5. 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne)
Nicknamed the “Night Stalkers,” the 160th SOAR trains and deploys some of the most skilled helicopter pilots in the world. As for its mission, the 160th SOAR’s mottoes speak volumes: “Death Waits in the Dark” and “Night Stalkers Don’t Quit.” Based out of Fort Campbell, Kentucky, these pilots fly everything from MH-47 Chinooks to MH-60 Blackhawks and A/MH-6M Little Bird helicopters. The 160th SOAR was heavily involved in the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu, losing two Blackhawk helicopters and five crew members in the conflict. On a more successful note, the 160th SOAR took part in the raid on the Pakistan compound that resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden in May 2011.
4. United States Air Force Pararescue
Formed after World War II, USAF Pararescue Jumpers (known as “PJs”) are tasked with recovery of personnel in combat environments, often pilots shot down behind enemy lines. It’s a testament to the hazards the PJs face that half of the 24 recipients of the Air Force Cross have been Pararescuemen. The two-year process of becoming a Pararescueman — known as “Superman School” or the “pipeline” — has a washout rate of more than 90 percent, the highest of any special operations school in the U.S. military. PJs must master diving, parachuting, survival skills, escape and evasion, combat tactics, and EMT-paramedic training in a grueling series of courses. Once a bastion only for enlisted men, Pararescue began commissioning officers in the past decade. USAF Pararescue falls under the United States Special Operations Command (AFSOC) headquartered at Hurlburt Field, Florida. Several other unique USAF Special Ops assets are based at Hurlburt, including the AC-130U Spectre gunships that provide fire support to special operations units.
3. Marine Special Operations Regiment
Formed in 2007 under Marine Corps Special Operations Command, the Marine Special Operations Regiment (MSOR) is one of the newest additions to the DoD’s Special Forces arsenal. MSOR is comprised of 1st, 2nd and 3rd Battalions and has an Atlantic contingent based out of Camp Lejeune, North Carolina and a Pacific response group based out of Camp Pendleton, California. MSOR’s roles include special reconnaissance (i.e. assessment of enemy forces), counter-terrorism and unconventional warfare. MSOR’s pilot program, Det One, deployed to Iraq with the Navy SEALs in 2004 and sparked some controversy three years later after eight civilians were killed during an enemy ambush. MSOR’s 1st battalion has been active in Afghanistan since late 2009, heading up all special ops forces in the northern and western parts of the country.
2. Coast Guard Deployable Operations Group (DOG)
This is one of the most versatile special operations groups in the military. Established in July 2007 and based out of Arlington, Virginia, the Coast Guard’s Deployable Operations Group (DOG) provides the Department of Homeland Security and the DoD with a specialized deployable force capable of handling humanitarian crises and natural disasters as well as conducting counter-terrorism operations. DOG specializes in activities including, but not limited to, port security, drug interdiction, hostile ship takedowns and NBC (nuclear, biological, and chemical) response and assessment. The DOG’s mission is very similar to that of the Navy SEALs, and they have deployed with the SEALs on numerous occasions. The DOG was also involved with the recovery effort after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and has conducted anti-piracy operations worldwide, most notably against Somali pirates.
1. Special Warfare Combatant-craft Crewmen
Delivering Navy SEALs on target, on time worldwide is the task of the Special Warfare Combatant-craft Crewmen, or SWCC (pronounced “swick”). SWCC maintains a small fleet of special-purpose, high-tech boats used to insert NAVY SEALs, often under hostile fire. SWCC has also worked with the U.S. Navy’s answer to the Army’s Delta Force, DEVGRU or SEAL Team SIX, which is one of the DoD’s four antiterrorism Special Missions Units. SWCC traces its lineage back to the Swift Boat operators along the Mekong River during the Vietnam War, often referred to as “The Brown Water Navy.” SWCC units have participated in the first and second Gulf Wars, and the ongoing Global War on Terror. SWCC operatives also spent time on counter-narcotics operations in Colombia, where they encountered trouble; in 1996, six members of a SWCC unit were cited for heroism for holding off 150 FARC rebels in Columbia for three days and nights, killing 43 rebels with only one American wounded in action.
One More: The CIA Special Activities Division
Formed under the CIA’s National Clandestine Service, the Special Activities Division (SAD) is further split into two groups; one directed toward paramilitary actions, mostly in concert with USSOCOM groups such as Delta and DEVGRU, and a Political Action Group concerned with covert activities and psychological warfare. The Special Operations Group (SOG) of the division is also concerned with intelligence gathering activities with an increasing emphasis on cyber warfare. It should be noted that intelligence gathering isn’t always limited to hostile parties, but also allied nations or agencies that seek to gain information on U.S. technology.
The Special Activities Division traces its roots back to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) of World War II fame. Since then, the CIA and the Special Activities Division have been involved in nearly every major U.S. military operation, including the Bay of Pigs, efforts to rescue the U.S. hostages in Iran, and the current ongoing Global War on Terror. The actions of the division have been portrayed in such films as Charlie Wilson’s War and the more recent Argo. Often, CIA/SAD agents are in country well before the first “boots are on the ground.” A good example was their actions in Afghanistan shortly after the 9/11 attacks, when agents secured the cooperation of the Afghan Northern Alliance against the Taliban. A majority of known recipients of the CIA’s Intelligence Star are SAD agents, and it’s certain that many strange but true tales of the Division and the Agency are yet to be told.
David Dickinson retired from the USAF in 2007 at the rank of E-7 Master Sergeant. He was an Aircraft Armament Systems Specialist for over 20 years, serving in the 1st Gulf War, South Korea, Somalia, and the global war on terror. He’s worked on F-16, F-15, and A-10 airframes, as well as AC-130H gunships with Special Ops and PA-200 Tornadoes with the Italian Air Force.