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Special Operations


DND photo DH06-012K

A Look Behind The Black Curtains: Understanding The Core Missions Of Special Operations Forces

by Major Tony Balasevicius

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In the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 (9/11) terrorist attack against the United States, Special Operation Forces (SOF) organizations began to play increasingly important roles in military operations throughout the world. More importantly, as in the case with Afghanistan, they have proven adaptable to changing circumstances. For example, despite having as few as 300 soldiers on the ground, SOF teams were able to rally unorganized and rival anti-Taliban opposition groups, and to focus the efforts of the Northern Alliance, which eventually defeated the regional Taliban forces. The contribution of SOF proved extremely effective, as Kandahar fell only 49 days after these forces became involved directly in operations.1

It is the efficiency in economy of force operations against an asymmetric enemy that is propelling SOF into the forefront of current military activities. This is particularly evident in the United States, where “the Administration has given US SOF forces greater responsibility for the planning and directing of worldwide counterterrorism operations”.2 In fact, since 9/11, SOF have played key roles in Afghanistan, in Iraq and in the Philippines.3 This trend is not surprising to those who understand the nature of these organizations and the quality of soldiers they possess. SOF warriors operate comfortably in ambiguous situations, and they possess the skills to complete complex missions successfully. These qualities, combined with outstanding individual initiative, have allowed these warriors to transform specialist-training competencies into relevant skill sets that thus far have proven sufficiently adaptive to meet the changing threats and challenges of the 21st Century. This flexibility is the direct result of the quality of soldiers the SOF selects, but it also derives from the employment concept, the organization, and the comprehensive training programs that have been developed by these organizations to meet specific core missions.


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SAS members in Italy.

Core Missions

The core missions of Special Operations Forces evolved from the operational circumstances that existed during the first half of the Second World War, when dedicated units were created to carry out specific missions. As these missions were very specialized, they exerted a significant influence upon the organization, training and equipment of each unit. Thus, the first step in understanding SOF is to comprehend the core missions they undertake. This article will examine the evolution of these forces during and immediately following the Second World War. Specifically, it will identify the SOF’s core missions and examine the creation and early development of pioneering units. Finally, as the training of these units is conducted by necessity, and is closely linked to mission requirements, a general examination of this element will also be covered.

As in any doctrinal construct, nations characterize special operations in different ways. However, for our purposes, Special Operations (SO) will be defined in accordance with US Joint Special Operations doctrine. Accordingly, SOF operations are:

Operations conducted in hostile, denied, or politically sensitive environments to achieve military, diplomatic, informational, and/or economic objectives employing military capabilities for which there is no broad conventional force requirement. These operations often require covert, clandestine, or low- visibility capabilities. SO are applicable across the range of military operations. They can be conducted independently or in conjunction with operations of conventional forces or other government agencies and may include operations by, with or through indigenous or surrogate forces. SO differ from conventional operations in degree of physical and political risk, operational techniques, mode of employment, independence from friendly support, and dependence on detailed operational intelligence and indigenous assets.4

This broad concept of employment has been developed and refined to include what is commonly referred to as primary tasks and collateral activities. Primary tasks include Counterproliferation (CP), Counter Terrorism (CT), Foreign Internal Defence (FID), Special Reconnaissance/Surveillance (SR), Direct Action (DA), Psychological Operations (PSYOP), Civil Affairs (CA), Unconventional Warfare (UW) and Information Operations (IO). In addition to these nine primary tasks, there are a number of collateral activities that have been adopted by SOF organizations, based upon their ability to adapt existing skill sets to meet the specific needs of changing strategic requirements. Collateral activities include Coalition Support, Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR), Counter Drug (CD) Activities, Humanitarian Demining (HD), Humanitarian Assistance (HA), Security Assistance (SA) and other special activities.5

Unfortunately, not all these tasks have resulted from specific operational circumstances where SOF would have been the best choice available. According to Thomas K. Adams, author of US Special Operations Forces in Action: The Challenge of Unconventional Warfare, “This list [of primary and collateral tasks] is a hodgepodge of conventional, unconventional and just plain odd missions, some of which are actually subsets of others. The list results in part from a general willingness at the command levels of the SOF community to accept almost any mission as one in which SOF can succeed.”6 In fact, these tasks have been undertaken by SOF, based upon their ability to carry out three principal or core missions, including Direct Action (DA), Special Reconnaissance/ Surveillance (SR) and Unconventional Warfare (UW).7 These core missions can be broken down further to include large-scale and small-scale Direct Action operations, and Unconventional Warfare operations that employ forces ranging from small liaison teams to large Operational Groups (OGs).8 To understand the concept of core missions better, let us look at each in more detail.


