United States Special Operations Command
United States Special Operations Command Emblem
FoundedApril 16, 1987; 34 years ago (1987-04-16)[1]
Country United States
TypeUnified combatant command
Special operations forces
RoleFunctional combatant command
SizeEntire command: more than 70,000[2][3]
Headquarters staff: 2,500[2]
Part of
Department of Defense
HeadquartersMacDill AFB, Florida, U.S.
EngagementsOperation Earnest Will

Invasion of Panama
Gulf War
Unified Task Force
Operation Gothic Serpent

Operation Uphold Democracy
War on Terror

Commander GEN Richard D. Clarke, USA[2]
Deputy Commander VADM Collin P. Green, USN
Vice Commander Lt Gen Tony D. Bauernfeind, USAF
Senior Enlisted LeaderCCM Gregory A. Smith, USAF

The United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM or SOCOM) is the unified combatant command charged with overseeing the various special operations component commands of the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, and Air Force of the United States Armed Forces. The command is part of the Department of Defense and is the only unified combatant command created by an Act of Congress. USSOCOM is headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida.

The idea of an American unified special operations command had its origins in the aftermath of Operation Eagle Claw, the disastrous attempted rescue of hostages at the American embassy in Iran in 1980. The ensuing investigation, chaired by Admiral James L. Holloway III, the retired Chief of Naval Operations, cited lack of command and control and inter-service coordination as significant factors in the failure of the mission.[5] Since its activation on 16 April 1987, U.S. Special Operations Command has participated in many operations, from the 1989 invasion of Panama to the current War on Terror.[6][7]

USSOCOM is involved with clandestine activity, such as direct action, special reconnaissance, counter-terrorism, foreign internal defense, unconventional warfare, psychological warfare, civil affairs, and counter-narcotics operations. Each branch has a distinct Special Operations Command that is capable of running its own operations, but when the different special operations forces need to work together for an operation, USSOCOM becomes the joint component command of the operation, instead of a SOC of a specific branch.[8]


The unwieldy command and control structure of separate U.S. military special operations forces (SOF), which led to the failure of Operation Eagle Claw in 1980, highlighted the need within the US Department of Defense for reform and reorganization. The US Army Chief of Staff, General Edward C. "Shy" Meyer, had already helped create the U.S. Delta Force in 1977.[9] Following Eagle Claw, he called for a further restructuring of special operations capabilities. Although unsuccessful at the joint level, Meyer nevertheless went on to consolidate Army SOF units under the new 1st Special Operations Command in 1982.[10]

Senator Barry Goldwater, former Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee

By 1983, there was a small but growing sense in the US Congress of the need for military reforms. In June, the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) began a two-year-long study of the Defense Department, which included an examination of SOF spearheaded by Senator Barry Goldwater (R-AZ). With concern mounting on Capitol Hill, the Department of Defense created the Joint Special Operations Agency on 1 January 1984; this agency, however, had neither operational nor command authority over any SOF.[11][12] The Joint Special Operations Agency thus did little to improve SOF readiness, capabilities, or policies, and therefore was deemed insufficient. Within the Defense Department, there were a few staunch SOF supporters. Noel Koch, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, and his deputy, Lynn Rylander, both advocated SOF reforms.[13]

At the same time, a few on Capitol Hill were determined to overhaul United States Special Operations Forces. They included Senators Sam Nunn (D-GA) and William Cohen (R-ME), both members of the Armed Services Committee, and Representative Dan Daniel (D-VA), the chairman of the United States House Armed Services Subcommittee on Readiness. Congressman Daniel had become convinced that the U.S. military establishment was not interested in special operations, that the country's capability in this area was the second rate, and that SOF operational command and control was an endemic problem.[13] Senators Nunn and Cohen also felt strongly that the Department of Defense was not preparing adequately for future threats. Senator Cohen agreed that the U.S. needed a clearer organizational focus and chain of command for special operations to deal with low-intensity conflicts.[11]

In October 1985, the Senate Armed Services Committee published the results of its two-year review of the U.S. military structure, entitled "Defense Organization: The Need For Change."[14] James R. Locher III, the principal author of this study, also examined past special operations and speculated on the most likely future threats. This influential document led to the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act.[15][16] By spring 1986, SOF advocates had introduced reform bills in both houses of Congress. On 15 May, Senator Cohen introduced the Senate bill, co-sponsored by Senator Nunn and others, which called for a joint military organization for SOF and the establishment of an office in the Defense Department to ensure adequate funding and policy emphasis for low-intensity conflict and special operations.[17] Representative Daniel's proposal went even further—he wanted a national special operations agency headed by a civilian who would bypass the Joint Chiefs and report directly to the US Secretary of Defense; this would keep Joint Chiefs and the Services out of the SOF budget process.[12]

