Unconventional Warriors: Tracing the History of US Special Operations Forces

July 9, 2023

Unconventional Warriors: Tracing the History of US Special Operations Forces

By SOF REP | July 7, 2023


The roots of US special operations forces (SOF) can be traced back to the strategic challenges of World War II. This global conflict saw the birth of special operations units like the British Commandos, the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS), and the Brit’s Special Operations Executive (SOE). These units were created to conduct unconventional warfare—sabotage, espionage, and guerrilla warfare—behind enemy lines, recognizing the strategic value of such operations.


These early SOF, such as the OSS, laid the foundation for modern-day units. The OSS, for example, was instrumental in developing unconventional warfare tactics and techniques, many of which are still used by today’s special operations forces. The unit’s daring operations deep behind enemy lines paved the way for the creation of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and influenced the formation of post-war SOF.


In the Pacific, the US Marine Raiders and Army’s Alamo Scouts conducted specialized missions, including long-range reconnaissance and direct action against Japanese forces. Their successful operations further demonstrated the effectiveness of such specialized units, shaping the future direction of the U.S. military.

Cold War Warriors: The Rise of the Green Berets and Navy SEALs

With the onset of the Cold War, the need for unconventional warfare capabilities continued to be a strategic necessity. This era saw the formation of the U.S. Army Special Forces, commonly known as the Green Berets, in 1952. Trained in unconventional warfare, the Green Berets were key to countering Soviet influence in various parts of the world, often working with local forces to resist Communist expansion. 




In the maritime domain, the U.S. Navy created the SEALs (Sea, Air, and Land) teams in 1962. These units were designed to conduct operations in maritime and terrestrial environments, a direct response to the perceived threats of the Cold War. The SEALs quickly established a reputation for their toughness and skill and are particularly noted for their service in Vietnam and the Middle East.


The experience and lessons from the Vietnam War were instrumental in further evolving the SOF’s role and tactics. The unconventional and irregular nature of this war underscored the need for small, agile units that could operate in complex environments—guiding the development of future special operations forces.

Modern Warfare: SOF in the War on Terror

The 9/11 attacks and the subsequent Global War on Terror (GWOT) marked another significant shift in the role of SOF. In the complex battlefield of the 21st century, marked by non-state actors and asymmetric threats, the various special operations forces remained the tip of the spear in the U.S. response.




Units like the Navy SEALs and the Army’s Delta Force were frequently called upon to execute high-risk missions. The successful operation to eliminate Osama bin Laden in 2011 by SEAL Team Six, aka DEVGRU, highlighted the strategic value of these elite warriors in modern warfare.


Furthermore, since their inception, the broadening scope of SOF operations to include counterterrorism, counterinsurgency, and stabilization missions demonstrated their versatility and adaptability. In Iraq and Afghanistan, these unconventional warriors worked extensively with local partners, a testament to their role not just as warfighters but also as diplomats and teachers in war zones. 


The evolution of special operations forces from WWII to the War on Terror reflects the changing face of global conflicts and the continued importance of these elite units in U.S. military strategy. Their ability to adapt to shifting battlefields, embrace innovative tactics, and conduct high-risk missions underscores their indispensable role in national security. As the nature of warfare continues to evolve, so will the missions and methods of our SOF, ever-ready to meet the challenges of the future.


Cover photo credit: US special operations forces (Source: Delil Souleiman/Wikimedia Commons)