On a cool October day in 1989, a composite Special Forces (SF) A Team from the 10th Special Forces Group confidently opened a long, in-depth briefing of U.S. Army Special Forces capabilities before an August audience of senior Soviet military officers and diplomats. The entire briefing was conducted in a variety of languages typically associated with the Warsaw Pact, including Russian, Czechoslovakian, and Polish. Although the brief went by practically unnoticed in the Western media, it was broadcast widely across the Warsaw Pact and discussed extensively in area newspapers and Soviet military journals. More important, the event signaled virtually unnoticed, critical changes in the dynamics of the Cold War. The world could no longer be contained by Cold War politics and fears.
Fewer than three weeks after the brief, the infamous Berlin Wall came down. Months later, the Warsaw Pact dissolved. And less than two years after the brief, the USSR came to an end. Those SF soldiers were part of a new command born into a rapidly changing world where every seeming movement toward peace and stability was countered by violent shifts as nations across the planet sought to define themselves now that they were free of super-power restraints.
Almost from the moment it was created, U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) has found itself – and the myriad of highly trained soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines who give strength to its name – in an almost constant state of operational engagement. These operations ran the entire spectrum of modern war from seemingly insignificant peacetime efforts to major theater warfare. In each of these efforts, large and small, USSOCOM has worked tirelessly to provide effective, innovative SOF support to the theater commanders and American ambassadors. That virtually unnoticed brief in 1989 served as an introduction to over a decade of uneasiness, born from the ancient troubles of the Persian Gulf and the dying gasps of the Cold War, and in this time USSOCOM would be tested, tried, and found fully capable.
The first true challenge of this troubled era would come close to home. Since the completion of the Panama Canal in 1913, the United States and Panama have had an interesting and complex relationship. By 1989, however, Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega had made clear his hostility toward America. American sanctions – imposed after Noriega brazenly manipulated local elections and seized power – only heightened the tensions until too many assaults, arrests, and eventually the murder of a U.S. Marine forced America into action. Planning for the invasion of Panama fell under the operational title of Just Cause. During Operation Just Cause, USSOCOM elements tasked to the larger invasion force fell under the direct control of the Joint Special Operations Task Force (JSOTF). This force was further divided and organized into smaller elements known as Task Force Red (the Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment), Task Force Black (Army Special Forces), and Task Force White (Navy SEAL and Special Boat Unit assets). In a true test of the complete nature of SOF, each of these elements was supported by soldiers from the 4th Psychological Operations Battalion and the 96th Civil Affairs Battalion, Army Special Operations helicopters from the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, and USAF air commando units. JSOTF’s primary missions were the capture of Noriega and the destruction of the ability of the Panama Defense Forces (PDF) to interrupt JTF South’s initial movement and attack plans. During the early moments of Dec. 20, 1989, the operation was launched, and when the first shots of Just Cause were fired, the warriors of USSOCOM found the PDF more than willing to fight.
At the onset of combat, SOF elements struck simultaneously at several targets. One unit assaulted the Cárcel Modelo prison at the Comandancia in order to free a U.S. hostage while SOF aircraft provided air cover. During an attack on the Punta Paitilla Airport, Navy SEALs from TF White lost four men as they encountered unexpectedly stiff resistance. Other elements of TF White employed the Draeger underwater breathing apparatus in an attack on the PDF Patrol Boat Presidente Poras, a mission that marked the first successful combat-swimmer demolition attack by U.S. forces. Elsewhere, Special Forces soldiers with TF Black successfully secured the Pecora River Bridge to deny its use to Panamanian forces while, simultaneously, Special Forces teams and other SOF warriors from TF Black successfully disrupted Panamanian radio and television signals. After a long flight from bases in the United States, the nearly 1,300 Rangers of Task Force Red jumped over targets from Rio Hato in the west to Fort Cimarron in the east. Their mission was to kick open the door for follow-on conventional forces from the 82nd Airborne. Indeed, the Rangers parachuted in from 500 feet or below, 300 feet lower than practice drops in the United States, in what was the largest airborne drop since World War II.
As the initial invasion quickly wound down, the soldiers of TF Black turned their attention to the stability and stabilization operations that would ultimately fall under Operation Promote Liberty after hostilities on Jan. 16, 1990. The initial stages of this operation found TF Black Special Forces elements scattered in small towns and villages to support the rebuilding process and assist conventional forces. SOF language skills, cultural awareness, and expertise in low-intensity conflict proved invaluable in coordinating with local officials, gathering information on weapons caches, reestablishing Panamanian police forces, and performing myriad other tasks that aided the return to a more normal life for the Panamanians. The invasion, of course, culminated with Noriega’s apprehension. Once Noriega was found under the refuge of the Papal Nunciature, JSOTF forces moved in and worked closely with U.S. State Department and Vatican diplomats to negotiate Noriega’s eventual surrender.
