Is One of the Special Operations Truths… False?

You may be familiar with the Special Operations Truths. Originally there were four; later, the fifth was added. They are:

  1. Humans are more important than hardware.
  2. Quality is better than quantity
  3. Special Operations Forces cannot be mass-produced
  4. Competent SOF cannot be created after emergencies occur.
  5. Most special operations require non-SOF assistance.

The history of the SOF Truths has been recounted in these pages in January, 2012.

We’re going to zero in on Number Four, which we’ve been thinking about for a while. And we’re wondering if it’s simply not true. 

Here is a partial list of United States SOF that were created in anticipation of some emergency, future, unspecified.

  1. Airborne Ranger Infantry Companies (1950)
  2. US Army Special Forces (1952). Although you can argue this was reactive to the Cold War.
  3. Navy SEa Air and Land Teams (SEALs, ~ 1961).
  4. 1st SFOD-D (~1977). Although you can argue this was reactive to ,the terrorist plague of the early 70s, the Israeli raid on Entebbe and the absence of any parallel US capability at the time.
  5. USMC Scout/Snipers (date of founding? He’p me out, hogs).
  6. Various small and secretive detachments with specific tasks if the Cold War went hot. (Det A / PSSE for example).

Here is a partial list of United States SOF that were created once the emergency was underway:

  1. Rogers’s Rangers (French & Indian War aka 7 Years’ War)
  2. Morgan’s Rifles (Revolution)
  3. All USA and CSA Sharpshooters and other SOF and quasi-SOF elements (Civil War)
  4. Ranger Battalions (WWII)
  5. OSS Jedburghs and Operational Groups (WWII)
  6. OSS Maritime Unit (WWII)
  7. Underwater Demolition Teams & forerunners (WWII)
  8. Ad hoc Filipino guerrillas (WWII)
  9. Alamo Scouts (WWII)
  10. Marine Raiders (early WWII)
  11. 1st Air Commandos (USAAF, WWII)
  12. MARS Task Force / Merrill’s Marauders (WWII)
  13. 1st Canadian-American Special Service Force (WWII)
  14. UNPIK (Korean War)
  15. LRRP / Ranger Companies (Vietnam)
  16. Recondo elements (VN)
  17. MAC-V SOG (VN)
  18. MIKE Force, MSF, MGF, ad-hoc combined units led by Special Forces (VN)
  19. Numerous small USAF “mobs for jobs” (VN)
  20. Task Force Ivory Coast / Son Tay Raiders (VN).

Here are units that were stood up in reaction to failures of ad-hoc units or improvised task forces:

  1. Special Operations Aviation Regiment and forerunners (US Army)
  2. JSOC, USSOCOM, and the whole constellation of star/flag commands created by the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986.

We suspect an analysis of allied or competitor SOF history would demonstrate something similar. After all, among the things that define SOF are fitness for purpose and adaptability to situation.

Conclusion: it’s not only possible to create ad hoc units after the crisis is upon you, some legendary units were created that way. To be fair, it did take them one to two years of training to be combat effective, and it’s possible that the SOF Truth is just trying to jump-start that training ramp-up by having a force in being ante bellum, but that’s not what it says. 

It’s possible that our historical interests have led us astray, and we’re listing too many historic units in the “post crisis” side, and leaving out key elements in the “pre crisis” side. Commenters, what’s missing?

47 thoughts on “Is One of the Special Operations Truths… False?

  1. Hillbilly

    When did CCT come about? I know PJ’s have been around a while but not sure where they fall in the created during or in anticipation of (unless they were meant to be covered in various AF mobs).
    Force Recon is another which I know was active in VN, but again not sure how they came about.
    Sniping wise the US seems to have been stand up training as needed till after VN at least from all I’ve read on the subject.
    I do have a book that might answer the Scout Sniper question. I’ll take a look.