Congress held hearings on the two bills in the summer of 1986. Admiral William J. Crowe Jr., Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, led the Pentagon's opposition to the bills. As an alternative, he proposed a new Special Operations Forces command led by a three-star general. This proposal was not well received on Capitol Hill—Congress wanted a four-star general in charge to give SOF more clout. A number of retired military officers and others testified in favor of the need for reform.[13] By most accounts, retired Army Major General Richard Scholtes gave the most compelling reasons for the change. Scholtes, who commanded the joint special operations task force during Operation Urgent Fury, explained how conventional force leaders misused SOF during the operation, not allowing them to use their unique capabilities, which resulted in high SOF casualties.[18] After his formal testimony, Scholtes met privately with a small number of Senators to elaborate on the problems that he had encountered in Grenada.[19]

Both the House and Senate passed SOF reform bills, and these went to a conference committee for reconciliation. Senate and House conferees forged a compromise. The bill called for a unified combatant command headed by a four-star general for all SOF, an Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict, a coordinating board for low-intensity conflict within the National Security Council, and a new Major Force Program (MFP-11) for SOF (the so-called "SOF checkbook").[20][21] The final bill, attached as a rider to the 1987 Defense Authorization Act, amended the Goldwater-Nichols Act and was signed into law in October 1986. This was interpreted as Congress forcing the hand of the DOD and the Reagan administration regarding what it saw as the past failures and emerging threats. The DOD and the administration were responsible for implementing the law, and Congress subsequently passed two additional bills to ensure implementation.[13] The legislation promised to improve SOF in several respects. Once implemented, MFP-11 provided SOF with control over its own resources, better enabling it to modernize the force. Additionally, the law fostered interservice cooperation: a single commander for all SOF promoted interoperability among the same command forces. The establishment of a four-star commander-in-chief and an Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict eventually gave SOF a voice in the highest councils of the Defense Department.[20]

General James Lindsay, the first Commander in Chief, Special Operations Command
General James Lindsay, the first Commander in Chief, Special Operations Command

However, implementing the provisions and mandates of the Nunn-Cohen Amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 1987 was neither rapid nor smooth. One of the first issues to arise was the appointment of an Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations/Low-Intensity Conflict & Interdependent Capabilities, whose principal duties included monitorship of special operations activities and the low-intensity conflict activities of the Department of Defense. Congress increased the number of assistant secretaries of defense from 11 to 12, but the Department of Defense still did not fill this new billet. In December 1987, Congress directed Secretary of the Army John O. Marsh to carry out the ASD (SO/LIC) duties until the Senate approved a suitable replacement. Not until 18 months after the legislation passed did Ambassador Charles Whitehouse assume the duties of ASD (SO/LIC).[22]

Meanwhile, the establishment of USSOCOM provided its own measure of excitement. A quick solution to manning and basing a brand new unified command was to abolish an existing command. United States Readiness Command (USREDCOM), with an often misunderstood mission, did not appear to have a viable mission in the post-Goldwater-Nichols era, and its commander-in-chief, General James Lindsay, had had some special operations experience. On 23 January 1987, the Joint Chiefs of Staff recommended to the Secretary of Defense that USREDCOM be disestablished to provide billets and facilities for USSOCOM. President Ronald Reagan approved the establishment of the new command on 13 April 1987. The Department of Defense activated USSOCOM on 16 April 1987 and nominated General Lindsay to be the first Commander in Chief Special Operations Command (USCINCSOC). The Senate accepted him without debate.[13]

Operation Earnest Will

MH-60 landing on Hercules
MH-60 landing on Hercules

USSOCOM's first tactical operation involved 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne) ("Night Stalkers") aviators, SEALs, and Special Boat Teams (SBT) working together during Operation Earnest Will in September 1987. During Operation Earnest Will, the United States ensured that neutral oil tankers and other merchant ships could safely transit the Persian Gulf during the Iran–Iraq War. Iranian attacks on tankers prompted Kuwait to ask the United States in December 1986 to register 11 Kuwaiti tankers as American ships so that they could be escorted by the U.S. Navy. President Reagan agreed to the Kuwaiti request on 10 March 1987, hoping it would deter Iranian attacks.[13] The protection offered by U.S. naval vessels, however, did not stop Iran, which used mines and small boats to harass the convoys steaming to and from Kuwait. In late July 1987, Rear Admiral Harold J. Bernsen, commander of the Middle East Force, requested NSW assets. Special Boat Teams deployed with six Mark III Patrol Boats and two SEAL platoons in August.[13] The Middle East Force decided to convert two oil servicing barges, Hercules and Wimbrown VII, into mobile sea bases. The mobile sea bases allowed SOF in the northern Persian Gulf to thwart clandestine Iranian mining and small boat attacks.

