Special Operations Forces and the 21st Century: How can it help Africa?

The world is a rapidly changing environment, especially at the political level, and within the shadow of The Great Powers Competition, Africa is already deeply embedded in the war of information, the 5th domain of warfare. From a military perspective, Africa is falling further behind by the day due to failure to invest in its armed forces as would be expected from a professional military perspective, in addition to little consideration for military doctrine evolution by military planners at the political level. One of these major deficiencies in capabilities are Special Operations Forces (SOF), especially how such forces could add value to existing military (and political) capabilities over the long term, and how such forces would be utilized on the African battlefields beyond. The major challenge for especially African militaries is the development and maintaining of adaptable and relevant military capabilities with dedicated political leadership support. African governments are still inherently tribalist, and one of the consequences of this leadership style is to limit the capabilities of the military as a safeguard to ensure that military leadership do not become too powerful to the point where they can challenge (and replace) the political leadership through coup d'état, still an extremely common activity on the continent. However, through various misconceptions, political leaders do not understand the value Special Operations Forces can add to a country's military capabilities, especially looking at the safeguarding of a democracy. Capable military resources can ensure the opposite of what the majority African leaders fear in terms of maintaining political stability.

What are Special Operations Forces (SOF)?

Knowing what the future holds for the African continent (read The Great Power Competition: How does it Affect Africa?), we will understand the importance of Special Operations Forces in enhancing the capabilities, options and reach of a truly sovereign state as a means of gaining influence. Special Operations within the military usually refers to a small component of the armed forces specially conditioned, trained and equipped to perform special missions. In general, only around 10% of the active-duty soldiers within any armed forces are considered suitable for employment within the Special Operations environment due to many different reasons ranging from physical fitness, stamina and endurance, problem solving skills, psychological profile, technical skills, leadership, education, intelligence and experience. Fundamentally, Special Operations demand the following characteristics from SOF operators:

1. Consistency and intensity of purpose.

2. Efficiency of movement and mind.

Therefore, SOF are special mission units (SMU’s) within any arm of service who are specially selected, trained and equipped for the following types of special missions (usually not performed by Conventional Forces):

  • High mobility, small footprint operations.

  • Complex operational circumstances requiring the application of an advanced military occupational specialty.

  • Special missions of moderate complexity not necessitating the use of Special Forces but considered too complex for assignment to conventional infantry units.

  • Missions planned with the use of limited specialized resources and support infrastructure, either due to the nature of the mission, and/or situational environment.

  • Missions in support of Special Forces operations such as flank protection, diversionary attacks, early-warning and cut-off groups, QRF, and follow-up operations.

  • Direct action raids in hostile or sensitive environments.

  • Airfield and harbor seizure.

  • Covert surveillance and reconnaissance.

  • Clandestine insertion.

Basically, SOF SMUs are trained to fight irregular/unconventional/hybrid warfare under austere battlefield conditions. However, we need to understand that there is a major difference in missions scope between Special Operations Forces (SOF) and Special Forces (SF) from a doctrine perspective. As a general rule of thumb, SF can perform SOF missions, but SOF are not always capable of performing more advanced SF missions. The matrix below informally illustrates the levels where SOF usually operates within the greater spectrum of war fighting in relation to the regular infantry organization:

Note: This matrix does not reflect order of battle, and it is not based on official US military doctrine. This matrix is an ADF internal tool for explaining the subject under discussion, and it also does not reflect hierarchy or ‘eliteness’ status in any form or manner. Within a well-balanced military organisation, the SOF component would represent around 10% of the total combat forces capability of the military, whereas SF would represent around 1%.

