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Elite combat units are not an innovation of the American military. Since the dawn of warfare, commanders have assembled special men into special units to perform special missions. According to legend, English King Arthur surrounded himself with a few dozen carefully selected armed soldiers who become known as the Knights of the Round Table.
The earliest commander for whom reliable records of military operations survive took advantage of the skills of elite* warriors. In 539 b.c. Cyrus the Great, while king of Persia, combined small units of archers and cavalry to defeat larger units armed with pikes and swords. By the time of his death ten years later Cyrus controlled much of the civilized world and ruled over history's first great empire.
Two centuries later Alexander the Great of Macedonia conquered the Persian Empire. His elite sarissas units fought with pikes twice the length of ordinary spears and established the tradition for the next fifteen hundred years whereby military elites were those employing innovations in weaponry. Fernandez Gonzalo de Cordoba used a small, elite unit of infantrymen armed with heavy, shoulder-fired muskets known as arquebuses to gain a Spanish victory over the French on April 28, 1498.
* The English word elite comes from a similar French word meaning "the choice" or "the most carefully selected." Historically its most common use has been in reference to social classes. Its military usage has occurred only in the past one hundred years.
Elite units with superior weapons and equipment again proved successful a short time later. Hernán Cortés, with fewer than six hundred Spanish soldiers supported by twenty horses and ten small cannonlike muskets, conquered an Aztec Empire populated by more than five million people in 1519, giving Spain claim to all of Central America. In 1531 another Spaniard, Francisco Pizarro, defeated the Incas with an elite force of only two hundred men. In addition to spears and swords Pizarro's warriors carried three arquebuses and twenty crossbows.
For a significant span of time special units armed with the most modern weapons and equipment of the day continued to win battles. However, advances in technology and the integration of musket-armed infantrymen, artillery, and cavalry greatly changed the scope of warfare. Kings and commanders discovered that small elite forces, even when properly armed, could not survive against large standing armies, even if the latter were poorly trained and armed. Size and numbers do make a difference; huge armies consistently prove victorious over small forces.
As the scope of warfare changed, the need for more numerous forces followed. Armies of a few thousand men could no longer decide wars with a single battle fought in an area of only a few miles where commanders could see, command, and participate in the entire fight. By the eighteenth century wars were fought on multiple land and sea fronts between armies and navies of tens or even hundreds of thousands. Elite units still guarded their kings, admirals, or generals, but they played less and less of a role in the actual outcome of battles. Instead of designating a single elite knight in shining armor, a dozen special pikemen, or even a company of musketeers, the elite title expanded to entire regiments and divisions. Single ships, or fleets of vessels under command of a single captain, also began to be mentioned among the elite.
The record of elite military warriors in America coincides with the arrival of Europeans on the continent. The settlement of colonial America brought a brief return of small elite units as key forces in combat. North America's huge space of uncharted forests and waterways far exceeded the capability of any army or navy of the period to dominate. Its population of Native Americans, loosely organized into more than five hundred tribes, relied on stealth and individual bravery rather than the massing of forces or the sophistication of weapons.
When Native Americans defended their territory against other tribes and the European immigrants, they employed fast actions of short duration. Ambushes, running fights, and brief engagements fought with handheld clubs, spears, and bows and arrows typified Indian warfare. Even after securing muskets and other firearms, Native Americans rarely had the manpower or desire to conduct "conventional warfare."
While Hernán Cortés and Francisco Pizarro easily defeated the dominant tribes of Central and South America in the sixteenth century, other Spaniards, as well as the English and French, found the diverse Indian tribes of North America to be much more difficult opponents. The early European settlers saw the Indians use entirely new battle tactics and, being few in number themselves, adopted the same techniques. Communities and colonies formed, trained, and equipped militia units to defend their property as well as to conduct offensives to destroy the Indians and claim their lands. Some of these units, such as Church's and Rogers's Rangers, became so adept at out-Indianing the Indians that they became the first American military elites.
From the opening shots in 1775 at Lexington green that started the American Revolution, the rebel colonists discovered that their militias could not fight successfully against the superior numbers of the better-trained British army. As a result, George Washington and his subordinates often formed special units to conduct reconnaissance and raids against the redcoats while generally fighting fixed battles only when no other choice was available. British commanders attempted to form a few elite cavalry and marksmanship units to combat the rebels but usually relied on their superior conventional forces.
Neither could the Americans match the number of British warships, so instead of launching fleets, they manned individual vessels with specially selected crews and officers to engage British merchant ships and single man-of-wars. To assist in boarding enemy vessels, and at times to defend captains from their own crews, the Continental Congress authorized the formation of the U.S. Marine Corps in 1775.