On 21 September, Nightstalkers flying MH-60 and Little Birds took off from the frigate USS Jarrett to track an Iranian ship, Iran Ajr. The Nightstalkers observed Iran Ajr turn off her lights and begin laying mines. After receiving permission to attack, the helicopters fired guns and rockets, stopping the ship. As Iran Ajr's crew began to push mines over the side, the helicopters resumed firing until the crew abandoned the ship. Special Boat Teams provided security while a SEAL team boarded the vessel at first light and discovered nine mines on the vessel's deck, as well as a logbook revealing areas where previous mines had been laid. The logbook implicated Iran in mining international waters.[13]

One of two Iranian oil platforms set ablaze after shelling by American destroyers
One of two Iranian oil platforms set ablaze after shelling by American destroyers

Within a few days, the Special Operations forces had determined the Iranian pattern of activity; the Iranians hid during the day near oil and gas platforms in Iranian waters and at night they headed toward the Middle Shoals Buoy, a navigation aid for tankers. With this knowledge, SOF launched three Little Bird helicopters and two patrol craft to the buoy. The Little Bird helicopters arrived first and were fired upon by three Iranian boats anchored near the buoy. After a short but intense firefight, the helicopters sank all three boats. Three days later, in mid-October, an Iranian Silkworm missile hit the tanker Sea Isle City near the oil terminal outside Kuwait City. Seventeen crewmen and the American captain were injured in the missile attack.[13][23] During Operation Nimble Archer, four destroyers shelled two oil platforms in the Rostam oil field. After the shelling, a SEAL platoon and a demolition unit planted explosives on one of the platforms to destroy it. The SEALs next boarded and searched a third-platform 2 miles (3 km) away. Documents and radios were taken for intelligence purposes.

On 14 April 1988, 65 miles (100 km) east of Bahrain, the frigate USS Samuel B. Roberts hit a mine, blowing an immense hole in its hull.[24] Ten sailors were injured. During Operation Praying Mantis the U.S. retaliated fiercely, attacking the Iranian frigate Sahand and oil platforms in the Sirri and Sassan oil fields.[23] After U.S. warships bombarded the Sirri platform and set it ablaze, a UH-60 with a SEAL platoon flew toward the platform but was unable to get close enough because of the roaring fire. Secondary explosions soon wrecked the platform.[13] Thereafter, Iranian attacks on neutral ships dropped drastically. On 18 July, Iran accepted the United Nations cease-fire; on 20 August 1988, the Iran–Iraq War ended. The remaining SEALs, patrol boats, and helicopters then returned to the United States.[13] Special operations forces provided critical skills necessary to help CENTCOM gain control of the northern Persian Gulf and balk Iran's small boats and minelayers. The ability to work at night proved vital because Iranian units used darkness to conceal their actions. Additionally, because of Earnest Will operational requirements, USSOCOM would acquire new weapons systems—the patrol coastal ships and the Mark V Special Operations Craft.[13]


Special Operations Command first became involved in Somalia in 1992 as part of Operation Provide Relief. C-130s circled over Somali airstrips during the delivery of relief supplies. Special Forces medics accompanied many relief flights into the airstrips throughout southern Somalia to assess the area. They were the first U.S. soldiers in Somalia, arriving before U.S. forces who supported the expanded relief operations of Restore Hope.[13][25][26] The first teams into Somalia was CIA Special Activities Division paramilitary officers with elements of JSOC. They conducted very high-risk advanced force operations prior to the entry of the follow-on forces. The first casualty of the conflict came from this team and was a Paramilitary officer and former Delta Force operator named Larry Freedman. Freedman was awarded the Intelligence Star for "extraordinary heroism" for his actions.[27]

The earliest missions during Operation Restore Hope were conducted by Navy SEALs. The SEALs performed several hydrographic reconnaissance missions to find suitable landing sites for Marines. On 7 December, the SEALs swam into Mogadishu Harbor, where they found suitable landing sites, assessed the area for threats, and concluded that the port could support offloading ships. This was a tough mission because the SEALs swam against a strong current which left many of them overheated and exhausted. Furthermore, they swam through raw sewage in the harbor, which made them sick.[13] When the first SEALs hit the shore the following night, they were surprised to meet members of the news media. The first Marines came ashore soon thereafter, and the press redirected their attention to them. Later, the SEALs provided personal security for President George Bush during a visit to Somalia.[13][26] In December 1992, Special Forces assets in Kenya moved to Somalia and joined Operation Restore Hope. January 1993, a Special Forces command element deployed to Mogadishu as the Joint Special Operations Forces-Somalia (JSOFOR) that would command and control all special operations for Restore Hope. JSOFOR's mission was to make initial contact with indigenous factions and leaders; provide information for force protection; and provide reports on the area for future relief and security operations. Before redeploying in April, JSOFOR elements drove over 26,000 miles (42,000 km), captured 277 weapons, and destroyed over 45,320 pounds (20,560 kg) of explosives.[13]