SOF Development Background:

The concept of dedicated Special Operations Forces as we know today was refined by the US Military during the Vietnam War around the late 1960’s as a means of countering the unconventional warfare tactics used by its enemies at the time. The success of these units consequently inspired the establishment of similar units by many countries throughout the world engaged in some form of low intensity civil war or conflict. After the Vietnam War, US Special Operations Forces (SOF) were refined into ‘concept’ units which were never tested under actual combat conditions, but rather inspired by US military planners’ ideas of how war with the Soviet Union could play out within different theatres as could be derived from various covert military assistance missions, as well as various proxy wars involving nations friendly to the US who were also beneficiaries of US military aid. Many of these units survived the Cold War and subsequently saw their first action in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001 to present. These theatres became the main source of development, testing and refinement of respective doctrines and TTPs (Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures) which shaped these SMU’s to become the specialized units they are today. During the past decade, Afghanistan (a natural mountain fortress from a terrain perspective), clearly reinforced the necessity of SOF within the scope of asymmetric warfare under austere conditions. Thus, the main purpose of SOF is to bridge the doctrinal gap between Conventional Forces (CF) and Special Forces (SF) as a means of achieving strategic objectives, as well as to provide advanced infantry support to large scale Special Forces operations (missions usually aligned with political strategy). The most recent example of bridging such capability gaps are found within the British Army who identified serious doctrinal shortcomings within its structures while fighting the Taliban commencing 2001 in Afghanistan. These shortcomings were addressed through the rapid development of the Special Reconnaissance Regiment (SRR) on 06 April 2005, and the Special Forces Support Group (SFSG) on 03 April 2006. Today, the SRR’s main mandate is to support intelligence gathering operations by MI6 and international drone operations, and the SFSG’s main purpose is to support advanced SAS ground operations within different roles as Infantry, Flank Protection, Cut-off Groups, QRF, Infiltration/Exfiltration, Protection Operations, Diversion Operations, Intelligence Gathering, etc. Furthermore, going beyond 2021, the Royal Marines have also been evaluating a new evolution in ‘future adapted’ Commando TTP’s by establishing the new Vanguard Strike Company based on the Future Commando Force (FCF) study which will be a combined Royal Marines/British Army Commandos unit. Also, the British Army plans to establish a new Ranger Regiment around August 2021 under the command of the new Special Operations Brigade. The Ranger Regiment will be a Special Operations unit seeded by select individuals serving within the four Specialized Infantry Battalions (1 SCOTS, 2 PWRR, 2 LANCS, 4 RIFLES). The unit will take over many foreign intervention and support missions traditionally performed by Special Forces, with Somalia and Mozambique earmarked as the first areas of operation commencing 2022.

The Special Operations Doctrine:

It is unfortunate that during the current day and age, military planners still struggle with understanding the conditions necessitating the use of SOF. To understand this better, and how SOF fits into the greater spectrum of war fighting, we will summarize its use as follows:


Special Operations (SO) encompasses the use of small units in direct or indirect military actions focused on strategic or operational objectives. Special Operations require units with combinations of trained specialized personnel, equipment, and tactics that exceed the routine capabilities of conventional forces. SO are characterized by certain attributes that cumulatively distinguish them from conventional operations. These operations are usually politically sensitive missions where only the best equipped and most proficient forces can be deployed to avoid detection and possible mission failure that can result in damage to national prestige and interests.


Up until the present, Special Operations Forces are generally assigned the following types of missions:

1. Direct Action (DA): Short duration strikes, and other small-scale offensive actions conducted as a special operation in hostile, denied, or politically sensitive environments and which employ specialized military capabilities to seize, destroy, capture, exploit, recover, or damage designated targets. Direct action differs from conventional offensive actions in the level of physical and political risk, operational techniques, and the degree of discriminate and precise use of force to achieve specific objectives. Plausible deniability is usually a desired political requirement in terms of direct action missions involving SOF.

2. Combatting Terrorism (CBT): The procedures, military tactics, techniques, and strategy that government, military, law enforcement, business, and intelligence agencies use to combat or prevent terrorism. Counter-terrorism strategy is a government's plan to use the instruments of national power to neutralize terrorists, their organizations and their networks in order to render them incapable of using violence to instil fear and to coerce the government or its citizens to react in accordance with the terrorists' goals. Special mission units are assigned the roles of directly engaging terrorists and to prevent terrorist attacks. Such units perform in preventive actions, hostage rescue, and response to on-going attacks. Countries of all sizes can have highly trained counter-terrorist teams (although the majority of countries in Africa have little to no specialised counter-terrorism capabilities). Tactics, techniques, and procedures for manhunting are also under constant development with a major shift in electronic surveillance and tracking. These units are specially trained and equipped for CQB (Close Quarters Battle) with emphasis on stealth and performing the mission with minimal casualties. The units include take-over force (assault teams), snipers, EOD experts, dog handlers, and intelligence officers.

