The various components of a modern military establishment are like gamblers at a casino. Every now and then someone gets hot and goes on a roll. In recent years the military equivalent of a winner on a roll has been US Special Operations Forces. During the 1980s, special operations, along with “low-intensity conflict,” became Washington’s favorite buzzwords. [1] US policymakers view special forces as the solution to a world where perceived threats to US interests are increasingly varied and diffuse. The Department of Defense asserts that in the post-Cold War era the major threats to the United States are “uncertainty, instability, and regional contingencies.” Administration officials see special forces, like the traditional covert forces of the intelligence agencies, as an option between doing nothing and engaging in a full-scale war. But the Persian Gulf war demonstrated that special forces can also operate in an all-out war.

US military officials are not optimistic about the prospects for a more peaceful “new world order.” “Within developing nations, dramatic increases in population and growing dissatisfaction with the perpetual gap between the rich and poor will continue to be major causes of unrest and insurgency,” writes Gen. Carl Stiner, head of the US Special Operations Command. “In a world marked by conflicting political, social and economic systems, there will always be those who consider their interests at odds with the United States.” [2]

Low-intensity conflict is one way to deal with those whose “interests are at odds” with the US. The US military defines low-intensity conflict as “political-military confrontation between contending states or groups below conventional war and above the routine, peaceful competition among states…waged by a combination of means employing political, economic, informational and military instruments. Low-intensity conflicts are often localized, generally in the Third World, but contain regional and global security implications.” A Congressional Research Service study concludes that “successful low-intensity conflict operations allow highly-developed states to achieve selected objectives while reducing risks in a world where the proliferation of mass destruction weapons, missile delivery systems, and other sophisticated devices make mid- and high-intensity warfare increasingly unattractive to rational decision makers.” [3]

Special Operations Forces are key to low-intensity conflict. Generically speaking, special forces are elite units. [4] Special operations are “conducted by specially trained, equipped and organized Defense Department forces against strategic or tactical targets in pursuit of national military, political, economic or psychological objectives. These operations may be conducted during periods of peace or hostilities. They may support conventional operations, or they may be prosecuted independently.”

From the Barbary Coast to Basra

Long before the term special operations existed, US military forces were intervening in “low-intensity conflicts” and were carrying them out as well. US Marines did so from 1801-1807 in the “war” against the Barbary pirates. As US economic interests expanded worldwide in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, so did the interventionary use of the Marines. [5]

Since 1985, the Marine Corps have had what they call the Marine Expeditionary Unit/Special Operations Capable. Six of these units, two of which are special operations capable, rotate on routine deployments to the Mediterranean and the Pacific Rim. In 1988 they saw combat in the Persian Gulf, attacking Iranian oil rigs and landing on suspected mine-laying ships. A typical Marine Expeditionary Unit contains about 2,500 Marines and sailors trained to carry out some 18 specific missions, from non-combatant evacuations operations (such as Liberia in 1990) to training foreign military forces.

Army special forces units are the descendants of World War II units such as the Office of Strategic Services, Darby’s Rangers and the Jedburgh Teams. In 1952, the Army formed the Tenth Special Forces Group at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, to wage guerrilla or “unconventional” warfare, in the event of a Soviet invasion of Western Europe. [6] The first non-Europe deployment of US special forces, aside from the Korean War, occurred in 1956, when Washington sent troops to Thailand, Taiwan and Vietnam. By 1958, the basic operational unit of Special Forces had emerged as a 12-man team known as the A-detachment or A-team.