Bravo Company, 3rd Battalion of the 75th Ranger Regiment in Somalia, 1993
Bravo Company, 3rd Battalion of the 75th Ranger Regiment in Somalia, 1993

In August 1993, Secretary of Defense Les Aspin directed the deployment of a Joint Special Operations Task Force (JSOTF) to Somalia in response to attacks made by General Mohamed Farrah Aidid's supporters upon U.S. and UN forces. The JSOTF, named Task Force (TF) Ranger was charged with a mission named Operation Gothic Serpent to capture Aidid. This was an especially arduous mission, for Aidid had gone underground, after several Lockheed AC-130 air raids and UN assaults on his strongholds.[13][28][29]

While Marines from the 24th MEU provided an interim QRF (Force Recon Det and helicopters from HMM-263), the task force arrived in the country and began training exercises. The Marines were asked to take on the Aidid snatch mission, but having the advantage of being in the area for more than two months, decided after mission analysis that the mission was a "no-go" due to several factors, centered around the inability to rescue the crew of a downed helicopter (re: the indigenous forces technique of using RPGs against helicopters and blocking the narrow streets in order to restrict the movement of a ground rescue force). This knowledge was not passed on to the Rangers, due to the Marines operating from the USS Wasp and the Rangers remaining on land. TF Ranger was made up of operators from Delta Force, 75th Ranger Regiment, 160th SOAR, SEALs from the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, and Air Force special tactics units.[13][28] During August and September 1993, the task force conducted six missions into Mogadishu, all of which were successes. Although Aidid remained free, the effect of these missions seriously limited his movements.[29]

On 3 October, TF Ranger launched its seventh mission, this time into Aidid's stronghold the Bakara Market to capture two of his key lieutenants. The mission was expected to take only one or two hours.[28] Helicopters carried an assault and a ground convoy of security teams launched in the late afternoon from the TF Ranger compound at Mogadishu airport. The TF came under increasingly heavy fire, more intense than during previous missions. The assault team captured 24 Somalis including Aidid's lieutenants and were loading them onto the convoy trucks when a MH-60 Blackhawk was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG).[13][29] A small element from the security forces, as well as an MH-6 assault helicopter and an MH-60 carrying a fifteen-man combat search and rescue (CSAR) team, rushed to the crash site.[13][28][29] The battle became increasingly worse. An RPG struck another MH-60, crashing less than 1 mile (1.6 km) to the south of the first downed helicopter. The task force faced overwhelming Somali mobs that overran the crash sites, causing a dire situation.[28] A Somali mob overran the second site and, despite a heroic defense, killed everyone except the pilot, whom they took prisoner. Two defenders of this crash site, Master Sergeant Gary Gordon and Sergeant First Class Randall Shughart, were posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.[13][28][29] About this time, the mission's quick reaction force (QRF) also tried to reach the second crash site. This force too was pinned by the Somali fire and required the fire support of two AH-6 helicopters before it could break contact and make its way back to the base.[13]

Map of the main battle sites during the Battle of Mogadishu
Map of the main battle sites during the Battle of Mogadishu

The assault and security elements moved on foot towards the first crash area, passing through heavy fire, and occupied buildings south and southwest of the downed helicopter. They fought to establish defensive positions so as not to be pinned down by the very heavy enemy fire while treating their wounded and worked to free the pilot's body from the downed helicopter. With the detainees loaded on trucks, the ground convoy force attempted to reach the first crash site. Unable to find it amongst the narrow, winding alleyways, the convoy came under devastating small arms and RPG fire. The convoy had to return to base after suffering numerous casualties and sustaining substantial damage to their vehicles.[30]

Reinforcements, consisting of elements from the QRF, 10th Mountain Division soldiers, Rangers, SEALs, Pakistan Army tanks and Malaysian armored personnel carriers, finally arrived at 1:55 am on 4 October. The combined force worked until dawn to free the pilot's body, receiving RPG and small arms fire throughout the night.[13] All the casualties were loaded onto the armored personnel carriers, and the remainder of the force was left behind and had no choice but to move out on foot.[28] AH-6 gunships raked the streets with fire to support the movement. The main force of the convoy arrived at the Pakistani Stadium-compound for the QRF-at 6:30 am,[28] thus concluding one of the bloodiest and fiercest urban firefights since the Vietnam War. Task Force Ranger experienced a total of 17 killed in action and 106 wounded. Various estimates placed Somali casualties above 1,000.[28] Although Task Force Ranger's few missions were successes, the overall outcome of Operation Gothic Serpent was deemed a failure because of the Task Force's failure to complete their stated mission, capturing Mohamed Farrah Aidid.[28] Most U.S. forces pulled out of Somalia by March 1994. The withdrawal from Somalia was completed in March 1995.[13] Even though Operation Gothic Serpent failed, USSOCOM still made significant contributions to operations in Somalia. SOF performed reconnaissance and surveillance missions, assisted with humanitarian relief, protected American forces, and conducted riverine patrols. Additionally, they ensured the safe landing of the Marines and safeguarded the arrival of merchant ships carrying food.[13][23]