3. Foreign Internal Defence (FID): An integrated and synchronized, multi-disciplinary (and often joint, inter-agency, and international) approach to combating actual or threatened insurgency in a friendly foreign state. This foreign state is known as the Host Nation (HN) under current US doctrine. Outside the US, the term counter-insurgency (COIN) is more commonly used than FID. FID involves military deployment of counter-insurgency specialists who preferably do not fight the insurgents directly. The doctrine calls for a close working relationship between the HN government and security forces with outside diplomatic, information, intelligence, military, economic, and other specialists usually sourced from the Special Operations community. The most successful FID actions suppress actual violence. When combat operations are required, HN security forces take the lead with appropriate external support, the external support preferably being in a non-combatant advisory support and training role only.

4. Unconventional Warfare (UW): The support of a foreign insurgency or resistance movement against its own (adversary) government or an occupying power. Unconventional warfare is an attempt to achieve victory indirectly through a proxy force, whereas conventional warfare is used to reduce the opponent's military capability directly through attacks and manoeuvres. UW contrasts with conventional warfare in that forces are often covert or not well-defined and it relies heavily on subversion and guerrilla warfare. This type of warfare also includes pseudo operations, and is also referred to as irregular warfare.

5. Unrestricted Warfare (URW): A futuristic idea of warfare currently unfolding on present day 21st century battlefields where any methods are prepared for use (weaponised), information is everywhere (factual and fabricated), the battlefield is everywhere, and any technology might be combined with any other technology not necessarily designed for weaponization but weaponised through improvised means, and that the boundaries between war and non-war and between military and non-military affairs has systemically been broken down.

6. Special Reconnaissance (SR): Missions conducted by small units of highly trained military personnel, usually from special missions units (SMUs) or military intelligence organizations who operate behind enemy lines avoiding direct combat and detection by the enemy. As a role, SR is distinct from commando operations, but both are often carried out by the same units. The SR role frequently includes covert direction for air and other direct/indirect fire missions in areas deep behind enemy lines, placement of remotely monitored sensors, and preparations for other special forces. Like other SMUs, SR units may also carry out direct action and unconventional warfare, including guerrilla operations and pseudo surveillance operations. In intelligence terms, SR is a human intelligence (HUMINT) collection discipline.

7. Psychological Operations (PSYOP): Operations to convey selected information and indicators to audiences to influence their emotions, motives, and objective reasoning, and ultimately the behaviour of governments, organizations, groups, and individuals. The purpose of psychological operations is to induce or reinforce behaviours favourable to national objectives. They are an important part of the range of diplomatic, informational, military and economic activities available to a nation’s government. They can be utilized during both peacetime and conflict. There are three main types of PSYOPS, namely:

  • Strategic: Informational activities conducted by government agencies outside of the military arena, though many utilize military assets in support, or for operational enablement.

  • Operational: Conducted across the range of military operations, including during peacetime in a defined operational area to promote the effectiveness of the joint force commander's (JFC) campaigns and strategies.

  • Tactical: Conducted in the area assigned to a tactical commander across the range of military operations to support the tactical mission against opposing forces.

8. Civil Affairs (CA): The primary mission of Civil Affairs is to conduct civil-military (CIMIC) operations. Civil Affairs soldiers are responsible for executing five core Civil Affairs tasks, namely:

  • Civil Information Management,

  • Foreign Humanitarian Assistance,

  • Nation Assistance,

  • Population and Resource Control, and

  • Support to Civil Administration.

Some sub-tasks to these core tasks include identifying non-governmental and international organizations operating in the battle space, handling refugees, civilians on the battlefield, and determining protected targets such as schools, churches/temples/mosques, hospitals, etc. Due to the nature and complexity of the task, CA missions are usually assigned to SOF.

9. Information Operations (IO): Information operations and warfare, also known as influence operations, includes the collection of tactical information about an adversary as well as the dissemination of propaganda in pursuit of a competitive advantage over an opponent. The US Military defines IO as:

"The integrated employment of electronic warfare (EW), computer network operations (CNO), psychological operations (PSYOP), military deception (MILDEC), and operations security (OPSEC), in concert with specified supporting and related capabilities to influence, disrupt, corrupt or usurp adversarial human and automated decision making while protecting our own.”