Badge of the British Special Air Service Regiment.


The first of the core missions to be developed within the context of modern SOF activities was Direct Action, which owes its genesis to the British Commandos, conceived as “mobile and hard-hitting light troops that could raid or operate behind an enemy’s lines.”9 During the Second World War, some 30 Commandos (as the tactical units were called) were formed, and all were trained and equipped to conduct offensive operations against German defences garrisoned along the coast of Occupied Europe. These operations were classic DA missions, consisting of “short-duration strikes and other offensive actions to seize, destroy, capture, recover, or inflict damage on designated personnel or materiel.”10 The training programs for these units emphasized the development of the individual soldier, and they were extremely demanding and realistic.11

Typically, early commando training was haphazard, as few commanders possessed specific knowledge of what was needed to prepare soldiers – other than providing them with a high level of individual soldiering skills, with an emphasis upon physical fitness.12 However, as both officers and NCOs gained experience, more formal courses were developed at locations such as the All Forces Special Training Centre in Lochailort, Scotland, and the amphibious training centre at Inveraray.13

By 1942, a Commando Training Centre had been established at Achnacarry Castle in Scotland, which allowed training to become standandized14 while emphasizing “physical fitness, weapons handling [including both friendly and enemy weapons], demolitions, orienteering, close quarter combat, silent killing, signalling, survival skills, amphibious and cliff assault, and the operation of vehicles.”15 Not surprisingly, a number of SOF traditions began with the Commandos, and these reappear in various forms of SOF training to this day. They include long days under realistic conditions with officers and men working together, the maintenance of high standards, use of the “buddy system,” and common instruction on all units’ weapons and equipment, to name but a few.

The intense preparation produced an excellent product that quickly weeded out the weaker candidates. This was to prove significant as the war progressed, since other British SOF units were established, and many of these organizations preferred to recruit trained Commandos. Additionally, other Allied units used variations of the Commando program for their own training. In fact, British experience with respect to large-scale DA missions was so influential among the Allies that the Americans decided to have the first group of their Rangers attend the British Commando course at Achnacarry Castle.16

The Commandos and Rangers were not the only large-scale DA organizations to emerge during the Second World War. Another Allied unit formed on the Commando model was the First Special Service Force (FSSF), which was a combined American and Canadian brigade. Like the Commandos, their role was to conduct large-scale DA missions in Norway, and, to do so, they were organized and trained “with a view to developing all units and sub-units from the section to the regiment into highly mobile organizations prepared to accomplish successfully the following types of combat missions:

  1. Operate against vital military or industrial targets.

  2. Operate as an overland raiding force infiltrating, penetrating or encircling deep into enemy territory to destroy important targets.

  3. Operate as a spearhead in forcing strongly fortified localities with the expectation of early support from friendly troops.

  4. Operate in cold or mountainous regions to accomplish any or all of the possible missions.17

In preparation for their initial deployment, the FSSF underwent an intensive training period that was similar in nature to, but much longer than, that experienced by the Commandos. However, emphasis was also placed upon physical fitness, weapons training, and the use of demolitions. Mission requirements also necessitated training on infiltration capabilities, including parachuting, tactical ground mobility and operations in extreme winter environments.18 Unfortunately, by the time the FSSF was ready to be used, the operational circumstances had changed significantly, and the unit was forced to undergo retraining prior to their first employment. This was not to parachute into Norway, but rather, to lead the amphibious assault on Kiska Island during the Aleutians campaign.19


Badge of the First Special Service Forces.

The main reason the FSSF had to undergo retraining was that, by 1942, the need for large-scale DA missions was diminishing. Units such as the FSSF and the Commandos were originally raised as highly trained raiders possessing a full range of skills. But over the course of the war, their role continued to narrow, so that by the time of Operation Overlord in 1944, they had become little more than experts in amphibious assault.20 This situation was due to a number of factors, including limitations to naval lift capabilities, and the fact that the Allies had discovered that organizing even a small force required a great amount of specialized shipping. Additionally, these light forces needed a significant amount of naval gunfire and air support to have any chance of success.21 More importantly, by 1943, the Allies were on the offensive, and the premise of keeping an offensive mindset while being on the defensive was no longer applicable.