Almost seven months after Operation Just Cause, and seemingly a world away, the crepuscular light of the early morning of Aug. 2, 1990, witnessed four divisions of Iraqi armor pouring over the border of Kuwait. These forces quickly smashed the limited resistance put up by Kuwaiti forces, and soon massed threateningly along the Saudi Arabian border. Before the sun set on Aug. 4, 1990, Saddam Hussein would boast to his people that they once again controlled the “nineteenth province of Iraq.” While the Saudi forces established a thin defensive cordon along the border, the United States quickly deployed air and ground forces to the Arabian Peninsula to deter further Iraqi aggression. Among the first to arrive on Aug. 10 were elements of Central Command’s Special Operations component, Special Operations Command Central (SOCCENT).
The naval element of SOCCENT, the Naval Special Warfare Task Group (NSWTG), was quickly followed by the Air Force element, AFSOCCENT. They were followed by the 5th Special Forces Group (5th SFG) and the Army aviation assets of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment. One of the first missions assigned to SOCCENT elements was to deploy to the Kuwait/Saudi Arabian border to provide close air support and to serve as a “trip wire” should the Iraqi army move across the border. Other missions included an effort to train Saudi forces on armor operations, artillery use, vehicle maintenance, and other technical areas. As other allied forces arrived in theater, they too wanted USSOCOM forces to provide training and liaison elements to their commands.
Although the conventional ground combat phase began on Feb. 24, the air campaign had been raging for over a month. One of the most important aspects of that effort was Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR). During Desert Shield, SOCCENT established procedures for CSAR, a mission that many considered of utmost importance as they evaluated Iraqi antiaircraft capability. To support the CSAR mission, SOCCENT established forward operating bases near the Saudi border, close to the projected areas of operation. The first successful CSAR operation of Desert Storm occurred on Jan. 21, 1991. The pilot of a Navy F-14 shot down northwest of Baghdad was able to evade immediate capture and contact CSAR. An MH-53J Pave Low helicopter launched from Saudi airspace in a fog so thick that even at extremely low altitudes the crew could not see the ground. Despite flying well into enemy airspace, the CSAR crew could not contact the downed aviator. Refusing to accept failure, the crew returned to their base, refueled, and set off with better intelligence in hand. The rescue helicopter arrived just as an Iraqi truck was descending upon the pilot, but A-10 aircraft operating in support destroyed the vehicle. With the threat destroyed, the helicopter picked up the pilot. There were, of course, other successful rescues, including one at sea in the Gulf and one under intense enemy fire; however, even more pilots were unable to evade capture – something that would come under intense study after the conflict.
Other special missions included deception operations involving Navy SEALs along the Kuwaiti coast to encourage the Iraqi belief that the invasion would come from the sea. SEALs were also tasked with clearing offshore oil rigs that served as antiaircraft platforms against naval aviation. These same SEALs also searched for and destroyed several Iraqi floating mines. Further inland, SF teams conducted route reconnaissance missions to determine the ability of certain routes to support heavy traffic. To secure and protect their flanks during the opening moves, corps commanders called on SOCCENT to insert Special Reconnaissance teams deep into Iraq to watch important lines of communication, and warn of enemy movement toward the exposed flanks. Most of these missions were successful, inserted with little difficulty; however, one was involved in a heavy firefight along Highway 7, while a second found itself in a running battle with Bedouins and Iraqi army forces that ended with a dramatic daylight extraction conducted by the 160th SOAR. On the air side, USAF Special Operations units were quite busy. Just before the start of the ground war, the Iraqis probed the Marine positions at Khafji, Saudi Arabia. During the attack, the Marines called in support from USAF air commandos. “Spirit 03,” the last AC-130 Specter gunship on station, was hit by an enemy missile with a complete loss of life on board, resulting in the single greatest air loss of the campaign. At the opening moments of the ground campaign, SOF helicopters guided AH-64 Apache helicopters to enemy radar antiaircraft sites, thus blinding the enemy as coalition helicopters poured across the border. Air Force AC-130s were also tasked with dropping massive BLU-82 “Daisy Cutters” to clear routes through Iraqi mine fields.