Information Operations (IO) are actions taken to affect adversary information and information systems while defending one's own information and information systems. On the 21st century battlefield, IO has become extremely important to manage effectively especially since terrorists are adept at integrating their physical acts of violence with IO. They make audio and video recordings of the incidents for distribution over the internet, social media and on television. Their violence becomes theatre, staged for its psychological impact and replayed over and over again in the [supporting] media as IO. Terrorist organisations employ all the IO capabilities found within the US military doctrine, including the five core capabilities of PSYOP and the supporting and related capabilities, namely:

  • Military deception (MILDEC),

  • Electronic Warfare (EW),

  • Computer Network Operations (CNO), and

  • Operations Security (OPSEC).

Terrorist organisations use IO to support both offensive operations (acts of terrorism) and defensive operations (protecting their safe havens and sustainment infrastructure and resources). They use IO strategically in support of broad objectives. While terrorists do not speak and write about “IO,” they demonstrate an understanding of the value and methods of IO capabilities. Terrorists appear to be particularly adept at PSYOP, PA, counter-propaganda, and certain forms of OPSEC and deception, driven by their desire to simultaneously reach desired audiences and hide from their enemies. They recognize the value of various media, including the internet and specifically social media, and exploit it to support their cause. Terrorists and their supporters have an advanced CNO capability, with CNA manifesting itself as “electronic jihad” rather than as acts of terror. What this knowledge about current terrorist organisations tell us in terms of current IO practices, is that all current terrorist groups should not be underestimated in terms of capabilities and access to resources, for they have proven through their most recent actions that they have equal access to advanced resources and training, why countering these organisations effectively necessitates the use of superior trained and equipped Special Operations Forces applying special tactics and techniques.

10. Counter-proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction (CP): A combination of diplomatic, intelligence, and military efforts to combat the proliferation of weapons, including both weapons of mass destruction (WMD), long-range missiles, and certain conventional weapons. Non-proliferation and arms control are related terms. In contrast to non-proliferation which focuses on diplomatic, legal, and administrative measures to dissuade and impede the acquisition of such weapons, counter-proliferation focuses on intelligence, law enforcement, and sometimes specialised military action to prevent its acquisition by adversary states.

11. Forcible Entry Operations (FE): Seize and hold lodgements (designated areas in a hostile or potentially hostile operational area) of either operational- or strategic importance, against armed opposition such as airfields, airheads, beachheads, or any other terrain that affords continuous landing of friendly troops and materiel while providing manoeuvre space for further operations.


Special Operations Forces (SOF) are organized, trained, and equipped specifically to accomplish the aforementioned tasks in addition to the following SO Collateral Activities:

  • Coalition Support

  • Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR)

  • Counter-Drug/Narcotics Activities (CD)

  • Counter-Mine (CM) and Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) Activities

  • Humanitarian Assistance (HA)

  • Security Assistance (SA)

  • Special Activities considered beyond the mission scope of conventional forces.

  • Foreign military assistance (FMA) and training of host-nation forces.

US Marines assigned to host-nation forces training missions in Helmand Province, Afghanistan.

Looking towards the future, the 21st century SOF will also be assigned missions supporting the upholding and safeguarding of certain economic activities within the interests of a nation’s economic growth plans. An example of such activities is the countering of Illegal, Unlicensed, and Unregulated (IUU) fishing. Africa is seeing increased incidence of commercial fishing activities by both European and Asian nations within its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), and even within territorial waters where affected countries do not possess any maritime ISR capabilities. To counter such activities (being extremely political sensitive due to the nature of such operations targeting perceived ‘commercial operations’), Special Operations Forces are required to interdict and deter such economic damaging activities at sea, especially considering that most current Illegal, Unlicensed, and Unregulated fishing activities within African coastal waters are closely related to narcotics trafficking, human trafficking, and arms trafficking in/out of the continent. The current growing piracy phenomenon within African territorial waters is a direct result of depleted fishing resources caused by overfishing and unregulated exploitation. Basically, the majority of Africa’s security problems within its coastal territories exist as a result of a lack of specialized operations capabilities to counter such activities during its infancy phase. It is very much unfortunate that the majority African governments do not realize that the investment in highly trained and specialized equipped SOF costs only a fraction of revenue lost due to foreign exploitation of its resources within its ocean territories. Another example would be the exploitation of precious resources on land, as well as the uncontrolled influx of narcotics that only increases government social spending on drug abuse and production losses, with associated unregulated foreign exchange capital flight along the same maritime supply networks.

