ADF Special Forces – Operational Revolution

The 9/11 terrorist attacks starkly revealed how dangerous violent non-state extremists were. This global asymmetric threat was quite different to the conventional military threats Western defence forces had been developed for. In response Western military forces have been rebuilt with one of the most dramatic changes being in Special Operations Forces (SOF).

Before the 9/11 attacks, for most Western militaries SOF was a boutique arm. For nations like Australia, the Special Forces were a well-trained element but very small and typically intended to undertake long range, long duration surveillance and reconnaissance tasks. The Special Forces were meant to complement the main land operations, not to act alone or to have real strategic significance. The Americans were different – and not just in terms of scale – however, after the infamous Blackhawk down incident in Somalia in 1993 they became reticent about using SOF. In Europe during the Cold War, the US had developed SOF units to stay behind and operate in the rear of any invading Soviet Shock Army, including attacking with Atomic Demolition Munitions, but this was hardly relevant in the post-Cold War world.

This has now all changed. The demands of combat operations during the last decade have driven a revolution in the way Special Forces are used. Australia’s Special Forces have been deeply involved in this revolution being very active on operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, in developing new capabilities and in increasing in size.

The Operational Revolution

The American response to the 9/11 attacks marked the start of the SOF revolution. Shortly after the attacks, several Operational Detachment – Alpha teams from the US Army’s 5th SF Group, and their embedded USAF Special Operations Command Special Tactics operators, were infiltrated into Afghanistan. Building on the CIA’s longstanding relations with Afghan warlords, the SOF A-Teams worked closely with irregular Northern Alliance forces to quickly bring down the Taliban regime and hunt down al Qaeda extremists in Afghanistan. The SOF teams did this mainly by directing the large-scale use of offensive airpower using precision-guided weapons against Taliban forces destroying them both physically and psychologically through sowing fear and panic. A few hundred SOF in fewer then 60 days seized a country. Crucially no other land forces were involved.

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