Special forces and special operations forces are military units
trained to conduct special operations.
NATO defines special
operations as "military activities conducted by specially designated,
organized, trained, and equipped forces, manned with selected
personnel, using unconventional tactics, techniques, and modes of
Special forces emerged in the early 20th century, with a significant
growth in the field during the Second World War, when "every major
army involved in the fighting" created formations devoted to special
operations behind enemy lines.
Depending on the country, special forces may perform some of the
following functions: airborne operations, counter-insurgency,
counter-terrorism, foreign internal defense, covert ops, direct
action, hostage rescue, high-value targets/manhunting, intelligence
operations, mobility operations, and unconventional warfare. The term
special forces in the United States refers to the U.S. Army's forces,
while the term special operations forces (SOF) refers to all units.
In Russian-speaking countries special forces are typically called
spetsnaz, an acronym for "special purpose". Likewise, Russian speakers
refer to special forces of other nations as spetsnaz; for example,
Special Forces would be referred to as amerikanski spetsnaz in
2.1 Early period
2.2 First specialized units
2.3 World War II
Lieutenant David Stirling
220.127.116.11 the Company of Chosen Immortals
2.3.3 United States
18.104.22.168 Office of Strategic Services
22.214.171.124 Marine Raiders
126.96.36.199 United States
Special Service Force
188.8.131.52 Merrill's Marauders
Special Forces Tab
2.3.4 Axis powers
3 Modern special forces
3.1 Post-World War II
4 See also
Special forces capabilities include the following:
Reconnaissance and surveillance in hostile environments
Foreign internal defense:Training and development of other states'
military and security forces
Support to counter-insurgency through population engagement and
Sabotage and demolition
Other capabilities can include bodyguarding; waterborne operations
involving combat diving/combat swimming, maritime boarding and
amphibious missions; as well as support of air force operations.
Japanese drawing of the archetypical ninja, from a series of sketches
Hokusai manga) by Hokusai.
Special forces have played an important role throughout the history of
warfare, whenever the aim was to achieve disruption by "hit and run"
and sabotage, rather than more traditional conventional combat. Other
significant roles lay in reconnaissance, providing essential
intelligence from near or among the enemy and increasingly in
combating irregular forces, their infrastructure and activities.
Chinese strategist Jiang Ziya, in his Six Secret Teachings, described
recruiting talented and motivated men into specialized elite units
with functions such as commanding heights and making rapid
King David of ancient Israel had a special
forces platoon known as Gibborim.
Hamilcar Barca in Sicily (249 BC)
had specialized troops trained to launch several offensives per
day. In the late Roman or early Byzantine period,
Roman fleets used small, fast, camouflaged ships crewed by selected
men for scouting and commando missions. Muslim forces also had naval
special operations units, including one that used camouflaged ships to
gather intelligence and launch raids and another of soldiers who could
pass for Crusaders who would use ruses to board enemy ships and then
capture and destroy them. In Japan, ninjas were used for
reconnaissance, espionage and as assassins, bodyguards or fortress
guards, or otherwise fought alongside conventional soldiers. During
the Napoleonic wars, rifle and sapper units were formed that held
specialised roles in reconnaissance and skirmishing and were not
committed to the formal battle lines.
First specialized units
British Indian Army
British Indian Army deployed two special forces during their
border wars: the Corps of Guides formed in 1846 and the Gurkha Scouts
(a force that was formed in the 1890s and was first used as a detached
unit during the 1897–1898 Tirah Campaign).
Army scouts in South Africa (1893): Frederick Russell Burnham
Maurice Gifford (right)
Second Boer War
Second Boer War (1899–1902) the British
Army felt the
need for more specialised units became most apparent. Scouting units
such as the Lovat Scouts, a Scottish Highland regiment made up of
exceptional woodsmen outfitted in ghillie suits and well practised in
the arts of marksmanship, field craft, and military tactics filled
this role. This unit was formed in 1900 by Lord Lovat and early on
reported to an American, Major Frederick Russell Burnham, the Chief of
Scouts under Lord Roberts. After the war, Lovat's Scouts went on to
formally become the British Army's first sniper unit.