However, now that we understand the primary missions of SOF, we also need to understand what SOF is NOT by debunking some common misconceptions as follows:

1. The main purpose of Special Operations is not ‘killing people and blowing things up’. This is a very common, but highly erroneous perception about SOF. Like any other combat trained military forces, SOF is highly skilled in the application of precise, calculated force, but unfortunately due to the secretive nature of Special Operations, the public and many decision makers at the political level do not know the details of SO missions until after execution. This erroneous perception is further reinforced by action movies, adversary propaganda, fan boy myth-making, as well as own forces PR activities promoting SOF as a possible choice of career during recruitment activities.

2. Direct Action missions are not the most common missions for Special Operations Forces. The most common (and priority) SO missions are:

  • Reconnaissance and surveillance;

  • Military assistance.

SOF are highly trained in Direct Action as a primary mission, but mostly the purpose of such training is to plan and prepare for the eventuality of Direct Action being the only option to achieve a desired end state. It is very rare that SO would be assigned with the purpose of establishing a Direct Action engagement without any other forces in support. In general, the main objective when using SOF is crisis management to prevent a situation from developing into armed conflict. That said, SOF are not ‘super-humans’ and generally their respective training, tactics, and equipment are suited to the mission profiles they are prepared for, and as assigned to their respective units.

3. SOF are not Special Forces, although it is still very common for the different types of SMU’s to be confused with one another when assigned under the command of inexperienced leadership. As a rule of thumb, SF can perform SOF missions (although it being considered a waste of resources especially when more suitable SOF units are available to perform SO principal missions). One of the main purposes of SOF is to reduce the pressure on traditional SF assigned missions of lesser complexity and importance, but missions too complex for conventional forces to execute.

4. SOF are not line Infantry, neither are Special Forces. Military commanders must never be tempted to assign simple missions falling within the scope of the regular infantry to specialized units. It is a waste of valuable resources. By nature of SOF’s primary missions, SOF are not suitable for the purpose of holding ground without follow-up relief from conventional forces. It is the task of the Infantry to hold ground, not SO. SOF are ‘in-and-out’ forces, mostly suitable for facilitating the arrival of infantry and other conventional forces (creation of beachheads, raids on targets of opportunity, etc).

5. Neither SOF nor SF are graded in accordance to any scale of ‘eliteness’. There is a common misconception amongst the public that SF and SOF can be graded by means of ‘who is better than who’. One of these misperceived ideas for grading SOF and SF is via the ‘tiers’ system. The US military often refers to certain SMU’s as Tier 1 and Tier 2 units. What this means is not the respective units’ levels of ‘eliteness’ compared to each other, but rather the level of funding these units are allocated for meeting the requirements for their specifically assigned primary missions. Tier 1 units are by no means ‘better’ than Tier 2 units, for within SF and SOF, units are trained, equipped and staffed to fulfil an extremely specific mission profile assigned to each respective SMU. Although all units are trained along a common core special operations skill set, not one of these units can be compared to each other in terms of capabilities due to each unit’s different assigned roles within the greater military machine.


Special Operations soldiers acquire various hard learned critical skills during their careers, the following list of skills only highlighting a few skill sets which differentiates special operations soldiers from conventional soldiers (why retired SOF are highly soughted within the private military industry):

1. Military Free-Fall Infiltration: This qualification enables special operations soldiers to plan and conduct night military free fall tactical infiltrations as a group onto unknown and unmarked drop zones. Training usually involves:

  • Pack the RA-1 Military Free-Fall Advanced Ram-Air Parachute System main parachute and don the system.

  • Rigging/jumping procedures for weapons, combat equipment, night vision goggles and portable oxygen equipment.

  • Aircraft procedures.

  • Exit an aircraft from the door and ramp using dive and poised exit positions.

  • Emergency procedures and body stabilization.

