“Not since World War II has this nation relied so heavily on its Special Operations Forces,” according to Gen. Bryan D. Brown, Commander of U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM).
Special operations are military actions “conducted in hostile, denied, or politically sensitive environments to achieve military, diplomatic, informational, and/or economic objectives employing military capabilities for which there is no broad conventional force requirement,” as defined in the Department of Defense Dictionary of Military Terms (updated 11/09/06).
“These operations often require covert, clandestine, or low visibility capabilities.”
“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.”
The continued development of special operations capabilities is sketched out in a new SOCOM strategic planning document. See “Capstone Concept for Special Operations 2006” (pdf).
The growing use of special operations personnel on intelligence collection missions has reportedly caused friction with the Central Intelligence Agency and “has also led to several embarrassing incidents for the United States, including a shootout in Paraguay and the exposure of a sensitive intelligence operation in East Africa,” according to the Los Angeles Times. See “U.S. seeks to rein in its military spy teams” by Greg Miller, Los Angeles Times, December 18.
Conversely, the role of the CIA in paramilitary activities has also led to turf battles and some potential blurring of the chain of command.
For general background, see “Special Operations Forces (SOF) and CIA Paramilitary Operations: Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Service, updated December 6, 2006.