Additionally, the Bushveldt Carbineers, formed in 1901, can be seen as
an early unconventional warfare unit.
World War II
British Commandos were the prototype for the modern special
forces. Volunteers had to undergo an arduous training course.
Modern special forces emerged during the Second World War. In 1940,
British Commandos were formed following Winston Churchill's call
for "specially trained troops of the hunter class, who can develop a
reign of terror down the enemy coast." A staff officer, Lieutenant
Colonel Dudley Clarke, had already submitted such a proposal to
General Sir John Dill, the Chief of the Imperial
General Staff. Dill,
aware of Churchill's intentions, approved Clarke's proposal and on
23 June 1940, the first
Commando raid took place.
By the autumn of 1940 more than 2,000 men had volunteered and in
November 1940 these new units were organised into a
Brigade consisting of four battalions under the command of Brigadier
J. C. Haydon. The
Special Service Brigade was quickly expanded to
12 units which became known as Commandos. Each
Commando had a
lieutenant colonel as the commanding officer and numbered around 450
men (divided into 75 man troops that were further divided into 15 man
In December 1940 a Middle East
Commando depot was formed with the
responsibility of training and supplying reinforcements for the
Commando units in that theatre. In February 1942 the Commando
training depot at
Achnacarry in the
Scottish Highlands was established
Brigadier Charles Haydon. Under the command of
Charles Vaughan, the
Commando depot was responsible for training
complete units and individual replacements. The training regime
was for the time innovative and physically demanding, and far in
advance of normal British
Army training. The depot staff were all
hand picked, with the ability to outperform any of the volunteers.
British Commandos wearing the green beret and carrying the Bergen
rucksack during the Normandy landings
Training and assessment started immediately on arrival, with the
volunteers having to complete an 8-mile (13 km) march with all
their equipment from the
Spean Bridge railway station to the commando
depot. Exercises were conducted using live ammunition and
explosives to make training as realistic as possible. Physical fitness
was a prerequisite, with cross country runs and boxing matches to
improve fitness. Speed and endurance marches were conducted up and
down the nearby mountain ranges and over assault courses that included
a zip-line over Loch Arkaig, all while carrying arms and full
equipment. Training continued by day and night with river crossings,
mountain climbing, weapons training, unarmed combat, map reading, and
small boat operations on the syllabus.
Reaching a wartime strength of over 30 individual units and four
assault brigades, the Commandos served in all theatres of war from the
Arctic Circle to Europe and from the
Mediterranean and Middle East to
South-East Asia. Their operations ranged from small groups of men
landing from the sea or by parachute to a brigade of assault troops
spearheading the Allied invasions of Europe and Asia. The first modern
special forces units were established by men who had served with the
Commandos, including the Parachute Regiment,
Special Air Service, and
Special Boat Service. The Commandos were also widely imitated
elsewhere: the French Naval commandos, Dutch Korps Commandotroepen,
Belgian Paracommando Brigade,
United States Army Rangers
United States Army Rangers and United
Marine Raiders were all influenced to some degree by the
Lieutenant David Stirling
The first modern special forces unit was the SAS, formed in July 1941
from an unorthodox idea and plan by
Lieutenant David Stirling. In
June 1940 he volunteered for the
No. 8 (Guards) Commando (later named
Layforce was disbanded, Stirling remained convinced
that due to the mechanised nature of war a small team of highly
trained soldiers with the advantage of surprise could exact greater
damage to the enemy's ability to fight than an entire platoon. His
idea was for small teams of parachute trained soldiers to operate
behind enemy lines to gain intelligence, destroy enemy aircraft and
attack their supply and reinforcement routes. Following a meeting with
the C-in-C Middle East,
General Claude Auchinleck, his plan was
endorsed by the
Army High Command.