  • HALO and HAHO parachute jumps from altitudes of 10,000 ft (3,048 m) to 25,000 ft (7,620 m).

  • Following GPS guided bundles.

  • Carrying various mission specific combat equipment.

  • Diverse communications.

  • Wearing various night vision devices.

  • Jumping with non-standard weapons while using oxygen equipment.

  • Utilization of various parachutist navigational devices.

2. Helocasting: This is an airborne technique used by small unit special operations forces to insert into a military area of operations. The small unit is flown by helicopter to a maritime insertion point. Once there, the aircraft assumes an altitude just above the water's surface and an airspeed of 10 knots (19 km/h) or less. Team members then exit the aircraft and enter the water. This technique is either a swimming infiltration (close to the shoreline), or alternatively it may include the insertion of an inflatable boat (depending on helicopter size and capabilities) for over-the-horizon (OTH) transit to the objective.

3. Explosives: SOF are highly trained in the use of military explosives for the following missions -

  • Demolitions: The targeted destruction of key enemy infrastructure, including denial of use of abandoned friendly forces equipment from use by adversary forces.

  • Explosive Breaching: Techniques taught to special operations soldiers on to gain rapid and efficient entry into enemy facilities through the use of precisely calculated explosive charges. The resulting detonation usually causes a shock effect on adversaries to the tactical advantage of the breaching force.

4. Fast-Roping: Also known as Fast Rope Insertion Extraction System (FRIES), is a technique for descending a thick rope. It is useful for deploying troops from a helicopter in places where the helicopter itself cannot touch down. Fast roping is particularly useful for maritime forces who can use the technique to board ships at sea as well as to reach destinations on land. It is quicker than abseiling (rappelling), although more dangerous, particularly if the person is carrying a heavy load for the reason that the rope is not attached to them with a descender. The person holds onto the rope with gloved hands and feet and slides down it. Several people can slide down the same rope simultaneously, provided that there is a gap of approximately 3 metres (9.8 ft) between them so that each one has time to get out of the way when they reach the ground.

5. Mobility: Special Operations utilize various means of transportation to reach their respective target objectives. These vehicles are usually specially designed and adapted to the respective missions, and operatives need to be skilled in the safe handling and tactical operation of each of these transportation systems. These systems can range anything from ultra-light aircraft, ATV's, motorcycles, powered gliders, air transportable light strike vehicles, civilian vehicles or even large 6x6 MRAP's and captured enemy vehicles.

6. Combatives: The term for hand-to-hand combat training and techniques, sometimes called Close-Quarters Combat (CQC). The US Army adopted the Modern Army Combatives (MAC) program which draws from systems such as wrestling, Krav Maga, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, judo, sambo, Muay Thai, boxing and eskrima, all which could be trained "live" and can be fully integrated into current close quarters battle tactics and training methods. The training begins with learning to maintain control of one's weapon in a fight. Soldiers are then taught how to gain control of a potential enemy at the farthest possible range in order to maintain tactical flexibility, what the tactical options are and how to implement them.The three basic options upon encountering a resistant opponent taught are:

  • Disengage to regain projectile weapon range;

  • Gain a controlling position and utilize a secondary weapon; and

  • Close the distance and gain control to finish the fight.

There are several reasons that the combatives course is taught to soldiers, namely:

  • To educate soldiers on how to protect themselves against threats without using their firearms;

  • To provide a non-lethal response to situations on the battlefield; and

  • To instil the 'warrior instinct' to provide the necessary aggression to meet the enemy unflinchingly.

7. Combat Diving: Combat (or tactical) diving is a branch of professional diving carried out by armed forces and tactical units usually divided into the following specialization:

  • Combat/assault divers.

  • Special mission work divers who do general work underwater.

  • Work divers who are trained in defusing mines and removing other explosives underwater (EOD).

These groups may overlap, and the same operatives may serve as assault divers and work divers. The range of operations performed by these operatives include:

  • Amphibious Assault: Stealthy deployment of land or boarding forces. The vast majority of combat swimmer missions are simply to get "from here to there" and arrive suitably equipped and in sufficient physical condition to fight on arrival. The deployment of tactical forces by water to assault land targets, oil platforms, or surface ship targets (as in boarding for seizure of evidence), is a major driver behind the equipping and training of combat swimmers. The purposes are many, but include feint and deception, counter-drug, law enforcement, counter-terrorism, and counter-proliferation missions.

