April 25, 1980, was a defining moment for Special Operations as the tragic news of the failed Desert One mission became known that day. President Jimmy Carter announced a secret rescue mission for the Iranian hostages had failed; eight American servicemen were dead and several others were seriously injured.
The tragedy at Desert One and problems with the Grenada invasion and failure to fix the Special Operations joint mobility issues led Congress to pass the Nunn-Cohen Amendment mandating the President create a unified combatant command for special operations with control over its own resources.
The U.S. Special Operations Command was formed April 16, 1987, with responsibility to organize, train and equip U.S. Special Operations Forces from the Army, Navy and Air Force.
Gen. James Lindsay became U.S. Special Operations Command’s first commander and served as such from 1987 -1990.
Since Lindsay’s command there have be eight subsequent commanders – Army Gen. Carl Stiner (1990 -1993), Army Gen. Wayne Downing (1990 – 1996), Army Gen. Henry Shelton (1996 – 1997), Army Gen. Peter Schoomaker 1997 – 2000, Air Force Gen. Charles Holland (2000 – 2003), Army Gen. Doug Brown (2003-2007), Adm. Eric Olson (2007 – 2011) and commanding today is Adm. Bill McRaven.
Today, USSOCOM has four components consisting of: Naval Special Warfare Command, activated April 16, 1987; U.S. Army Special Operations Command, activated, Dec. 1, 1989; Air Force Special Operations Command, activated May 22, 1990; and the most recent component, Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command, activated Feb. 24, 2006.
There have been six Medal of Honor recipients since USSOCOM was formed.
Army Master Sgt. Gary Gordon and Army Sgt. 1st Class Randall Shughart received the medal posthumously for their attempt to save a downed pilot in Somalia Oct. 3, 1993. Navy Lt. (SEAL) Michael Murphy received his medal posthumously for trying to save his team near Asadabad, Afghanistan June 28, 2005. Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Michael Monsoor (SEAL) received the medal posthumously for diving on a grenade and saving his teammate’s lives in Ar Ramadi, Iraq, Sept. 29, 2006. Army Staff Sgt. Robert Miller received the medal posthumously for his actions battling a numerically superior force in Konar Province, Afghanistan, Jan. 25, 2008. Last, Army Sgt. 1st Class Leroy Petry was presented the medal for brave actions in the Paktya Province, Afghanistan, May 26, 2008.
USSOCOM responsibilities have significantly evolved from its original train and equip mission of SOF to the lead combatant commander for planning, synchronizing, and, as directed, executing global operations against terrorist networks.
Today, the war against terrorism continues in Afghanistan. Osama Bin Laden was killed by a SEAL team May 2, 2011.
Additionally, the SOF warrior is deployed to more than 95 countries, and spends 365 days each year contributing to the war against terrorism.
The first forces in most conflicts are typically SOF and the last ones out are going to be SOF. USSOCOM is ideally suited for asymmetrical warfare and is organized to defeat the terrorist threat. The remarkable growth and maturation of Special Operations has been proven on the battlefield since the days of Desert One.
The following examples are significant Special Operations that have taken place since USSOCOM’s activation in 1987. The Special Operations highlighted represent the entire spectrum of SOF unique abilities in military operations.
Operation Earnest Will – Persian Gulf SOF’s first tactical operation involved SEALs, Special Boat Units, and Army Special Operations aviators working together during Operation Earnest Will in September 1987.
Operation Just Cause - Panama The Panama invasion occurred in December 1989. The Joint Special Operations Task Force was commanded by Maj. Gen. Wayne Downing. The task force’s mission included the attack on the Panamanian Defense Headquarters and the rescue of American hostage Kurt Muse. The Muse rescue was the first successful hostage rescue since World War II. The 75th Ranger Regiment seized the Omar Torrijos International Airport, enabling the 82nd Airborne Division to enter Panama. The operation ended with Noriega surrendering to SOF and the country established a democratic government.
Operation Desert Storm - SCUD Hunters Saddam Hussein was unable to battle in the air during Desert Storm because of coalition forces’ air superiority. He decided to use SCUD missiles to attack Israel in January 1991. The Joint Special Operations Task Force was given the mission to stop the SCUD attacks on Israel. SOF teams went hundreds of miles inside western Iraq to destroy the SCUD infrastructure.
Operation Provide Comfort - Iraq In February 1991, Operation Provide Comfort may be the best example of SOF’s capability to deal with a large-scale disaster. Hundreds of thousands of Kurds fled to the mountains in northern Iraq and southeastern Turkey. MC-130E Combat Talons led other aircraft to drop emergency supplies for the Kurdish refugees. SOF 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. SEALs and Special Boat Unit personnel provided security for the camps, and Psychological Operations units produced thousands of leaflets providing instructions on how to get help within the camps.
