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

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Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC)
Potential Issues for Congress


Special Operations Forces (SOF) play a significant role in U.S. military operations and, in recent years, have been given greater responsibility for planning and conducting worldwide counterterrorism operations. U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) has about 70,000 Active Duty, National Guard, and reserve personnel from all four services and Department of Defense (DOD) civilians assigned to its headquarters, its four Service component commands, and eight sub-unified commands.

In 2013, based on a request from USSOCOM (with the concurrence of Geographic and Functional Combatant Commanders and the Military Service Chiefs and Secretaries), the Secretary of Defense assigned command of the Theater Special Operations Commands (TSOCs) to USSOCOM. USSOCOM now has the responsibility to organize, train, and equip TSOCs. While USSOCOM is now responsible for the organizing, training, and equipping of TSOCs, the Geographic Combatant Commands will continue to have operational control over the TSOCs. Because the TSOCs are now classified as sub-unified commands, the Services are responsible to provide non-SOF support to the TSOCs in the same manner in which they provide support to the Geographic Combatant Command headquarters.

The current Unified Command Plan (UCP) stipulates USSOCOM responsibility for synchronizing planning for global operations to combat terrorist networks. This focus on planning limits its ability to conduct activities designed to deter emerging threats, build relationships with foreign militaries, and potentially develop greater access to foreign militaries. USSOCOM is proposing changes that would, in addition to current responsibilities, include the responsibility for synchronizing the planning, coordination, deployment, and, when directed, the employment of special operations forces globally and will do so with the approval of the Geographic Combatant Commanders, the Services and, as directed, appropriate U.S. government agencies. Further, the proposed changes would give broader responsibility to USSOCOM beyond counterterrorism activities, to include activities against other threat networks.

Potential issues for Congress include USSOCOM's new leading role in countering weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and how the Trump Administration envisions USSOCOM's role in U.S. national security.



Special Operations are military operations requiring unique modes of employment, tactical techniques, equipment, and training. These operations are often conducted in hostile, denied, or politically sensitive environments and are characterized by one or more of the following elements: time sensitive, clandestine, low visibility, conducted with and/or through indigenous forces, requiring regional expertise, and/or a high degree of risk. Special Operations Forces (SOF) are those active and reserve component forces of the services designated by the Secretary of Defense and specifically organized, trained, and equipped to conduct and support special operations. The U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, FL, is a functional combatant command responsible for training, doctrine, and equipping for all U.S. SOF units.

Command Structures and Components

In 1986, Congress, concerned about the status of SOF within overall U.S. defense planning, passed legislation (P.L. 99-661) to strengthen special operations' position within the defense community and to strengthen interoperability among the branches of U.S. SOF. These actions included the establishment of USSOCOM as a new unified command. USSOCOM headquarters currently consists of approximately 2,500 military and Department of Defense (DOD) civilians (not including government contractors). |1| As stipulated by U.S.C. Title X, Section 167, the commander of USSOCOM is a four-star officer who may be from any military service. U.S. Army General Raymond A. Thomas III is the current USSOCOM Commander. The USSOCOM Commander reports directly to the Secretary of Defense. The Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict (ASD/SOLIC), a member of the Office of the Secretary of Defense for Policy (OSD-P), provides civilian oversight over USSOCOM activities. The current ASD/SOLIC is Mr. Michael Lumpkin, a former Navy SEAL officer.

USSOCOM currently has about 56,000 active duty, 7,400 reserve and 6,600 civilian personnel assigned to its headquarters, its four components, and sub-unified commands. |2| USSOCOM's components are the U.S. Army Special Operations Command (USASOC); the Naval Special Warfare Command (NSWC); the Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC); and the Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command (MARSOC). The Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) is a USSOCOM sub-unified command.

Theater Special Operations Commands (TSOCs)

Theater-level command and control responsibilities are vested in Theater Special Operations Commands (TSOCs). TSOCs are sub-unified commands under their respective Geographic Combatant Commanders (GCCs). TSOCs are special operational headquarters elements designed to support a GCC's special operations logistics, planning, and operational command and control requirements, and are normally commanded by a general officer.

