Above and Beyond: What to Know About Special Operations Forces and Special Forces

By Sandi Gohn

Quiet professionals. The elite. The best of the best. The U.S. Special Operations Forces are known by many names – and for a very good reason.

These roughly 70,000 service members are the epitome of what it means to be a fighter.

Here are just a few things to know about Special Operations Forces:

What do Special Operations Forces do?

Special Operations Forces (SOF) service members are involved in a wide variety of missions ranging from direct combat and counterterrorism to hostage rescue, humanitarian assistance and much more.

Headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base, Florida, U.S. Special Operations Command (USSCOM) oversees the operations of this highly skilled – and often secretive – group of military members serving around the world.

What are typical Special Operations Forces service members like?

As some of the military’s most mentally and physically skilled operators, these service members are highly intelligent and capable individuals. According to USSCOM, the average Special Operations Forces service member is an experienced fighter in their late twenties with a spouse and children. They are also likely to have a college degree, have received immense cultural and language training, have attended numerous advanced tactical schools and enjoy problem solving games, like chess.

Photo credit U.S. Air Force/Staff. Sgt Ridge Shan

Air Force Special Operations Forces service members conduct operations.

Is Special Operations the same as Special Forces?

Despite common vernacular, these two terms are not interchangeable. Special Operations Forces include all units that fall under the U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) - which includes Special Forces, also known as the Army’s Green Berets.

Can women serve in Special Operations Forces?

Yes! As of 2015, all military positions, including combat and special operations positions, were opened to qualified female service members.

Notably, in 2020, a woman graduated from the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School, becoming the first official female Green Beret. That same year, some of the first women began training for Air Force Special Operations positions as well. In 2021, a trailblazing woman graduated from the Navy’s special warfare combatant-craft crewmen, or SWCC, training course, making history.

How many Special Operations Forces units are there?

Between the six branches of the military, there are many Special Operations Forces career fields that a service member can pursue depending on their skillset, interests and achievements.

Here is a look at just a handful of the different USSCOM units:

Army Special Forces, i.e., Green Berets

Army unconventional warfare units, like the modern-day Green Berets, have existed since World War II. However, it wasn’t until the Korean War that the first official Army Special Forces unit, the 10th Special Forces Group, was established in 1952. Two years later in 1954, the unit, and all Army Special Forces soldiers thereafter, began wearing the iconic green beret that distinguishes these elite fighters – hence why Army Special Forces soldiers are often called “Green Berets.” Special Forces are also distinguishable by the “Special Forces” long tab on their camouflage uniforms.

Photo credit U.S. Army/Kenneth G. Takada

Green Berets jump out of a CH-47 Chinook on September 10, 2020.

True to the Special Forces motto “De Oppresso Liber”, which is Latin for “To Free the Oppressed,” Green Beret teams – which are comprised of 12 members and are called Operational Detachment Alphas (ODA), or A-Teams – are tasked with some of the Army’s most dangerous, secretive and sensitive unconventional warfare missions.

Army Rangers

Army Rangers are part of the 75th Ranger Regiment, the Army’s top large-scale Special Operations Force, specializes in joint raids and forcible entry operations. Although the unit traces its history back to the colonial era, the modern 75th Ranger Regiment wasn’t officially founded until October 3, 1984.

Photo credit U.S. Army/Sgt. Jaerett Engeseth

U.S. special operations service members conduct combat operations in support of Operation Resolute Support in Southeast Afghanistan in May 2019.

Since then, Army Rangers have exemplified their motto “Rangers Lead the Way,” and have fought in every major U.S. conflict. Notably, Rangers have been continually deployed since October 2001.

Navy SEALs are a multipurpose, marine combat force prepared to conduct special missions in all environments, even underwater. Navy SEAL - SEAL stands for sea, air and land - teams trace their history back to the WWII era, but the unit was officially established on January 1, 1962. The Navy SEALs have an official ethos, which references the symbolism behind a SEAL team member’s “trident” – the coveted Special Warfare Insignia, also called the “Budweiser,” bestowed on Navy SEALs.

Photo credit U.S. Navy/Petty Officer 1st Class Abe McNatt

U.S. Navy SEAL candidates participate in Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) training in 2018.

Currently, there are roughly 2,500 active-duty SEALs, which make up less than 1% of all Navy personnel. Navy SEAL training, like other Special Operations Forces training, is not for the faint of heart. In fact, roughly 75% of people who start the SEAL BUD/S training course don’t complete it. The grueling training often takes a year to complete and is followed by an additional 18 months of courses before a SEAL member is considered ready to deploy.

Navy SWCCs, or special warfare combatant-craft crewmen, might be a lesser-known Special Operations unit, but according to the Navy that’s intentional, given how sensitive and important their missions are. SWCCs - sometimes called the “Boat Guys” - are highly trained in boat and maritime operations in river and coastline settings.

While SWCCs, whose motto is “On Time, On Target, Never Quit,” are often tasked with inserting and extracting Navy SEALs from classified locations, they also conduct their own important maritime missions. Similar to Navy SEALs, SWCCs training is tough – 37 grueling weeks-tough – and roughly 65% of those who start the training do not complete it.

Marine Raiders

The Marine Raider Regiment traces its history back to WWII – although some would argue even earlier – but it wasn’t until 2006 that the Marine component (MARSOC) of U.S. Special Operations Command was formally activated. MARSOC units, which were re-designated as “Marine Raiders” in 2015, are highly skilled expeditionary forces trained to thrive in the most difficult environments.

Photo credit DVIDS/Sr. Airman Joseph Pick

A U.S. Marine Corps Raider participates in training on May 30, 2018.

The roughly 1,000 Marine Raiders’ missions often center around counterterrorism, special reconnaissance and supporting security forces of allied nations. Marine Raiders typically operate in 14-person teams, with each member playing a special, crucial role in mission success.

Air Force Pararescuemen, i.e., PJs

As highly trained rescue and recovery specialists who are also EMTs, Air Force Special Operations Command Pararescuemen, known as “PJs,” are capable of saving people from just about any situation. True to their motto “That Others May Live,” PJs must complete some of the toughest training in the U.S. military and are skilled in diving, emergency medicine, freefall skydiving and combat.

These special tactics Air Force members are capable of conducting missions alongside other Special Operations Forces, while also being able to provide lifesaving medial and rescue support. PJs, whose lineage dates back to WWII as well, can be distinguished in a crowd by their maroon berets. The current Senior Enlisted Advisor to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (SEAC) Ramón “CZ” Colón-López is a PJ.

Air Force Combat Controllers

Air Force Combat Controllers might just be the Air Force’s best multi-taskers and have a big mission perfectly captured by their motto: “First There.” As special tactics Air Force members, Combat Controllers are trained to covertly deploy behind enemy lines and establish an assault zone (a controlled area from which to conduct operations) – all while conducting air traffic control, first support, direct action and much more.

Similar to PJs, Combat Controllers must complete a grueling training regimen in which they become proficient in SCUBA, parachuting and snowmobiling. They are often deployed as a “one-man attachment to other Special Forces teams” and are FAA-certified air traffic controllers.

Coast Guard Maritime Security Response Teams

An MSRT team during a May 4, 2015 demonstration. | Photo credit U.S. Coast Guard/Petty Officer 3rd Class David Weydert

While Coast Guard Maritime Security Response Teams, or MSRTs, aren’t technically part of USSCOM (remember, the Coast Guard is part of the Department of Homeland Security, not the Department of Defense), they are elite fighters and are most certainly part of the nation’s “best of the best” fighting force.

This tactical team is trained in maritime security, law enforcement, environmental hazard response and more.

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