The Americans, in both the North and South, eventually discovered the need for larger units of special soldiers during the Civil War. Cavalry increased from small bands to full divisions. Confederates J. E. B. Stuart, John Mosby, and John Morgan led cavalry on reconnaissance and raids that gained the attention of the public as well as their generals. Various infantry brigades on both sides deservedly earned reputations as the elites of their armies. However, other than a few specially equipped marksmen or snipers, few true blood warriors in the modern sense emerged from the war.
During the American Indian wars that prevailed during the three decades following the Civil War, conventional cavalry and infantry bore the brunt of the fighting. The only forces that met the general requirements for identification as warrior elites were bands of Indians briefly assembled against the U.S. Army and several groups of Indian Scouts who fought against their own race in support of the white Americans.
The twentieth century brought even more change to warfare and the influence of warrior elites. Lessons learned in the use of artillery, wire communications, rail support, and massed infantry during the American Civil War, the Crimean War, and other European conflicts of the latter half of the 1800s made combat even more brutal and lethal. Entire nations mobilized, with all their matériel and manpower assets devoted to the conflict. Huge armies of conscripts replaced small professional forces. Heavy artillery, repeating rifles, and machine guns greatly increased the firepower of the infantry and the overall lethality of the battlefield.
By the time the Great War began in 1914, conflict was not among a few countries but rather consumed the entire world. Total war became the term for bloody conflict that would kill off an entire generation of young men-especially those of Britain, France, and Germany. By the end of the war in 1918, horse cavalry was basically finished as a means of warfare, and technology began to compete with and even exceed manpower as the dominant combat factor.
The hundreds of miles of trench lines that snaked across Europe in the Great War, however, did not lend themselves to small, specially trained units. Days or even weeks of combat often produced only a few yards of gain and left the no-man's-land between the trenches covered in rotting corpses. Oddly, in a conflict where the infantry of both sides were actually masses of blood warriors, the soldiers who received the most press and public interest, fighter pilots, never even got their boots muddy.
While the Great War involved most of the world, its land and sea battles were limited to a small portion of the earth's surface. It was not until twenty years after the "war to end all wars" concluded that the Second World War truly involved the entire planet and spread warfare across the earth's seas and landmasses. The Second World War added even greater technical advances in weaponry that made trench warfare impractical. The primary tactic became the maneuvering and massing of forces at enemy weak points to break through to rear areas and command centers. Without static trench lines limited to relatively small areas in which to fight battles, the need for intelligence and behind-the-lines operations became much more important.
Early in World War II the Germans led the way in fielding combat elites with airborne units and special raider companies. They also excelled in morale building by naming brigades and divisions after leaders and provinces of the country and award- ing them special uniforms and adornments. While not really elite, these units thought they were because of their uniqueness, and as a result often fought beyond their expectations.
The Allies, as well as the Axis, realized the need for blood warriors, but the Americans entered World War II ill prepared in all aspects, including combat elites. Learning from the British, who had formed British Commando units, Americans soon organized Ranger battalions to conduct raids and to lead invasion forces. Interestingly, both the British and Americans took the name for their elites from former enemies. Winston Churchill had fought the Boer commandos in South Africa and personally assigned that name. The Americans had occasionally used the name Rangers for special units in previous conflicts, but the moniker originated with British units in North America who first opposed the French and later the American rebels.
Once the Allies had stopped the Axis and begun to retake the European continent and the islands of the Pacific, the need for another warrior elite became apparent. The Axis powers, particularly the Germans, reinforced their beach defenses with a great variety of obstacles. These had to be cleared before the army infantry and marines could assault the beaches. The U.S. Navy's underwater demolition teams (UDTs) became the first to land so that they could clear the way for those who followed.
Beach landings at Sicily, Anzio, and Normandy were key to the eventual Allied victories in Europe, while dozens of amphibious attacks in the Pacific led the island-hopping campaign that defeated Japan. The marine corps, not large enough to take on all the amphibious responsibilities, relied on army divisions to help gain beach footholds and then to exploit the advantage. In Europe particularly, while the beaches were being at least partially cleared by the navy frogmen, army paratroopers struck behind the lines to destroy command and communications centers, while Rangers neutralized the most critical enemy defenses. In the Pacific the marines formed special raider and reconnaissance units that performed duties similar to those of the army paratroopers and Rangers.
At the conclusion of World War II, America drastically reduced the number of combat elites or disbanded them altogether. Blood warriors were a breed whom the American public and military leaders welcomed in time of war, but whom neither group wanted or appreciated in time of peace. However, navy UDT personnel did assist in the few amphibious operations during the early part of the Korean conflict, and the army reorganized Ranger companies to replace the battalions that had served in World War II. Korea, however, soon bogged down into trench warfare similar to World War I, eclipsing the need for the elites.
