The first Special Forces unit was officially established during the 1950s, after several notable operational successes during World War II. However, unconventional warfare, a staple of small-unit operations has its roots since before the Revolutionary War.
THE JEDBURGH TEAMS
The idea of using small, tactical teams to sabotage enemy communications and supply lines and aid resistance forces was borne in World War II with Operation Jedburgh.
The Jedburgh Teams were three-man commando units made up of an assortment of allied Soldiers. The teams trained in Scotland and were tasked primarily with dropping into Nazi-occupied territory to lead and supply local resistance efforts.
OSS DETACHMENT 101
The Office of Strategic Services (OSS) was an intelligence agency during World War II. While often seen as the precursor to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, OSS operations were led and carried out by military personnel. The Special Forces later adopted much of the operational doctrine that existed within OSS.
One of the most notable OSS units, Detachment 101, dropped behind enemy lines in Burma. The detachment conducted a series of guerilla operations to identify targets for Allied air strikes, rescue downed pilots, and disrupt supply lines.
FIRST SPECIAL SERVICE FORCE
Both American and Canadian special operations units trace their history back to the First Special Service Force – a joint American and Canadian tactical group that operated in the Aleutian Islands, southern France and Italy during World War II.
In the Pacific Theater, the Alamo Scouts was the name given to members of the Sixth Army Special Reconnaissance Unit. The scouts were charged with infiltrating deep behind Japanese lines and providing crucial intelligence to the Sixth Army.
THE KOREAN PARTISANS
During the Korean War, the United Nations Partisan Forces operated on islands behind North Korean lines. These units were charged with establishing and influencing a partisan North Korean resistance movement and carrying out raids. Much of the doctrine during this conflict was carried over to the creation of the first official Special Forces unit.
THE GREEN BERET
The first Special Forces unit was formed in 1952, under the U.S. Army Psychological Warfare Division. The initial 10th Special Forces Group was led by Col. Aaron Bank, who was involved in several sensitive operations during World War II, including an operation to capture or assassinate Adolf Hitler. Bank is often referred to as the father of Special Forces.
In 1954, Special Forces Soldiers adopted the iconic Green Beret as a means to distinguish themselves from the conventional Army. Their official and exclusive right to the beret was not recognized until 1962, when John F. Kennedy ordered that they be made a “symbol of excellence, a badge of courage, a mark of distinction in the fight for freedom.”
Kennedy himself is credited with establishing Special Forces as a more mainstream operational Army unit. The John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center is named in his honor.
TASK FORCES IN IRAQ AND AFGHANISTAN
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan saw the use of several extremely effective Special Forces units, including Task Force Dagger, Task Force K-Bar and Task Force Viking.
Task Force Dagger was the alias for the 5th Special Forces Group (and helicopter support from 160th SOAR), which operated in Afghanistan. Its mission was to infiltrate ODA teams into the country and gather intelligence on enemy locations.
In 2002, in advance of the main ground operations in Iraq, Special Forces Soldiers in Task Force Viking were to infiltrate Iraq and train the Kurdish-Iraqi Peshmerga forces in unconventional warfare tactics.