USSOCOM's 10th Special Forces Group, elements of JSOC, and CIA/SAD Paramilitary Officers linked up again and were the first to enter Iraq prior to the invasion. Their efforts organized the Kurdish Peshmerga to defeat Ansar Al Islam in Northern Iraq before the invasion. This battle was for control of a territory in Northeastern Iraq that was completely occupied by Ansar Al Islam, an ally of Al Qaeda. This was a very significant battle and led to the death of a substantial number of terrorists and the uncovering of a chemical weapons facility at Sargat. These terrorists would have been in the subsequent insurgency had they not been eliminated during this battle. Sargat was the only facility of its type discovered in the Iraq war. This battle may have been the Tora Bora of Iraq, but it was a sound defeat for Al Qaeda and their ally Ansar Al Islam.[31] This combined team then led the Peshmerga against Saddam's Northern Army. This effort kept Saddam's forces in the north and denied the ability to redeploy to contest the invasion force coming from the south. This effort may have saved the lives of hundreds if not thousands of coalition servicemen and women.[32]

At the launch of the Iraq War, dozens of 12-member Special Forces teams infiltrated southern and western Iraq to hunt for Scud missiles and pinpoint bombing targets. Scores of Navy SEALs seized oil terminals and pumping stations on the southern coast.[33] Air Force combat controllers flew combat missions in MC-130H Combat Talon IIs and established austere desert airstrips to begin the flow of soldiers and supplies deep into Iraq. It was notably different from the Persian Gulf war of 1991, where Special Operations forces were mostly kept participating. But it would not be a replay of Afghanistan, where Army Special Forces and Navy SEALs led the fighting. After their star turn in Afghanistan, many special operators were disappointed to play a supporting role in Iraq. Many special operators felt restricted by cautious commanders.[34] From that point, USSOCOM has since killed or captured hundreds of insurgents and Al-Qaeda terrorists. It has conducted several foreign internal defense missions successfully training the Iraqi security forces.[35][36]


United States Special Operations Command played a pivotal role in fighting the former Taliban government in Afghanistan in 2001[37] and toppling it thereafter, as well as combating the insurgency and capturing Saddam Hussein in Iraq. USSOCOM in 2004 was developing plans to have an expanded and more complex role in the global campaign against terrorism,[38] and that role continued to emerge before and after the killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011.[39] In 2010, "of about 13,000 Special Operations forces deployed overseas, about 9,000 [were] evenly divided between Iraq and Afghanistan."[39]

A Special Forces soldier from 7th SFG(A) gives an Afghan boy a coloring book in Kandahar Province during a meeting with local leaders, 12 September 2002
A Special Forces soldier from 7th SFG(A) gives an Afghan boy a coloring book in Kandahar Province during a meeting with local leaders, 12 September 2002

In the initial stages of the War in Afghanistan, USSOCOM forces linked up with CIA Paramilitary Officers from Special Activities Division to defeat the Taliban without the need for large-scale conventional forces.[40] This was one of the biggest successes of the global War on Terrorism.[41] These units linked up several times during this war and engaged in several furious battles with the enemy. One such battle happened during Operation Anaconda, the mission to squeeze the life out of a Taliban and Al-Qaeda stronghold dug deep into the Shah-i-Kot mountains of eastern Afghanistan. The operation was seen as one of the heaviest and bloodiest fights in the War in Afghanistan.[42] The battle on an Afghan mountaintop called Takur Ghar featured special operations forces from all 4 services and the CIA. Navy SEALs, Army Rangers, Air Force Combat Controllers, and Pararescuemen fought against entrenched Al-Qaeda fighters atop a 10,000-foot (3,000 m) mountain. Subsequently, the entrenched Taliban became targets of every asset in the sky. According to an executive summary, the Battle of Takur Ghar was the most intense firefight American special operators have been involved in since 18 U.S. Army Rangers were killed in Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1993.[43][44][45] During Operation Red Wings on 28 June 2005, four Navy SEALs, pinned down in a firefight, radioed for help. A Chinook helicopter, carrying 16 service members, responded but was shot down. All members of the rescue team and three of four SEALs on the ground died. It was the worst loss of life in Afghanistan since the invasion in 2001. The Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell alone survived.[46][47] Team leader Michael P. Murphy was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions in the battle.[48]

Global presence

U.S. Air Force Special Tactics Commandos training in Jordan
U.S. Air Force Special Tactics Commandos training in Jordan

