At a national policy level (i.e., all means of affecting other nations including military means), special operations produce effects in hostile, denied, or politically sensitive areas. Most often, they are conducted at the level of grand strategy or strategy. Sensitivities of the target often require the operation be clandestine or covert.
Conventional military forces may support special operations, the special operation may be the only action by the government, or special operations may support conventional operations. They may involve joint action with foreign government or insurgent forces. When they support conventional operations with such tasks as reconnaissance deep in enemy territory, or with raids to disable a key enemy capability, they become a force multiplier.
Special operations differ from conventional operations in degree of physical and political risk, operational techniques, mode of employment, independence from friendly support, and dependence on detailed operational intelligence and indigenous assets.
Opportunities for ambiguity
In most countries, special forces are the units that plan and execute such operations. This term is ambiguous in the United States, as United States Army Special Forces refers to specific kinds of units and doctrine for some, but not all, special operations; the more general U.S. term covers units under the United States Special Operations Command.
In other countries, such as Iraq under Saddam Hussein, or the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea), "Special forces" refer to elite conventional forces. Another area of potential is that some military writers and organizations refer to conventional units using unusual movement skills, such as skis or mountain climbing, as "special operations".
True special operations forces almost always operate in units of small size, rarely in the hundreds in an operation, and usually in the tens. Operation Ivory Coast, the U.S. attempt to rescue prisoners of war at the Son Tay prison in North Vietnam, put 56 ground troops into the area, and had 92 airmen, including some helicopter crew on the ground, in the area of operations. Special reconnaissance teams often are made up of six soldiers. A guerrilla training and leadership unit can range from three (WWII Operation Jedburgh) to twelve (Special Operations Detachment A).
The term "special operations forces" is least ambiguous. Many nations use the term "operator" for the part of the force that directly fights the enemy or is behind enemy lines. Most special operations forces also need a substantial amount of specialized, often highly classified support. Some support operations may need to take place in the area of operations, but are lower-risk than direct combat or deep reconnaissance.
There is a blurred line between military special operations forces and intelligence agencies that have a covert action capability. Even more blurring can take place between clandestine human-source intelligence and covert action by personnel of the intelligence organization.
Another blurry area include domestic law enforcement units that carry out police special operations (e.g., hostage negotiation and rescue), but may have counterterrorism missions. Some countries forbid their military to be used domestically, others use them only in very unusual cases, and yet others routinely use military special operations forces to carry out tasks beyond the capability of their police.
Generally accepted true special operations missions
- Guerrilla warfare
- Raids deep behind enemy lines, uniformed or not. Informally, many special operators call these "kick in the door" operations; a more formal term is direct action (military)
- Sniping and assassination behind enemy lines, possibly as part of a counterterrorism mission
- Special reconnaissance, using nonstandard ways to get in and out of the area of operations, and staying clandestine while operating
- Psychological operations, especially from behind enemy lines, but radio/TV broadcasts and leaflet drops can be part of a program. In some cases, special operations forces may help get radios, which only can receive their side's frequencies, and perhaps only need a crank for electrical power, to people in the area of operations
- US Department of Defense (12 July 2007), Joint Publication 1-02 Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms
- , Part 3 - Special Operations, North Korean People's Army Study Guide, GlobalSecurity.org, 1996
- Schlemmer, Benjamin (2002), The Raid: The Son Tay Prison Rescue Mission, Ballentine
- Special Forces Support Group