In February 2013, based on a request from USSOCOM and with the concurrence of every geographic and functional combatant commander and military service chiefs and Secretaries, the Secretary of Defense transferred combatant command of the TSOCs from the GCCs to USSOCOM. |3| This means USSOCOM now has the responsibility to organize, train, and equip TSOCs as it previously had for all assigned SOF units as specified in U.S. Code, Title 10, Section 167. This change is intended to enable USSOCOM to standardize, to the extent possible, TSOC capabilities and manpower requirements. While USSOCOM is now responsible for the organizing, training, and equipping of TSOCs, the GCCs continue to have operational control over the TSOCs and all special operations in their respective theaters. TSOC commanders are the senior SOF advisors for their respective GCCs. Each TSOC is capable of forming the core of a joint task force headquarters for short-term operations, and can provide command and control for all SOF in theater on a continuous basis. The Services have what the DOD calls "Combatant Command Service Agency (CCSA)" responsibilities for providing manpower, non-SOF peculiar equipment, and logistic support to the TSOCs. The current TSOCs, the GCCs they support, and the CCSA responsibility for those TSOCs are as follows:

Current TSOCs are |4|

  • Special Operations Command South (SOCSOUTH), Homestead Air Force Base, FL; supports U.S. Southern Command; its CCSA is the Army;
  • Special Operations Command Africa (SOCAFRICA), Stuttgart, Germany; supports U.S. Africa Command, its CCSA is the Army;
  • Special Operations Command Europe (SOCEUR), Stuttgart, Germany; supports U.S. European Command; CCSA is the Army;
  • Special Operations Command Central (SOCCENT), MacDill Air Force Base, FL; supports U.S. Central Command; its CCSA is the Air Force;
  • Special Operations Command Pacific (SOCPAC), Camp Smith, HI; supports U.S. Pacific Command; its CCSA is the Navy;
  • Special Operations Command Korea (SOCKOR), Yongsang, Korea; supports U.S. Forces Korea, its CCSA is the Army; and
  • Special Operations Command U.S. Northern Command (SOCNORTH), Peterson Air Force Base, CO; supports U.S. Northern Command; its CCSA is the Air Force.

Additional USSOCOM Responsibilities

In addition to Title 10 authorities and responsibilities, USSOCOM has been given additional responsibilities. In the 2004 Unified Command Plan (UCP), USSOCOM was given the responsibility for synchronizing DOD planning against global terrorist networks and, as directed, conducting global operations against those networks. |5| In this regard, USSOCOM "receives, reviews, coordinates and prioritizes all DOD plans that support the global campaign against terror, and then makes recommendations to the Joint Staff regarding force and resource allocations to meet global requirements." |6| In October 2008, USSOCOM was designated the DOD proponent for Security Force Assistance (SFA). |7| In this role, USSOCOM performs a synchronizing function in global training and assistance planning similar to the previously described role of planning against terrorist networks.

Army Special Operations Command

U.S. Army SOF (ARSOF) includes approximately 27,000 soldiers from the active Army, National Guard, and Army Reserve organized into Special Forces, Ranger, and special operations aviation units, along with civil affairs units, military information units, and special operations support units. |8| ARSOF Headquarters and other resources, such as the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School, are located at Fort Bragg, NC. Five active Special Forces (SF) Groups (Airborne), |9| consisting of about 1,400 soldiers each, are stationed at Fort Bragg and at Fort Lewis, WA; Fort Campbell, KY; Fort Carson, CO; and Eglin Air Force Base, FL. Special Forces soldiers–also known as the Green Berets–are trained in various skills, including foreign languages, that allow teams to operate independently throughout the world.

Two Army National Guard Special Forces groups are headquartered in Utah and Alabama. In addition, an elite airborne light infantry unit specializing in direct action operations, |10| the 75th Ranger Regiment, is headquartered at Fort Benning, GA, and consists of three battalions of about 800 soldiers each and a regimental special troops battalion providing support to the three Ranger battalions. The Army's special operations aviation unit, the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne) (SOAR), consists of five battalions and is headquartered at Fort Campbell, KY. The 160th SOAR features pilots trained to fly the most sophisticated Army rotary-wing aircraft in the harshest environments, day or night, and in adverse weather and supports all USSOCOM components not just exclusively Army units.

