CS)—This is a kind of military diplomacy. CS missions are designed to help integrate the units of various partner nations into a single cohesive fighting force.

· Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR)—CSAR is a morale-critical mission designed to retrieve military personnel or downed aircrews from behind enemy lines before they can be captured by hostile forces.

· Counterdrug (CD) Operations—SOF CD missions are designed to train host nation military forces and law enforcement personnel in critical skills required to interdict drugs at the source. The skills taught include detection and monitoring, as well as interdiction of cultivation, processing, and transportation of illegal narcotics.

· Humanitarian Demining (HD) Operations—SOF teams train foreign personnel to survey, identify, neutralize, and remove mines and other unexploded ordnance so that hazards to civilians are removed and useful land is reclaimed.

· Humanitarian Assistance (HA)—SOF personnel support relief operations during natural disasters, refugee crises, or other events that disrupt mass populations. The services delivered by SOF units can range from on-site observation and assessment of the scope of the crisis, to actually directing relief efforts from military, governmental, and nongovernmental agencies.

· Peace Operations—SOF units are frequently called upon to support so-called "peace" operations. These can include monitoring of peacekeeping operations, enforcement of terms among warring factions, and other missions promoting peaceful relations in troubled regions of the world.

· Security Assistance (SA)—SA operations are congressionally mandated programs to provide training and assistance to nations obtaining and assimilating U.S. equipment, in support of U.S. national policy.

· Special Activities—The really "sticky" SOF missions—the ones you hardly ever hear about. These operations are in direct support of national policy; they are designed with "credible deniability" as a goal; and if successful, they are never exposed or acknowledged. They are usually covert and clandestine, and are sometimes just barely legal (under the U.S. Code). That means they normally require a presidential authorization (called a finding), as well as mandated congressional oversight. Examples might include clandestine reconnaissance inside a foreign country prior to an air strike, as apparently occurred in Khartoum, Sudan, prior to the August 1998 cruise missile strike. Another might be to kidnap or eliminate a key personnel target, such as a war criminal or despot leader. Such "snatches" have occurred several times in Bosnia over the last few years, though exactly which units were involved and their tasking remain highly classified.

    All of these missions add up to the day-to-day workload of America's SOF warriors around the world ... hardly the standard military missions. SOF missions are "on-the-margins"—and thus difficult and potentially controversial.

    Because SOF operations tend to be on-the-margins, there have been occasions when units have performed not only with a degree of operational freedom greater than was in the best interests of the U.S. and our allies, but even outside the international laws of warfare. With some justice, the press, politicians, and non-SOF military leaders have labeled these units "rogue"—with the added implication that the epithet applies to SOFs in general.

    The fact is that virtually every military operation has a rogue potential (all military units operate near the edge of morality, and, to repeat, warfare is itself not inherently moral). Mistakes will be made. There will be moral lapses. Some of these are tragic, obscene, and hideous. And, of course, the mistakes have to be corrected once they occur; and where appropriate, the rogues themselves have to be punished. But to blame all special forces for the mistakes of a few, much less to question the validity of the special forces mission—on that account—is simply absurd.

    SOF units are worth the price that sometimes needs to be paid.


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