Operation Gothic Serpent - Somalia SOF helicopters carrying special operators from Task Force Ranger at Mogadishu airport were given the mission to capture Somalia’s Gen. Muhammad Farah Aideed and his lieutenants in October 1993. During the mission, two MH-60 Blackhawks were shot down forcing a rescue operation. The task force faced an overwhelming Somali mob that overran the crashed helicopter sites, creating a dire situation. Task Force Ranger experienced a total of 17 killed in action and 106 wounded. Army Master Sgt. Gary Gordon and Sgt. 1st Class Randall Shughart were posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for their actions in trying to save a downed helicopter crew.
Operation Uphold Democracy – Haiti During Operation Uphold Democracy, SOF played a strategic role in securing peace within Haiti. On Oct. 15, 1993, patrol craft with SEALs aboard were used to board ships smuggling contraband into Haiti. President Bill Clinton was dissatisfied with the political oppression in Haiti in July 1994 and authorized an invasion plan. The invasion was called off when former President Jimmy Carter, Sen. Sam Nunn and retired Gen. Colin Powell brokered a peace deal. SOF set up three forward operating bases with Operational Detachment-Alpha teams keeping law and order in the countryside. A psychological operations campaign using leaflets, radio broadcasts and airborne loudspeaker platforms encouraged cooperation with U.S. forces and avoided bloody conflicts with the former regime. With the assistance of non-governmental organizations, Civil Affairs units rebuilt infrastructure and restored electricity.
Operation Allied Force - Balkans The North Atlantic Treaty Organization initiated Operation Allied Force March 24, 1999, to put an end to Serbia’s violent repression of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. A 78-day bombing campaign eventually forced Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic to withdraw his forces from Kosovo. The bombing strategy did not prevent Serbia from forcing an estimated 800,000 refugees out of the country, creating an enormous humanitarian crisis in neighboring Albania and Macedonia. SOF played a strategic role throughout the Balkans region with Civil Affairs units coordinating large-scale humanitarian relief efforts with U.S. governmental agencies and international relief organizations, arranging food, shelter and medical care for the refugee camps. SOF engaged in direct action and special reconnaissance missions, to include AC-130 gunships attacking Serbian positions. SOF also rescued the only two U.S. pilots downed during the war.
Operation Enduring Freedom - Afghanistan Special Operations Forces achieved spectacular results during Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. Task Forces Dagger and K-Bar deployed into Afghanistan to prepare for operations in September 2001. Their mission was to conduct unconventional warfare with coalition forces to free Afghanistan from Taliban oppression and to no longer allow the area be a safe haven for terrorist organizations. Shortly after arriving, Army Operational Detachment Alpha teams augmented by Air Force Special Tactics personnel and assisted by Afghani opposition forces, infiltrated contested areas. Subsequently, SOF elements coordinated Air Force and Navy attacks against enemy positions while working with coalition forces to arm, train and lead elements under extremely hazardous conditions. The effort led to the complete rout of Taliban and al Qaeda terrorist elements in Afghanistan within 49 days.
Operation Enduring Freedom - Philippines Operation Enduring Freedom extended into the Philippines. Successful Special Operations began in February 2002, and were implemented on the island of Basilan where terrorists from the Abu Sayyaf group had taken stronghold. SOF, teamed with their Filipino counterparts, identified Abu Sayyaf strongholds and established bases within their territory, forcing the terrorist group to scatter, thereby separating them from the population. This tactic allowed SOF and the Filipino forces to provide security and to determine what the local needs were. New wells were dug, schools built and hospitals were established so basic medical care needs now can be met throughout the region.
Operation Iraqi Freedom - SOF were given key roles in Operation Iraqi Freedom which began on March 19, 2003, such as stopping the lighting of oil fields, preventing the Iraqi V Corps in the north from reinforcing Baghdad; conducting special reconnaissance and direct action missions in western Iraq; supporting Combined Forces Land Component Command movement from the south toward Baghdad; and interdicting borders and lines of communication. Additional SOF operations included conducting airborne parachute assaults to seize key airfields; participating in efforts to kill or capture key personnel within the Iraqi regime; and seizing and protecting suspected sites where weapons of mass destruction were manufactured. SOF, with conventional forces, captured Saddam Hussein Dec. 13, 2003. Combat operations and Iraqi Freedom ended August 31, 2010. Operation New Dawn began with an advise and assist role to the Iraqis. On Dec. 15, 2011, the Iraq War was declared over and the last U.S. troops left Iraqi territory on Dec. 18, 2011.