Some of the most frequently deployed SOF assets are Civil Affairs (CA) units, which provide experts in every area of civil government to help administer civilian affairs in operational theaters. The 95th Civil Affairs Brigade (Airborne) is the only active CA unit that exclusively supports USSOCOM. In September 2011 the 85th Civil Affairs Brigade was activated to support U.S. Army General Purpose Forces (GPFs). All other CA units reside in the Reserves and are affiliated with Army GPF units. Military Information Support Operations (formerly known as psychological operations) units disseminate information to large foreign audiences through mass media. Two active duty Military Information Support Groups (MISG)–the 4th Military Information Support Group (MISG) (Airborne) and 8th Military Information Support Group (MISG) (Airborne)–are stationed at Fort Bragg, and their subordinate units are aligned with Geographic Combatant Commands.

Air Force Special Operations Command

The Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) is one of the Air Force's 10 major commands, with approximately 19,500 active, reserve, and civilian personnel. |11| AFSOC units operate out of four major continental United States (CONUS) locations and two overseas locations. The headquarters for AFSOC, the 1st Special Operations Wing (1st SOW), 24th Special Operations Wing (24th SOW), and the Air Force Special Operations Air Warfare Center (AFSOAWC) are located at Hurlburt Field, FL. |12| The AFSOAWC is responsible for training, education, irregular warfare program, innovation development, and operational testing. |13| From AFSOAWC's fact sheet:

    The AFSOAWC's mission includes non-standard aviation in support of Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine and allied special operations forces.

    The following units are consolidated under the Air Warfare Center [AFSOAWC]:

    • U.S. Air Force Special Operations School, Hurlburt Field, FL
    • 6th Special Operations Squadron, Duke Field, FL
    • 19th Special Operations Squadron, Hurlburt Field, FL
    • 551st Special Operations Squadron, Cannon Air Force Base, NM
    • 5th Special Operations Squadron, a reserve unit from the 919th Special Operations Wing, Duke Field, FL
    • 371st Special Operations Combat Training Squadron, Hurlburt Field, FL
    • 18th Flight Test Squadron, Hurlburt Field, FL
    • 592nd Special Operations Maintenance Squadron, Duke Field, FL
    • 209th Civil Engineer Squadron, a guard unit from Gulfport, MS
    • 280th Special Operations Communications Squadron, a guard unit from Dothan, AL

    The Air Warfare Center provides mission qualification training in SOF aviation platforms to include AC-130U, AC-130W, U-28, MQ-1, MQ-9, C-145, C-146 as well as small unmanned aerial systems (SUAS), Combat Aviation Advisors, medical element personnel, and AFSOC Security Forces. In addition to AFSOC personnel, AFSOAWC is responsible for educating and training other USSOCOM components and joint/interagency/coalition partners. |14|

The 27th SOW is at Cannon AFB, NM. The 352nd and 353rd Special Operations Wings provide forward presence in Europe (RAF Mildenhall, England) and in the Pacific (Kadena Air Base, Japan), respectively. The 6th SOS's mission is to assess, train, and advise partner nation aviation units with the intent to raise their capability and capacity to interdict threats to their nation. The 6th SOS provides aviation expertise to U.S. foreign internal defense (FID) missions. The Air National Guard's 193rd SOW at Harrisburg, PA, and the Air Force Reserve Command's 919th SOW at Duke Field, FL, complete AFSOC's major flying units.

The 24th Special Operations Wing is one of three Air Force active duty special operations wings assigned to Air Force Special Operations Command. The 24 SOW is based at Hurlburt Field, Fla. The 24 SOW is the only Special Tactics wing in the Air Force.

U.S. Air Force Special Tactics

From the Air Force's Special Tactics fact sheet:

    The primary mission of the 24 SOW is to provide Special Tactics forces for rapid global employment to enable airpower success. The 24 SOW is U.S. Special Operation Command's tactical air and ground integration force, and the Air Force's special operations ground force to enable global access, precision strike, and personnel recovery operations.