US special forces became more explicitly involved in counterinsurgency with President John F. Kennedy’s second National Security Action Memorandum, “Development of Counter-Guerrilla Forces,” ratified on February 3, 1961. [7] One month later the Army doubled the number of special forces units, organizing them by geographic specialty. [8]

Special forces played an extensive role during the Vietnam War, along with other counterinsurgency operatives such as the CIA’s Operation Phoenix and the Marines’ “combined action platoons.” [9] After Vietnam the Pentagon reduced special force units. It was not until the Reagan administration that their advocates again found a sympathetic ear, following the failed Iranian hostage rescue attempt in 1980 and problems in the 1983 invasion of Grenada. The 1983 Beirut bombing of the US embassy — which killed a Delta Force commando — and of the Marine compound at Beirut airport strengthened the arguments of those seeking to revitalize US special forces, and led to the creation of a Joint Special Operations Agency in 1984. Between 1981 and the end of 1984, special operations funding nearly doubled, from $441 million to almost $800 million, and their active-duty number increased almost 30 percent, from 11,600 to 14,900. [10] The most notable Reagan-era development was the 1986 creation of the US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) as the newest of eight unified commands in the US military’s combatant command structure. USSOCOM has control over about 42,000 Army, Air Force and Navy active, reserve and national guard forces.

The war against Iraq was hardly the first time for US special forces in the Middle East or the Persian Gulf. When TWA flight 847 was hijacked in 1985, the Army’s Delta Force was flown to Europe to await an opportunity to launch a rescue attempt. Three months later, when the Achille Lauro was taken over by renegade Palestinian fighters, Delta Force and a SEAL team prepared for a rescue attempt, and SEALs participated in the subsequent capture of some of the hijackers when their plane was intercepted. [11] In 1987 the Army’s special operations helicopter unit, Task Force 160, deployed secretly from Fort Campbell, Kentucky, to the Persian Gulf as part of the reflagging operations of the Kuwaiti oil tankers. They played a key role in attacking the Iranian oil platforms being used as launch sites for attacks on the tankers. [12]

Special forces personnel conducted many missions in the 1989 US invasion of Panama. [13] That turned out to be only a warm-up for what was to come. The US military buildup in the Middle East after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait included nearly 10,000 special operations forces — the largest deployment of special forces in history. Among the first units to deploy to Saudi Arabia in August 1991, they carried out missions before, during and after the war, and included special forces from the Army, Air Force and Navy, and psychological operations and civil affairs units. The missions included reconnaissance, psychological operations, “civil affairs,” direct action, and search-and-rescue operations. They also aided Kurdish refugees and supported other allied military forces, notably the British Special Air Service and Special Boat Squadron. [14] Language specialists served as liaisons with Arab forces. Members of the Fifth Special Forces Group, for example, helped reconstitute the Kuwaiti army from a handful of volunteers to five light infantry brigades. [15]

Broadcasting Death

Specific special operations missions included dropping high-tech parachutes to drift through the night sky and report on enemy positions, disabling communications towers and water wells, and using lasers to target Scud missile launchers and tank emplacements for air attack. Special forces also placed explosive charges on bridges to cut off Iraqi avenues of retreat. [16] A Navy SEAL team secretly boarded a freighter intercepted by the US Navy in mid-August and infiltrated Kuwait to protect the US embassy. [17] One unconfirmed report asserts that coalition special forces tried but failed to capture a Soviet adviser to the Iraqi Army during the war. [18]

Members of the Air Force’s First Special Operations Wing dropped the massive Vietnam-era 15,000 pound BLU-82 bombs, killing large numbers of Iraqi soldiers and inducing others to desert or surrender. [19] The use of BLU-82 bombs was considered a psychological as well as an offensive operation, and was followed by drops of 29 million safe-passage leaflets and broadcasts from an 18-hour-a-day “Voice of the Gulf” radio station. In one case, an entire Iraqi battalion surrendered to a US helicopter patrol after the psy-ops team broadcast that “death from above” was imminent. [20]

Air Force special forces conducted many armed reconnaissance and fire support missions in southern Iraq and Kuwait. Beginning in early January 1991, Navy SEALs and Special Boat Units conducted nightly coastal patrols in the northern Persian Gulf. Army special operations personnel also conducted long-range helicopter reconnaissance missions in central and west-central Iraq. Among other tasks, they analyzed soil conditions to determine whether heavy armored vehicles could pass, information critical for developing the flanking maneuver into western Iraq where the ground war started.