British SAS in North Africa (1943), in jeeps with mounted heavy
The force initially consisted of five officers and 60 other ranks.
Following extensive training at Kabrit camp, by the River Nile, L
Brigade undertook its first operations in the Western
Desert. Stirling's vision was eventually vindicated after a series of
successful operations. In 1942, the SAS attacked Bouerat. Transported
by the LRDG, they caused severe damage to the harbour, petrol tanks
and storage facilities. This was followed up in March by a raid on
Benghazi harbour with limited success but they did damage to 15
aircraft at Al-Berka. The
June 1942 Crete airfield raids
June 1942 Crete airfield raids at
Heraklion, Kasteli, Tympaki and Maleme significant damage was caused,
and raids at Fuka and
Mersa Matruh airfields destroyed 30
Burma Campaign, the Chindits, whose long range penetration
groups were trained to operate from bases deep behind Japanese lines,
contained commandos (King's
Regiment (Liverpool), 142 Commando
Company) and Gurkhas. Their jungle expertise, which would play an
important part in many British special forces operations post war, was
learned at a great cost in lives in the jungles of
Burma fighting the
the Company of Chosen Immortals
Immediately after the German occupation of Greece in April–May 1941,
the Greek government fled to
Egypt and started to form military units
in exile. Air Force Lt. Colonel G. Alexandris suggested the creation
Army unit along the lines of the British SAS. In August 1942 the
Company of Chosen Immortals (Greek: Λόχος Επιλέκτων
Αθανάτων) was formed under Cavalry Major Antonios Stefanakis
in Palestine, with 200 men. In 1942, the unit was renamed Sacred Band.
In close cooperation with the commander of the British SAS Regiment,
Lt. Colonel David Stirling, the company moved to the SAS base at
Egypt to begin its training in its new role. Operating under
British direction, the special forces unit fought alongside the SAS in
the Western Desert and the Aegean.
Following advice from the British, Australia began raising special
forces. The first units to be formed were independent companies,
which began training at
Wilson's Promontory in Victoria in early 1941
under the tutelage of British instructors. With an establishment of 17
officers and 256 men, the independent companies were trained as "stay
behind" forces, a role that they were later employed in against the
Japanese in the
South West Pacific Area
South West Pacific Area during 1942–43, most notably
fighting a guerilla campaign in Timor, as well as actions in New
Guinea. In all, a total of eight independent companies were raised
before they were re-organised in mid-1943 into commando squadrons and
placed under the command of the divisional cavalry regiments that were
re-designated as cavalry commando regiments. As a part of this
structure, a total of 11 commando squadrons were raised.
They continued to act independently, and were often assigned at
brigade level during the later stages of the war, taking part in the
fighting in New Guinea, Bougainville and Borneo, where they were
employed largely in long-range reconnaissance and flank protection
roles. In addition to these units, the Australians also raised the
Z Special Unit
Z Special Unit and M
M Special Unit
M Special Unit was largely employed
in an intelligence-gathering role, while Z
Special Force undertook
direct action missions. One of its most notable actions came as part
of Operation Jaywick, in which several Japanese ships were sunk in
Singapore Harbour in 1943. A second raid on
Singapore in 1944, known
as Operation Rimau, was unsuccessful.
United States Army Rangers
United States Army Rangers at D-Day, Pointe du Hoc.
Office of Strategic Services
The United States formed the
Office of Strategic Services
Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during
World War II under the
Medal of Honor
Medal of Honor recipient William J.
Donovan. This organization was the predecessor of the Central
Intelligence Agency (CIA) and was responsible for both intelligence
and special forces missions. The CIA's elite
Division is the direct descendant of the OSS.