In the end, limited employment opportunities, coupled with the high levels of support and protection that was needed to employ these light units, forced the large-scale DA capability to move away from the realm of SOF and into the sphere of highly trained, specialist infantry, where the marines, airborne and other such light forces also operate.


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Members of the Long Range Desert Group, North Africa, 1942.

Evolutionary Steps

Fortunately, even before large-scale DA missions began to diminish as an SOF capability, Special Operations had begun to evolve towards employing small teams that were trained to carry out a broader range of tasks, including small-scale DA and reconnaissance/ surveillance missions.22 Two units, the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) and the Special Air Service (SAS), played significant roles in the development of these important SOF concepts.

The SAS was created in mid-July 1941 by Lieutenant-Colonel Sir David Stirling, a Scottish laird, to carry out small-scale DA missions behind the German lines in North Africa.23 While serving as a member of 8 Commando, Stirling had developed reservations about the large-scale British commando operations that were being undertaken against enemy positions along the North African coast. As time went on, these operations were proving to be increasingly ineffective, and Stirling developed the idea of using a large number of smaller-sized teams [200 men split into five-man squads] to carry out direct action missions over a much wider area. He believed that hitting the enemy at many points with smaller forces would be a more efficient utilization of scarce resources, and would provide a better chance for success.24 Stirling thought that if a small force could overcome the difficulties of moving over the immense desert areas of North Africa, it would be possible to infiltrate enemy lines. He produced a paper, entitled ‘A Special Service Unit’, detailing his thoughts on the potential for small teams of Special Forces to attack enemy airfields, transport and fuel parks.25 Stirling hypothesized that by using multiple insertion techniques, fewer troops and less equipment would be needed, and the resulting element of surprise could be exploited. However, Stirling also knew there were a number of challenges, and that the key to success in mounting such operations would be based upon mobility, and the ability to inflict significant damage to the enemy quickly enough to permit an organized withdrawal. Ultimately, Stirling was able to convince the chain of command of this logic, and the SAS was born.26

New Players

The majority of the original recruits for this force were selected from former members of 8 Commando, and since their primary role was to be DA missions, the commando skills they possessed provided a good foundation to develop more advanced capabilities. The unit’s initial training improved on these skills, but also focused on the specific requirements needed to move and operate in the harsh environment of the desert.27 To this end, emphasis was placed on “survival training, weapons refresher, parachuting, desert navigation, weapon handling, and demolitions and infiltration techniques”.28 According to historian Philip Warner, author of The Secret Forces of World War II, the training “was harder than anything the commandos had previously experienced”.29 Importance was also placed on self-reliance. As Warner explained:

Self-reliance meant the development of the ability to work alone or in very small – probably four-man – groups. Exceptional powers of endurance were expected, and produced. Men had to be prepared to walk over a hundred miles or more of desert which would be baking hot by day and freezing cold by night. They had to learn to move around in this inhospitable environment without being seen and without much food or water.30 ...From the outset some extraordinary feats of endurance were recorded. Conditions in which previously men had got lost, gone mad, or despaired and died, had to be regarded as routine. Once on an airfield it would not be sufficient to blow up just one aircraft. The men were required to approach stealthily by night, kill any sentries quietly in the commando way, and put charges on all the parked aircraft, so that when one went off, the rest would also blow up.31

In the end, the SAS proved the value of multiple insertion techniques and validated the concept of small-scale DA operations by Special Operation Forces. In fact, they had conducted very successful assaults on enemy airfields and supply depots, and it is estimated that the unit destroyed close to 300 enemy aircraft during their tour in North Africa. A key lesson drawn from this experience was the disruption that could be caused in the enemy’s rear area for a relatively small investment of manpower and equipment. More importantly, these operations did not adversely affect those being conducted by conventional forces.32 Notwithstanding their impressive operational success during the desert campaign, the reality was that the SAS did little more than modify the SOF’s first core mission of Direct Action (DA). The development of the SOF’s second core mission, Special Reconnaissance/Surveillance (SR), also evolved from the British North African experience, pioneered by a different unit known as the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG).