    1. Hognose Post author

      D’oh. Of course. Of the French and Indian war, as it’s known here. I’ll correct. In the Revolution, Robert Rogers raised a regiment of Loyalist Rangers for the King.

      1. staghounds

        As one does. I suppose that almost every partisan group arises in the crisis, but yet until the post 1945 era there were no standing army units tasked to help out. All ad hoc, over and over. A strange blind spot.

        1. Keith

          I suspect a lot of that was willful blindness on the part of command elements between the wars. After all sneaking around in the bushes was an honorable fight in there minds. The whole attitude to me exemplified by the following story I read once. A captured British armor officer demanded to see the gun that was shooting up his tanks after capture. So the Germans showed him a FlaK 18 ’88’. The recorded comment was, “It’s not cricket to use an AA gun against tanks!”

          Keep your powder dry and your faith in God.

          1. John M.

            I suspect that many people would have that reaction if it’s his tank and the other bloke’s AA gun.

            -John M.

  2. John M.

    I think this may come down to what is meant by “emergency.” If by “emergency,” you mean, “say, there’s a war on…” then there’s plenty of precedent for standing up competent SOF under such conditions, as you point out.

    If by “emergency” you mean something like, “say, the People’s Popular Front for the Liberation of the Palestinian People have a bunch of hostages down in Entebbe and we should really do something about that…” then I surmise that there’s very little precedent for standing up competent SOF under such conditions.

    -John M.

  3. Forrest

    I believe more than one of them are false if we look at them as black and white truths instead of generalisms.

    1. Humans are more important than hardware.
    If the job is taking a photo of something, all the humans in the world ain’t gonna do you much good if none of them have a camera. Sometimes humans are just there to operate the hardware.

    2. Quality is better than quantity
    Quantity has a quality all it’s own. Some jobs need a specialist, some just need a warm body to hold stuff.

    3. Special Operations Forces cannot be mass-produced.
    Unless you count kamakazi pilots as SOF, this is probably true.

    4. Competent SOF cannot be created after emergencies occur.
    (What you said)

    5. Most special operations require non-SOF assistance.
    This one is also probably true. Somebody has to pack the lunches.

    1. jim h

      hmmm. generally agree, with two caveats, one of which is a quote:

      re #1 response: all the cameras in the world won’t help you if there’s no human to transport said camera to the photo op. and some things really can’t be adequately measured by a camera alone: morale, specific disciplines, and spotting veteran or well-trained talent among the peasant conscripts. so let’s call it a mixture of quality equipment with quality personnel.

      re # 2 response: “I’d rather go down the river with seven studs than with a hundred shitheads”
      –Colonel Charlie Beckwith….and of course, you could counter that with some jobs being staffed by entire ghost organizations, such as false radio traffic and fictional units, as was done in WWII. but the bottom line is that doing any job SOF is engaged in needs to be done well, and not all warm bodies are up to the task. you’re absolutely correct though, as it pertains to conventional forces. we tend to promote those warm bodies into positions with increasing hazard to the crunchies on the ground though. :/

      I count kamikazes as “special” forces. read “short bus” in that. very little gain for the wastage of human life.

      1. Hognose Post author

        Re: Kamikazis. There’s always a mystical element in suicide tactics, wherever employed. That’s because as practical military tactics, they’re retarded. But humans are creatures of emotion more than reason, as is demonstrated to us daily.

  4. Kirk

    I think the concept is conflating things and mistaking “Effect B” as being something that is a direct result of “Cause A”, while the reality is that there really is no relationship between the two, at all. Correlation does not imply causation, in other words.

    Some aspects of “special operations”, which can be said to be a modern-day follow-on to the old “elite units” of old, are indeed things you can’t quite create out of thin air. It takes time to train helicopter pilots like the guys who fly for Task Force 160, and those kind of pilots don’t grow on trees, anyway. Likewise, you want elite longbowmen? You’re not going to stand up a force of those dudes overnight, either. Some skills are absolutely going to have to be grown from the ground up.