On February 16, 1942, the
U.S. Marine Corps
U.S. Marine Corps activated a battalion of
Marines with the specific purpose of securing beach heads, and other
special operations. The battalion became the first special operations
force of the U.S. The battalion became known as
Marine Raiders due to
Admiral Chester Nimitz's request for "raiders" in the Pacific front of
In mid-1942, Major-
General Lucian Truscott of the U.S. Army, a liaison
officer with the British
General Staff submitted a proposal to General
George Marshall that an American unit be set up "along the lines of
the British Commandos", resulting in the formation of the United
Special Service Force
The United States and
Canada formed the
1st Special Service Force
1st Special Service Force as a
sabotage ski brigade for operations in Norway. Later known as the
"Devil's Brigade" (and called "The Black Devils" by mystified German
soldeiers), the First
Special Service Force was dispatched to the
occupied Aleutian Islands,
Italy and France.
Merrill's Marauders were modelled on the
Chindits and took part in
similar operations in Burma. In late November 1943, the Alamo Scouts
Reconnaissance Unit) were formed to conduct
reconnaissance and raider work in the Southwest Pacific Theater under
the personal command of then Lt.
General Walter Krueger, Commanding
General, Sixth U.S. Army. Krueger envisioned that the Alamo Scouts,
consisting of small teams of highly trained volunteers, would operate
deep behind enemy lines to provide intelligence-gathering and tactical
reconnaissance in advance of Sixth U.S.
Army landing operations.
Special Forces Tab
In 1983 the US
Army created the
Special Forces Tab. It was later
decided that personnel with at least 120 days' wartime service prior
to 1955 in certain units, including the Devil's Brigade, the Alamo
Scouts and the OSS Operational Groups, would receive the Tab for their
services in World War II, placing them all in the lineage of
today's U.S. and Canadian (via Devil's Brigade)
Axis powers did not adopt the use of special forces on the same
scale as the British.
The German army's
Brandenburger Regiment was founded as a special
forces unit used by the
Abwehr for infiltration and long distance
reconnaissance in Fall Weiss of 1939 and the
Fall Gelb and Barbarossa
campaigns of 1940 and 1941.
Otto Skorzeny (left) and the former Brandenburger Adrian von
Fölkersam (right), 1944.
Later during the war the 502nd SS Jäger Battalion, commanded by Otto
Skorzeny, sowed disorder behind the Allied lines by mis-directing
convoys away from the front lines. A handful of his men were captured
by the Americans and spread a rumor that Skorzeny was leading a raid
Paris to kill or capture
General Dwight Eisenhower. Although this
was untrue, Eisenhower was confined to his headquarters for several
days and Skorzeny was labelled "the most dangerous man in Europe".
In Italy, the
Decima Flottiglia MAS
Decima Flottiglia MAS was responsible for the sinking
and damage of considerable British tonnage in the Mediterranean. Also
there were other Italian special forces like A.D.R.A. (Arditi
Distruttori Regia Aeronautica). This regiment was used in raids on
Allied airbases and railways in North Africa in 1943. In one mission
they destroyed 25 B-17s.
Imperial Japanese Army
Imperial Japanese Army first deployed army paratroops in combat
during the Battle of Palembang, on
Sumatra in the Netherlands East
Indies, on 14 February 1942. The operation was well-planned, with 425
men of the 1st Parachute Raiding
while the paratroopers of the 2nd Parachute Raiding
the town and its important oil refinery. Paratroops were subsequently
deployed in the
Burma campaign. The 1st Glider Tank
Troop was formed
in 1943, with four
Type 95 Ha-Go
Type 95 Ha-Go light tanks. The paratroop brigades
were organized into the Teishin Shudan as the first division-level
raiding unit, at the main Japanese airborne base, Karasehara Airfield,
However, as with similar airborne units created by the Allies and
other Axis powers, the Japanese paratroops suffered from a
disproportionately high casualty rate, and the loss of men who
required such extensive and expensive training limited their
operations to only the most critical ones. Two regiments of Teishin
Shudan were formed into the 1st Raiding Group, commanded by Major
Rikichi Tsukada under the control of the Southern
Army Group, during the Philippines campaign. Although
structured as a division, its capabilities were much lower, as its six
regiments had manpower equivalent to a standard infantry battalion,
and it lacked any form of artillery, and had to rely on other units
for logistical support. Its men were no longer parachute-trained, but
relied on aircraft for transport.
