Reserve Component Special Operations Forces

Raymond E. Bell Jr.


The most prominent and best known U.S. Special Operations Forces are the U.S. Army Special Forces (SF) or “Green Berets” and the U.S. Navy Sea Air and Land (SEALs) naval personnel. Less known is that special operations forces also include Army light infantry rangers, civil affairs, and psychological operations units. About one half of special operations personnel are in the Army, the remainder being in the other armed services.  Both the National Guard and reserve components also have large special operation force contingents.

In the history of the United States of America before they gained their independence, colonists who can be considered reservists performed special operations tasks. The first colonists, civilians, took their muskets and went forth to defend their homes. Some times combat was necessary but other times parleys with the Native Americans achieved more in finding peaceful solutions to conflicts between people of vastly different cultures.

The first organized military organizations were local community militia companies which assembled only when local danger arose. When European countries sent people to the “New World” they might also send some professional soldiers to help establish and lead these militias. During the early eighteenth century French and Indian War the colonialists often provided supplementary forces to the British regulars. The best known colonialist militia operations force was Roger’s Rangers, dedicated and experienced militiamen who conducted ambushes, raids, and reconnaissance for the British. Led by Major Robert Rogers, his rangers executed bold tactics and reconnoitering techniques directed mostly against distant targets.

As the American population pushed westwards to the Pacific Ocean an active or regular army took up much of the burden that the colonialists and early militia had bourn in protecting American citizens.  Special type operations were generally conducted by members of the regular (professional) army, especially in dealing with the Native Americans in the western territories. Only after the Vietnam conflict did the reserve component Army National Guard organize SF units. Today, the special operations community is a joint armed service force with active duty and reserve personnel tightly integrated into it.     

United States Army Reserve Component Special Operations Forces

To understand how the U.S. Army reserve component soldiers fit into the special operations forces community it is necessary to know the structure of the Army special operations command or U.S. Army Special Operations Command (USASOC).  The reserve components are not represented in all the different elements of the command with a differentiation being made between Army National Guard and U. S. Army Reserve participation.

Only SF units are to be found in the Army National Guard. Army civil affairs and psychological operations units not in the active Army are only in the Army Reserve.

Considering first the best known “Green Beret” special operations force, the two Army National Guard SFs, the 19th and 20th, have between them subordinate elements in eighteen states. On being organized, it was envisioned that the 19th SF units would conduct operations along the Pacific Ocean rim and in Asia. The 20th SF Group was oriented on Europe, Africa, and Latin/South America. Today, however, with SF engaged throughout the world, elements of the groups may be deployed where they are needed most.

In 1995, the two National Guard SF groups deployed elements (Operational Detachment A’s or ODA’s) to rural Haiti. The presence of Army National Guard SF ODA’s in Haiti was part of the effort to assure Haitian presidential elections were fairly administered.  ODA 2012 of the Army National Guard’s 20th SF Group consisting of two officers, Captain Alfred McGinnis and 1st Lieutenant Paul O’ Leary and ten non-commissioned officers ranging in rank from staff sergeant to master sergeant was stationed in the town of Mirebalais. Six other ODA’s of the 20th also operated in and out of Haitian villages and towns. They were joined by six ODA’s of the Army Guard 19th SF Group.  McGinnis and O’Leary were older than their active duty compatriots.  The Guard SF personnel in Haiti were generally from 26 to 47 years of age. They were, however, no less physically fit than their active Army comrades as they kept to special diets and lots of exercise. McGinnis had worked with British commandos and was a trained high-altitude parachutist. In civilian life McGinnis was a special education teacher working in Columbus, Georgia with young learning challenged children.  In Haiti on active duty, McGinnis described his military task as being the “classic mission: win over people.”

Until the 2003 Operation Iraqi Freedom, Army National Guard units were considered part of the Army’s strategic reserve, not to be brought on active duty other than for training unless there was a major conflict requiring the massive call up of Army troops. The United States involvement in Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, however, resulted in the activation by the president of the United States of a multitude of Army National Guard units, among them elements of the Army Guard SF groups.

At first Operation Iraqi Freedom, only Army Guard SF individuals with special competences were called to active duty to fill out personnel deficiencies in active Army SF groups. But it soon became obvious that more than individuals were required and Company A, 1st Battalion, 19th Special Forces Group was called up in its entirety. It was the first, but by no means the last, Army Guard special forces group to be called upon to send units to serve in Iraq. In 2011, among the last American troops in Iraq, the 19th SF Group Support Company was a key component of the U.S. Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force – Arabian Peninsula. 