    That being said…? There is also no need whatsoever to have these forces “in being” while their new enabling technology is being invented–Early days of the helicopter? How could you do that, since the equipment they’re going to use is in the process of being created? Likewise, when things are in a state of flux, as in the near-defeat in the Western Desert that the UK was experiencing, things like the SAS and the LRDG could be stood up and put to work, because they were in the process of inventing themselves to answer a set of conditions that nobody had predicted before the war. Sure, the Brits could have foreseen the need for a long-range desert force, extrapolating forward from Lawrence of Arabia’s experiences, but… They did not. So, the SAS and LRDG were called into being, and bang, there they are. Lots of elite “special forces” get created that way. Go back and look at the the old elite forces–The French cavalry often copied things over from elements like the Croatian borderers, who gave us the necktie as a fashion statement, and whose descendents can be seen in things like the Hussars, who were copied from the Polish cavalry.

    I think the essence of the mistake is to think that these forces are somehow the product of a willful act of creation, when the reality is that they’re often things that come to be as competent men and charismatic leaders deal with problems they encounter. You’re often going to do better with an ad-hoc solution to a problem than you are with a sanctioned, institutional one, if only because the people taking part in the institutional solution are generally going to be hide-bound, institutional men, while guys like David Stirling and Robert T. Frederick are that rara avis, genuine free-thinkers who solve problems as they find them, in generally unconventional ways.

    I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: We need to “break the phalanx” in terms of these concepts we have of the plodding, hide-bound “organizational approach”, and start figuring out how the hell we can instead institutionalize, enable, and empower guys like David Stirling and Robert T. Frederick. You want an SAS or a First Special Service Force? Figure out what the hell went into making those two leaders, and then concentrate on making that sort of leadership the standard.

    I am not a fan of the way we organize and do things in our civilization. Somehow, we manage to turn the most promising starts, like the 1st SSF, into dead ends. Someone really needs to tell me how it is that Frederick’s techniques and leadership styles were not studied and emulated all through the Army, given the standards that he got the 1st SSF to, using minimal facilities and on a shoestring budget. A lot of folks don’t know the details of that unit, but when they went to do the Ground Forces Command deployment tests for things like embarking and debarking from ships, they pretty much blew the records for everything seen up to that point–And, to make it even more impressive, some of the stuff they managed to do for the testing they were required to do at the last minute wasn’t even stuff they’d trained on. They had somehow managed to institutionalize and internalize a “learning organization” process and culture that was highly adaptable and able to do things that other units couldn’t even do with extensive practice. I saw some of the records of those tests, once, and the thing that blew my mind was just how well they had done on them, compared to some units of the Regular Army that had done nothing but practice for stuff like the invasion of Attu. Crazy-high performance–And, supposedly, they did even better on the mountain warfare stuff than a lot of the guys at 10th Mountain did, with all the “elite chosen skiers” that the 10th had. A lot of the guys in 1st SSF had never seen skis, before the Norwegian instructors they had showed up with them. Incredible performance, and from a conventional unit standpoint, I want to know why the hell Fredericks’s training techniques and leadership weren’t made the standard after the war. Hell, he ran his own jump school, and got better results from it than the formal ones…

    1. Jim Scrummy

      I see another fan of the FSSF. That unit (probably the best trained/most capable ground unit in WWII) was a reflection of General Fredericks and his standards. Unfortunately, we can’t bottle up Gen. Fredericks LEADERSHIP attributes and distribute it to many of the current FOGOs…

      1. James N

        I was fortunate enough to get to pay a visit to the island of Port-Cros, off the French Riviera in the Mediterranean Sea while on holiday with my wife. It was here the FSSF fought their way across the island, clearing out five German held forts, with the help of some offshore naval bombardment. I did my best to follow the route used by the two teams, from the tiny beach they came ashore ( Baie de Port Man), through various engagements and ending the fighting at the Fort du Moulin ( with I think the surrender of the garrison inside. The Devil’s Brigade lost nine soldiers in the fighting. It was a beautiful island, with a lot of history. I did a lot of reading when I found out we were going there, I think the battle of the Port-Cros was the very tail end of the FSSF campaign, I imagine they were pretty burnt out by this stage.