In 2010, special operations forces were deployed in 75 countries, compared with about 60 at the beginning of 2009.[39] In 2011, SOC spokesman Colonel Tim Nye (Army[49]) was reported to have said that the number of countries with SOC presence will likely reach 120 and that joint training exercises will have been carried out in most or all of those countries during the year. One study identified joint-training exercises in Belize, Brazil, Bulgaria, Burkina Faso, Germany, Indonesia, Mali, Norway, Panama, and Poland in 2010 and also, through mid-year 2011, in the Dominican Republic, Jordan, Romania, Senegal, South Korea, and Thailand, among other nations. In addition, SOC forces executed the high-profile killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011.[citation needed]

In November 2009 The Nation reported on a covert JSOC/Blackwater anti-terrorist operation in Pakistan.[50]

In 2010, White House counterterrorism director John O. Brennan said that the United States "will not merely respond after the fact" of a terrorist attack but will "take the fight to al-Qaeda and its extremist affiliates whether they plot and train in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and beyond." Olson said, "In some places, in deference to host-country sensitivities, we are lower in profile. In every place, Special Operations forces activities are coordinated with the U.S. ambassador and are under the operational control of the four-star regional commander."[39]

The conduct of actions by SOC forces outside of Iraq and Afghan war zones has been the subject of internal U.S. debate, including between representatives of the Bush administration such as John B. Bellinger III, on one hand, and the Obama administration on another. The United Nations in 2010 also "questioned the administration's authority under international law to conduct such raids, particularly when they kill innocent civilians. One possible legal justification – the permission of the country in question – is complicated in places such as Pakistan and Yemen, where the governments privately agree but do not publicly acknowledge approving the attacks," as one report put it.[39]

Subordinate Commands

Joint Special Operations Command

The Joint Special Operations Command insignia
The Joint Special Operations Command insignia

Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC)[51] is a component command of the USSOCOM and is charged to study special operations requirements and techniques to ensure interoperability and equipment standardization, plan and conduct special operations exercises and training, and develop Joint Special Operations Tactics.[1] It was established in 1980 on the recommendation of Col. Charlie Beckwith, in the aftermath of the failure of Operation Eagle Claw.[52]


Portions of JSOC units have made up the constantly changing special operations task force, operating in the U.S. Central Command area of operations. The Task Force 11, Task Force 121, Task Force 6-26 and Task Force 145 are creations of the Pentagon's post-11 September campaign against terrorism, and it quickly became the model for how the military would gain intelligence and battle insurgents in the future. Originally known as Task Force 121, it was formed in the summer of 2003 when the military merged two existing Special Operations units, one hunting Osama bin Laden in and around Afghanistan, and the other tracking Sadaam Hussein in Iraq.[60][61] [62]

Special Operations Command – Joint Capabilities

Special Operations Command – Joint Capabilities (SOC-JC) was transferred to USSOCOM from the soon-to-be disestablished United States Joint Forces Command in 2011. [63] Its primary mission was to train conventional and SOF commanders and their staffs to support USSOCOM international engagement training requirements, and support the implementation of capability solutions in order to improve strategic and operational Warfighting readiness and joint interoperability. SOC-JC must also be prepared to support the deployed Special Operations Joint Task Force (SOJTF) Headquarters (HQ).

The Government Accountability Office wrote that SOC-JC was disestablished in 2013, and positions were to be zeroed out in 2014.[64]


Army Special Operations Command

On 1 December 1989, the United States Army Special Operations Command (USASOC) activated as the 16th major Army command. These special operations forces have been America's spearhead for unconventional warfare for more than 40 years. USASOC commands such units as the well known Special Forces (SF, or the "Green Berets"), the Rangers, and such relatively unknown units as two psychological operations groups, a special aviation regiment, a civil affairs brigade, and a special sustainment brigade. These are one of the USSOCOM's main weapons for waging unconventional warfare and counter-insurgency. The significance of these units is emphasized as conventional conflicts are becoming less prevalent as insurgent and guerrilla warfare increases.[65][66][67][68]