  • Sabotage: This includes putting limpet mines (explosive devices) on ships.

  • Clandestine Surveying: Surveying a beach before a troop landing, or other forms of underwater surveying in denied waters.

  • Clandestine Underwater Work, such as recovering underwater objects, or clandestine fitting of monitoring devices on submarine communications cables in enemy waters.

  • Investigating unidentified divers, or a sonar echo that may be unidentified divers. Police diving work may be included here.

  • Inspecting ships, boats, structures, and harbors for limpet mines and other sabotage, as well as ordinary routine maintenance in war conditions.

  • Underwater mine clearance and bomb disposal.

Typically, a diver with closed circuit oxygen rebreathing equipment (CCUBA) will stay within a depth limit of 20 feet (6.1 m) with limited deeper excursions to a maximum of 50 feet (15 m) because of the risk of seizure due to acute oxygen toxicity. The use of nitrox or mixed gas rebreathers can extend this depth range considerably, but this may be beyond the scope of operations, depending on the unit.

8. Sniping: A sniper is a military/paramilitary marksman who engages targets from positions of concealment or at distances exceeding the target's detection capabilities. Snipers generally have specialized training and are equipped with high-precision rifles and high-magnification optics, and often also serve as scouts/observers feeding tactical information back to their units or command headquarters. In addition to long-range and high-grade marksmanship, military snipers are trained in a variety of special operation techniques, namely:

  • Detection;

  • Stalking;

  • Target Range Estimation methods;

  • Digital Photography;

  • Camouflage and Concealment;

  • Field Craft;

  • Infiltration;

  • Special Reconnaissance and Observation;

  • Surveillance and Target Acquisition;

  • Survival, Escape, Resistance, Evasion;

  • Forward Air Control.

9. Special Reconnaissance: Usually conducted by small team special mission units who operate behind enemy lines while avoiding direct combat and detection by the enemy. As a role, SR is distinct from commando operations, but both are often carried out by the same units. The SR role frequently includes covert direction of air, artillery and missile attacks in areas deep behind enemy lines. Other roles include placement of remotely monitored sensors, and preparations for infiltration of other special forces. Like other special operations forces, SR units may also conduct direct action and unconventional warfare, including guerrilla- and pseudo operations. In intelligence terms, SR is a human intelligence (HUMINT) collection discipline. Its operational control is likely to be inside a compartmented cell of the HUMINT, or possibly the operations staff functions. Since such personnel are trained for intelligence collection as well as other missions, they will usually maintain clandestine communications to the HUMINT organization and will be systematically prepared for debriefing. They operate significantly farther than the most forward friendly scouting and surveillance units, up to a few hundred kilometers from the closest friendly forces support.

10. Foreign Military Training and Advisory: The US military SOF community refers to this as Rapport Building, the skills to train (and sometimes accompany) foreign forces into battle against common adversaries. This skill set is considered one of the most critical and important SOF skill sets, for not many SOF operators have the temperament, patience, emotional intelligence, innovation- and communication skills to successfully train, lead, and gain the trust of foreign culture/religion forces to meet military objectives. This is also one of the most sought after SOF skill sets within the private military industry being in the business of military advisory and training services. From a military perspective, having foreign (host nation) forces available under own forces guidance is considered a major force multiplier, and critically important in achieving operational successes.

11. Combat Tracking: Tactics, techniques and procedures applied to track and hunt down people (enemy soldiers) by means of following tracks and signs on the ground and surrounding nature.

This list of skill sets is but only a few of the most common qualifications, and the list of all SOF skill sets are more extensive with many more specializations of equal critical importance in achieving mission success. The golden rule regarding specialized skill sets in SOF is that the more skill sets are available within a SMU, the better equipped a SMU is for highly specialized missions.

