Search Penny Hill Press

Thursday, December 9, 2010

U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF): Background and Issues for Congress

Andrew Feickert
Specialist in Military Ground Forces

Thomas K. Livingston
Air Force Fellow

Special Operations Forces (SOF) play a significant role in U.S. military operations, and the Administration has given U.S. SOF greater responsibility for planning and conducting worldwide counterterrorism operations. The 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) directs increases in SOF force structure, particularly in terms of increasing enabling units and rotary and fixed-wing SOF aviation assets and units. The U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) Commander, Admiral Eric T. Olson, in commenting on the current state of the forces under his command, noted that SOF forces are deployed to more than 75 countries and 86% of these forces are in the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility. Admiral Olson also noted ongoing growth in SOF units and aviation assets and the effectiveness of Section 1208 authority, which provides funds for SOF to train and equip regular and irregular indigenous forces to conduct counterterrorism operations. USSOCOM’s FY2011 budget request for $9.8 billion has been recommended by the House and Senate Armed Services Committees for full funding, and both committees have recommended additional funding for unfunded requirements.

One SOF-related concern is that U.S. SOF is taking on roles that have been traditionally the purview of the CIA. These operations, allegedly spanning almost a dozen countries, involve using unmanned aerial vehicles as well as small teams to kill suspected terrorists as well the conduct of intelligence-related activities. Concerns have been raised that these operations by U.S. SOF have less transparency than similar CIA operations, some of which require a Presidential Finding and congressional notification.

Another SOF-related issue is a possible expanded role for U.S. SOF in Yemen. Currently, SOF is conducting overt training of Yemeni counterterror forces but it has been suggested that selected SOF units might be placed under the CIA to conduct covert raids to capture or kill terrorists operating in Yemen. If an enhanced role is undertaken, there are concerns that this involvement might not be in the best long-term interest of the United States.

Congress might decide to further assess SOF involvement in covert operations. One question might be the conditions or rules that apparently enable U.S. SOF to operate more secretively and more rapidly under CIA control than under USSOCOM control. Another possible concern is whether U.S. SOF are operating under CIA control in order to “get around restrictions placed on military operations.” Congress might also consider the ramifications of a possible expanded role for U.S. SOF in Yemen. Would an enhanced role damage U.S./Yemeni relations, particularly in the area of intelligence sharing? Would these new efforts have a detrimental impact on the current U.S. SOF mission of training Yemeni counterterrorism forces? Would such a model of SOF involvement—training counterterror forces on the one hand while conducting secretive combat actions to kill and capture alleged terrorists—dissuade other sovereign nations from accepting U.S. military assistance? Perhaps a greater concern could be whether such an enhanced role undermines long-term efforts to create a Yemeni military capacity to combat terrorists.

Date of Report: December 3, 2010
Number of Pages: 13
Order Number: RS21048
Price: $29.95

Follow us on TWITTER at or #CRSreports

Document available via e-mail as a pdf file or in paper form.
To order, e-mail
Penny Hill Press  or call us at 301-253-0881. Provide a Visa, MasterCard, American Express, or Discover card number, expiration date, and name on the card. Indicate whether you want e-mail or postal delivery. Phone orders are preferred and receive priority processing.