Then as NATO and International Security Assistance Force action in Afghanistan accelerated, elements of the 20th SF Group were activated and dispatched to that country to work in conjunction with active duty army SF teams. Although Special Forces personnel are very active in Afghanistan, the participation of Army National Guard SF troops is not emphasized as they are thoroughly integrated into the operational force.

The U.S. Army Reserve psychological operations groups also work closely with their active duty counterparts. The 4th Psychological Operations ( PSYOPS) Group and its subordinate battalions of the active army interface with two Army Reserve psychological operations groups, the 2nd and 7th. The two groups are tactical psychological operations units and each has several battalions which in turn have subordinate tactical companies. The 2nd PSYOP Group has traditionally supported active army divisions in Europe, Latin America, Africa, and the Near East. In support of today’s brigade combat teams a PSYOP company dispatches subordinate elements such as loud speaker teams to support tactical unit operations. Thus a three man loud speaker team with its speakers mounted on a tactical vehicle such as a High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle (Humvee) would well support an infantry rifle platoon.

Army reservists with special linguistic skills are especially drawn to the PSYOP community and many have experience as civilians in foreign affairs of the region in which their PYSOP unit is oriented. Academicians and college students in foreign area studies who are also reservists find service in PSYOP organizations particularly interesting and appropriate.

The Army Reserve Civil Affairs Commands, led by brigadier generals, interface with the active Army’s 95th Civil Affairs Brigade. There are four civil affairs commands each of which has subordinate brigades, battalions, and companies. The commands are the 350th through the 353rd which are oriented on the regional active army major commands. The 352nd, for example, supports Army Central Command ARCENT, which has responsibility for countries in the Near East.

In World War II civil affairs personnel conducted military government functions. As the possibility of the U.S. Army performing government operations faded, there was a transformation of the reserve army government units into formations whose mission was primarily that of government advisement, not operate as indigenous governments.

At the civil affairs command level the staff consists of small cells led by senior officers, most with the rank of colonel. A public security cell, for example, might consist of several field grade officers. The senior cell officer might be a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve and the chief of police in a mid-size American city in civilian life before being called to active military duty.

OPERATION DESERT STORM in Kuwait and Iraq and the follow-on humanitarian OPERATIONS PROVIDE COMFORT in the Kurdish provinces of northern Iraq starting in 1991 saw significant employment of Army Reserve Civil Affairs elements. Activation of such units proved to be a frustrating experience for members of the 352nd Civil Affairs Command whom active Army counterparts tended to look down upon. The results of the reservists’ efforts were disappointing as well because civil affairs activities themselves were not properly appreciated by more combat oriented active Army personnel.

OPERATION IRAQI FREEDOM which the U.S. President Bush administration launched on minimum force basis did not start off well for civil affairs either. There was no coherent plan to deal with Iraq once Saddam Hussein’s regime was destroyed. Bad mistakes in judgment as to how to deal with the insurgent situation which developed after the Iraqi armed forces were defeated led to multiple civil affairs problems which severely tested the small numbers of civil affairs personnel of the again activated 352nd Civil Affairs Command’ 354th Civil Affairs Brigade.

When the Afghan Taliban was first defeated on the field of battle little regard was given to the requirements of a newly reconstituted Afghan government. But during the concurrent operations in Iraq, a more realistic appreciation for the need for a viable civil affairs effort was achieved. The active Army’s 96th Civil Affairs Battalion, for example, was up-graded to brigade size and multiple civil affairs battalions were subordinated to it. In the meantime army civil affairs reservists have been doing multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The experience of the army reserve’s 354th Civil Affairs Brigade’s Humanitarian Assistance Coordination Center (HACC) in Iraq soon after the invasion of Iraq in 2003 is a good example of how civil affairs organizations work. The HACC was an ad hoc organization based on the Field Manual 41-10 civil military operations center concept and composed of elements of the brigade and its subordinate battalions. The HACC’s mission was to be the critical link between the Iraqi people, coalition forces, the international assistance community, and U.S. government agencies tasked with the reconstruction of a prostrate Iraq.

Essentially what the centers in Bagdad did, was to permit greater exposure of the liberation effort to the six million people in the city and to try to reestablish a sense of normalcy to the traumatized metropolitan area. This meant accomplishing necessary missions to get all those normal functions a city government would normally perform, working again. At the same time attempts were made to solve the myriad of problems exacerbated by various degrees of continuous fighting between antagonists and the friction occurring among a plethora of agencies, all of which were clamoring for a part in the action to restore necessary services and provide humanitarian assistance.

After six weeks the 354th, having established a firm foundation for a more permanent establishment, handed its mandate over to the Iraqi Assistance Center. While in existence the HACC completed 116 different missions, many of which included coordinating with humanitarian organizations which were better equipped to identify the needs of the civilian population.

