A Glimpse of Army Special Operations Forces

The role of special operations forces in the U.S. military is steadily increasing but relatively little is publicly known about the activities and performance of these specialized units.

A new U.S. Army manual (pdf) fills in some of the gaps in the public record with a description of the structure, capabilities and missions of U.S. Army Special Operations Forces (ARSOF).

The manual has not been approved for public release, but a copy was obtained by Secrecy News.

“ARSOF are specially organized, trained, and equipped military forces,” it explains. “They conduct SO [special operations] to achieve military, political, economic, or informational objectives by generally unconventional means in hostile, denied, or politically sensitive areas.”

According to the Army, special operations forces can leap tall buildings in a single bound.

“They provide to the Nation an array of deployable, agile, versatile, lethal, survivable, and sustainable formations, which are affordable and capable of rapidly reversing the conditions of human suffering and decisively resolving conflicts.”

Counterterrorism missions are a particular focus of special operations today.

“ARSOF are, and will be for the near future, continuously engaged against terrorists whose goal is the destruction of American freedoms and the American way of life,” the new manual says.

Special operations also support intelligence collection.

“ARSOF are a key enabler in the WOT [war on terror] by conducting SO, which obtain actionable intelligence…. The results of these activities may be fed directly to a commander or Country Team or may be input into the intelligence process for processing, analysis, and dissemination to military and other government agencies (OGAs).”

There is also a domestic component to Army special operations, though it is not clearly specified in the manual.

“The United States employs ARSOF capabilities at home and abroad in support of U.S. national security goals in a variety of operations.”

The manual spells out the principles of special operations warfare, including preemption, dislocation, disruption, and so forth.

“SO [special operations] are frequently clandestine or low-visibility operations, or they may be combined with overt operations. SO can be covert but require a declaration of war or a specific finding approved by the President or the SecDef,” the manual states.

(The asserted ability of the Secretary of Defense to authorize covert operations has not been explicitly claimed before, to Secrecy News’ knowledge.)

“Significant legal and policy considerations apply to many SO activities,” the manual observes.

The new Army manual is unclassified, but its distribution is formally restricted “to protect technical or operational information.”

In view of the possible sensitivity of the document, Secrecy News is only posting the preface and the first of the eight chapters from the 119 page manual.

See “Army Special Operations Forces,” U.S. Army Field Manual FM 3-05, September 20, 2006.

The Congressional Research Service noted earlier this year (pdf) that “The 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) has called for a 15% increase in special operations forces beginning in FY 2007.”

No Responses to “A Glimpse of Army Special Operations Forces”

  1. Michael Smith November 9, 2006 at 3:42 AM #

    Surprised to see you making the decisions as to what should and should not be in the public domain Steve. Isn’t that against the ethos of Secrecy News to get what is not classified out into the open? If there were real problems surely they would have classified it? Perhaps they should have done.

    As for the SecDef authorising covert missions by Special Operations forces, this seems to have been a result of the President’s November 2004 consolidated War Powers report to Congress in which he authorised unspecified “short notice deployments of special operations and and other forces for sensitive operations in various locations around the world” adding that it was “not possible to know at this time” what they might be or how long they might last. This generalised presidential authorisation was apparently taken by Rumsfeld as giving him the red light to authorise any Special Operations missions he saw fit. I suspect that this fairly loose interpretation of the rules will change under Gates given his background.

  2. Steven Aftergood November 9, 2006 at 9:25 AM #


    Thanks for the interesting comment.

    Like you, I have to take responsibility for what I publish. In this case, a source advised that although unclassified the document did contain operationally sensitive data. I couldn’t be certain that was untrue. I didn’t return the document or destroy my copy, I just uploaded it selectively. This seemed like the optimum solution under the circumstances.