US Army Special Forces (SF): De Oppresso Liber

Author: Eric Sof

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De Oppresso Liber, a Latin phrase that could be translated as to liberate the oppressed. That’s the motto of the quiet professionals, the US Army Special Forces (SF). Their operators are known simply as Green Berets, and they are one the most elite fighting organizations in the world. Their primary role is unconventional warfare — in the real world, they can take small Special Forces (SF) teams to train and lead friendly guerrilla forces.

Introduction

Special Forces soldiers are known as operators, and they work together in a 12-man “A-Team,” with each operator holding a specific job: The ranking officer is the team leader, the weapons sergeant knows just about every piece of a weapon in the world, the communications sergeant tees up ordnance or extract, and the combat medics can take lives as quickly as saving them in all possible conditions and terrains.

It may seem crazy to send only 12 operators into hostile territory, but it’s not insane when they are Green Berets. The US Army Special Forces or Green Berets are known for their exceptional skill and professionalism in modern war.

In the United States Army Special Forces, De Oppresso Liber is traditionally believed to mean “to free from oppression” or “to liberate the oppressed” in abbreviation in English.

Alongside the CIA, they were the first Americans on the ground in Afghanistan as the first strike back in the Global War on Terror, only one month after 9/11. They linked up with the Northern Alliance and brought Hamid Karzai into Kabul, preparing it for the things to come.

Green berets conduct training at shooting range
US Army Special Forces (Green Berets) operator conduct training at the shooting range (Photo: XY)

Riding on horses at the beginning of the forthcoming war or on ATVs, they were both feared and respected in the foreign country. But Special Forces doesn’t take just anybody. The Army selects this elite few from among the best soldiers to Special Forces Assessment and Selection (SFAS).

History

Special Forces predates the formation of the SEALs by almost a decade. The first Special Forces Group ‘stood up in 1952. Special Forces can trace its direct lineage back to the Second World War. Two of the most notable ancestors were the 1st Special Service Force and Operational Groups of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS).

The German Army knew 1st SSF as the “Nacht Teufels Brigada’ or “Black Devils Brigade.” The ‘Force,’ as they called themselves, had their nickname: Freddy’s Freighters. The Force had an international reputation for the heavy loads (40 kilograms) they routinely carried on forced marches of 90 to 100 kilometers. Their commander, W. Frederick (Freddy), set and led by example, hence their nickname. Colonel Frederick had the entire regiment go through jump school in Montana in one week, with Colonel Frederick making his first jump in slippers. The ‘Black’ in their German nickname comes from their preference of operating at night.

1st Special Service Force was a regimental-sized unit that rarely went above 2000 personnel in assigned strength. It was one of the few Allied units to fight both the Japanese and Germans (Alaska, Italy, and France). Their principal mission was sustained behind-the-lines combat and reconnaissance-in-force operations to harass lines of communication and command and control.

The Operational Groups, or OGs, had the principal mission of training irregular forces to harass the enemy. These groups varied in size from 2 personnel (an officer and “piano player” or radio operator); to 30+ native soldiers recruited from Allied Prisoner of War camps. It should be noted that quite a few radio operators were women; it enhanced the cover of the OGs by not standing out as much as two males. Probably the most famous, or notorious, OGs were the Jedburgh teams deployed ahead of the Normandy Invasion.

Over the past 40 years, the size and number of SF Groups changed considerably. Currently, there are five Active Duty SF Groups and two Reserve SF Groups:

  • 1st SF Group (Pacific and Asia East of the Urals; excluding Southwest Asia).
  • 3rd SF Group (Africa and the Caribbean).
  • 5th SF Group (Southwest Asia).
  • 7th SF Group (Central and South America).
  • 10th SF Group (Europe and Asia West of the Urals).

19th and 20th SF Groups (Reserve Units which reinforce the active Groups).

Training and selection

The training in US Army Special Forces is physically exhausting and requires exceptional endurance, dedication, and mental skill. It’s only 24 days at SFAS before future Green Berets move on to another year of training. That year includes language training (every Special Forces operator learns a second language), specialty skills — such as weapons or radios — and finally Robin Sage, the culminating training exercise after becoming regular members of US Army Special Forces – Green Berets.

But it’s only the beginning of their Special Forces career as they don the Green Beret for the first time and earn the ‘Long Tab’ of the Special Forces. They’ll move on to a Special Forces Group and start training within their ODAs (a 12-man team). That might mean High Altitude Low Opening (HALO) training, which stands for jumping out of an airplane with an oxygen mask, since they’ll be up above 30,000 feet or engaging in Close Quarters Battle (CQB) which is breaching and clearing rooms. The object being — get through the doorway as quickly as possible and overwhelm a hostile force with blistering small arms fire. All in a matter of seconds, of course.