    Core capabilities encompass: airfield reconnaissance, assessment, and control; personnel recovery; joint terminal attack control and environmental reconnaissance.

    Special Tactics is comprised of Special Tactics Officers, Combat Controllers, Combat Rescue Officers, Pararescuemen, Special Operations Weather Officers and Airmen, Air Liaison Officers, Tactical Air Control Party operators, and a number of combat support Airmen which compromise 58 Air Force specialties.

    These unique skills provide a full-spectrum, air-focused special operations capability to the combatant commander in order to ensure airpower success. With their unique skill sets, Special Tactics operators are often the first special operations elements deployed into crisis situations. Special Tactics Airmen often embed with Navy SEALs, Army Green Berets and Rangers to provide everything from combat air support to medical aid and personnel recovery, depending on their specialty.

    AFSOC's Special Tactics experts include Combat Controllers, Pararescuemen, Special Operations Weather Teams, Combat Aviation Advisors, and Tactical Air Control Party (TACPs). As a collective group, they are known as Special Tactics and have also been referred to as "Battlefield Airmen." Their basic role is to provide an interface between air and ground forces, and these airmen have highly developed skill sets. Usually embedded with Army, Navy, or Marine SOF units, they provide control of air fire support, medical and rescue expertise, or weather support, depending on the mission requirements. |15|

AFSOC Aircraft

AFSOC's active duty and reserve component flying units operate fixed and rotary-wing aircraft, including the CV-22B, AC-130, C-130, EC-130, MC-130, MQ-1, MQ-9, U-28A, C-145A, C-146A, and PC-12. |16|

Naval Special Warfare Command |17|

The Naval Special Warfare Command (NSWC) is composed of approximately 10,000 personnel, including active-duty Special Warfare Operators, known as SEALs; Special Warfare Boat Operators, known as Special Warfare Combatant-craft Crewmen (SWCC); reserve personnel; support personnel; and civilians. NSWC is organized around 10 SEAL Teams, 2 SEAL Delivery Vehicle (SDV) Teams, and 3 Special Boat Teams. SEAL Teams consist of six SEAL platoons each, consisting of 2 officers and 16 enlisted personnel. The major operational components of NSWC include Naval Special Warfare Groups One, Three, and Eleven, stationed in Coronado, CA, and Naval Special Warfare Groups Two, Four, and Ten and the Naval Special Warfare Development Group in Little Creek, VA. These components deploy SEAL Teams, SEAL Delivery Vehicle Teams, and Special Boat Teams worldwide to meet the training, exercise, contingency, and wartime requirements of theater commanders. Because SEALs are considered experts in special reconnaissance and direct action missions–primary counterterrorism skills–NSWC is viewed as well postured to fight a globally dispersed enemy ashore or afloat. NSWC forces can operate in small groups and have the ability to quickly deploy from Navy ships, submarines and aircraft, overseas bases, and forward-based units.

U.S. Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command (MARSOC) |18|

On November 1, 2005, DOD announced the creation of the Marine Special Operations Command (MARSOC) as a component of USSOCOM. Now referred to as the U.S. Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command, MARSOC consists of the Marine Raider Regiment, which includes 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Marine Raider Battalions; the Marine Raider Support Group; 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Marine Raider Support Battalions; and the Marine Special Operations School. MARSOC headquarters, the 2nd and 3rd Marine Raider Battalions, the Marine Special Operations School, and the Marine Raider Support Group are stationed at Camp Lejeune, NC. The 1st Marine Raider Battalion is stationed at Camp Pendleton, CA. MARSOC forces have been deployed worldwide to conduct a full range of special operations activities. MARSOC missions include direct action, special reconnaissance, foreign internal defense, counterterrorism, and information operations. MARSOC currently has approximately 3,000 personnel assigned. |19|

Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) |20|

From USSOCOM's official website:

    The Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) is a subunified command of the US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM). It is charged to study special operations requirements and techniques, ensure interoperability and equipment standardization, plan and conduct special operations exercises and training, and develop joint special operations tactics.