Navy SEALs dropped from helicopters on 25 occasions into Gulf waters to detonate mines. In preparation for the ground war, SEALs flew 11 reconnaissance missions off Kuwaiti beaches, dropping swimmers who swam almost to shore on two-hour surveillance stints. [21] Three hours before the start of ground operations, SEALs blew up mines off Kuwait’s coastline, prompting the Iraqis to move troops eastward, making it easier for the main coalition forces to attack in the west. [22]

On the final day of the war the Iraqis had moved 26 Scud missiles near their western border for a saturation attack on Israel. Members of the US Delta Force, along with British SAS commandos and regular US Air Force personnel destroyed them. [23]

Less Oversight

The use of special forces personnel did not stop with the ceasefire. Kuwaiti reconstruction planning began as far back as October 1990 when civil affairs planners began working with the Kuwaiti government. After the war there were reports that special forces personnel helped round up Palestinians from suspected “safe houses” in Kuwait City. [24] About 1,500 special forces aided Iraqi Kurds who fled after the failed uprisings against Saddam Hussein. [25]

Since their Gulf war performance, US special forces have become the golden boys of the national security establishment. Special operations budgets will not be taking cuts along with the rest of the military services. In Fiscal Year 1991 the Special Operations Command received nearly $2.5 billion. In FY 1992 it rose to over $3.1 billion, and the FY 1993 request is nearly $3 billion.

Military planners expect special forces to play a role in literally all possible future conflicts. [26] They no doubt will play a greater role in the Middle East, especially in intelligence gathering as Congress moves to reshape the intelligence establishment. Covert operations traditionally conducted by the CIA may be assigned to special forces. British air station RAF Alconbury will be a command and operations center for US airborne special forces. [27]

Policymakers who hesitate to deploy regular military forces see special forces as the ideal response to insurgencies, terrorist actions and hostage taking. They believe special operations will face less congressional oversight than traditional intelligence agencies. In 1990, Gen. James Lindsay, then head of USSOCOM, pushed for blanket approval to conduct certain clandestine missions without oversight from the CIA or the State Department. The move was disapproved but will likely come up again. [28]

“In a volatile and turbulent world,” Defense Secretary Dick Cheney wrote in his most recent annual report, “special operations forces have a critical role in executing the new strategy.” [29] Where the enemies are “uncertainty” and “instability,” special forces will be the shock troops of the new world order.