U.S. Army Special Forces Green Beret firing from M4 in Afghanistan
US Army Special Forces operator firing his gun (Photo: Pinterest/Green Berets)

Mission

It’s not only Navy SEALs in the water. Green Berets has its Dive school. And if their SF group needs winter training, they’ll get that too. Ultimately, all this cruel training prepares them for the most complex situations they could expect as the masters of unconventional warfare. That may include direct action — kicking in doors and going after the bad guys or helping foreign governments with their defense and training their military to help them fight. One thing is sure when it comes to Green Berets; they have their pick of the best small arms and big arms, with all other equipment.

Their operators are some of the most highly-skilled shooters in the military who are extremely accurate and fast shooters — and can remain so when fired upon. They keep calm and return fire all the time. Green Berets have some of the coolest toys at disposal, from Humvees to helmets. Their support includes probably the finest helicopter pilots globally and in Special Forces. Even the dogs are elite.

Special Forces is a small-unit GROUND special operations force with a broad mission charter that means conduct the following:

  1. Direct Action Operations (direct combat).
  2. Collect Intelligence.
  3. Conduct Unconventional Warfare (train guerrillas behind enemy lines).
  4. Foreign Internal Defense (fight guerrillas behind friendly lines).
  5. Counter-Terrorist Operations (kill guerrillas who don’t follow the rules).
  6. Coalition Warfare (advise foreign armies on regular warfare issues).
  7. Special Activities (none of your business!).

Another way to describe this mission charter is: SF can Snoop, Shoot, or Teach someone else how to snoop and shoot. They can do this behind friendly lines, behind enemy lines, by themselves, or with friends.

Snooping

Information collection is the most vital service any SOF unit can provide to the conventional force commander. SF acts as the “deep eyes and ears” of the commander. There are four basic types of processed information, or intelligence, that a commander can access: Human, Signal, Imagery, and Technical. SF primarily supplies human-gathered intelligence.

Human Intelligence, or HUMINT, consists of information collected by people without using sophisticated methods, like listening to conversations, watching a road, taking hand-held pictures, or roaming through an area to see what’s there.

SF Intelligence Collection, or “Snoopin’ and Poopin’,” consists of reconnaissance or surveillance operations. Reconnaissance is those actions taken to obtain data about the characteristics of a specific area (like a bridge) or zone (the county the bridge sits in). Surveillance is those actions taken to obtain data about the actions or activities of specific targets (humans, bridges, rivers, etc.) or areas (airfields, harbors, Garth Brooks concert, etc.). Surveillance can either be fixed or moving (following the target without detection).

In simpler terms, a reconnaissance (recce) ‘measures’ a target; surveillance (stag) ‘watches’ the target. This distinction is important because a recce mission means walking over the target to get the intelligence. If the high commander can get the recce information from a distance, why send an SF team? Stag ops can get their information from a distance; it doesn’t involve contact with the target of any sort (at least it better NOT have contact).

Shooting

This category refers to operations that result in loud noises and unwanted attention. European SF units refer to these as “Bash and Dash” operations. Contrary to popular belief, 99% of all experienced CSOF personnel do not like revealing themselves except under conditions that heavily favor them. Shooting, or combat, operations has a few subsets like intelligence collection.

The target’s characteristics define these categories:

  1. Raids (we go to the target).
  2. Ambushes (the target comes to us).
  3. Stand-Off Attack (reach out and whack the target).
  4. Security Ops (find a target to whack).

Traits that all four types share are speed, surprise, and violence of action. These traits are occasionally the only force-multiplier SF has deep in Bad-Guy country. SF operators understand that they will be outnumbered in a direct conflict with the enemy. Amazingly, when the shooting starts, the casualties on the enemy side are far heavier than on the CSOF side. This, in turn, provides ample testimony to the selection criteria and training all our operators receive in the US.

Raids are operations to swiftly penetrate enemy-controlled territory to seize equipment, capture personnel, or destroy something. It ends with a planned withdrawal once the objectives are met. SF conducts raids against fixed or static installations. Most raids are for the destruction of material. The proper term is demolition raid.

Demo raids focus on the partial or complete destruction of a target or target system. Usually, the conventional force commander hands down their intent, which the SF unit uses to develop plans to support the Commander’s Intent. Destruction means that not one part of the target or system can be re-used. If the target was a bridge, this means every span, both abutments, intermediate supports, and access ways must all be reduced to rubble that is useless. A small 15-meter bridge slated for destruction would require close to 4 metric tons of explosive. However, if the same bridge only needed partial destruction, the explosive load could drop to 100 kilograms.

