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:
Along with SEAL Team 6, Delta Force is one of the most famous and capable anti-terrorism teams in the world. It’s members are pulled from all branches of the U.S. Armed Forces, primarily from the Army’s Special Forces and Rangers (more on them in a minute). As an anti-terrorism task force, Delta is tasked with hunting down some of America’s worst threats- the most intense special ops around. They were sent after Osama bin Laden in 2001 and more recently killed Abu Sayyaf, a key figure in ISIS. They specialize in “direct action.”
Special Forces (The Green Berets)
Special Forces soldiers focus on supporting foreign allies by training with and fighting beside their military and police forces. Special Forces also engage in reconnaissance and direct action missions. The multi-tool of special ops, SF soldiers are sometimes tasked with peacekeeping, combat search and rescue, humanitarian, and counter narcotic missions.
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)
The 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR) flies helicopters in support of other special ops 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)
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
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)
Similarly to the Army Special Forces, Marine Raiders specialize in training, advising, and assisting friendly foreign forces. They can also conduct direct action missions: Kicking down doors and targeting the bad guys. They receive more training in maritime operations as well as fighting on oil and gas platforms than their Army counterparts.
Some of the world’s best reconnaissance troops, Recon Marines primarily support other Marine units, though they can provide intelligence to other branches. They move forward of other troops, getting near or behind enemy lines, where they survey the area and report back to commanders. They can also engage in assaults when ordered, though that mission has been transferred in part to the Marine Special Operations Regiment discussed above.
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.
Pararescumen are some of the world’s best search and rescue experts. They move forward into areas a plane has crashed or there is a risk of planes being shot down. Once a plane has hit the ground, they search for the pilots and crew and attempt to recover them. In addition, they perform medical evacuations of injured personnel and civilians. To reach downed crews, they train extensively in deploying from helicopters and planes. In order to save injured personnel after recovery, they become medical experts, especially in trauma care.
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.