[1] Frank R. Barnett, B. Hugh Tovar and Richard H. Shultz, eds., Special Operations in US Strategy (Washington: National Defense University Press, 1984).
[2] Carl W. Stiner, United States Special Operations Forces: A Strategic Perspective (MacDill Air Force Base, FL: US Special Operations Command, January 1992), p. 2.
[3] Congressional Research Service, US Low-Intensity Conflicts, 1899-1990, prepared at the request of the Readiness Subcommittee, House Armed Services Committee, September 10, 1990, Committee Print 13, p. 1.
[4] Roger Beaumont, Special Operations and Elite Unit, 1939-1988: A Research Guide (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1988), p. 1.
[5] From 1899 until 1914, Marine forces intervened about 100 times abroad, including Nicaragua (1899, 1910 and 1912), Panama (1901, 1902, 1903), Honduras (1903), the Dominican Republic (1903, 1912-1924), Cuba (1906, 1912), Mexico (1914) and Haiti (1914-1918). Agostino Von Hassell, Strike Force: US Marine Corps Special Operations (Charlottesville, VA: Howell Press, 1991), p. 8.
[6] Alfred H. Paddock, Jr., US Army Special Warfare: Its Origins (Washington: National Defense University Press, 1982); Ian D. W. Sutherland, Special Forces of the United States Army (San Jose, CA: R. James Bender Publishing, 1990).
[7] Michael McClintock, “American Doctrine and Counterinsurgent State Terror,” in Alexander George, ed., Western State Terrorism (New York: Routledge, Chapman and Hall, 1991), p. 122.
[8] John Prados, The President’s Secret Wars: CIA and Pentagon Covert Operations Since World War II (New York: William Morrow, 1986), p. 225.
[9] See Michael E. Peterson, The Combined Action Platoons: The US Marines Other War in Vietnam (New York: Praeger, 1989). See also T. L. Bosiljevac, SEALs: UDT/SEAL Operations in Vietnam (Boulder, CO: Paladin Press, 1990).
[10] Stephen Goose, “America’s Secret Soldiers: The Buildup of US Special Operations Forces,” Defense Monitor 14/2 (1985). See also Stephen Goose, “Low-Intensity Warfare: The Warriors and Their Weapons,” in Michael Klare and Peter Kornbluh. eds., Low-Intensity Warfare: Counterinsurgency, Pro-Insurgency and Anti-Terrorism in the Eighties, (New York: Pantheon Books, 1988).
[11] James Adams, Inside the American, Soviet and European Special Forces (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1987), pp. 272-279.
[12] James Blackwell, Thunder in the Desert: The Strategy and Tactics of the Persian Gulf War (New York: Bantam Books, 1991), p. 98.
[13] Malcolm McConnell, Just Cause: The Real Story of America’s High-Tech Invasion of Panama (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991); Thomas Donnelly, Margaret Roth and Caleb Baker, Operation Just Cause: The Storming of Panama (New York: Lexington Books, 1991).
[14] Independent, March 10, 1991.
[15] Norman Friedman, Desert Victory: The War for Kuwait (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1991), p. 412; Defense Week, April 8, 1991; and Army (September 1991), p. 16.
[16] Los Angeles Times, February 28, 1991. See also Flight International, September 25-0ctober 1, 1991.
[17] Washington Times, March 6, 1991.
[18] USA Today, March 19, 1991.
[19] Air Force Times, April 15, 1991. See also Armed Forces Journal International (July 1991), p. 37.
[20] Interrogation of Iraqi POWs after the war indicated that 98 percent of them had seen the leaflets; 70 percent felt that the leaflets and the daily broadcasts had been influential in inducing them to surrender during the ground war. Conduct of the Persian Gulf Conflict: An Interim Report to Congress, Pursuant to Title V Persian Gulf Conflict Supplemental Authorization and Personnel Benefits Act of 1991 (Public Law 102-25) (Washington: US Government Printing Office, July 1991), p. 5-3; and Army (September 1991), p. 30. Special forces also put messages into plastic water bottles that floated ashore on the beaches of Kuwait City (Defense Week, October 21, 1991; Indianapolis Star, February 2, 1992).
[21] Defense Week, July 29, 1991.
[22] Newsweek, June 17, 1991.
[23] Ibid., p. 28. See also Defense Week, September 23, 1991. One event attributed to Special Forces units was a myth. This was the report that a team of British and US special forces flew into Kuwait before the war began, stole an Iraqi surface-to-air missile and interrogated its crew. See Armed Forces Journal International (July 1991), pp. 39-40.
[24] Washington Times, March 20, 1991.
[25] National Guard (February 1992), pp. 16-19.
[26] The recently leaked Defense Policy Guidance draft identified seven hypothetical conflicts to which the US would militarily respond. Special forces were listed among the units earmarked in two of the scenarios — coups in the Philippines and Panama. One can anticipate that special forces would be involved in all the conflicts. Washington Post, February 20, 1992.
[27] London Sunday Telegraph, January 27, 1992.
[28] Inside The Army, March 29, 1990.
[29] Annual Report of the Secretary of Defense to the President and Congress (Washington: US Government Printing Office, 1992), p. 102.

How to cite this article:

David Isenberg "Shock Troops for the New Order," Middle East Report 177 (July/August 1992).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


Pin It on Pinterest

Share This