Special Operations Forces in the 21st Century:

The past two decades of low-intensity conflict in the global war on terror has created the wrong perception of SOF doctrinal missions and roles on the battlefield. Cinematic portrayals of supposedly SOF operations for the purpose of entertainment also does not do the SO community any favours. Today, SOF has become the easy answer for policymakers not looking to commit large forces to a regional conflict (for the purposes of enabling cost savings, not military advantage). As the world is pivoting towards being dragged into the great power competition and near-peer threats, what would SOF’s role be under a new multi-domain concept? The prevailing argument is that SOF would simply refocus its efforts on its doctrinal missions, or in SOF terms, ‘Core Activities’. However, future Multi-Domain Operations (MDO) and grey zone operations will result in more subversive, ‘Indirect Action’ missions such as special reconnaissance, military information support operations, and unconventional warfare. These missions are already in the SOF toolkit and will receive a resurgence in training and refinement. Another critical component of SOF’s role in MDO will be in Phase 0 (Zero) shaping operations in which SOF will continue conducting its foreign internal defence (FID) and security force assistance (SFA) missions. Building partner nation capacity through FID missions will still be paramount in the future to create access and stability in friendly countries.

So basically, the future of SOF lies within the newly evolving doctrine for Multi-Domain Operations (MDO). MDO is the term given to the emerging strategy of integrating capabilities across domains and platforms for effective combat operations particularly in reference to The Great Power Competition. However, Special Operations Forces (SOF) are routinely overlooked in being involved in this discussion. SOF can serve as a current model for successful MDO in low-intensity conflict and will play a vital role in MDO against near-peer threats. However, to understand what MDO is, we first need to understand what a ‘domain’ is within the context of warfare. The following summary highlights the different domains of current multi-domain operations:

There is however much debate between various military commanders concerning the presence of the ‘Electronic’ domain as the 6th Domain of Warfare. However, it is considered a separate domain (NATO: Dimension) of warfare for the reason that activities throughout all other domains are tied together by means of the electromagnetic spectrum, in other words, on the 21st century battlefield all domains are interconnected through the use of communications and other networking devices. Remove (or deny) ‘Electronic’ means as the 6th Domain of Warfare, and you control the outcomes within all other domains, why it is essential not to marginalize this extremely vulnerable, but critical requirement for achieving effective multi-domain operations command and control.

Looking at Africa, it is time for African militaries to look at the establishment of regional situation adapted Special Operations Forces more seriously. For as long as military- and law enforcement organizations on the continent remains neglected as within its current state, ‘insecurity’ and ‘Africa’ will always remain synonymous in relation to each other. African governments are in general very reluctant to accept foreign military assistance from a national pride perspective, but unfortunately future dependence on foreign military aid is inevitable for as long as African governments ignore the importance of maintaining capable and effective specialized military capabilities. Also, the concept of Special Operations Forces does not only apply to the military. Police and other specialized Law Enforcement departments must also adapt their structures to incorporate more advanced SOF. The reason for this is due to the nature of multi-domain operations reaching beyond the military mandate, especially in the presence of organized crime activities involving covert foreign state support, and during many domestic operations, military- and police units often conduct missions together to conform with prevailing legislative requirements. An example of such types of operations is the cooperation between Naval SOF, Police and maritime Law Enforcement on joint maritime patrol missions. Ship boarding at sea is an extremely dangerous and complicated mission during interdiction operations, why all personnel involved in such operations should be equally skilled physically and mentally to avoid unnecessary risks to the mission.

In short: The main purpose why African countries need to improve its Special Operations capabilities is to enable leveraging of the full multi-domain war-fighting capability to enhance effectiveness and compensate for vulnerabilities on future battlefields, and through such actions become less dependent on costly foreign military assistance which isn’t always to the benefit of the beneficiary.


To understand the importance of SOF within the 21st century battle space, we need to understand:

1. What and/or who wins wars?

2. How are wars won?

3. What are the available options to influence favorable outcomes?

The basic answer to all these questions are simple: It is not weapons and technology that win wars, but rather whoever combines people with technology most effectively win wars (“most effectively” in this case referring to suitable strategies supported by relevant doctrines, executed by appropriately skilled and equipped people).

Looking at the future of warfare, Special Operations Forces are the tools (options) required to bridge the ever-expanding divide that exists between the conventional- and political methods of war fighting. The more options that are available, the greater the chances of achieving the desired outcomes. For as long as Africa remains ignorant to the evolution of global society, it will always remain within its current state of instability. Entering an era of greater resources competition, you only control what you can protect with the options at your disposal.


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