Perhaps the most famous unconventional mission of the campaign was the SOCCENT “SCUD Hunting” effort. Coalition forces had air superiority in the skies over Iraq and Kuwait from the war’s first air strikes on Jan. 17, 1991. Saddam Hussein was unable to counter this threat and decided to use SCUD missiles to attack Israel in hopes of making the war one of Arab vs. Israeli and, of course, their American allies. Tactically, the SCUD would not have a major impact, but its strategic and psychological effects were felt on Jan. 18, when seven SCUDs struck Israel. SOCCENT was given the mission to stop the SCUD attacks. SOF teams went hundreds of miles inside western Iraq to destroy the SCUD infrastructure. SOF SCUD-hunting operations greatly reduced the attacks, persuading Israel to not enter the war. Less dramatic, but equally important to the campaign effort, was the contribution of Psychological Operations (PSYOP) and Civil Affairs (CA) teams. The PSYOP campaign was directed toward individual Iraqi units and soldiers, and stressed a single theme: The coalition’s quarrel was with Saddam Hussein and not with the Iraqi people or their army. This call soon turned to stronger themes and direct threats and finally called for surrender. Once begun, the PSYOP campaign (in conjunction with sustained air attacks) steadily eroded Iraqi morale. So effective was the campaign thatmost of the total of 86,743 Iraqis who were taken prisoner, possessed surrender leaflets when they capitulated. Civil Affairs Teams rolled into Kuwait City on the heels of liberating forces, and relief operations began as soon as the city was liberated. Civil Affairs elements stayed in Kuwait City for two months stabilizing the city. During that time, they distributed 12.8 million liters of water, 12,500 tons of food, 1,250 tons of medicine, 750 vehicles, and 245 electrical generators.
The first test of SOF capability after the war followed the end of hostilities with Iraq almost immediately. In February 1991, Operation Provide Comfort was launched to prevent a large-scale disaster in Northern Iraq. During the campaign, Iraqi Kurds had revolted against Saddam Hussein, hoping to further cripple the weakened dictator, but Hussein’s forces crushed the rebellion. Hundreds of thousands of Kurds fled to the mountains in northern Iraq and southeastern Turkey, an area they considered the heart of “Kurdistan.” The diverse talents of USSOCOM forces made it the best possible choice to manage the growing humanitarian assistance efforts. Air Force MC-130E Combat Talon aircraft directed other aircraft to drop zones for emergency supplies for the Kurdish refugees. Army SF and Navy SEALs supported by MH-53J helicopters helped build suitable refugee camps and worked with refugee leaders to organize and distribute the supplies. Civil Affairs units helped with medical assistance, food distribution, and daily camp operations, while Psychological Operations elements produced thousands of leaflets and crafted numerous speaker broadcasts that provided instructions on how to get help within the camps. As Provide Comfort continued, the ability of non-military government organizations (GO), nongovernmental organizations (NGO), and international organizations (IO) matured under the guardianship of USSOCOM forces to the degree that Provide Comfort was brought to an end only five months after it began.
The end of Provide Comfort did not signal a slowdown in the USSOCOM operations tempo. In August 1992, Special Operations Forces became involved in Somalia as part of Operation Provide Relief. The operation began when the White House announced U.S. military transports would support the multinational United Nations relief effort in Somalia. C-130 aircraft, protected by men from the 5th SFG, deployed to Kenya. From there, they began airlifting aid to remote areas in Somalia to reduce reliance on truck convoys. Air Force transports delivered 48,000 tons of food and medical supplies in six months to international humanitarian organizations, trying to help over 3 million starving people. When this proved inadequate to stop the horrendous troubles in Somalia, the United States started a major in-country coalition operation titled Restore Hope. Restore Hope required an increased use of SOF elements as SEALs scouted beach landing areas for the Marines and later evaluated the port facilities for future use. Meanwhile, the SF assets in Kenya moved to Somalia and joined Restore Hope. The first SOF missions were to make contact with the various local factions and leaders, provide intelligence for force protection, and craft area assessments for future relief and security operations. SOF elements secured food shipments, destroyed tons of ordnance, built radio stations, and provided relief to thousands of desperate Somalis. Restore Hope gave way to U.N. Operation in Somalia in May 1993, after having brought noticeable and effective relief to the people of Somalia. Nevertheless, the full measure of success of USSOCOM forces will always be shadowed by the events surrounding Operation Gothic Serpent, the attempt in October 1993 to capture Somali warlord Muhammad Farah Aideed.