The U.S. Army Reserve and Army National Guard special operations forces have gained a reputation for effectiveness through their important contributions to the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. This has been possible through the professionalism displayed by part time reserve component officers and soldiers in accomplishing assigned missions. They have gained the respect of their active army comrades and their presence in the field is indistinguishable from their partners in the ongoing operations.

Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve Special Operations Forces

It has taken some time for Reservists and Guardsmen in the U.S. Army to attain the recognition their present day competence deserves. Air reserve component personnel on the other hand have worked closely with those in the active Air Force for years. Both the Air National Guard (ANG) and Air Force Reserve Command (AFRC) are staffed with experienced and competent personnel, many of whom have been in the reserve system for years. This has resulted in a high degree of stability and professionalism in manning the force. In addition, many of the flying personnel gained extensive experience while on active duty in the air force and once having joined either the Air Force Reserve Command or Air National Guard have continued to fly the U.S. Air Force’s most modern aircraft. In civilian life many of the pilots fly commercial aircraft during the week and military aircraft on their time off from their civilian jobs.

The Air National Guard plays a minimal, but important, role as an Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) element. The Air Guard’s few specially equipped aircraft spend a

 great deal of time, nonetheless, performing AFSOC missions throughout the world.       

There is only one dedicated ANG flying organization that is a unique and exclusive special operations forces asset, the 193rd Special Operations Wing of the state of Pennsylvania Air National Guard. The wing is the only one of its type in the entire U.S. Air Force. Today the 193rd flies specially configured EC-130J Commando Solo II aircraft which are heavily modified Hercules airplanes equipped to broadcast psychological operations material and information from aloft. They may be seen as aerial radio and television transmitting airplanes which can loiter over a specific area and broadcast messages designed to influence a targeted audience.

During OPERATION IRAQI FREEDOM in the first week of April 2003, for example, the 193rd detachment broadcast radio transmissions north of the Iraqi Euphrates River. The next week the Joint PSYOP Task Force added television broadcasts to the 193rd repertoire. One of the first of these television broadcasts consisted of an interview with opposition Iraqi group members, information concerning humanitarian assistance being delivered, and a feature about indigenous culture and art. The utilization of the Pennsylvania Air Guard’s Commando Solo aircraft stretched the resources of 193rd’s detachment but the mission crews agreed that the enhanced effort was worthwhile and effective.

The Commando Solo II airplane, an upgraded C-130 aircraft, entered service in 2004, with the 193rd. The wing has supported every United States war and many contingency operations starting in 1980 and it has been said that the 193rd is the most deployed unit in the entire Air National Guard.

The Air Force Reserve Command also has a unique special operation forces formation, the 919th Special Operations Wing (SOW), which flies MC-130P Combat Shadow and MC-130E Combat Talon aircraft. The MC-130E airplane is also a specially modified Hercules transport aircraft which is capable of providing global, day, night, and adverse weather airdrops of personnel and equipment in support of not only American but also allied special operations forces. The MC-130P Combat Shadow aircraft is employed to provide aerial refueling of special operations helicopters as well flying long range supply and troop infiltration missions in support of the special operations community. The wing also flies humanitarian missions designed to provide medical and other types of assistance to countries located in the Western Hemisphere.

The 919th SOW is known as an “associate wing” consisting of both active U.S. Air Force and Air Force Reserve Command elements. The wing has three squadrons, the 711th Special Operations Squadron (SOS) flying the Combat Talon airplane; the 5th SOS affiliated with the 9th SOS flying the Combat Shadow aircraft; and the active 8th SOS also flying the Combat Shadow. The wing headquarters is located at nearby Duke Field close to the Air Force Special Operations Command’s principal location at Hurlburt Field in Florida. The 919th has squadrons at both Duke and Hurlburt Fields. This proximity allows the reservists the ability to access active special operations physical resources and stay current in methodologies and techniques employed by active air force special operations units.

The Air Force Reserve Command pilots who fly these missions are also former experienced active Air Force pilots. Because they fly as reservists and are able to devote their training time exclusively to flying to hone their skills they do not have the administrative responsibilities that active air force pilots do. As a result reservist proficiency is often greater than that of less experienced active air force pilots. The same holds true for the professionalism of those pilots in the Air National Guard.

United States Marine Corps Reserve Special Operations Units

The United States Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command is the Corps’ component of the U.S. Special Operations Command. Because the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve is a reserve federal as opposed to a state military force, there is no equivalent state marine National Guard formation. The  reserve 4th Marine Division and its air wing are closely integrated into the Marine Corps force structure and as such do not have a special operations force in the same manner that the Army’s reserve components do.