Another important factor influenced the regression of the combat elites in the post-World War II and Korea period. The United States alone possessed atomic weapons, and some analysts predicted that no nation would challenge its power. A small fleet of long-range bombers armed with a few atomic bombs would be all the military power needed to sustain a viable threat against any opponent. When the Soviet Union fielded its own atomic weapons a few years later, many feared that the next war would result in the end of the world.
More logical thinkers understood, or at least hoped, that the potential of mutual destruction would prevent a global nuclear war, but they also knew that tactical nuclear weapons would change future battlefields. Many believed that the plains of Europe that bordered the Iron Curtain between East and West would be the trigger point. Because air and artillery units could deliver small nuclear weapons, ground troops would have to be widely dispersed and highly mobile to survive. Killing would be done at a distance. There would be no place for blood warriors and their up-close-and-personal combat techniques.
The United States and Soviet Union built and fielded their mechanized armies and deployed their missiles and long-range bombers, but the threat of total destruction discouraged the superpowers from going to war. However, this state of affairs did not deter power seekers from overthrowing their own or other governments to increase their territory and influence.
In the Balkans, Central America, Southeast Asia, and other locations, a series of conflicts began. Guerrilla* tactics, including terrorism, prevailed. Conventional forces generally were not effective in combating guerrillas, and the American public hesitated to support the commitment of its sons to remote fights that seemed to have no direct effect on national interests or security.
As early as 1953 U.S. military commanders recognized the need to organize guerrilla or counterguerrilla units by forming the army Special Forces. It was not until President John F. Kennedy became convinced of the country's need for them in 1961, however, that they gained acceptance and became a major part of the U.S. Army. Wearing their green berets, as authorized by the president, Special Forces increased their operations, especially in Vietnam where they had been assisting the South Vietnamese against communist guerrillas since 1957.
Vietnam ultimately became America's largest counterguerrilla war and the longest conflict in its history. During the more-than-a-decade-long war the United States dropped 6,161,000 tons of bombs on North and South Vietnam and along the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Cambodia and Laos-more than three times the amount of explosives dropped on the Axis powers during World War II.
Bombs, however, had little effect against the highly mobile Vietcong guerrillas and North Vietnamese regulars, who used darkness, mountains, and jungles to mask their movement and hide their camps. Conventional American infantry experienced difficulties in finding and destroying the guerrillas, yet not a single U.S. Army brigade or division arrived in Vietnam with any long-range reconnaissance patrol person- nel or Ranger units. The marine corps came with a limited
* The term guerrilla is from the Spanish for "little wars." reconnaissance capability, and the navy did deploy a few hundred SEALs, who had evolved from the World War II UDT units.
Where it lacked political and conventional warfare focus in Vietnam, the United States did succeed in advancing old concepts of blood warriors and in developing or expanding special elites who soon were outguerrillaing the guerrilla. More importantly, the marine Force Reconnaissance, army Special Forces, army LRRPs (later redesignated Rangers), and navy SEALs performed well in Southeast Asia. As a result, following the war's conclusion the American leadership for the first time in history agreed to maintain a formidable force of blood warriors in the peacetime force.
The United States was not alone in fielding elite combat units during the Cold War and its aftermath. Great Britain, Australia, Germany, France, the Soviet Union, and other countries maintained elite units capable of reconnaissance, raids, and other special missions. However, these forces focused on "conventional" guerrilla and counterguerrilla operations, leaving themselves ill prepared to face what soon became a worldwide problem.
Instead of hit-and-run guerrilla warfare, terrorism became the order of the day. Terrorists hijacked airplanes, bombed public places, murdered political and military leaders, and took hostages to free imprisoned comrades, gain profit, or avenge past wrongs.
A failed counterterrorism operation by the Germans ultimately influenced the United States and other countries to adapt their elites to the new threat. On September 5, 1972, eight Arab terrorists invaded the Olympic Village in Munich, taking Israeli athletes and coaches hostage. When the German police and military attempted a rescue, eleven Israelis, one policeman, and five terrorists were killed.
In the aftermath of the unsuccessful operation the West Germans formed a special unit, Grenzschutzgruppe 9 (GSG-9), to carry out counterterrorist activities. During its formation the GSG-9 worked closely with the British Special Air Service, which had begun training for similar missions of rescuing embassies, aircraft, and buildings and protecting high-ranking officials. Both groups also monitored terrorist organizations and developed intelligence on their activities.
The Germans faced the first test. In October 1977 terrorists hijacked a German commercial airliner and forced its pilots to fly to Mogadishu, Somalia. In the midst of negotiations, GSG-9 teams stormed the plane, killed or captured the hijackers, and freed the passengers without friendly casualties.
