"Special" forces

Back in the Second World War about 85% of German army divisions were barely different from First World War divisions; horse-drawn carts and guns, merely hundreds of motor vehicles for about 15,000 men. There were also fast divisions (tank, mechanised infantry and motorised infantry) and a few mountain, paratrooper (Luftwaffe) and very, very few horse cavalry formations. 
Nowadays the old divisions of the line (old model infantry divisions) disappeared without successor. There are now only fast troops, some of them being motorised infantry brigades with "mountain" or "paratrooper" title and some respective training. The relevance of parachute drops and high altitude mountain climbing for collective (alliance) defence can easily be questioned.
The German special forces in a more restricted sense are the navy's frogmen and the army's KSK, especially the latter received a lot of attention for what were effectively a few dozen of deployable infantrymen.

A concentration of talent in more or less few and small "special forces" has been criticised thoroughly, and in many countries so.* The regular infantry gets deprived of this talent (especially in regard to NCOs) and superiors lose confidence in regular infantry's ability to conduct difficult missions. It has been observed that after a thorough inflation of USSOCOM and various SAS establishments superiors began to think of former normal infantry missions such as raiding, infiltration or snatching prisoners as missions only the special forces were capable of (or usable for in practice).
There was in the end likely no substantial net improvement of capabilities by forming or enlarging the special forces.

I'd like to point out two alternative approaches for how to generate small units for extremely demanding missions - without weakening the regular force.

(a) Ad hoc special platoons
Battalions are very much able to identify their best men. A battalion commanding officer who was told to set up a commando platoon for a special mission in three weeks could easily do so, preparing 50 chosen men for a mission requiring 30 fit men with specific non-standard training skills in three weeks.**
The availability of suitable men for such an ad hoc team can be bolstered by allowing regular infantrymen (or others) to attend courses (climbing, parachuting, skiing, horsemanship, tracking, languages etc.). Their small units benefit from what knowledge these men transfer after their return.
This (attending of courses) happens already (Ranger or Einzelkämpfer courses, for example), but it could be made more oriented towards providing a pool of semi-prepared men for such ad hoc special platoons.

(b) Organic specialised platoons
There are sniper platoons in some countries' infantry battalions, and mountain guide/high altitude alpine platoons in some mountain infantry battalions. Such expert pools don't deprive the regular force nearly as much of talent and expertise as do stand-alone special forces establishments. An expert platoon is still available for the rest of the battalion as trainers, examples, safety officers, umpires and reinforcements (guides).


P.S.: I chose the humorist if not mocking graphics to counteract the idolization that special forces normally enjoy.

*: Their contribution to WW2 was rather unimportant, save for the Italian frogmen's efforts
edit: link to an Australian article describing a critique.
**: You may disagree. In this case, you should check whether your expectations for regular infantry quality may be too much influenced by talent-deprived, too personnel fluctuation-riddled or poorly trained regular infantry.


  1. A problem with ad hoc elite formations within line battalions is that heavy casualties in the ad hoc formation can quickly degrade the battalion.

    Given that Brigade will always be asking their battalions to "send their best men" for the hare brained mission of the week, casualties will inevitably strike at the sinews holding a battalion together. John Masters (Chindit/Gurkha officer) railed against this tendency to kill off the best people in a unit.

    1. The Bn CO at least has the choice. He wouldn't have those men in the first place if SF was a separate establishment.

    2. Ah, but SF forces are typically small and valuable. Hence, higher authority will try and preserve them for the "big show". Furthermore, being naturally attached higher up in the command chain reduces the number of commanders who have hare brained ideas of the week.

      Therefore, you have less overall anti-darwinian pressure on the army as a whole.

  2. At some point in my reading I came across the phrase "Special Forces and Snipers are the distilled essence of Infantry," paraphrasing the quote wherein the MG is considered the 'distilled essence of infantry.' This is pretty accurate, with the exception of establishing an indigenous partisan force a'la the original mission of the US Special Forces, all SF activities are Infantry activities, just taken to another level of proficiency. The modern Infantry have been neutered in many ways by the twelve year campaigns in sandy places with unattainable strategic objectives, very much in the way that you say, and as a result their conventional combat capabilities are severely degraded. Being forced to rely on specialist units not in the CoC for necessary low level missions like recces and raids will hinder operations.

    The historical experience with ad hoc forces is perhaps best demonstrated by trench raiding parties. When these were not simply tactical units (sections ordered to conduct the action) they were ad-hoc parties selected from within the company or battalion. Being the most intelligent, aggressive and fittest infantrymen, they were the highest quality manpower in the unit and they were rapidly degraded through these raiding operations: but all NATO SF units, in particular US SOCOM, UKSF and CANSOFCOM have experienced enormous attrition rates because of very high tempo. This effect is going to happen anywhere to any unit, probably even more rapidly in conventional combat against a peer/near-peer, and can't really be avoided. The combat units will be consumed by combat, in particular the small units assigned missions requiring the most finesse and skill to successfully carry out - friction is the nature of war and shit will happen. By having specialized units capable of these missions and Infantry sufficiently trained and skilled to carry out raid/recce/et al operations within their areas of responsibility, we spread the burden of those missions around more units and increase overall force capability. By spreading the workload we can maintain the capability longer in the face of combat losses.

    SF need to return to their original role of ops deep inside the enemy depth while the infantry themselves handle things on the FEBA. These terms will have to be redefined given the likely nature of modern conventional conflict.

  3. Excellent article that is very informative and thought provoking. Short and to the point. Thank you.

  4. If you can pick experienced officers and NCOs who work well together, their soldiers who are normally trained and fit will do well following them. The issue lies in the scale of losses among those resourceful and cooperative leaders, who in today's armies won't be so easily replaced. We're so much smaller than the mass armies of WWII.

    But in balance I agree with this idea. Just think of how many talented personalities we siphon into organizations like JSOC. People who waste their potential going through the Airborne - Ranger - SF ladder when they should be through Ranger School and into leadership in line units.

    1. There's not much of an idea. I merely pointed out proven methods, which offer alternatives to SF sucking dry the regular force's pool of talents.

    2. It is a 'new and fresh idea' when you consider Anglophone military culture today, rather than common Western practice in the decades before we passed such tasks upward onto GHQ and higher. At this point in the trend, your alternative solution would feel counter-intuitive to a great many career soldiers.

  5. A bit off the subject of commando units, but:

    – The relevance of parachute drops and high altitude mountain climbing for collective (alliance) defence can easily be questioned. –

    But isn’t it worth the cost to maintain altitude acclimated units and paratroop units in the case they should be needed? Neither are capabilities that can be trained up at a moment’s notice, and they would be available for use as light infantry in any case.

    1. The only relevant NATO frontier mountains are in Turkey, and hardly any "mountain" troops are actually acclimatized for high altitude ops year-round. This would take approx. six weeks for any unit. Remember the 10th "Mountain" disgrace from 2001?

      Parachute drops are largely irrelevant for alliance defence because only capable aggressors can be expected to be a major threat, and they would no doubt massacre intruding cargo aircraft. Air drop for QRF is unnecessary and excessively restrictive regarding heavy weapons.

      And automatic parachuting can be trained within days. Go to a civilian parachuting course and they will allow you to do even solo manual jumps within days! The airborne-specific ground activities can be trained by a regular infantry unit within days as well. The only really required experts are likely the loadmasters onboard the cargo aircraft and a handful of corps HQ officers.