Some 750 men, mainly from the 2nd Raiding Brigade, of this group were
assigned to attack American air bases on
Leyte on the night
of 6 December 1944. They were flown in Ki-57 transports, but most of
the aircraft were shot down. Some 300 commandos managed to land in the
Burauen area on Leyte. The force destroyed some planes and inflicted
numerous casualties, before they were annihilated.
During World War II, the Finnish
Army and Border Guard organized sissi
forces into a long-range reconnaissance patrol (kaukopartio) units.
These were open only to volunteers and operated far behind enemy lines
in small teams. They conducted both intelligence-gathering missions
and raids on e.g. enemy supply depots or other strategic targets. They
were generally highly effective. For example, during the Battle of
Ilomantsi, Soviet supply lines were harassed to the point that the
Soviet artillery was unable to exploit its massive numerical advantage
over Finnish artillery. Their operations were also classified as
secret because of the political sensitivity of such operations. Only
authorized military historians could publish on their operations;
individual soldiers were required to take the secrets to the grave. A
famous LRRP commander was Lauri Törni, who later joined the U.S. Army
to train U.S. personnel in special operations.
Modern special forces
See also: List of military special forces units
Post-World War II
ODA 525 team picture taken shortly before infiltration in Iraq,
Admiral William H. McRaven, formerly the ninth commanding officer of
Special Operations Command (2011-2014), described two
approaches to special forces operations in the 2012 posture statement
to the U.S. Senate Committee on Armed Services: "the direct approach
is characterized by technologically enabled small-unit precision
lethality, focused intelligence, and inter-agency cooperation
integrated on a digitally-networked battlefield", whereas the
"indirect approach includes empowering host nation forces, providing
appropriate assistance to humanitarian agencies, and engaging key
populations." Elements of national power must be deployed in
concert without over-reliance on a single capability, such as special
forces, that leaves the entire force unprepared and hollow across the
spectrum of military operations.
Throughout the latter half of the 20th century and into the 21st
century, special forces have come to higher prominence, as governments
have found objectives can sometimes be better achieved by a small team
of anonymous specialists than a larger and much more politically
controversial conventional deployment. In both
Kosovo and Afghanistan,
special forces were used to co-ordinate activities between local
guerrilla fighters and air power.
Army Ranger Wing
Army Ranger Wing operators during patrol in Chad, 2008.
Typically, guerrilla fighters would engage enemy soldiers and tanks
causing them to move, where they could be seen and attacked from the
Special forces have been used in both wartime and peacetime military
operations such as the Laotian Civil War, 1971 Indo-Pakistan War,
Vietnam War, Portuguese Colonial War, South African Border War,
The Troubles in Northern Ireland, the Jaffna University
Helidrop, the first and second Gulf Wars, Afghanistan, Croatia,
Kosovo, Bosnia, the first and second Chechen Wars, the Iranian Embassy
siege (London), the
Air France Flight 8969
Air France Flight 8969 ( Marseille), Operation
Defensive Shield, Operation Khukri, the Moscow theater hostage crisis,
Operation Orchard, the Japanese Embassy hostage crisis (Lima), in Sri
Lanka against the LTTE, and the raid on Osama Bin Laden's compound in
The U.S. invasion of
Afghanistan involved special forces from several
coalition nations, who played a major role in removing the Taliban
from power in 2001–2002.
Special forces have continued to play a
role in combating the
Taliban in subsequent operations.
As gender restrictions are being removed in parts of the world,
females are applying for special forces units selections and in 2014
Special Operation Forces established an all female unit
Jegertroppen (English: Jeger Troop).
Special operations portal
List of military special forces units
List of military diving units
Police Tactical Unit
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Air defense force
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