The Marine Corps dispatches Marine Expeditionary Units (MEUs) in reinforced infantry battalion size afloat to work with different U.S. Navy fleets. These Marine Corps units are considered “Special Operations Capable “ (SOC) and thus have the ability to conduct operations which would fit into the same category as the U.S. Army rangers which are also considered a part of the special operations community.

Where Marine Corps units operate on land as they did in Iraq and do in Afghanistan, however, they may be reinforced by reservists who man the 3rd and 4th Marine Civil Affairs Groups (3 and 4 CAG). By the special operation community’s definition of special operations, then, 3 and 4 CAGs are special operations entities.

United States Navy Special Operations Forces

The United States Navy’s contribution to special operations is the U.S. Naval Special Warfare Command. The Navy’s best known special operations forces are the elite SEALs (Sea Air and Land) sailors. These are all highly qualified and very physically fit active naval combatants who demonstrated their proficiency in the May 2011 raid to capture Osama Bin Laden. There are no equivalent reserve component SEAL formations. Instead, the U.S. Navy has taken a different approach than the U.S. Army as to how it categorizes special operations forces. The Navy integrates individual personnel into active duty units instead of organizing specific special operations formations which conduct such operations. It is possible, therefore, for personnel who have previously served in active duty Naval Special Warfare or Naval Special Operations units to join such a unit as a reservist. The training for such positions is so rigorous and the selection so specific that only previously trained personnel are accepted for duty in SEAL units.

There is, however, a command organized in 2006 designated as the Navy Expeditionary Combat Command which is made up more than half by reservists. It is designed to support combatant commands but also “build peace through partnerships across the globe,” certain functions which are also conducted by U.S. Army Reserve special operations forces. While building a village school in the Philippines by naval reserve construction units (known as Seabees for “Construction Battalions”) is akin to an U.S. Army Special Forces ODA providing supervision and advice in the same scenario, it is difficult to called naval engineer units special operations forces.

On the other hand, the Navy’s Maritime Civil Affairs Team (MCAT) 104, a component of the Maritime Civil Affairs and Security Training Command charged with conducting humanitarian civil assistance, deployed to Rwanda in 2009 to participate with Rwandan Defense Force personnel in building some 276 houses for at risk citizens. MCAT 104, made up of both active and reserve sailors was part of Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa. The task force mission was designed to foster partner country relationships and conduct civil affairs activities by working with indigenous forces

Reserve Special Operations Forces as Part of the Joint Special Operations Community

The U.S. Army has probably the most clearly defined reserve special operations forces in its SF, PSYOP, and civil affairs communities which have large reserve contingents. The U.S. Air Force has a few unique specialized reserve special operations forces while the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps mostly have individual reservists integrated into active duty formations. The fact, however, is that those actions considered special operations are conducted on such an integrated armed service basis that it is hard to distinguish individual service participation between active duty or reserve personnel. Joint special operations involving different components of different services are today the norm in the special operations community. Reservists play an important role in all the services depending on specific requirements where service expertise in a special activity is the overriding consideration. That U.S. Army special operations helicopters flew U.S. Navy SEALs into Pakistan to find and eliminate Osama bin Laden serves as the most dramatic example of the conduct of such operations.

Leadership in the special operations community is a joint affair with reservists holding commensurate positions with their level of involvement. An Army National Guard brigadier general, for example, serves as a deputy commander in the U.S. Army Special Operations Command where he assists in integrating SF activities with the special operations programs of other services. An army reserve major general commands the U.S. Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command (Airborne)) and has general supervision over the entire PSYOP and civil affairs community which is predominantly a reserve component force. In 2009 the U.S. Navy Expeditionary Combat Command which conducts special operations type activities was headed by reservist Rear Admiral Carol Pottenger.

In Summary

To some extent all the United States armed services, both active and reserve, participate in special operations activities. Most such combat related activity is conducted by active duty members who have a high degree of expertise reached through rigorous training and extensive experience. Much of the required expertise and experience for missions other than war, however, resides principally in the various reserve components, be they Army, Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, Army National Guard, or Air National Guard. Much of the competence of these personnel represents a smooth translation from civilian occupations to military specialties. The integration of special operations forces within the armed services is so great however that it is seldom possible to distinguish between specific armed service or between active and reserve component. All personnel engaged in special operations activities must attain and maintain a high standard of performance in order for such forces to be effective. It has been difficult to assess the success of special operations but history has shown that special operations forces, be they active or reserve, are key players on all today’s battlefields.