The main role of the LRDG was to deploy deep behind enemy lines for extended periods of time, reporting on enemy movements and activities.33 This concept had its genesis in the early 1930s, when Lieutenant Fox Davies of the Durham Light Infantry wrote to General Archibald Percival Viscount Wavell, suggesting the development of a ‘guerrilla’ type organization that could operate behind enemy lines.34 Wavell felt that the concept of ‘motorized guerrillas’ could work, and, in 1936, he had Fox Davies carry out patrols deep behind enemy lines to test the idea. The exercise proved to be a success. However, at the time, little came of it, and the idea was soon forgotten.35 During the same period, a group of British explorers, led by Major Ralph Alger Bagnold, was sending expeditions into the desert to study its characteristics. In the process they gained valuable experience surviving and navigating through the vast distances, and this expertise would prove invaluable to the British during the Second World War.


PA 142288

A stellar performer of the First Special Service Force (FSSF), native Canadian soldier Sergeant Tommy Prince (right) just after receiving the Military Medal for gallantry from King George VI in February 1945. Prince also received the US Silver Star.

In 1940, Bagnold was on his way to East Africa when the ship in which he was travelling was involved in a collision, and it was forced to dock in Alexandria for repairs. General Wavell heard of Bagnold’s arrival and quickly had him posted to his staff. Bagnold then submitted two proposals for the creation of a long-range reconnaissance capability. However, it was not until Italy entered the war on 10 June 1940 that his plan was accepted.36

Once given the authority to proceed, Bagnold’s first priority was to find the right people to do the job. Within a few days, he had recruited as many members of his pre-war survey teams as he could find to act as officers, and he then started looking for personnel to fill the ranks. “As Bagnold would have little time for training, his search focused on the New Zealand Division, which had recently arrived in theatre. Bagnold based his selection of men on the premise that those who had lived outdoors in a relatively rugged environment would have less difficulty adapting to the rigours of the desert.”37

According to Eric Morris, author of Guerrillas in Uniform: Churchill’s Private Armies in the Middle East and the War Against Japan 1940-1945, these volunteers “were mostly farmers, more mature and older men than troopers from the Yeomanry who were to join later, independently minded and used to ‘making do.’ They had a natural eye for the ground, like all those brought up in the countryside, and the knack of knowing how to survive when the elements turned hostile.”38 Morris elaborated: “The New Zealanders had other useful talents. They could drive – a skill unusual in the British Army at the time – and [they] proved adept at keeping machinery running through improvisation and the odd bit of inspired cannibalism.”39 The high level of knowledge possessed by these soldiers allowed the unit to focus training on the specialized skills needed to carry out their mission for extended periods.

Bagnold realized that, regardless of size, in order to remain self-sufficient in the desert for weeks at a time, the LRDG patrols needed a number of specific skills. Teams not only had to be able to handle their equipment, but also had to maintain that equipment, and, when necessary, to fix it with no outside support.40 To meet this requirement, each deployed patrol needed functional, reliable vehicles, reliable communications, a medical capability, and personnel possessed of excellent navigational skills.41 Members of the unit received specific training in one or more of these specialized requirements, and when this training had been completed, they were formed into patrols and sent out on exercises to confirm both individual and group skills. The training went extremely well, and, by the end of August, Bagnold was able to report that the Long Range Desert Group was ready for operations.42

Field Validation

Subsequent operations carried out by the LRDG validated the concept of employing small patrols behind enemy lines for extended periods. Bagnold demonstrated that such operations could succeed if these small groups carried out sound planning, had an adaptable organization, the right training and equipment, and proper communications.43 Bagnold’s concept also added a new dimension to SOF organization and training. Namely, if small teams wanted to remain deployed for extended periods free of national support, they require advanced skills. The training regime and organization established by Bagnold to meet these requirements are now fundamental to many of today’s SOF. Although the standards developed for SR and small-scale DA forces to meet their operational requirements are high, they are not nearly as diverse as those of the SOF’s third and perhaps most challenging core mission.

