BBC NEWS Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific Arabic Spanish Russian Chinese Welsh

 You are in: World: Americas
Front Page 
Middle East 
South Asia 
From Our Own Correspondent 
Letter From America 
UK Politics 
Talking Point 
In Depth 

Commonwealth Games 2002

BBC Sport

BBC Weather

Saturday, 20 October, 2001, 07:29 GMT 08:29 UK
Profile: US special forces
Parachute exercise
Special forces are trained to move at short notice
The United States uses special operations forces to pave the way for larger operations - or to make them unnecessary.

Navy Seals and Army Rangers may be the best known of the US special forces, but the special operations command includes a number of other units as well.

Specialised forces capable of performing extremely difficult, complex, and politically sensitive missions on short notice, in peace and in war, anywhere in the world

A US Defense Department description of its special forces
Three branches of the US military provide troops to special operations command: the Army, Navy and Air Force.

The different services have had special operations troops for as long as the United States has been fighting wars.

But it was not until 1987 that they were brought together under one joint command by an act of Congress.

The command's brief is "to maintain specialised forces capable of performing extremely difficult, complex, and politically sensitive missions on short notice, in peace and in war, anywhere in the world".

Between diplomacy and war

Small, highly trained units can be used to prepare the ground for larger, more conventional military operations - and sometimes they can be used in lieu of full-on assaults.

Navy logo
Navy Seals are among the best known US special forces
As the US Department of Defense puts it, special operations troops "can conduct stand-alone operations in situations where a small, discrete force provides the nation's leaders with options that fall somewhere between diplomatic efforts and the use of high-profile conventional forces".

Those options might include "insurgency, counter terrorism, counter drug activities, surgical counter proliferation and counter-insurgency".

Units such as the Rangers - constituted in their present incarnation in 1973 - were deployed successfully in the Gulf War, Grenada and Panama.

Somali operation

But they also made headlines for a spectacular defeat on the streets of Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1993.

US Air Force Special Forces Globemaster transport plane
Special forces have resources for rapid deployment
The Rangers were deployed to assist the United Nations efforts to bring peace to the country, and their brief included the capture of guerrilla leader Mohammad Aidid.

They seized a number of his lieutenants, but on 3 October, militants in the streets succeeded in shooting down two Black Hawk helicopters and killing a number of US troops.

Bodies of dead soldiers were dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, and when footage of those scenes was broadcast on US television, the Clinton administration's will to keep troops in east Africa was broken.

Non-combat roles

While the Hollywood image of special forces is often of gung-ho Rambos dropping into a foreign country for snatch-and-grab or assassination exercises, real-life special operations also include the training of local forces or moving non-combatant populations out of harm's way.

In addition to combat units, psychological operations and civil operations teams fall under special operations command.

Those units' operatives might be trained in languages, negotiation tactics and cross-cultural communication.

Special forces were active in 152 countries and territories around the world in 1999 - "a figure that does not include classified missions or special access programmes", the command says.

Internet links:

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Links to more Americas stories are at the foot of the page.

E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more Americas stories