In the aftermath of the successful rescue, American political leaders turned to the military, asking if the United States possessed such a capability. The negative response led to the approval on November 19, 1977, for the establishment of the ultrasecret Delta Force. Authorization for the formation of an elite unit, however, does not an instantly prepared force make. Manning and training an elite counterterrorism squad takes time, not enough of which was available before Delta faced its first challenge. Developments in Iran-where revolutionary "students" stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran and took American officials and military personnel hostage-soon tested Delta and exposed its weaknesses.
On April 24, 1980, Secretary of Defense Harold Brown informed President Jimmy Carter, "I think we have an abort situation." The president responded, "Let's go with his [the ground commander's] recommendation." Colonel "Chargin' Charlie" Beckwith, founder and leader of the Delta Force, on the ground at a desolate site known as Desert One in Iran, relayed his recommendation to abort. A few minutes later the force assembled to rescue the fifty-three American hostages held by the Iranians lifted off from the desert to return to friendly territory, leaving behind burning aircraft, abandoned helicopters, and the bodies of eight American dead.
Delta Force, supported by Rangers and personnel from the air force and marine corps, had failed completely in its first significant counterterrorism operation. The failure diminished America's prestige among allies and enemies alike and further eroded the confidence of the American public in its government and military.
Within the armed forces some commanders expressed concerns about whether or not the military was getting what it paid for. Such negative evaluations were not surprising. Throughout history both civilian and military leaders have opposed the formation of special or elite units. Civilian governments have faced the quandary of how to maintain a standing army large enough for protection while at the same time keeping that armed force from taking over the leadership of the country. Dictatorships as well as democracies have fallen to dissatisfied military commanders who conducted coups with small, elite forces that could maintain secrecy and exert power beyond their numbers.
Many other military commanders also oppose elite forces, but for completely different reasons. The basic concept in the training of all successful combat forces is the "de-individualizing" of the recruit. Uniformity, from shorn hair and uniforms to repeated drills, turns the comfort-loving, self-oriented civilian into an order-following, teamwork-dedicated soldier. This time-proven, universal requirement of consistency demands that no one person or unit stands out above another. When certain individuals or units receive special attention as elite or superior to the remainder of the force, resentment arises and morale declines. Special headgear and/or other uniform adornments simply inflame the situation.
Officers and noncommissioned officers are not immune to resentment of men and units who receive special benefits and publicity. Many traditional-minded officers and sergeants dislike the break in uniformity that these units create. Their perception is that many volunteers for the elites are misfits or malcontents who cannot succeed in traditional units; they see the special organizations as being full of "undisciplined renegades" or "prima donnas" who disregard the rules and orders of conventional leaders.
More prevalent among officers and NCOs is the opinion that elite units drain other forces of much-needed leadership. Nearly all of the men who eventually join the elites initially belong to conventional units. When they join elite units, their replacements lack equal training, skills, and abilities.
Superior soldiers, marines, and sailors who might lead squads or sections in conventional units fill the ranks as individual team members within the elites. A Special Forces A-Team or a Delta squad may have more senior NCOs than an entire infantry company. Many of the lower enlisted ranks on SEAL teams and in Ranger platoons would be wearing additional stripes and taking charge of sections or squads in the conventional forces.
A third common complaint about the elite units is the enormous amount of personnel, equipment, and financial assets they require. Their frequent behind-the-lines operations require intensive logistic and combat service support. In many situations, additional ground and air combat forces must be on standby to ensure the successful egress of the elites from enemy territory.
These objections to the elites confronted decision makers in the aftermath of the disaster in the Iranian desert, but wise generals, commanders, and civilian leaders recognized the proficiency of these men and, more important, continued to acknowledge the need for their existence. They understood that it was not the quality of the elites that had caused them to fail in the Iranian desert; instead, it was a matter of organization, command, and control problems.
However, changes did not occur quickly. Individuals who opposed elites as well as traditional interservice rivalries and competition for assets stalled the formation of a joint counterterrorism task force. Initially only the army made some progress by combining its Special Forces, Ranger, Delta, and supporting assets into the 1st Special Operations Command in 1982.
The terrorist explosion that killed 237 Marines in their Beirut barracks on October 23, 1983 and the successful but flawed U.S. invasion of Grenada two days later again brought the need for a joint counterterrorist command to the forefront. After extensive political maneuvering by Congress and the Pentagon, the Department of Defense established the U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) on April 16, 1987.
Today USSOCOM contains the special operations forces of the army, navy, and air force. This includes the Special Forces, Rangers, Delta Force, and SEALs as well as extensive air and other support units. With the exception of the USMC Force Reconnaissance companies, the SOCOM commander now heads all U.S. special operations forces.