Special forces (SF) are generic terms for elite highly-trained military, police or civilian paramilitary tactical teams that conduct specialized operations such as special reconnaissance (SR), guerilla warfare, unconventional warfare (UW), foreign internal defense (FID), direct action (DA) and counter-terrorism (CT) actions. In the United States, the term special operations forces (SOF) is often used, as “special forces” refers to a specific unit, the US Army’s Special Forces, commonly called the “Green Berets”.
Special forces units are typically composed of relatively small groups of personnel operating in highly operational operations under principles of self-sufficiency, stealth, speed, and close teamwork. Throughout the later half of the 20th century and into the 21st century, special forces have come to higher prominence, as governments have found objectives can sometimes be better achieved by a small team of anonymous specialists than a larger and more politically controversial conventional deployment.
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How they operate?
Special forces are small-scale, clandestine, covert or overt military operations of an unorthodox and frequently high risk nature, undertaken to achieve significant political or military objectives in support of foreign policy.
Some special forces operations, such as counter-terrorism actions, may be carried out domestically under certain circumstances. Special forces units are typically composed of relatively small groups of highly-trained personnel equipped with armament, operating under principles of self-sufficiency, stealth, speed, and close teamwork, often transported by helicopter, small boats or submarines, parachuting from aircraft, or stealthy infiltration by land. Special forces are sometimes considered a force multiplier, as when they train indigenous forces to fight guerrilla warfare.
Special forces have played an important role throughout the history of warfare whenever the aim has been to achieve disruption by “hit and run” and sabotage, rather than more traditional conventional army combat using large formations of troops and motorized armor groups. Other significant roles lay in reconnaissance, providing essential intelligence from close to or among the enemy, and increasingly in combating terrorists, their infrastructure and activities.
In antiquity, Hamilcar Barca in Sicily had specialised troops trained to launch several offensives per day. Later, during the Crusade wars, small, highly trained units of Knights Templar attacked individual Muslim units attempting to forage or seize booty. Muslim armies had several naval special operations units, including one which used camouflaged ships to gather intelligence and launch raids, and another which consisted of soldiers who could pass for Crusaders who would use ruses to board enemy ships and then capture and destroy them.
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In Tang Dynasty ancient China and later feudal Japan, members of various clans or organizations of mercenary Special Forces operators, called Ninjas, were highly trained in the various forms of martial arts (e.g., Ninjutsu) and special tactics for unconventional warfare and guerilla warfare utilizing the most technologically advanced weapons (e.g., firearms/explosives, snow shoes, water floatations devices etc.) and tactics (e.g. camouflage, stealth, meteorology, geography, psychological warfare) available at the time. They were usually hired by rival leaders for covert operations and black operations such as espionage, assassination, sabotage, security details, and destabilizing the political, social, economic and military infrastructure of a rival territory.
During the Napoleonic wars, rifle and sapper units existed who were not committed to the formal lines that made up most battles of the day. They instead held more specialised roles in reconnaissance and skirmishing.
For the British Army, it was during the Second Boer War (1899-1902) that the need for more specialised units became most apparent. Scouting units such as Lovat Scouts, a Scottish Highland regiment made up of phenomenal woodsmen outfitted in ghillie suits and well practiced in the arts of marksmanship, field craft, and military tactics, best filled this role. This unit was formed in 1900 by Lord Lovat and early on reported to an American, Major Frederick Russell Burnham, the Chief of Scouts under Lord Roberts. After the war, Lovat’s Scouts went on to formally become the British Army’s first sniper unit.