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Special forces emerged in the 20th century, with considerable growth in the field during the Second World War. However as early as the 11th century, Chinese strategist Lü Shang spoke of the recruitment of highly talented and motivated men to elite units.
Special forces refers to the branch of an army comprised of highly trained individuals who perform missions that are usually unconventional and risky. These soldiers will be the best trained in an army, generally have superior equipment, and are often recognized as an army within an army.
Lieutenants and captains are eligible for selection as special forces officers. Language training is encouraged, and language ability is a primary criterion for selection. In the United States, special forces officers must be able to speak at least one foreign language. They may work with any number of individuals from other cultures, so cultural awareness is being increasingly fostered. Often, the presence of foreign soldiers in countries is resented, and cultural insensitivity can have a great and negative effect on operations.
A special forces officer leads a team and organizes missions and training. The United States has SEALs (Sea, Air and Land), Green Berets, Delta Force, and Rangers. The United Kingdom has the Special Air Service and Special Boat Service. Israel has the Sayeret.
Special forces officers can be involved in different types of missions. In counter terrorism, terrorist activities are deterred or responded to. In direct action missions, strikes of short duration are mounted to capture or destroy enemy installations or equipment. In special reconnaissance missions, intelligence is gathered. In foreign internal defense missions, the military and other defense forces of foreign governments are trained or otherwise assisted.
Unconventional warfare is a variant of this latter type of mission, where forces in enemy controlled territory are trained and advised on guerrilla warfare. Special forces soldiers assisting foreign armies often have little technology available, and circumstances may even be impoverished. The duties that special forces officers perform also include search, rescue and humanitarian assistance.
Special forces officers must be able to perform in all climates and settings, anywhere in the world. It is normal for special forces officers to find themselves working in very hot or very cold conditions. In addition to the obvious dangers of the work, there might be explosives and other hazardous chemicals and high voltage electricity. Hours can be very irregular and work may be on weekends as well. It is also typical for special forces officers to be deployed to two or three countries in one year. Irrespective of where they are in the world, they might go to work by motorcycle, parachute, skis, or by climbing a mountain.
Training to become a special forces officer is long, tough, and intense and so drop out rates are high. Special forces officers must perform physically and mentally in dangerous and highly stressful situations. They have to bear numerous responsibilities. They require intelligence, self-discipline and confidence, and they often have to make rapid decisions.
Officers in the special forces need to be trained as survival experts, parachutists and swimmers, and must be skilled in the handling of explosives. They normally lead from the front and must be focused on completing the missions assigned to them. Special forces officers must outperform, outthink, and outlast the enemy.
Women are not currently able to work in special forces. There are also other limits such as age. In the United States, personnel wishing to become special forces officers must be no more than 25 years old. The officer will be the youngest person in a special forces detachment: generally between 25 and 27 years old, while the other soldiers are in their early to mid-thirties.
Special forces officers tend not to mix with regular soldiers and they are known for their integrity. An eye for detail is necessary. Grooming standards are relaxed; for example, special forces soldiers in Afghanistan go so far as to grow long beards. U.S. special forces operate in teams of twelve, while British special forces operate in four-man "saber teams."