The Activity and Effectiveness of Special Operations Forces

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Special Operations Forces (SOF) are military units, which resolve conflicts during emergencies and combat the international terrorism. In general, the SOF deployment is only necessary when the diplomatic negotiations fail, and a peaceful solution is no longer an option. In such cases, it is essential to have the military capacity to minimize the negative consequences of the emergencies, including economic damage and human losses. However, the experts debate whether the Special Operation Forces justify the allocated resources and are beneficial to society and global peace. The current research essay examines the activity of SOF in various countries and attempts to provide a comprehensive report of their effectiveness regionally and globally.

Special Operations Forces Overview

In general, SOF refer to relatively small but highly effective military units. All members of such teams undergo specific training regimes in various environments. The necessary skill set of the soldiers frequently includes unconventional warfare tactics, such as bomb defusing, parachute deployment and insertion, management of complicated military technologies, and the ability to operate in any environment. Evidently, such comprehensive training of recruits requires significant funding, time investment, and cooperation between nations. From these considerations, SOF are not only subject to individual countries but also constitute a vital part of intergovernmental military alliances.

One of the most prominent international organizations operating in this area is the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The military alliance encompasses 30 countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom. The primary purpose of NATO is crisis management via both diplomatic and military solutions while prioritizing democratic values, such as freedom, law, and human rights. Some of the notable operations are missions in Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan, and the recent support against COVID-19. Ultimately, the organization has played a crucial role in a large variety of military conflicts in the 20th century and continues to promote democratic values today.

However, NATO remains one of the most prominent SOF organizations primarily due to the effective contribution system. All 30 allied countries must allocate a certain amount of funding from the national budget according to the established cost-share formula. The allies need to contribute at least 2% of their overall GDP defense spending to guarantee the military preparation of NATO units. As a result, the United States is the most impactful contributor due to the imbalanced investments into military defense compared to other countries. Namely, after the tragic events of 11 September 2001, the United States allocates more funding on its national security and military units than other 29 allied countries combined. Therefore, the US also contributes to approximately 66% of the overall NATO budget due to the minimum requirements of the cost-share formula. Ultimately, NATO remains the most prominent international organization of Special Operations Forces due to the common funding from allied nations.

SOF in the United States

Unlike NATO, SOF in individual countries primarily act according to national interests. The history of American special forces can be traced to World War II, when the national military units have undergone specific training in Europe. However, as mentioned briefly before, the definite emphasis on SOF followed the 9/11 events due to the confrontation with international terrorism. The US government has acknowledged the necessity of mobile elite military units that could be deployed in any part of the world at any given time.

The United States Special Operations Command

Initially, the US SOF were supposed to act as a complementary organization to the core military force and primarily mitigate terrorist threats. However, the United States Special Operations Command (SOCOM) has been gradually receiving more comprehensive funding, human resources, and public support. The leading actions of SOF in Afghanistan and Vietnam have transformed SOCOM from an auxiliary unit into the core military organization in the United States. As a result, the overall number of operating personnel has increased from approximately 30 000 in 2001 to 70 000 in 2017. Consequently, SOCOM expanded its presence to 150 countries all over the world in 2015 compared to only 60 countries in 2009. At present, SOCOM is an influential SOF organization that operates globally and within the country.

Terrorism and SOF

Consequently, another major reason for the increasing prominence of SOF is the successful campaign against terrorism. While experts debate the effectiveness of the system, it is evident that the counterterrorism mission has been victorious in mitigating the national terror threat. Since 2001, there have been no mass-casualty terrorism acts of a similar scale as the 9/11 tragedy. The success of the campaign might be explained by the emphasis on the containment of terrorism in areas where it emerges from. For instance, the focus on the ultra-radical al-Qaeda organization has allowed shifting the combat from the United States back to the Middle East. Therefore, the counterterrorism campaign of SOCOM does not only protect the borders of the United States but also initiates attacks on the terrorist organizations in other countries. This approach is arguably detrimental to innocent people living in the Middle East countries, such as Iraq or Afghanistan, and America is frequently criticized for intervening in international affairs. However, this strategy has been vastly successful in mitigating the terrorist threat in the United States.