The SOF’s third core mission, Unconventional Warfare, (UW) can be defined as the ability to organize, train, equip, advise, and assist indigenous and surrogate forces in military and paramilitary operations, normally those of long duration. Modern UW had its origins outside the conventional military establishment, and, during the Second World War, both the American and British governments devoted significant resources to these activities. The British Special Operations Executive (SOE) and the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS) were set up to coordinate covert activities in occupied countries in Europe and Asia, and their mandate included everything from radio broadcasts into occupied territories to the insertion of teams to support and coordinate resistance movements.44

The SOE was established by the British War Cabinet on 22 July 1940, and, among other things, its purpose was to “to co-ordinate all action, by way of subversion and sabotage, against the enemy overseas”.45 One method used to achieve this result was to provide established resistance organizations with three-man liaison teams, commonly referred to as the Jedburghs. These teams consisted of a British or American officer, a French officer, and a radio operator, all of whom would be deployed into areas known to have active resistance movements, with sufficient arms to supply about 100 men. More importantly, they had a re-supply capability, when and if it proved necessary. Once deployed, teams made contact with local authorities or other Allied organizations in order to distribute arms and to coordinate local offensive actions with overall Allied war aims.46 According to Denis Rigden, author of How to be a Spy: The World War II SOE Training Manual:

In giving such advice the agents needed to be skilled negotiators, able to persuade guerrilla groups when to strike and when to hold back. When Resistance fighters undertook operations independently, it usually achieved little or nothing of military value and often resulted in the enemy taking savage revenge on the local civilian population. Trained to be aware of the dangers of rash guerrilla action, SOE agents strove to ensure that all irregular warfare served the strategic aims of the Allied leaders.47


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An SAS jeep and personnel operating in northern Europe late in the war.

Allied Initiatives

In the United States, the OSS controlled American UW operations. This mandate also included the infiltration of personnel into enemy occupied territories for the purpose of organizing resistance movements to carry out various types of sabotage and subversion activities, and, when necessary, to conduct close combat with the enemy. General William J. “Wild Bill” Donovan, head of the OSS and a highly decorated combat soldier from the First World War, believed the ethnic composition of the United States could provide a pool of recruits with the necessary language skills. Selected candidates could be organized into small groups, trained with commando capabilities, and then parachuted into enemy occupied territory to carry out Special Operations. Much of the training undertaken by the Americans to prepare their agents was modeled after SOE experiences. However, the Americans developed a number of their own unique concepts for Unconventional Warfare.48 In addition to the Jedburgh teams, the OSS developed and refined the concept of the Operational Groups (OG).

Operational Groups were deployed on missions that required a wider range of capabilities than could be provided by mere Jedburgh teams. They were organized and trained to work independently, or in cooperation with either the Jedburghs, or with partisan forces. An OG consisted of between 15 and 30 men, and it included two specialists: a medical technician and a radio operator. Each member of the team was well trained in all the necessary weapons and operational skills needed to carry out the mission. OGs undertook a variety of activities that ranged from ambushing enemy columns, cutting lines of communications, and blowing up railroad lines and bridges, to providing supplies to the various resistance groups. According to Patrick K. O’Donnell, author of Operatives, Spies, and Saboteurs: The Unknown Story of the Men and Women of World War II’s OSS: “The typical OG team was described as ‘a small self-sufficient band of man who might be required to live and fight in the manner of guerrillas.”49

In many respects, OGs were trained in a manner similar to their commando cousins. Again, emphasis was placed upon physical conditioning and basic soldier skills, including map reading, the use of hit-and-run commando tactics, the use of American and foreign small arms, scouting, patrolling, and reconnaissance, as well as achieving a demonstrated level of proficiency with demolitions, and in living off the land. Additional training, specifically tailored for the areas in which the group would be working, was also provided. Of note, visits were made by British officers, who provided guidance “in the special uses of the .45 calibre pistol as well as advance[d] techniques in hand-to-hand combat; and the use of the stiletto”.50

During the course of the war, the success of both the SOE and the OSS confirmed the efficacy of the SOF’s third core mission, particularly the concept of the Operational Groups. In post-war analysis, members of the OGs believed that their extensive training was effective, but they felt that greater emphasis should have been placed on such things as the operation and maintenance of foreign weapons and vehicles, various methods of general instruction, French military nomenclature, and radio maintenance and repair.51 Similar to the LRDG experience, members of the OGs realized that if teams were to function behind enemy lines for extended periods, they needed highly developed skills in critical areas, such as communications, medical procedures, weapons knowledge, and vehicle and equipment maintenance.