    Despite its innocuous sounding charter, JSOC has made incredible strides in the special operations field and is comprised of an impressive amalgamation of rigorously screened and accessed Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines, and Civilians. These men and women possess unique and specialized skills, and are routinely among the best in their field. Among them are seasoned combat veterans who cut their teeth by participating in joint special operations liked the Son Tay Prison Raid in Vietnam War which took place in 1970, long before JSOC was activated. More recent members of the Command include active duty special operations veterans of all services who have successfully completed the toughest training regimes and demonstrated their mettle under the most challenging and difficult circumstances, including combat. As a result, past and present members of JSOC have participated in all of our Nation's wars and contingency operations since it was activated in 1980. Included among the places that military and civilian members of the Command have previously served our Nation are Desert One in Iran (1980), Grenada (1983), the Mediterranean Sea during the Achille Lauro hijacking (1985), Panama (1989), the Mideast during the Gulf War (1991), Somalia (1993), Haiti (1994), the Balkans (1996-2002), Afghanistan (2001-present), and Iraq (2003-present).

    The Command is always decisively engaged in working to fulfill its charter and typically has members located throughout the world at any given time. An incredibly busy Command, JSOC accomplished its assigned missions successfully in the face of expanding commitments largely due to the quality, dedication, and patriotism of its military and civilian members and the family members who support them.

Potential Issues for Congress

USSOCOM's New Leading Role in Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) |21|

Reportedly, at the request of Secretary of Defense Carter in August 2016, the Administration plans to assign USSOCOM a new leading role in coordinating DOD's efforts to counter WMDs, a mission previously assigned to U.S. Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM). According to reports, USSOCOM will be charged with coordinating the development of a "coherent" DOD response to WMDs and will not be granted any new authorities but will have new influence on how DOD responds to WMD threats. The decision to give USSOCOM yet another leading role in coordinating DOD-wide efforts is said to be in response to long-standing complaints that USSTRATCOM had not devoted enough personnel and emphasis to the counter-WMD mission.

USSOCOM has long counted counter-proliferation of WMDs a "core activity," describing its role as conducting:

    Activities to support USG efforts to curtail the conceptualization, development, possession, proliferation, use, and effects of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), related expertise, materials, technologies, and means of delivery by state and non-state actors. |22|

There are, however, concerns about USSOCOM's new counter-WMD responsibilities. Some question whether USSOCOM has been ceded too much power, noting that recently USSOCOM was also given the authority "to coordinate all U.S. efforts to track foreign fighters globally." |23| Another concern is how effectively USSOCOM will address the counter-WMD mission given its primary focus on terrorism. With senior USSOCOM leadership and policymakers alike warning that USSOCOM is already extensively committed and its forces "strained," it is unclear how elevating USSOCOM's involvement in the nation's counter-WMD efforts will affect USSOCOM's overall readiness.

Congress might decide to further examine the ramifications of assigning USSOCOM the DOD-wide responsibility for countering WMDs. In addition to considering the aforementioned concerns, Congress may opt to explore with DOD and USSOCOM what additional resources– including personnel, units, equipment, and budgetary authority–will be needed if USSOCOM is to successfully fulfill its new responsibilities.

How the Trump Administration Envisions USSOCOM's Role in National Security |24|

Some have expressed concern that the new Trump Administration could possibly expand USSOCOM's role in defeating terrorism and destroying Islamic State forces, thereby "breaking" an already heavily committed force that many military officials and policymakers believe "are already stretched thin and on the brink of burn out." |25| Some believe President Trump will rely heavily on his National Security Advisor, retired Army Lieutenant General Michael Flynn (who served as JSOC's intelligence director from 2004 to 2007), and, if approved by the Senate, his Secretary of Defense, retired Marine Corps General James Mattis, for advice on how best to employ U.S. SOF. Given public statements of all three individuals, some believe fewer restrictions could be placed on U.S. SOF, particularly in fighting the Islamic State, which might set the stage for greater U.S. SOF involvement in worldwide counterterror operations.