During this operation, SOF helicopters carrying Special Operators from Task Force Ranger at Mogadishu airport were given an assignment that was intended to be a quick snatch-and-grab mission. During the mission, two MH-60 Black Hawk helicopters were shot down, forcing a rescue operation. The task force faced an overwhelming Somali mob that overran the crash sites, creating a dire situation. TF Ranger experienced a total of 17 killed in action and 106 wounded. Task Force soldiers, sailors, and airmen had to operate in an extremely difficult environment that called on the hallmarks of SOF training, constant innovation, flexibility, and sound judgment in the worst of situations. At the end of the day, SOF warriors had more than held their own against a vastly superior enemy. Because of their bravery, Master Sgt. Gary Gordon and Sgt. First Class Randall Shughart were posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for their actions in trying to save a downed helicopter crew. U.S. involvement in Somalia ended in March of 1995 with Operation United Shield, the withdrawal from Somalia.
While the debate over the “Black Hawk Down” incident still boiled hot, the United States found itself concentrating on issues much closer to home. Haiti had endured almost unremitting political oppression for hundreds of years.
Although the people of this tragic country enjoyed a taste of freedom in 1990 when they elected Jean-Bertrand Aristide as their president, the army took control in a Sept. 30, 1991, coup. Attempting to reestablish the Aristide government, the U.N. imposed economic sanctions on June 23, 1993. Four months later, President Clinton ordered U.S. Navy ships to help enforce this embargo under Operation Support Democracy. Later, the decision was made to increase American involvement under Operation Uphold Democracy. In both operations, USSOCOM forces played a critical role in securing peace within Haiti. On Oct. 15, 1993, Support Democracy began with a naval blockade. USN patrol craft with SEALs aboard were used to board ships smuggling contraband into Haiti. By June 1994, the SEALs had boarded hundreds of ships. By July, Clinton was still not pleased with the political situation in Haiti and authorized the creation of an invasion plan. SOF was assigned to take down key government sites followed by a linkup with conventional forces similar to the invasion of Panama in 1989. A peace effort that led to a deal, brokered by a team led by former President Jimmy Carter, forced a last-minute cancellation of the invasion. Instead, the U.S. opened Operation Uphold Democracy, in which the Special Operations Task Force set up three forward operating bases with SF teams assigned to keep law and order in the countryside. In support were PSYOP teams that passed out information and broadcast important messages. With the assistance of nongovernmental organizations, Civil Affairs teams rebuilt infrastructure and gradually restored a degree of normalcy. On March 31, 1995, the United States transferred the operation to United Nations functions. Advance planning and coordination for the transition were well managed by the United States and the U.N. In sharp contrast to the Somalia transition, the U.N. deployed an advance headquarters element to Haiti that worked with SOF elements for six months prior to the change of command.
Operation Uphold Democracy was not without its cost for SOF. The only soldiers wounded during operations in Haiti were two Special Forces soldiers from 3rd Special Forces Group, and Sgt. 1st Class Gregory Cardot, also of 3rd Special Forces Group, was the operation’s only casualty as the result of hostile fire.