By the end of the war, the ability to carry out long-range, independent operations had become one of the SOF’s defining characteristics, and this was the direct result of the move away from ‘general purpose’ raiders needed for the short duration DA missions, to the more highly specialized capabilities necessary to carry out RS and UW tasks that often required a long-term commitment. This evolution52 towards units that focused on Special Reconnaissance/Surveillance or Unconventional Warfare operations, with each being capable of small scale DA missions when required, was institutionalized in the post-Second World War reconstitution of both British and American SOF capabilities.

At the end of the Second World War, the OSS was disbanded, and most of its operational intelligence activities were handed over to the newly created Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Initially, the United States Army did not see a need to develop a UW capability. However, with a growing Soviet threat, the 10th Special Forces Group (Green Berets) was activated in 1952 for the purpose of conducting partisan warfare behind Soviet army lines, in the event of a Russian invasion of Western Europe.53 The organization of the 1952 SF Operational Detachment (OD) was similar to the OG that had deployed to France during the war, with the addition of many post-war recommendations for improvement. Although there have been a number of iterations over the years, today’s generic Green Beret company consists of six 12-man Alpha detachments, and each includes a captain, a second-in-command (a warrant officer), and 10 non- commissioned officers trained in one of five functional areas: weapons specialist, engineering specialist, medical specialist, communications specialist, and an operations and intelligence specialist.54 As was demonstrated so effectively in Afghanistan, this organization provides the cadre to train and control guerrilla operations of small unit sizes. It is expected that, during the course of UW operations, SR and DA missions would be carried out by both SOF and guerrilla forces. However, the level of expertise will tend to vary.

Unlike the American emphasis upon UW, the British preferred to draw on their wartime experience with the LRDG and the SAS, which focused upon DA and SR. Although the SAS, as was the case with many other British SOF units raised during the war, was removed from the order of battle in 1945, it was resurrected in the 1950s when the British were faced with a guerrilla war in Malaya, and were looking for a way to counter the insurgents that were operating deep inside the Malayan jungle. Major Mike Calvert, DSO, a former commander of the wartime SAS Brigade, was asked to provide recommendations on how to deal with the situation. He suggested the creation of an SOF unit similar to the SAS. This proposal was accepted, and the new unit was activated initially as the Malayan Scouts (SAS).55 Interestingly, the core mission of the new unit was to support Counter Terrorism (CT) operations through long-range reconnaissance and DA missions conducted against the insurgents. These SAS ‘Sabre’ squadrons, which are primarily organized to carry out DA and SR missions, are divided into four 16-man troops, each troop having specific insertion capabilities in the areas of Mobility, Air, Boat and Mountain operations. Troops are further sub-divided into four fighting patrols of four men each.56

The organizational dissimilarities between the Green Berets and the SAS underscore the different core mission each unit favours. Nevertheless, this specialization does not mean these units are unable to undertake other SOF tasks. In fact, many of the primary and collateral activities currently assigned to these units have been introduced as a result of their ability to transform the specialist competencies they have developed from their core missions into relevant skill sets that allow them to be successful in other areas. They can do this because training for Reconnaissance/Surveillance and Direct Action missions will produce skills that are useful in other operations, such as Counter Drug, Counter-Proliferation, Combat Search and Rescue, and some aspects of combating terrorism. Skills needed to carry out Unconventional Warfare missions, such as training guerillas, can also be used in Foreign Internal Defense to train local security forces, or to train coalition forces in ‘Coalition Support’ tasks.57 That being said, care must be taken when assigning these additional tasks to SOF assets, for while they are flexible in leveraging their skills to take on other duties, these units also have their limitations, the acknowledgement and understanding of which is important.

Limitations upon the employment of SOF personnel result from the fact that the needs of each of the core missions are specialized in terms of organization, training, and equipment. More importantly, SOF units must be capable of carrying out their mission with a high degree of expertise. This not only requires a large investment in initial training, it also necessitates a significant amount of refresher training in order to maintain high levels of proficiency. If SOF organizations are forced to accept tasks that are not present within the core mission skill sets, the additional responsibilities force these units to develop new expertise, which makes it difficult to maintain existing skills at the necessary levels in order to remain operationally efficient.


DND photo DHD02-292-07

Special Operations craft manoeuvres at sea.


In summary, the key to understanding modern SOF is to recognize their core missions and how each influences the organization, training, and potential employment of SOF units. More importantly, comprehending core missions provides a better insight into the common misconception that any SOF unit can perform any SOF task. Although SOF units share a number of similarities, there are significant differences between each, and these disparities make it difficult, if not impossible, to produce a ‘one type fits all’ SOF capability. The reality is that SOF units are organized, trained and equipped to carry out one of the core missions, and although they have an ability to move away from their field of specialist capability, that ability is, in reality, limited.

