You've heard about the men who come in the night, the badasses, the snake eaters. These are the rough and tumble soldiers who spill out of helicopters and kick in doors, neutralizing a high value target and egressing before locals get a clue. These are the gritty recon Marines who stalk through the underbrush before taking down a terrorist camp.
But special ops isn't one thing; it's a bunch of different things. Operators from different units conduct missions in very different ways.
Check out this handy WATM guide that covers the basics of special ops:
Special Forces (The Green Berets)
U.S. Army Rangers assigned to 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, fire off a Carl Gustav 84mm recoilless rifle at a range on Camp Roberts, Calif., Jan. 26, 2014. (Photo: U.S. Army Pfc. Rashene Mincy)
The modern 75th Ranger Regiment was established with three Ranger battalions in 1986, though it has roots dating back to World War II. The Rangers form three infantry battalions that focus on moving fast and striking hard. They are deployable to anywhere in the world within 18 hours. Rangers are primarily a direct action force, entering an area forcibly and engaging whatever enemies they find.
The Night Stalkers (160th Special Operations Air Regiment)
An MH-6 Little Bird carrying troops. (Photo: Department of Defense)
The 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR) flies helicopters in support of other special operations units, especially the Army units discussed above. They fly modified Chinook and Blackhawk helicopters as well as the MH/AH-6M Little Bird. The Night Stalkers can drop off combatants on a battlefield and provide air support to fighters already on the ground.
SEAL Team 6 (DEVGRU)
Navy SEALs practice desert fighting techniques during an exercise. SEAL Team 6 specializes in anti-terrorism operations and are perhaps best known for the successful raid into Pakistan to kill Osama Bin Laden. (Photo: Photographer's Mate 2nd Class Eric S. Logsdon)
Like Delta, SEAL Team 6 is a top-tier anti-terrorism force. Officially named United States Special Warfare Development Group and sometimes called DevGru, SEAL Team 6 specializes in arriving violently and killing bad guys. They recruit their members from the Navy SEAL community (discussed below). Though they train to operate anywhere in the world, they specialize in fighting on the waters and the coast.
SEALs are named for their ability to fight in the sea, air, and on land. Though designed to conduct operations that begin and end in the water, modern teams routinely operate far from water. They primarily conduct reconnaissance and perform direct attack missions but are capable of training with and fighting beside foreign militaries like U.S. Army Special Forces soldiers do. They are also the operators most known for working with the CIA's Special Activities Division.
Special Warfare Combatant-Craft Crewmen
Inside SWCC www.youtube.com
SWCC, pronounced "swick," provide covert insertions in coastal areas, most notably for the Navy SEALS. They operate small boats which they can use to drop off operators as well as provide heavy weapons support when necessary. They can drop their boats from planes or helicopters and can be picked up with a helicopter extraction. Additionally, SWCC teams have their own medics who provide care for special operators when evacuating patients, and they get at least 12 weeks of language training.
Marine Special Operations Regiment (Raiders)
Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company
This Marine Corps ANGLICO's primary mission is to link up with friendly units and direct fires assets from different branches. That means they have to be able to tell helicopters, jets, cannons, and rockets which targets to hit and when during large firefights. They support other U.S. military branches as well as foreign militaries, so they have to train for many different operations and be able to keep up with everyone from Army Special Forces to British Commandoes to the Iraqi Army.
Combat controllers, like ANGLICO Marines, support all the other branches and so have to be able to keep up with all special operators. They deploy forward, whether in support of another mission or on their own, and take over control of air traffic in an area. They direct flight paths for different classes of planes and helicopters to ensure all aircraft attacking an objective can fly safely. They also target artillery and rocket attacks. In peacetime missions, they can set up air traffic control in areas where it's needed.
The day after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, combat controllers began directing air traffic control from a card table with hand radios. They directed the landing of over 2,500 flights and 4 million pounds of supplies with no incidents.
Maritime Security Response Team
The Coast Guard's Maritime Security Response Team from Virginia participates trains on tactical boardings-at-sea, active shooter scenarios, and detection of radiological material in a 2015 exercise. (Photo: U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd Class Ross Ruddell)
The MSRT focuses on counter-terrorism and law enforcement against well-armed adversaries. They are like a SWAT team that can also deal with chemical, biological, and nuclear threats on the open water.
Though this list focused on operators who engage in combat with the enemy, there are members of the special operations community who provide support in other ways.
The Army has military information-support operations which seek to spread propaganda and demoralize the enemy and civil affairs soldiers who serve as liaisons between the Army and friendly governments. The Air Force has special operations weather technicians who deploy into enemy environments to conduct weather analysis in support of other military operations. The Marine Corps has the Chemical Biological Incident Response Force which responds to possible attacks by chemical, biological, or nuclear means.