Drawbacks and Limits of SOF in the United States

Besides the intervention of SOF in the Middle East countries, there are several additional drawbacks and limits of the organization that question the effectiveness of special forces. First, there is a lack of control and accountability of the US SOF actions. At present, the influence of SOCOM is much more extensive on the national military force compared to countries, such as UK or Canada. In turn, it implies that US SOF are more autonomous and less dependent on international standards. Consequently, it is widely known that certain operations are associated with civilian casualties; however, most of the documents are classified, and it is complicated to hold SOCOM accountable for potential misdoings and transgressions. Additionally, SOF generally operate as small and undercover military units, making it almost impossible to oversee all of their activities. The lack of accountability is one of the major problems associated with special forces in general; however, it is particularly relevant to the American SOF due to their vast influence on the international and domestic spheres.

Another limit of SOF is connected to the initial concept of counterterrorism strategy. As mentioned briefly before, the actions of SOF raise concerns all around the globe, which might be highly detrimental to the United States in the long term. This issue has been particularly relevant during Donald Trump’s presidency due to the relatively extreme recognition and celebration of the American SOF. As a result, the vast focus on the military units for international communication might create the image of fear of the United States, which is an effective strategy to mitigate terrorism but might also be detrimental to international relationships with other countries. Furthermore, the intervention in the Middle East countries and the military presence of SOF in Afghanistan for over 20 consequent years do not benefit the United States in the long term. Ultimately, the counterterrorism campaign has been successful in driving the combat away from the country, but the overall effectiveness of SOF in the United States is still a subject of debate.

Justification of Resource Allocation

The current research essay attempts to answer whether SOF constitute a justified system in regard to resource and funding allocation. As seen from the example of American special forces, SOCOM has been vastly successful in mitigating the national threat of terrorism. The 9/11 tragedy shocked the whole world, and the government of the United States made its best efforts to prevent any further terrorist acts of similar scale. Nevertheless, the lack of accountability and deteriorating image of the United States in the international arena are severe disadvantages of the selected policies. At present, the United States is widely known not only as the liberator but also as an aggressor due to the prevention policies in the Middle East. Therefore, the justification of the resource allocation is highly subjective as well. The American citizens are glad that the 9/11 tragedy is unlikely to repeat due to the counterterrorism strategy and SOF efforts, which justifies the resource allocation. Nevertheless, the drawbacks of the approach should not be ignored, and the US government would, subjectively, benefit from renovating the system.

SOF in the United Kingdom

The next example of the SOF implementation in the military force is the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom Special Forces (UKSF) are generally classified into the Special Air Service (SAS), the Special Boat Service (SBS), the Special Reconnaissance Regiment (SRR), Special Forces Support Group (SFSG), and several other elite units. Similar to US SOF and NATO, the primary purpose of the UKSF shifted from participation in World War II to the cold war with the Soviet Union and to combat against global terrorism. The number of operating personnel is approximately 2000 people, including military and supporting positions, which is drastically less than the 70 000 people serving in the United States. Nevertheless, the UKSF has had a vast impact on international affairs throughout the 20th century.

United Kingdom Special Air Service

Most of the elite units in the United Kingdom emerged during World War II as a necessary response to the Nazi threat. At that time, the establishment of SOF was objectively justified due to the utmost risk of Nazis taking over the world. At present, the achievements of Britain’s Special Air Service during the war are globally recognized. UK SAS was formed in 1941, and the soldiers were selected according to the highest standards of training and discipline. Despite a series of relatively unsuccessful operations in 1941, the unit proved to be an effective method of unconventional warfare through activities in North Africa. Consequently, UK SAS was able to destroy a large number of enemy machinery and aviation in North Africa, Italy, France, and Germany practically without losing any of its members. The organization was disbanded after World War II due to the cut of military expenses; however, the government acknowledged the vast impact of the UK SAS on the outcomes of the conflict and restored the elite unit a year after.

Consequent History of UKSF

While UK SAS is perhaps the most notable SOF team in the history of the country, there is a large variety of SOF departments that continue the counterterrorism missions today. Nevertheless, unlike the massive military force of the United States intervening in international affairs, UKSF primarily focuses on national matters. For instance, the objective of the 22 SAS Squadron is to react to any terrorist incidents within the country. The unit is properly trained to operate in various environments and for diverse purposes, such as hostage rescue from planes and buildings, bomb defusing, close-range combat, and body guarding. In most cases, rescuing hostages is the priority of the mission; therefore, the training emphasizes this skill set first. Ultimately, UKSF focuses on the national counterterrorism defense and occasional support in global missions, such as the Middle East operations.