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Major Balasevicius is a member of the Directing Staff in the Department of Applied Military Science at the Royal Military College of Canada.


  1. John T. Carney and Benjamin F. Schemmer, No Room for Error: The Covert Operations of America’s Special Tactics Units From Iran to Afghanistan, (New York: Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 23.
  2. Andrew Feickert, US Special Operations Forces (SOF): Background and Issues for Congress <www.au.af.mil/au/awc/awcgate/crs/rs21048.pdf>, accessed 15 March 2004. According to the report:”U.S. SOF units total roughly 47,000 active and reserve personnel in the Army, Navy, and Air Force, or about 2% of all U.S. active and reserve forces.” p. 1.
  3. Robin Neillands, In the Combat Zone: Special Forces Since 1945 (London: Orion, 1977), p. 320.
  4. United States, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joint Pub 3-05 – Doctrine for Joint Special Operations (Washington: 17 December 2003), I-1. Most western countries, including Canada, have largely accepted this definition.
  5. Ibid., II-11 In May 2003, changes to the SOF principal missions and collateral activities were made. Specifically, ‘principal missions’ are now referred to as ‘core tasks’. In addition, the Americans no longer work in terms of collateral activities.
  6. Thomas K. Adams, US Special Operations Forces in Action: The Challenge of Unconventional Warfare (Portland: Frank Cass, 1998), p. 303.
  7. The exceptions to this statement include Psychological Operations and Information Operations, which owe their origin to the Special Operations Executive (SOE) and the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). SR is defined as the conduct of reconnaissance and surveillance actions to obtain or verify information concerning the capabilities, intentions, and activities of an actual or potential enemy or to secure data concerning characteristics of a particular operational area. UW operations organize, train, equip, advise, and assist indigenous and surrogate forces in long duration military and paramilitary operations while a DA mission is the conduct of short-duration strikes and other small-scale offensive actions to seize, destroy, capture, recover, or inflict damage on designated personnel or materiel.
  8. Thomas K. Adams, US Special Operations Forces in Action: The Challenge of Unconventional Warfare (Portland: Frank Cass Publishers, 1998), pp. 17-18. Note: DA missions can be categorized as large-scale actions carried out by units such as the British Commandos, American Rangers, Airborne Forces, and Marine Forces, or small-scale surgical strike operations carried out by the Special Air Service (SAS). UW can likewise include missions undertaken by larger forces such as the former Office of Strategic Services (OSS), Operational Groups (OG) and the current American Special Forces (Green Berets), or by smaller liaison teams similar to the Jedburgh teams.
  9. Wikipedia Encyclopaedia online. British commandos <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/British_Commandos#Formation>, accessed 15 February 2004.
  10. Joint Publication 3-05. II-11.
  11. Peter Young, The First Commando Raids: History of the Second World War series (London: BCE Publishing, 1966), pp. 1-4.
  12. Adrain Weale, Secret warfare: Special Operations Forces from the Great Game to the SAS (London: Hodder, 1998), p. 60.
  13. Wikipedia Encyclopaedia online, accessed 15 February 2004.
  14. Charles Messenger, The Commandos 1940-1946, (London: William Kimber, 1985), pp. 410-411. See also Peter Young, p. 14.
  15. Michael J. King, Rangers: Selected Combat Operations in World War II (Fort Leavenworth, Kansas: Combat Studies Institute, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, June 1985). Introduction.
  16. David Bohrer, America’s Special Forces: Seals, Green Berets, Rangers, USAF Special Ops, Marine Force Recon, (St. Paul: MBI, 2002), p. 45.
  17. Department of National Defence. Report No. 5, 1st Canadian Special Service Battalion (Historical Section, Monthly Report, 2 Cdn Para Bn, November 1942), p. 14.
  18. Ibid., (Appx “C”), 1. See also Peter Young, pp. 14-28.