Commander’s intent is very important to the mission planning process. It has the most significant influence on the load requirements for any type of mission. If the big boss says no one will EVER use that bridge again, then SF orders up a mule train to carry the demo material. However, a regular SF team can carry the load if the Kahuna only wants to impede vehicle traffic over the river.

Ambushes are attacks against moving or temporarily halted targets. The objectives are the same as a raid, followed by a planned withdrawal. An effective ambush requires good intelligence or a lot of bodies to cover all contingencies. One does not usually initiate an ambush on a heavily armed, numerically superior foe; unless one has a death wish or is backed up by an Armor Battalion.

Stand-Off operations involve no direct contact with the enemy yet still impede their operations. This includes:

  1. Indirect fires (mortars, rockets, or artillery).
  2. Terminal Guidance (laser designation, radar beacons, forward observation).
  3. Sniper Operations.

Security missions are a hybrid between collecting information and acting on that information. The reconnaissance-in-force best describes most security operations; the SF patrol collects information and attacks the enemy based on that information. Security operations can either move around or stay in one spot, depending on the job requirements.

SF operations in Vietnam contained numerous examples of roving security patrols that would look for the enemy, fix their position, and bring in follow-on forces or direct artillery and airstrikes against them. One SF element during Operation Just Cause in Panama performed a classic fixed security operation when guarding a bridge. The Commander’s Intent stated that the Panamanian Battalion 2000 could not reinforce Noriega’s thugs in downtown Panama City.

The only realistic route was over a bridge. Due to some timing problems, the SF element tasked with stopping all traffic arrived on the bridge just before the lead element of the Battalion 2000 crossed it. Two troopers ran up onto the middle of the road and started firing AT-4 rockets at the lead vehicles while the rest of the unit deployed and engaged the convoy. Also on the station were two AC-130 gunships which greatly influenced the outcome: nothing made it across.

Teaching

This is the “Bread and Butter” of Special Forces, and which makes a very dangerous force. One Special Forces A-Team can recruit, organize, train, equip (with outside help), and advise a Light Infantry Battalion. This includes rifles, mortars, anti-tank launchers, command, control, communications, and intelligence. Unconventional warfare (UW) mission means they do this behind enemy lines.

The usual objectives of UW are to help overthrow the current regime or influence it in a manner favorable to the guerillas and US policy. No guerilla army has won a campaign without heavy support from a sponsor. US sponsorship is often in SF detachments and supplies controlled by Special Forces.

Foreign Internal Defense (FID) is the flip side of UW. The light infantry battalion is raised to support the current government and hunt down guerillas trying to overthrow it. FID also includes improving existing foreign forces through better training and supplies.

All the training in the world means nothing if the will to fight isn’t there. Without a fighting spirit and cohesive motivation, teaching operations of any type are useless. This is often a major factor in why the US doesn’t go into every ‘oppressed’ country or region and create order.

Coalition Warfare is like Foreign Internal Defense; only it applies mostly to foreign conventional units, and the mission is mostly advisory. This mission came from the Gulf War when attack aviation units said they would not provide close air support unless a US element was on the ground to control the strike. Special Forces got the call to send teams to brigade-level and higher headquarters of the allied units to act as liaisons.

The role expanded to include language interpretation tactical advice and act as a direct link to the Theater Commander as necessary. If a US unit had to interact or coordinate with an Allied unit, there was a good chance an SF liaison team played some role in making it happen. In some instances, SF sent liaison teams to the battalion and company level to help the war effort.

Allied Units with an SF liaison team benefited from exposure to more sophisticated communications equipment, as well as navigation aids. The SF teams had GPS satellite navigation sets that gave the same positional benefit to our Allies as the US. It also gave the Theater Commander real-time information on the exact location of every unit in the region.

Organization

The basic administrative and tactical unit of US Army Special Forces is the A-Team, also known as an Operational Detachment-Alpha (ODA).

The second type of SF unit is the B-Team, or Operational Detachment-B (ODB). This is also a tactical unit but has the primary responsibility to command and control SF operations in a defined area. There is approximately 14 personnel on a B-Team:

1 B-Team Leader; Major (O-4), Commander.
1 SF Captain (O-3), Executive Officer.
1 SF Warrant Officer (W-2 to W-3), Operations Officer.
1 SF Sergeant Major (E-9), NCO in Charge of the B-Team.
8 SF Sergeants.
2 non-SF Sergeants (Chemical and Supply).