Given USSOCOM's already high operational tempo, increasing range of responsibilities, and acknowledged strain on the force and families, Congress might decide to seek greater clarity from the new Administration on how it envisions employing USSOCOM forces against current and future threats. Such a discussion might also examine whether the Trump Administration's stated plans to increase the size of the U.S. military and improve its capabilities also relates directly to USSOCOM, and if there is potential for expanded conventional forces to take over certain missions or responsibilities currently being assigned to USSOCOM units.

[Source: By Andrew Feickert, Congressional Research Service, RS21048, Washington, 06Jan17. Andrew Feickert is a Specialist in Military Ground Forces.]


1. Joint Publication 3.05, Doctrine for Special Operations, July 16, 2014; [Back]

2. Statement of General Joseph L. Votel, Commander, United States Special Operations Command, Before the House Armed Services Committee, Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities, March 1, 2016, p. 1. [Back]

3. Information in this section is taken from USSOCOM Information Paper, "Special Operations Forces: 2020: Theater Special Operations Commands," April 25, 2013. [Back]

4. USSOCOM Pamphlet, "United States Special Operations Command, GlobalSOF Network2020," 2013. [Back]

5. "Fact Book: United States Special Operations Command," USSOCOM Public Affairs, February 2013, p. 10. [Back]

6. Ibid. [Back]

7. Information in this section is from testimony given by Admiral Eric T. Olson, Commander, USSOCOM, to the House Terrorism, Unconventional Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee on the Fiscal Year 2010 National Defense Authorization Budget Request for the U.S. Special Operations Command, June 4, 2009. For a more in-depth treatment of Security Force Assistance, see CRS Report R41817, Building the Capacity of Partner States Through Security Force Assistance, by Thomas K. Livingston. [Back]

8. Information in this section, unless otherwise noted is taken from "U.S. Special Operations Command Factbook 2016" USSOCOM Public Affairs, 2015, p. 18. [Back]

9. Airborne refers to "personnel, troops especially trained to effect, following transport by air, an assault debarkation, either by parachuting or touchdown." Joint Publication 1-02, Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, 12 April 2001 (As Amended Through 31 July 2010). [Back]

10. Direct action operations are short-duration strikes and other small-scale offensive actions conducted as a special operation in hostile, denied, or politically sensitive environments, as well as employing 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. [Back]

11. Information in this section, unless otherwise noted, is taken from "U.S. Special Operations Command Factbook 2016" USSOCOM Public Affairs, 2015, p. 26. [Back]

12. AFSOAWC Fact Sheet,, accessed April, 2, 2015. [Back]

13. Ibid. [Back]

14. Ibid. [Back]

15. From Air Force Special Tactics website:, accessed April 22, 2015. [Back]

16. From AFSOC website,, accessed April 22, 2015. [Back]

17. Information in this section, unless otherwise noted is taken from "U.S. Special Operations Command Factbook 2016" USSOCOM Public Affairs, 2015, p. 22. [Back]

18. Information in this section is from "Fact Book: United States Special Operations Command," USSOCOM Public Affairs, February 2013, p. 20; "U.S. Special Operations Command Factbook 2015" USSOCOM Public Affairs, p. 30; and CRS discussions with USSOCOM staff, September 10, 2013. [Back]

19. U.S. Special Operations Command Factbook 2016" USSOCOM Public Affairs, 2015, p. 30. [Back]

20. Taken directly from USSOCOM website,, accessed November 18, 2015. [Back]

21. Information in this section, unless otherwise noted, is taken from Dan Lamothe, "Special Operations Command Takes a Leading Role in Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction," The Washington Post, December 23, 2016. [Back]

22. USSOCOM Website,, accessed January 5, 2017. [Back]

23. Dan Lamothe, "Special Operations Command Takes a Leading Role in Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction," The Washington Post, December, 2016. [Back]

24. Information in this section, unless otherwise noted, is taken from Sean D. Naylor, "Will Trump Break the Special Forces?," The Atlantic, December 27, 2016. [Back]

25. Ibid. [Back]

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