Name Headquarters Structure and purpose
1st Special Forces Command (Airborne)
Fort Bragg, North Carolina The
1st Special Forces Command (Airborne) manages seven special forces groups—the
1st Special Forces Group (Airborne),
3rd Special Forces Group (Airborne),
5th Special Forces Group (Airborne),
7th Special Forces Group (Airborne),
10th Special Forces Group (Airborne),
19th Special Forces Group (Airborne) (ARNG) and
20th Special Forces Group (Airborne) (ARNG)—that are designed to deploy and execute nine doctrinal missions: unconventional warfare, foreign internal defense, direct action, counter-insurgency, special reconnaissance, counter-terrorism, information operations, counterproliferation of weapon of mass destruction, and security force assistance; each special forces group consists of three to four battalions with a group support company and headquarters company. The command also manages two psychological operations groups—the
4th Psychological Operations Group (Airborne) and
8th Psychological Operations Group (Airborne)—tasked to work with foreign nations to induce or reinforce behavior favorable to U.S. objectives; each psychological operations group consists of three to four battalions, most of which are geographically aligned. The command also manages the
95th Civil Affairs Brigade (Special Operations) (Airborne) which enables military commanders and U.S. ambassadors to achieve national objectives by countering adversary control and improving a partner's control over populations via five geographically focused battalions and the
528th Sustainment Brigade (Special Operations) (Airborne) that provides combat service support, combat medical support, and intelligence via multiple support operations teams and three battalions.
1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta
Ft. Bragg, North Carolina Elite special operations and counter-terrorism unit under the control of
Joint Special Operations Command.
75th Ranger Regiment
Fort Benning, Georgia In addition to a regimental headquarters, a Special Troops Battalion, and a military intelligence battalion, the
75th Ranger Regiment consists of three maneuver battalions of elite airborne infantry specializing in large-scale, joint forcible entry operations while simultaneously executing precision targeting operations raids across the globe. Additional capabilities include special reconnaissance, air assault, and direct action raids seizing key terrain such as airfields, destroying strategic facilities, and capturing or killing the enemies of the Nation. The Regiment also helps develop the equipment, technologies, training, and readiness that bridge the gap between special operations and conventional combat maneuver organizations.
Army Special Operations Aviation Command (Airborne)
Ft. Bragg, North Carolina The
Army Special Operations Aviation Command (Airborne) organizes, mans, trains, resources and equips Army special operations aviation units to provide responsive, special operations aviation support to Army Special Operations Forces (ARSOF) consisting of five units and the
160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne).
John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School
Ft. Bragg, North Carolina The
SWCS selects and trains Army Special Forces, Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations soldiers consisting of five distinct units and the Directorate of Training and Doctrine:
1st Special Warfare Training Group (Airborne)—which focuses on entry level training—,
2nd Special Warfare Training Group (Airborne)—which focuses on advanced training—,
Special Warfare Medical Group (Airborne)—which is part of the Joint Special Operations Medical Training Center—,
Special Forces Warrant Officer Institute, and
David K. Thuma Noncommissioned Officers Academy.


Special Forces soldiers from Task Force Dagger and Commander Abdul Rashid Dostum on horseback in the Dari-a-Souf Valley, Afghanistan, circa October 2001—celebrated in the movie "12 Strong"
Special Forces soldiers from Task Force Dagger and Commander Abdul Rashid Dostum on horseback in the Dari-a-Souf Valley, Afghanistan, circa October 2001—celebrated in the movie "12 Strong"
The 22nd STS's Red Team jumps out of an MH-47G Chinook from the 160th SOAR during helocast alternate insertion and extraction training
The 22nd STS's Red Team jumps out of an MH-47G Chinook from the 160th SOAR during helocast alternate insertion and extraction training

Marine Forces Special Operations Command

United States Marine Forces Special Operations Command emblem
DA/SR Operators from 1st SOB (Special Operations Battalion) respond to enemy fire in Afghanistan.
DA/SR Operators from 1st SOB (Special Operations Battalion) respond to enemy fire in Afghanistan.

In October 2005, the Secretary of Defense directed the formation of United States Marine Forces Special Operations Command, the Marine component of United States Special Operations Command. It was determined that the Marine Corps would initially form a unit of approximately 2500 to serve with USSOCOM. On February 24, 2006 MARSOC activated at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. MARSOC initially consisted of a small staff and the Foreign Military Training Unit (FMTU), which had been formed to conduct foreign internal defense. FMTU is now designated as the Marine Special Operations Advisor Group (MSOAG).[84]

As a service component of USSOCOM, MARSOC is tasked by the Commander USSOCOM to train, organize, equip, and deploy responsive U.S. Marine Corps special operations forces worldwide, in support of combatant commanders and other agencies. MARSOC has been directed to conduct foreign internal defense, direct action, and special reconnaissance. MARSOC has also been directed to develop a capability in unconventional warfare, counter-terrorism, and information operations. MARSOC deployed its first units in August 2006, six months after the group's initial activation. MARSOC reached full operational capability in October 2008.[85]


Naval Special Warfare Command

United States Naval Special Warfare Command emblem

The United States Naval Special Warfare Command (NAVSPECWARCOM, NAVSOC, or NSWC) was commissioned April 16, 1987, at Naval Amphibious Base Coronado in San Diego as the Naval component to the United States Special Operations Command. Naval Special Warfare Command provides vision, leadership, doctrinal guidance, resources and oversight to ensure component special operations forces are ready to meet the operational requirements of combatant commanders.[86] Today, SEAL Teams and Special Boat Teams comprise the elite combat units of Naval Special Warfare. These teams are organized, trained, and equipped to conduct a variety of missions to include direct action, special reconnaissance, counter-terrorism, foreign internal defense, unconventional warfare and support psychological and civil affairs operations. Their highly trained operators are deployed worldwide in support of National Command Authority objectives, conducting operations with other conventional and special operations forces.