        1. james n

          Sorry guys I’ve no idea why that pic uploaded sideways. That’s what you get for posting from an iPhone.

  5. staghounds

    Come to think of it, I can’t think of a standing “Special Operations Force” as such that was ever set up before a war, until the Brandenburgers. The historical pattern is that special units are born for and die with the crisis- regular armies hate them. As you know.

    1. DSM

      I know that’s when the current iteration came into existence. They also stood up a Scout/Sniper course in response to WWII, Korea saw informal use (to me read more like squad DMs comparatively) and of course the in-country courses established in Vietnam that contributed to the permanent establishment of the TO&E.
      The Vietnam era example would actually serve to contradict the SOF truth because they went into it without the capability and then walked out as the shining star of how to do it. However, the counterpoint is that you if you’re able to start with a handpicked cadre as they did you’ll be able to gain results faster.

      Hognose, on that same topic as I understand it the Army didn’t officially establish a service wide sniper TO&E until the M24 rolled along in the 80s? Prior to that it was all at the discretion of unit commanders and whatever M21s could be found that could still shoot well enough. Was that a deliberate move to preempt that SOF truth or a happy coincidence of a separate initiative?

      1. SemeprFido

        In WW1 the Marine expeditionary forces were famed, and feared for their rifle accuracy also. Teufelshunde indeed.

    2. Aesop

      The Marines had snipers in both WWII and Korea, but the first organizational iteration was a course by then-Captain Land in 1961. In 1966, 1stMarDiv CG Nickerson bumped into Land at his ordnance shop on Okinawa, was impressed by what he’d seen stateside, and had him transferred to Danang, where he, Sgt. Hathcock, and others organized the 1stMarDiv Scout/Sniper Platoon in 1966.

      With a platoon confirmed body count higher than most Marine regiments many months during the VN War, this time the lesson of the value of combat shipers took hold, and the Marines haven’t let go of them to the present.

      1. DSM

        I’ll have to go back through the books but ISTR 3rdMarDiv established the first in-country Scout/Sniper course and fielded the first shooters as Capt Land had to round up people and equipment that hadn’t been picked over before him. The bulk of their initial equipment was WWII & Korea era M1Cs and Ds (or the Marine peculiar MC1 Garand) and the infamous mix of Winchester 70s with the WWII USMC 8x Unertls associated with Hathcock (though by his own admission he preferred the newer M40.)

        But that’s really just splitting detailed hairs because when you look at the overall picture in that relatively short amount of time they went in with essentially nothing and came out as arguably the gold standard.

        1. Aesop

          Another reference:
          Senich, Peter R. (1996). The one-round war: USMC scout-snipers in Vietnam. Paladin Press. p. 10. ISBN 9780873648677. :“The task of organizing a First Marine Division sniper program was assigned to Capt. Edward J. “Jim” Land Jr., an accomplished marksman and member of several championship Marine Corps shooting teams.”

          And I was mistaken about one thing: USMC cancelled sniping (again) in 1972, but in 1975, Land was given the task of organizing it USMC-wide, and in 1977, the first, and current (and continuing since then) scout-sniper course was taught at Quantico.

          So it only took 36 years to defeat institutional hidebound stupidity, which has to be a record for HQMC.

          1. DSM

            Senich’s book would be where I’d turn. I may be remembering it incorrectly but I recall that there were two programs running parallel to each other at the time. I do not doubt Mr. Land’s ownership of the 1st MarDiv’s program.