The friction caused by the collapse of the Warsaw Pact burst into flames during the early 1990s. The rival ethnic states within Yugoslavia declared their independence and turned to force to align their borders with their visions of each new nation-state. The intensity of the fighting and “ethnic cleansing” shocked the U.N. and NATO into action. Between 1992 and 1995, both of these organizations sent forces to the region to enforce a peace settlement in the former Yugoslavia. But not until NATO aircraft bombed Bosnian Serb targets (Operation Deliberate Force, August-September 1995) did the combative and difficult factions agree to a cease-fire. This cease-fire, in turn, led to the Dayton Peace Accords of November 1995 and a subsequent Paris peace agreement in December. Special Operations Command Europe (SOCEUR), became involved in the peace efforts in February 1993. SOF elements in the region had several missions, but its most notable one was to provide support to NATO and non-NATO forces in Bosnia. Like Desert Storm and Somalia before, the emphasis was on USSOCOM capabilities to interact with foreign military forces. In the early stages of the Balkans operations, the highly specialized capabilities of SOF were used to ensure that forces arrived in the right place at the right time. SOF aircraft operated in the most difficult weather while SOF ground forces provided a quick-reaction force to counter potential problems while U.S. Navy SEALs supported the bridging of the Sava River. Civil Affairs forces played a critical role during Joint Endeavor. The CA Teams coordinated reconstruction of the civil infrastructure and organized relief efforts of more than 500 government, nongovernmental, and international organizations. Civil Affairs personnel were assigned to each multinational division and were instrumental in restoring the basics of day-to-day life such as public transportation and health services, as well as dealing with elections and setting up new national governments. PSYOP forces had the important task of disseminating factual information to the people of the former Yugoslavian republics. U.S. PSYOP forces used printed media, “Radio IFOR,” and some television broadcasts to accomplish their missions. More important, they also conducted a highly effective mine-awareness campaign, aimed primarily at children. While peace gradually returned to Bosnia, conflict only increased in neighboring Kosovo.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization initiated Operation Allied Force on March 24, 1999, to put an end to Serbia’s violent repression of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. As with Deliberate Force, an intense bombing campaign eventually forced Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic to pull his forces from Kosovo. The bombing strategy did not, however, prevent Serbia from forcing an estimated 800,000 refugees out of the country, thereby creating an enormous humanitarian crisis in neighboring Albania and Macedonia. USSOCOM increased its critical role in the region by adding Kosovo to its effort. Civil Affairs units coordinated large-scale humanitarian-relief efforts with U.S. government agencies and international relief organizations, arranging food, shelter, and medical care for the refugee camps. SOF helicopters airlifted supplies into refugee areas in advance of conventional forces. Within Kosovo itself, SOF aircraft dropped food and supplies to displaced people. SOF engaged in direct action and special reconnaissance missions to include AC-130 gunship raids on recalcitrant Serbian forces. SOF also rescued the only two U.S. pilots downed during the conflict. The employment of Special Operations during Allied Force enabled commanders to conduct ground operations in a politically sensitive environment that gradually brought an element of peace and security to the Balkans region.
The dawn of the new millennium, sadly, did not hold the promise of peace or stability for Special Operations planners, but it did find them ready to respond to almost any situation. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, SOF elements had been engaged in a variety of unique operations. Although such operations were not new to the 1990s, what was unprecedented were the numbers, pace, scope, and complexity of such operations. Included in the U.S. Special Operations Forces resumé is a vast section of diverse operations such as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, non-combatant evacuation operations (NEOs), humanitarian mine action, peacekeeping operations, crisis response, enforcement of sanctions, and shows of force. Many, indeed most, of these operations were conducted with conventional forces. SOF-specific capabilities such as cultural and language familiarity, negotiation and “field diplomat” skills, maturity, and career professionalism have continually made SOF the ideal force for these Special Operations. From Central America to Africa; from Eastern Europe to the Persian Gulf; and from Southwest Asia to the Pacific, SOF elements have been involved in myriad complex operations in every corner of the globe.
The long list of curious operation names includes: Safe Passage (global demining, 1988-1991), Silver Anvil (Africa, evacuation, 1992), the African Crisis Response Initiative (Africa, foreign training, 1994), Assured Response (Africa, evacuation, 1996), Laser Strike (Central America, counter-drug, 1996), Firm Response (Africa, evacuation, 1997), Silver Wake (Albania, evacuation, 1997), Guardian Retrieval (Congo and Zaire, evacuation, 1997), Noble Obelisk (Africa, foreign training, 1997), Shepard Venture (Africa, evacuation, 1998), Fuerte Apoyo (Central America, humanitarian relief, 1998), Shadow Express (Africa, embassy defense, 1998), Noble Response (Africa, humanitarian relief, 1998), Vietnam Flood Relief (Vietnam, humanitarian relief, 1999), Fundamental Response (South America, humanitarian relief, 1999), Fiery Relief (Philippines, humanitarian relief, 2000), Atlas Response (Africa, humanitarian relief, 2000), and an ongoing commitment to humanitarian demining operations. As seen in this impressive list, along with the substantial combat record compiled during this era of instability, SOF’s contribution to American defense and global stability can be measured in the rapid response to both conventional wartime needs and more peaceful non-combat operations.
Meanwhile, SOF elements have acted as the primary agent in many non-combat or low-intensity military efforts. This type of coordinated, joint mission became the hallmark of all SOF capabilities, and has been used in operations around the globe. The year 2001 ushered in a world of rapid, often unsettling changes that have caused continual shifts in the once accepted political landscape. As this new, dynamic geopolitical environment unfolded, it made the proud warriors of USSOCOM more and more relevant.
This article was first published in U.S. Special Operations Command – The First 20 Years.