Drawbacks and Discussion

Despite the relatively small number of the overall UKSF personnel, there are still several disadvantages of the SOF implementation. First, similar to the US SOF, accountability is a significant issue that obstructs the public image of the undercover units. For instance, the government selected the ‘no comment’ policy concerning the death of Sergeant Matt Tonroe, who was a member of the SAS joining the US raid in Syria. Ultimately, the documents are classified, and the government refuses to elaborate on the subject. This approach significantly stirs the concept of the national SOF as people lose trust in the government. Therefore, the lack of oversight is one of the major challenges that SOF units experience in the UK.

SOF in Australia

SOF units in Australia are relatively young compared to their counterparts in the US and UK. The Australian SOF department primarily consists of Special Operations Command Units (SOCUs), Special Air Service Regiment (SASR), and Special Operations Engineer Regiment (SOER), which are governed by the Headquarters Special Operations Command (HQ SOCOMD). Similar to other national SOF units, the primary purpose of HQ SOCOMD is to mitigate potential terrorist threats and provide support for the international missions, primarily in the Middle East. Nevertheless, at present, HQ SOCOMD experiences a management crisis due to the disclosure of undercover military activity in Afghanistan and might be significantly changed in the near future.

War Crimes and Unjustified Behavior

One of the most disturbing recent news concerning the Australian SOF is the credible evidence of war crimes committed in Afghanistan. The investigation revealed that 39 innocent civilians were killed during the military missions in Afghanistan specifically due to the initiation practice of ‘blooding’. The concept basically refers to shooting prisoners, whose crimes are not necessarily proven, merely for achieving the ‘first’ kill. Evidently, such behavior, which is equivalent to blood sport on living humans, cannot be justified by any means and has caused a significant backlash from both Afghans and Australians. The current general – Angus Campbell – apologized for the unlawful killings and promised to change the military culture of the Australian SOF. Nevertheless, the objective reality is that the junior soldiers willingly murdered civilians and prisoners, which cannot be justified in the civilized world. Therefore, the Australian government will most likely reconsider the resource allocation to the HQ SOCOMD and, hopefully, implement drastic measures to mitigate any future instances of unlawful killings.


The current research essay has examined the effectiveness of special forces based on the examples of International, American, English, and Australian military units. Most of the SOF activities can be classified into crisis management with an emphasis on military conflicts and counterterrorism. The former primarily concerns the global wars, such as World War II, and relatively local conflicts, such as military activities in Kosovo. These are generally extreme cases, which endanger the lives of thousands and millions of people, and the necessary countermeasures should be implemented. From these considerations, the resource allocation to SOF during such emergencies is justified as it mitigates the worst possible outcomes. On the other hand, the situation concerning contemporary counterterrorism is significantly more complicated due to the lack of accountability of SOF and the increasing amount of war crimes committed in the Middle East. As a result, the implementation of SOF for international threats receives a large portion of criticism, and many experts consider this approach detrimental.

Personal Opinion

Subjectively, I believe that the actions of SOF during global emergencies, such as World War II, are totally justified. For instance, UK SAS was formed specifically as a response to the Nazi threat and proved to be a highly effective method of unconventional warfare by neutralizing a large variety of enemy machinery and aviation. Therefore, it is possible to justify the establishment of undercover military organizations during such emergencies.

On the other hand, I believe that the present state of SOF cannot be entirely justified. While counterterrorism is obviously a good cause aimed to protect innocent people around the globe, the drawbacks of the method should not be ignored. The USA, UK, and Australian SOF have a significant lack of accountability, and some SOF units are even accused of committing war crimes. This issue is particularly noticeable in the example of the Australian SOF unlawfully murdering Afghan civilians and prisoners. The government has revealed this fact only by conducting a thorough investigation; however, it is possible that a large number of war crimes are unnoticed. People lose trust in the special forces and the governments all over the world as more global SOF missions result in civilian casualties. Ultimately, I believe that the current state of SOF might be justified only in case the national authorities implement a more transparent system of accountability and protect the interests of civilians.


The unconventional warfare methods of SOF have proven to be highly effective in the resolution of military conflicts and counterterrorism strategies. In the case of global emergencies, such as World War II, the implementation of SOF is justified, while the situation concerning counterterrorism is more complicated. Experts have been accusing various SOF departments of lack of accountability, unlawful killings, and war crimes. As a result, they advocate to either cease the resource allocation to SOF or change the accountability policies to protect the interests of civilians. Therefore, while most countries have operating SOF, it is possible that the military strategies will change toward more transparent options in the near future.


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DemoEssays. "The Activity and Effectiveness of Special Operations Forces." February 21, 2023.