            As an aside, I’ve tracked down an original (circa Sep 1966 by the stamps) M40 barrel, numbered mount and stock. Been hem hawing about rebuilding on a 6 digit Remmy action I’ve been sitting on for about 15 years.

          2. DSM

            Only because if was bugging me: Per Senich’s “One Round War”, 3rd MarDiv (III MAF) was credited with establishing the first sniper program in Vietnam under the command of then Capt Robert Russell. Assembling his cadre, conducting test operations first and then graduating the first class in November 1965.

  6. Mike

    Add the 8th Air Force carpetbagger squadrons of the 801st/492nd Bombardment Group to the list of SOF stood up in response to a need.

    1. Mike

      Apologies for the triple post; I didn’t see the first two had posted until this morning.

      1. Hognose Post author

        I think they got hung up in moderation and I might have liberated two instead of just one. Why they got tossed into moderation is a secret of the WordPress and plugin priesthood; I’m just an Indian in this tribe.

  7. Bruce

    “Special” forces also tend to be a “problem” politically.

    They have skills and “attitude” that you do not want to arrive on your lawn at “0 Dark Hundred”.

    Thus, they are “feared” by some political players and are subject to being suborned by others.

    In WW2, the Nazi party had its own “special forces” ARMY, the SS, lavishly equipped and tasked to regularly do stuff at which your basic Wehrmacht conscript “Fritz” would probably blanch.

    The Soviets had several iterations that culminated in “Spetznaz”.

    The French have their “Legion”, and so-on and so-on.

    Many governments are “relatively” lavish with a small special forces establishment; they also use their existence and “selected” activities for the occasional bit of “show-boating”.

    The catch is that, once “politicized” they become a bit of a different political problem: What happens when the “magic” wears off?

    This is probably why SF outfits in many countries get “stood-up” and then “reorganized” / disbanded with monotonous regularity .


    Several comments, as follows:
    1. The Airborne Ranger Companies were formed AFTER the Korean War started, in the Summer of 1950,
    with the establishment of the Ranger Training Command, at Fort Benning. This became the Ranger Department of USAIS, after the Korean War, following the disbandment of the Airborne Ranger Companies and the beginning of the modern-day, 59-day Ranger School.
    GEN McArthur also formed his own Airborne Ranger Company AFTER the Korean War started, drawing
    from Airborne and Ranger veterans “in Theatre”, i.e., among the Occupation Forces in Japan. This ad-hoc Ranger Company did not undergo pre-deployment training at Fort Benning.
    It is worth mention that, during WWII, GEN McArthur also formed his own Ranger Battalion (6th Ranger Battalion) from “in Theatre” volunteers, principally US Army Forces in Australia/New Zealand. COL Arthur (“Bull”) Simmons, then an Artillery 2LT, volunteered for 6th Ranger Battalion.
    2. US Marine “Scout-Sniper” is a Military Occupation Specialty (MOS) or Additional Skill Identifier, and not a unit, although there may be a Scout-Sniper Section in an Infantry Battalion.
    3. From the Ranger Handbook, “Standing Orders for Rogers’s Rangers”: “Don’t sleep beyond dawn. Dawn is when the FRENCH and the INDIANS attack.”. Robert Rogers’s Rangers fought in the “Seven Years War” (1756-1763),, a/k/a “French and Indian Wars”.
    4.UNPIK (UN Partisan INFANTRY Korea) is usually referred to as UNPFK (UN Partisan FORCES Korea).
    The “Cover Unit” was JACK (Joint Advisory Command–Korea). Then MAJ/LTC Jack Singlaub was the S3 and/or XO.
    5. QUESTION: Was not SF created in 1952 to carry-on the Paramilitary mission of the inter-Agency Office of Policy Coordination (OPC)? OPC merged with Office of Special Operations to create the Clandestine Service in 1952. OPC, in conjunction with UK, ran Paramilitary operations in Estonia/Latvia/Lithuania, Albania (well-documented), and The Ukraine.
    6. COMMENT: It seems that ALL Post-War elite SF/SO units require the “Gut Check”/”Test of Manliness” of Airborne qualification, either before beginning training (e.g., SF) or after (e.g., SEALS attending Airborne School after BUD/S in 1970s).

