U.S. special operations forces, including units from the Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force, have led the charge in America’s post –9/11 wars. Highly trained and lavishly equipped, they often receive equipment before the conventional forces that often support them. Often, a look at the small arms of special forces is a look at the future of military small-arms technology.
U.S. special operations forces (SOF) include the U.S. Army’s Delta Force, Special Forces, Rangers, Navy SEALs and other special warfare units, Marine Force Reconnaissance and Raider units, and Air Force special operations units. As a community, special operations forces tend to be more willing to embrace the unorthodox —a function of their unconventional nature, shorter bureaucratic tail, and larger discretionary budgets. U.S. SOF also tends to work more closely with industry, in this case the U.S. small-arms industry, to procure the latest weapons.
One of the main weapons used by SOF is the M4 carbine, or some variation thereof. U.S. Army Rangers and Special Forces carry the M4 carbine, by now likely upgraded to the M4A1 standard. The -A1 standard includes ambidextrous controls, an improved trigger group and the ability to fire fully automatic. U.S. Navy SEALS often carry the M4 but are increasingly armed with Mk. 18 Mod. 0/1. Mk.18 weapons that feature shorter, 10.5-inch barrels and are optimized towards close quarters combat. The Mk. 18 is also suppressor ready.
Another weapon used by US special warfare units is the Heckler and Koch 416 assault rifle. Externally similar to the M4A1 carbine, the HK416 differs in being a gas piston, rather than direct impingement, weapon system. The HK416 uses gunpowder gases to drive a bolt to cycle the weapon, rather than using the gases directly. The result is a weapon that, although slightly more front-heavy, requires less cleaning in the field and is less prone to overheating. The HK416 was originally fielded by the U.S. Army’s Asymmetric Warfare Group and now reportedly is used by US Navy SEALs and Delta Force. A version with a sixteen-inch barrel is being fielded by the U.S. Marine Corps as the M27 Infantry Automatic Rifle and will eventually equip all frontline Marine Corps infantry.
Still another assault rifle used by special forces is the FN Small Caliber Automatic Rifle or SCAR. The weapon was first adopted in 2005 as the Special Operations Forces Combat Assault Rifle (SCAR). Available in a lighter 5.56-millimeter and heavier 7.62-millimeter versions, SCAR was adopted by Army Rangers and Air Force special tactics troopers in 2009, although US Special Operations Command later pulled the weapon from service “ due to a lack of funding and marginal performance improvement over the M4”. Although the 5.56 SCAR variant was removed from service the heavier 7.62 version was retained and could still see action.
Special forces units also favor compact weapons for suppressive fire, and here the M249 Squad Automatic Weapon platform and derivatives dominate. The M249, adopted by the U.S. Army and Marines Corps in the mid-1980s, has a high rate of fire and is chambered in the same 5.56-millimeter cartridge used by the M16 and M4 carbine. Unlike assault rifles, the M249 feeds from ammunition belts to facilitate sustained firing.
The M249 is also used by special forces, albeit with considerable improvements. The M249 Special Purpose Weapon, or SPW, featured a shorter barrel and a collapsible stock. The SPW variant did not have a bipod, carrying handle, or vehicle mounting lug but did have a forward pistol grip mounted underneath the barrel. The variant also included a three position Picatinny rail for adding optics and aiming devices. A follow-on variant, the Mk. 46, included a fixed stock, an even shorter barrel, and a four-position rail system.
The largest light caliber weapon in use by American special forces is the M240 medium machine gun. The M240B is based on the time-tested FN MAG machine gun and was the inspiration for the design of the M249. A gas-operated, belt fed machine gun with a 24-inch barrel, the M240B is dependable and puts out a large volume of fire. The basic design chambered to fire 7.62-millimeter ammunition was heavy at 27 pounds. A new version, the M240L, sheds five pounds via the use of titanium and polymers and shortening the barrel. A version made for special forces, the Mk. 48, is very similar in size, for, and function to the Mk. 46, the main difference being the use of the more powerful 7.62 round.
U.S. special operation forces not only see more combat than conventional, line infantry but are able to work lessons learned from combat experiences into their equipment sooner and to greater effect. While it’s exciting to watch the world of special forces and their tricked out gear, it’s also a glance into the crystal ball at the future of all ground troops. Improvements in special forces weapons trickle down to conventional forces, spreading out among the various armed services, and all American ground forces invariably benefit.
Time for Change in U.S. Special Operations Command?
Since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. military’s Special Operations Command has gained manpower and money as well as responsibility for an ever-wider range of missions. But now Congress is beginning to question, and push back against, the commando mission-creep.
At present SOCOM is the lead agency for U.S. military counterterrorism operations and security-force assistance. The latter involves U.S. forces training foreign armies and other proxy forces.
SOCOM in 2016 also assumed the lead role in combating the spread of weapons of mass destruction, a mission that previously belonged to U.S. Strategic Command. More recently, SOCOM became the lead command for America’s “military information support operations.” In essence, propaganda.
The command wants even more responsibility, according to CRS. “The current unified command plan stipulates USSOCOM responsibility for synchronizing planning for global operations to combat terrorist networks,” CRS noted.
This focus on planning limits its ability to conduct activities designed to deter emerging threats, build relationships with foreign militaries and potentially develop greater access to foreign militaries.”
USSOCOM is proposing changes that would, in addition to current responsibilities, include the responsibility for synchronizing the planning, coordination, deployment and, when directed, the employment of special operations forces globally and will do so with the approval of the geographic combatant commanders, the services and, as directed, appropriate U.S. government agencies.
