Special Operations: July 11, 2005


: Who are the best special forces? These are the troops who carry out a large number of missions that rarely, if ever, make headlines. Most of these groups want to keep things quiet. This is a big deal, since they are relatively small forces containing very highly trained soldiers the training often takes years, and is done at a very high standard. For example,  eight out of ten trying to become Air Force pararescuemen wash out at one point or another.

While there are many special forces organizations in the world, the following are those that stand out in terms of quality and quantity.

The United States has a wide variety of special forces (nicknamed snake eaters). One of the most famous, due to Hollywood portrayals, are the SEALs. The United States has about 2300 SEALs, divided among six SEAL Teams (with 50 platoons of 16 men between them), plus DEVGRU (the new designation for SEAL Team Six). SEAL Team One (8 platoons) covers Southeast Asia (including hot spots like Indonesia and the Philippines), and , SEAL Team Two (8 platoons) covers Europe (including the Balkans), SEAL Team Three (8 platoons) handles Southwest Asia (think the Arabian Peninsula and Iraq), SEAL Team Four (10 platoons) covers Central and South America (Colombia and Venezuela), SEAL Team Five covers the Northern Pacific (North Korea), and SEAL Team Eight covers the Caribbean, Med, and Africa (Nigeria). The manpower and structure of DEVGRU/SEAL Team Six is classified, but some estimates place the total of personnel in that group at 200. It has been mixed in with an administrative and testing section of 300 personnel.

The U.S. Army also has Special Forces, better known as the Green Berets. These are in seven groups (five active, two reserve), each with 1400 personnel. Each group has a total of fifty-four A teams, organized into three battalions, each with three companies (consisting of six A teams each with twelve men). These groups also have geographic assignments: The 1st Special Forces Group is assigned to Pacific Command (with a battalion in Okinawa), the 3rd Special Forces Group is assigned to European Command (specializing in Africa), the 5th Special Forces Group is assigned to Central Command, the 7th Special Forces Group is assigned to Southern Command, and the 10th Special Forces Group is assigned to European Command (with a battalion in Germany). The two reserve groups also work with various commands. The 19th Special Forces Group is assigned to Central and Pacific Commands, while the 20th is under Southern Command.

The British Special Air Service is one of the most well-known special operations groups. It got its start in World War II, when it carried out numerous missions in North Africa under David Stirling making life miserable for the Afrika Korps. The 22nd SAS is the active duty regiment, and has four Sabre squadrons (A, B, D, and G Squadrons), each with 6 officers and 78 men. Two reserve SAS regiments also exist, the 21st (with A, C, and E Squadrons) and the 23rd (with A, B, and C squadrons).  When support troops like the 264th Squadron (a communications unit) various headquarters units, and the retirees of R Squadron are added, that the SAS consists of about 1,000 men.

Not as well-known as the SAS, but even more selective, is the Special Boat Section (SBS). This unit consists of three squadrons (C, M, and S Squadrons) and is part of the Royal Marines. SBS members first must undergo SAS selection, then receive additional training in diving, photography, canoeing, and other skills. Among its operations include missions to convince Iraqi troops that amphibious landings were imminent in the 1991 liberation of Kuwait (a mission also performed by SEALs), the liberation of South Georgia during the Falklands War, and covert operations in Northern Ireland.

Germany also features superb special forces with a track record of success. The two major units are Grenzschutzgruppe 9 (GSG-9), and Kommando Spezialkrafte (KSK). GSG-9 is part of the German police, and was founded in the wake of the terrorist attack during 1972 Munich Olympics that left 11 Israeli athletes dead. It has about 250 men in its three main sub-groups, and among its successes were the recapture of hijacked airliners in 1977 and 1994. In its 1300 missions (many kept classified), there have been only four occasions where shots have been fired (the two confirmed incidents were the 1977 hostage-rescue of a Lufthansa airliner, and a 1993 shootout with two Red Army Faction terrorists). KSK is part of the Bundeswehr, and has 420 men in four fighting subgroups (out of a total of 1,000). Not much is known about their operations yet, but they have been deployed to Kosovo and Afghanistan.

This is not an exhaustive list, but these are probably the most famous of the groups out there. The SAS is probably the best of these groups, due to a long track record (since 1941) of making life miserable for bad guys from Nazi Germany to al-Qaeda. Special operations troops will be around for a long time often succeeding quietly. Harold C. Hutchison ([email protected])


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