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US Best Most Elite Special Forces 2023

Understanding Special Operations Forces: An Overview

I get asked a lot of questions about which Special Operations Force (SOF) is the best. I also get asked, “Which one should I join?” The answer is complicated, so let’s address this question through a quick analysis of jobs versus tools, mission sets and expertise, and redundancy.

Jobs Versus Tools: An Analogy

Let’s start with an analysis of jobs versus tools. To best accomplish a task, you need the right tool. Let’s say you have a new project and you’re going to build a deck for your backyard. You have all of the wood required, but you only have Philips head screws. Sure, you can do it with a hammer, but it’s going to be messy and sloppy. You might be able to do it with a flathead screwdriver, but that might take you 60 seconds per screw. Better is a Philips head screwdriver. Now you only need 30 seconds per screw, but the best option is to use a power screwdriver with a Philips head. With the right tool, you only need one second per screw. An ax is the best tool to cut down a tree, but a sharp ax is even way more effective. The difference between a dull ax and a sharp ax could save you hours of work.

The Importance of Training in SOF

This principle is why SOF guys train so hard. They must always remain sharp. They must always remain ready. There are several exceptional tools in the SOF inventory. I made an entire video series which discusses each SOF’s people, training requirements, and primary mission sets. If you want to learn more about these units, then please check these videos out.

Understanding the Unique Missions of Different SOF Units

And although each SOF unit has several mission sets, they generally have one mission that they do better than anyone else.

  • Do you need the number one SWAT team in the entire world to rescue a hostage? Call JSOC.
  • Do you need to take over an enemy control boat at sea? Call NAVSPECWAR.
  • Do you need to conduct unconventional warfare in a foreign language? Call in Army Special Forces.

Each service branch has their own bit of special operations forces. This gives the services some redundancy.

A Simplified Overview of SOF Missions: The Spreadsheet

I’ve made a “SOF as a Function of Mission” spreadsheet. It’s a gross oversimplification, and don’t forget, I am a retired SF guy. In the top rows, I’ve put SOF branches and units. Then I list all of the SOF missions. These missions are civil affairs, psychological operations, unconventional warfare, foreign internal defense, direct action, combat search and rescue, tactical air control, air traffic control, and weather.

The last part of these rows are infiltration mechanisms. “C” means having teams with a dedicated scuba or underwater infilt ability. Land is self-explanatory, and air means static line airborne or military freefall. The primary mission and capability of Civil Affairs soldiers is to conduct civil affairs. They are all static line airborne qualified. PSYOP units conduct psychological operations. They are also static line airborne capable.

Understanding the Roles and Capabilities of Different SOF Units

  • 160th SOAR: Mainly a transportation unit, but because their helicopters have some serious firepower, I am going to assign them expertise in direct action and combat search and rescue. Obviously, they infiltrate the objective via air.
  • Rangers: Experts at direct action. This includes raids, ambushes, cordons, and search. Although unique detachments of the Rangers have very specialized skills, all of the Ranger regiment is static line airborne capable.
  • SF Guys: With the exception of combat weather, SF guys do it all. Before you guys start giving me a hard time for scoring SF too high, let me explain. I personally have done many CA and PSYOP missions. I even commanded Civil Affairs and PSYOP units down range. SF guys are always training foreign military and police forces to better secure their country. This is called FID.
  • Marine Raiders: They do UW, FID, DA, CSAR, and tactical air control. They are able to infilt the operational area via sea, air, or land.
  • SEALs: Have the same capabilities as Raiders. Obviously, they take maritime operations to the next level. For the most part, the SWCC mission is almost completely direct action. SWCCs obviously do maritime search and rescue. They are military freefall qualified and the water is their primary operational environment.
  • Air Force SOF: All dive and freefall qualified, but they generally only have one or two missions.

Table: Air Force SOF Roles and Expertise

RoleExpertise
PJs, CROsPlan and lead search and rescue
TACP guysProvide terminal guidance
CCT guysDo air traffic control
Weather guysForecast and report weather

The Value of Redundancy in SOF

I want to highlight that this matrix is not comprehensive. I purposely left out JSOC and obviously would never mention classified mission sets. What you should get out of this chart is that there is a lot of redundancy in the SOF community. Truth be told, each service branch has expanded their SOF footprint since 9/11 in an attempt to get a larger piece of the fight. This was a good thing, but it came with some growing pains.

Changes in SOF Over Time: Case Studies

For example, MARSOC component headquarters didn’t exist 15 years ago. They are a relatively young special operations force. We all know that the Marines in general have been doing some of the hardest training and most difficult missions for decades. But despite being newly organized, MARSOC Raiders are amazingly talented.

Fifteen years ago, all of my Navy SEAL friends would have said that their only job was to break things and neutralize bad guys. They would have said that they were trained to do direct action. Nowadays, SEALs do foreign internal defense and they no longer even complain about it. To pick on my own community, Army SF got into a 10-year pattern of focusing on direct action instead of working ourselves out of a job or planning and executing a good exit strategy.

Conclusion: The Importance of the Right Tool for the Job

Don’t get me wrong, maturing and developing the special operations community in the past 20 years has been critically important. Redundancy within SOF has been such a good thing. For about a decade of my life, it seemed like I was either in school or on a never-ending cycle of six months deployed, six months training for deployment, six months deployed, six months training for the next deployment. I can only imagine how much busier my life would have been if it weren’t for sister service special operations units who shared in the work.

Okay, so let’s finish up by getting back to the original question. What is the best special operations unit? The answer is complicated. Because special operations forces are capable of conducting different missions in different environments using different infiltration methods. The best unit for Mission X may not be the best unit for Mission Y.

Although redundancy helps share the burden of the massive workload, you must always use the right tool for the job. Thanks for reading.

George N.