Further, the proposed changes would give broader responsibility to USSOCOM beyond counterterrorism activities, to include activities against other threat networks.
But the world has changed in those nearly two decades. Congress increasingly has questioned SOCOM’s sprawling responsibilities and recently ordered two separate reviews of the command.
Lawmakers in part were motivated by reports of misconduct by SOCOM personnel as well as by SOCOM’s alleged participation in conflicts for which Congress did not provide authorization, specifically in Niger.
Four SOCOM troops died on Oct. 4, 2017 when militants ambushed their patrol in Niger in Central Africa.
“Prior to starting out on the ill-fated patrol, two junior officers, including an Army captain who remained at the base in Niger and the team leader, falsified a document to get approval for a mission to kill or capture a local ISIS leader,” CNN reported.
“That mission was never approved by the proper chain of command, according to [an official] summary. A much lower-risk mission was instead submitted and approved. However, the team was unable to locate the ISIS leader during their unauthorized mission.”
“Some believe this situation calls into question the adequacy of civilian oversight and control of U.S. SOF,” according to CRS.
The reviews of SOCOM that CRS mentioned will “take an introspective look at U.S. SOF’s culture, roles and responsibilities, adequacy of resources, organizational structure and the adequacy of training, education and personnel,” the research service reported.
“Some have suggested these provisions are a precursor for congressional and [Defense Department] actions to ‘rein in and reorient’ U.S. SOF from fighting terrorists to taking on nation-states, instead.”
Aware that U.S. [special operations forces] are overburdened and that there is a need to find the right balance between continuing to challenge terrorist organizations while simultaneously addressing growing irregular warfare threats posed by nation-states, policymakers will likely make good use of the two forthcoming congressionally mandated reviews.
It is possible that over the next few years, significant public policy debates on the future of USSOCOM and U.S. SOF will be undertaken, potentially resulting in a number of changes.
After 17 years at the forefront of the global military campaign against terrorism, policymakers, defense officials, and academics are questioning the future role of USSOCOM and U.S. SOF.
David Axe serves as Defense Editor of the National Interest. He is the author of the graphic novels War Fix, War Is Boring and Machete Squad.
US SOF strengthen relationships with allied partners through combined training
U.S. Air Force’s 7th Special Operation Squadron, assigned to 352nd Special Operation Wing, based out of Mildenhall, England, deployed to Bacau, March 10-15, 2019, to conduct mission essential tasks, and simultaneously, familiarize Romanian SOF with the CV-22 Osprey.
“The importance is not only for the commonality of our tactics, techniques, and procedures between US forces and partner forces but combining that within the NATO spectrum to make sure we are all operating in the same format,” said a U.S. Air Force Special Operations Capt., the mission commander for the training event and flight lead pilot . “Being able to get these staged drills out of the way now in a safe and effective training environment, allows us to be able to have the confidence to forward deploy in any contingency operation.”
The 7th SOS operates the CV-22B Osprey throughout the entire range of military operations in support of conventional and special operations. The 7th SOS executes this mission at night, in adverse weather, performing long-range insertion, extraction and resupply missions in hostile, denied and politically sensitive territories.
US and ROU SOF conducted day and night fast rope infiltration and exfiltration operations (FRIES) and low-level flying. These capabilities are something ROU SOF are (trained and) skilled in; however, this was their first time conducting FRIES out of the CV-22.
“Everyone here had used fast rope before, on different platforms, so they understood their techniques,” said U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt., 7th SOS, special mission aviator. “One of the main differentiators from our side was just reminding them that the CV-22 creates a lot more downwash and it’s a much different experience when it comes to deploying out of our aircraft, compared to a conventional rotary wing aircraft.”
Through these pieces of training, SOF members demonstrate and strengthen partner nation relationships and air operations in the European Theatre.
“The ROU SOF was able to extend the CV-22 familiarization training invitation to other units that are not co-located here at Bacau,” said the mission commander. “So they were able to cycle through as many of their special operation ground forces as they could, during this timeframe.”
Along with developing combined leaders, this deployment gave the US SOF members the opportunity to establish professional development at the tactical level.
“I’ve been flying for the Air Force for 15 years, and all my training has been stateside, so even for me in the short time I’ve moved to RAF Mildenhall,” said U.S. Air Force Capt., an instructor pilot for the 7th SOS. “I’ve learned a lot working with Allied partners, whether it’s working through language barriers or just the different techniques. It’s eye-opening.”
The 7th SOS mission commander was very thankful for the ability to utilize the diverse NATO terrain and base resources to accomplish their objectives.
“The Romanian Government and Air Force Base here in Bacau have been extremely supportive with their ability to reach out to us and help,” said the mission commander. “They’ve been able to work on request, with short notice, to include base access, providing us workspace and just being very accommodating when it comes to airspace and tower-controlled patterns that they run here on the airfield.”
This collaborative training event allows each force to improve its individual and collective capabilities, and the 352nd SOW and ROU SOF will continue to train shoulder-to-shoulder in similar exercises.
“The biggest takeaway for me, is the Romanian partners are more than willing to host us, but they are thirsty to work with us as far as continued training,” said the mission commander. “Looking forward to coming back, not just in Bacau but into Romania in general, so that we can work in the dynamic air space that they have, and their terrain, but also working with the ROU SOF members who seem to be very much interested in working with specialized air power like the tilt-rotor Osprey.”