Only the ODA and ODB typically deploy into a tactical zone. An ODB may function independently on operations or control and support between two and eight ODAs doing tactical-level work. Another SF organization is the C-Team (ODC). It is a pure command and control unit with operations, training, signals, and logistic support responsibilities. It’s very rare to see a C-Team in a tactical zone.

More commonly it’s co-located with the conventional force commander it’s supporting; at the operational or strategic level. Its basic organization follows the same lines with a Lieutenant Colonel (O-5) for a Commander and a Command Sergeant Major (E-9) for the leading NCO. An additional 20 – 30 SF personnel fill key positions in Operations, Logistics, Intelligence, Communications, and Medical.

A C-Team will deploy to support just one B-Team if necessary. If the B-Team goes Tactical, a C-Team will deploy close to the B-Team in a non-tactical area to provide direct support. A C-team can simultaneously control up to five or six B-Teams plus 18 to 30 A-Teams. However, it keeps the C-Team extremely busy.

For administrative purposes, ODAs, ODBs, and ODCs are grouped using the following scheme:

Special Forces Company consists of:

  • 6 ODAs.
  • Two A-Teams are special infiltration teams: One Combat Diver team and One Free-Fall Team.
  • 1 ODB.

When deployed, an SF Company can establish one Advanced Operating Base (AOB) and control 6 ODAs.

Special Forces Battalion consists of:

  • 3 SF Companies.
  • 1 ODC.
  • 1 SF Battalion Support Company (Admin, Ops, Intel, Log, Commo, Med, Transportation)

When deployed, an SF Battalion can establish one Forward Operating Base (FOB) and control 3 ODBs and 18 ODAs.

Special Forces Group consists of:

  • 3 SF Battalions.
  • 1 Headquarters Company (Group Commander-Colonel and Group Command Sergeant Major)
  • 1 SF Group Support Company (same as the Battalion Support Company only larger).

When deployed, an SF Group can establish one Special Forces Operating Base (SFOB) and control 3 ODCs, 9 ODBs, and 54 ODAs.

All told, one SF Group has 54 A-Teams with a total of 648 operators assigned to them. Worldwide, there is approximately 3,240 personnel assigned to A-Teams.

It is also interesting that all five active SF Groups combined have 45 Combat Diver A-Teams with 540 Combat Divers assigned. This is compared to approximately 1,024 SEALs set to SEAL teams in the US Navy (16 man platoons, 8 platoons per Team, 8 Teams in Naval Special Warfare). The British 22d Special Air Service Regiment has between 250 and 300 “Trigger Pullers” in the entire unit. This equates to one Special Forces Battalion.

* those data are related to before 9/11

De Oppresso Liber

For years, they were waging wars in the Middle East. As conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down, the US Army Special Forces will continue to train for the next fight, next war, following country. They will likely be the first ones called into battle to live up to their motto: De Oppresso Liber — To Liberate the Oppressed, or even die for it.

US Army Special Forces (Green Berets)
Active:  June 19, 1952 – present
Country:  United States of America
Branch:  US Army
Type:  Special operations force
Role:  Primary tasks:
  • Unconventional warfare
  • Foreign internal defense
  • Special reconnaissance
  • Direct action
  • Counter-terrorism

Other roles:

  • Counter-proliferation
  • Hostage rescue
  • Humanitarian missions
Part of:
  • United States Special Operations Command
  • United States Army Special Operations Command
Garrison/HQ: Fort Bragg, North Carolina
Nickname: Green Berets, Bearded Bastards, Quiet Professionals, Soldier-Diplomats, Snake Eaters,
Motto: De Oppresso Liber
Engagements: Cold War
Vietnam War
El Salvador
Operation Urgent Fury
Operation Just Cause
Persian Gulf War
Somalian War
Operation Uphold Democracy
Kosovo
Operation Enduring Freedom
Iraq War
Afghanistan War
War in North-West Pakistan
War on ISIL

It’s inevitable that if needed, Green Berets will have first boots on the ground, anywhere, anytime.

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1 thought on “US Army Special Forces (SF): De Oppresso Liber”

  1. As the widow of a Viet Nam Vet (he was not K-I-A) I would appreciate knowing a little more about this group the Green Berets. I have heard Barry Sadler’s song several times and I have just read all of the names that were printed on the previous page of Green Berets. Apparently, from my understanding one has to be an “excellent Army soldier” to be selected for this prestigious group. In reviewing the names I saw one woman’s name. During the Viet Nam Conflict were there women Berets, and are there presently any in war-torn areas of the world? Thank you