SEALs emerge from the water during a demonstration.
SEALs emerge from the water during a demonstration.
A special warfare combatant-craft crewmen from Special Boat Team 22 fires a GAU-17 from a Special Operations Craft – Riverine (SOC-R).
A special warfare combatant-craft crewmen from Special Boat Team 22 fires a GAU-17 from a Special Operations Craft – Riverine (SOC-R).

Air Force Special Operations Command

Air Force Special Operations Command emblem
An AC-130U Spooky from the 4th Special Operations Squadron
Combat Controllers from the 21st Special Tactics Squadron conducting close air support training with A-10 pilots in Nevada
Combat Controllers from the 21st Special Tactics Squadron conducting close air support training with A-10 pilots in Nevada

Air Force Special Operations Command was established on May 22, 1990, with headquarters at Hurlburt Field, Florida. AFSOC is one of the 10 Air Force Major Commands or MAJCOMs, and the Air Force component of United States Special Operations Command. It holds operational and administrative oversight of subordinate special operations wings and groups in the regular Air Force, Air Force Reserve Command and the Air National Guard.

AFSOC provides Air Force special operations forces for worldwide deployment and assignment to regional unified commands. The command's SOF are composed of highly trained, rapidly deployable airmen, conducting global special operations missions ranging from the precision application of firepower via airstrikes or close air support, to infiltration, exfiltration, resupply and refueling of SOF operational elements.[92] AFSOC's unique capabilities include airborne radio and television broadcast for psychological operations, as well as aviation foreign internal defense instructors to provide other governments military expertise for their internal development.

The command's core missions include battlefield air operations; agile combat support; aviation foreign internal defense; information operations; precision aerospace fires; psychological operations; specialized air mobility; specialized refueling; and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.[34][93][94]



Order of Battle

Special Operations Command order of battle April 2020 (click to enlarge)
Special Operations Command order of battle April 2020 (click to enlarge)

List of commanders

Acting U.S. Secretary of Defense Patrick M. Shanahan (left), outgoing combatant commander Raymond A. Thomas III (center), and incoming commander Richard D. Clarke (right) at the USSOCOM change of command ceremony on 29 March 2019.
Acting U.S. Secretary of Defense Patrick M. Shanahan (left), outgoing combatant commander Raymond A. Thomas III (center), and incoming commander Richard D. Clarke (right) at the USSOCOM change of command ceremony on 29 March 2019.
No. Commander Term Service branch
Portrait Name Took office Left office Term length
Lindsay, James J.General
James J. Lindsay
(born 1932)
16 April 198727 June 19903 years, 72 days

U.S. Army
Stiner, Carl W.General
Carl W. Stiner
(born 1936)
27 June 199020 May 19932 years, 327 days

U.S. Army
Downing, Wayne A.General
Wayne A. Downing
20 May 199329 February 19962 years, 285 days

U.S. Army
Shelton, Henry H.General
Henry H. Shelton
(born 1942)
29 February 199625 September 19971 year, 209 days

U.S. Army
Smith, Raymond C. Jr.Rear Admiral
Raymond C. Smith Jr.
25 September 19975 November 199741 days

U.S. Navy
Schoomaker, PeterGeneral
Peter J. Schoomaker
(born 1946)
5 November 199727 October 20002 years, 357 days

U.S. Army
Holland, Charles R.General
Charles R. Holland
(born 1948)
27 October 20002 September 20032 years, 310 days

U.S. Air Force
Brown, Bryan D.General
Bryan D. Brown
(born 1948)
2 September 20039 July 20073 years, 310 days

U.S. Army
Olson, Eric T.Admiral
Eric T. Olson
(born 1952)
9 July 20078 August 20114 years, 30 days

U.S. Navy
McRaven, William H.Admiral
William H. McRaven
(born 1955)
8 August 201128 August 20143 years, 20 days

U.S. Navy
Votel, Joseph L.General
Joseph L. Votel
(born 1958)
28 August 201430 March 20161 year, 215 days

U.S. Army
Thomas, Raymond A.General
Raymond A. Thomas
(born 1958)
30 March 201629 March 20192 years, 364 days

U.S. Army
Clarke, Richard D.General
Richard D. Clarke
(born 1962)
29 March 2019Incumbent2 years, 297 days

U.S. Army


USSOCOM Medal Ribbon Bar
USSOCOM Medal Ribbon Bar

The United States Special Operations Command Medal was introduced in 1994 to recognize individuals for outstanding contributions to, and in support of, special operations. Some notable recipients include;

Since it was created, there have been more than 50 recipients, only six of whom were not American, including;

(† posthumously)



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