  9. gavin

    The “SOF Truths” are not “true” simply because USSOCOM PAO deems it so. In the rarified air of Tampa and the NCR, trite sound bites sell, so the “SOF Truths” are just that.

    So, don’t tell me your priorities or your “truths.” Show me what you spend your time and money on, and I will show you your priorities and your “truths.” A quick study of what DoD and USSOCOM spend their time and money on will reveal the actual “SOF Truths.”


      1. gavin

        I realized the “truths” were window dressing when MG Parker descended from Mount Sinai, with the “You will produce 750 Green Berets a Year” Commandment from God (ably played by Donald Rumsfeld) chiseled on stone tablets. We immediately set about to create a whole bunch more “competent SOF” than we ever had before, with “updated standards” to ensure we were evaluating “relevant skills.”

        1. Aesop

          Producing that many berets annually is child’s play.

          As I understand it though, finding the men worthy of standing under them is the tricky part. ;)

  10. Aesop

    On the greater question, let’s be fair:
    1) IIRC, the WWII mobilization was ultimately one out of six men in the US between age 18 and 40. That’s one helluva talent pool to draw from, including men from a tougher generation mentally and physically, including the entire panoply of all professional sports, one which would make SFAS and Ranger Selection guys cream their pants.
    2) The later stand-ups frequently had the helpful precursors of Airborne, Ranger, and SF candidates pre-identified and qualified, so pulling the later rabbits out of such a hatful of rabbits in the 1970s, 1980s, and onward, is nothing like doing the same thing on, say, December 8th, 1941, when you had functionally nothing but guesswork going for you.

  11. W. Fleetwood

    Rather than Robert Rogers were you perhaps thinking of George Rogers Clark?

    Sua Sponte.

  12. Mike

    What category would you slot a regular unit that gets re-missioned into conducting SOF missions? The USAF 20th Helicopter Squadron were tasked while in Vietnam to start conducting missions in support of SF and SOG, and became the 20th Special Operations Squadron.

    1. Hognose Post author

      What the hell was their call sign there, I have it on the tip of my tongue. They actually had their US national insignia (stars and bars) on a piece of aluminum that could be slipped into and out of place to go sterile.

      1. Mike

        They were called ‘The Pony Express’ for the transport section, and ‘The Green Hornets’ for the gunship section.

        1. Mike

          Correction; the CH-3s were the ‘Pony Express’, and the UH-1Fs were the ‘Green Hornets’.
          CPT James Fleming, USAF, got his MOH for rescuing an SF team while flying a Green Hornet.

  13. bloke_from_ohio

    Applying a quality over quantity maxim in absolute terms courts the risk of making your forces too thin at an operational and strategic level. Quality only trumps quantity where the quality required of a given force does not impose too severe a penalty to the size of the force you are able to field. No matter how competent your individual operators are, or how effective the teams are, mass is still a principal of war.

    I have a sneaking suspicion that within the SOF world such caveats are implicit. But, I fear that it bears repeating for service members outside that community and even more so for civilians and civilian leaders. Otherwise you might give the impression that undermanning SOF is okay as long as the guys you do have are high speed low drag enough (to use a tortured metaphor).

  14. Fred

    Funny, when you(‘re country) is being shot at, it tends to focus the mind. Also, weren’t the Marines stood up from scratch to fight the barbary pirates (moslim raiders, slavers, pillagers, and plunderers.. eh-hem)?

  15. Jorge

    You can produce SOF quickly if you have the raw material for them already. You’re not going to get 5,000 new fully trained SF guys who know Basque in one year. If you want 5,000 Rangers who know Spanish and airfield seizures, you could probably get that in one year.

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