  19. Dr. Kenn Finlayson and Dr. C.H. Briscoe, “Case Studies in the Selection and Assessment: The First Special Service Force, Merrill’s Marauders and the OSS OGP,” Special Warfare Magazine, Fall 2000, p. 24. The FSSF suffered from the same lift capability problems that plagued the Commandos. The main objective of the 1st Special Service Force training program during the winter of 1942-3 was to prepare for an operational deployment into Norway to sabotage Norwegian power installations. However, an alternative plan for the mission had to be developed because the planners of the mission encountered difficulty finding the number of aircraft needed to move the unit and all its equipment. As a result, the unit was chosen to lead the assault on Kiska Island during the Aleutians campaign and moved to Fort Bradford to carry out additional amphibious training.
  20. Weale., p. 76.
  21. Ibid.
  22. Alan Hoe and Eric Morris, RE-Enter the SAS: The Special Air Service and the Malayan Emergency, (London: Leo Cooper, 1994), pp. 3-5.
  23. Weale, p. 96. See also Philip Warner, The Secret Forces of World War II (London: Granada, 1985), p. 18.
  24. “History of the Second World War” Volume I, <http://hem.passagen.se/ inlajn/info/usual/history.htm>, accessed February 2004.
  25. Hoe and Morris, p. 3.
  26. Ibid., p. 3.
  27. Ibid., p. 16.
  28. Weale, p. 155.
  29. Warner, Philip. The Secret Forces of World War II (London: Granada, 1985), p. 16.
  30. Ibid., pp. 17-18.
  31. Ibid., According to Tony Geraghty, author of Who Dares Wins: The Special Air Service-1950 to the Gulf War, 502.”The essential qualities needed for soldiers who were to work for weeks and perhaps months in isolation were initiative; self-discipline; independence of mind; ability to work unsupervised; stamina; patience; and a sense of humor...”
  32. Weale., p. 143.
  33. Shaw Kennedy. Britain’s Private Armies: Western Desert, August 1940/December 1941 (BPC Publishing Ltd, History of the Second World War, 1966), p. 776.
  34. The World at War Biography <http://worldatwar.net/biography/w/wavell/>, accessed 1 August 2004.
  35. Her Majesty’s Stationery Office “History of the Second World War” The Mediterranean & Middle East, Volume I, London 1954 <http://www.lrdg.org/ lrdg_history_information.htm>, accessed 13 March 2004.
  36. Ibid.
  37. Weale, p. 83.
  38. Eric Morris, Guerrillas in Uniform: Churchill’s Private Armies in the Middle East and the War Against Japan 1940-1945 (London: Hutchinson, 1989), pp. 71-75.
  39. Ibid., pp. 72-75.
  40. Kennedy, pp. 1-24.
  41. Morris, pp. 13-14.
  42. Shaw Kennedy, The Long-Range Desert Group (California: Presidio Press, 1989). pp. 18-19.
  43. Long Range Desert Group Preservation Society. <http://www.lrdg.org/>, accessed 15 February 2004.
  44. Roy Maclaren, Canadians Behind Enemy Lines: 1939-1945 (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2004), pp. 1-2.
  45. Ibid., pp. 1-3.
  46. Ibid., pp. 602-605.
  47. Denis Rigden, How To Be A Spy: The World War II SOE Training Manual (Toronto: Dundurn, 2004), pp. 1-2.
  48. Patrick K. O’Donnell, Operatives, Spies, and Saboteurs: The Unknown Story of the Men and Women of World War II’s OSS, (London: Free Press, 2004), p. XV.
  49. Ibid,. p. 58.
  50. Ian Southerland, “The OSS Operations Groups: Origin of Army Special Forces” Special Warfare Magazine, Volume 15, Number 2, June 2002, p. 10.
  51. Ibid.,
  52. This statement refers to ‘green’ military operations and does not include Hostage Rescue missions, which fall under the category of Counter Terrorist Operations.
  53. History of the 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne), <http://www.soc.mil/ SF/history.pdf>, accessed 10 January 2003, p. 1.
  54. US Army SOCOM Homepage. Fact Sheet: Special Forces “A” Team Organizational Structure <http://www.soc.mil/SF/SF_default.htm>, accessed 10 July 2005
  55. Tony Geraghty, Who Dares Wins: The Special Air Service-1950 to the Gulf War (London: Time Warner, 1993), pp. 331-334.
  56. Wikipedia Encyclopaedia online. Special Air Service, <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Special_Air_Service.>, accessed 10 July
  57. The one exception to this has been the development of the Hostage Rescue mission, where the skill sets have been so specialized that many nations have produced specific units dedicated to this task.