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The term Special Mission Unit or Special Missions Unit (SMU), is used to describe some elite[1] special operations forces around the world. The term has been applied to Polish,Australian,British,Canadian and four United States special operations forces units. Special mission units have been involved in high profile military operations such as the death of Osama Bin Laden and capture of Saddam Hussein.

United States

Emblem of Joint Special Operations Command

Special mission units are commanded and controlled by Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) of U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM). In addition to performing highly classified activities the special mission units are also tasked with "special missions", sometimes referring to unconventional warfare, counter-terrorist activities, direct action, Special reconnaissance, and/or black operations.[2] [3][4][5] So far, only three SMUs have been publicly disclosed: The Army's 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment—Delta, the Navy's Naval Special Warfare Development Group (DEVGRU), and the Air Force's 24th Special Tactics Squadron.[6][7][8][9][10][11][12] Units from the Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment and 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (160th SOAR) are controlled by JSOC when deployed as part of JSOC Task Forces such as Task Force 121 and Task Force 145.[13][14][15][16]

The Intelligence Support Activity (ISA) is also under JSOC and has been referred to as a special mission unit.[17][7][9][10] The ISA collects specific target intelligence prior to SMU missions, and provides signals support, etc. during those mission.[7][9][10] The army once maintained the ISA, but after the September 11 attacks, the Pentagon shifted direct control to Joint Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg, NC.[18]

Government definition and acknowledgement

The United States defines the term Special Mission Unit as "a generic term to to represent a group of operations and support personnel from designated organizations that is task-organized to perform highly classified activities."[19] The U.S. government does not acknowledge which units specifically are designated as special missions units,[9] only that they have special mission units under U.S. Special Operations Command. However, in the early 1990s then-Commander in Chief of U.S. Special Operations Command, General Carl Stiner identified both Delta Force and Seal Team 6 as permanently assigned special missions units in congressional testimoney and public statements.[20] In 1998 Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Walter B. Slocombe publicly referred to special mission units during a briefing to the Senate Armed Services Committee; "We have designated special-mission units that are specifically manned, equipped and trained to deal with a wide variety of transnational threats" and "These units, assigned to or under the operational control of the U.S. Special Operations Command, are focused primarily on those special operations and supporting functions that combat terrorism and actively counter terrorist use of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). These units are on alert every day of the year and have worked extensively with their interagency counterparts."[8]

United Kingdom

The United Kingdom's most famous special forces are the Special Air Service (SAS) and the Special Boat Service (SBS).


The Australian Defence Force has 2 elite special mission units which includes the Special Air Service Regiment and the 2nd Commando Regiment with unique capabilities within the Australian Defence Force".[21] Both units are components of Australia's Special Operations Command (SOCOMD) and are tasked with conducting sensitive strategic operations, special recovery operations, training assistance, special reconnaissance,precision strike,direct action Hostage rescue,Counter-insurgency and kill or capture operations.Where as the 2nd Commando Regiment is tasked for Direct action,mobility operations,kill or capture,Counter-insurgency and Foreign internal defence.[21] The SASR and 2nd Commando Regiment currently has four sabre squadrons, known as 1, 2, 3 and 4 Squadron.[22] 1, 2 and 3 Squadrons rotate through the two roles performed by the Regiment; one squadron conducts the counter terrorism/special recovery (CT/SR) role, and the remaining squadrons conduct the warfighting/reconnaissance role. 4 Squadron is responsible for collecting intelligence and also supports the Australian Secret Intelligence Service.[23]

Notable operations

An Iraqi-American military interpreter pictured with Saddam shortly after his capture

During the Iraq War United States' Task Force 121 was involved in Operation Red Dawn which led to the capture of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein on December 13, 2003.[24][25] Earlier that year on July 22, 2003 Task Force 20, led by Delta Force operators and supported by the 101st Airborne Division, were involved in a three hour firefight in Mosul, Iraq where both of Saddam's sons, Qusay and Uday were killed.[26][27]

On May 2, 2011 Osama Bin Laden was killed in a CIA-led operation where U.S. Navy SEALs from DEVGRU's Red Squadron were flown into Abottabad, Pakistan by elements of 160th SOAR from Jalalabad, Afghanistan.[28][29][30][31][32]


  1. Bennet (2001), p. 189.
  2. Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) - Special Mission Units
  3. Emerson, Steven (13 November 1988). "Stymied Warriors". The New York Times. Retrieved 11 July 2011. 
  4. Mazzetti, Mark (13 January 2007). "Pentagon Sees Move in Somalia as Blueprint". The New York Times. Retrieved 13 March 2008. 
  5. Risen, James (20 September 1998). "The World: Passing the Laugh Test; Pentagon Planners Give New Meaning to 'Over the Top'". The New York Times. Retrieved 10 April 2008. 
  6. North, Oliver (2010). American Heroes in Special Operations. B&H Publishing Group. ISBN 978-0-8054-4712-5. 
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 "The most secret of secret units". The Week. 2013-03-22. Retrieved 2013-09-10. 
  8. 8.0 8.1 Eric Schmitt (2005-01-23). "Commandos Get Duty on U.S. Soil". New York Times. Retrieved 2013-09-19. 
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 "Secret Unit Expands Rumsfeld's Domain". The Washington Post. 2005-01-23. Retrieved 2013-09-19. 
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 Neville, Leigh (2008). Special Operations Forces in Afghanistan. Osprey Publishing. p. 8. ISBN 978-1846033100. 
  11. Smith, Michael (2008). Killer Elite: The Inside Story of America's Most Secret Special Operations Team. St. Martin's Griffin. p. 332. ISBN 978-0312378264. Retrieved 28 September 2013. 
  12. "In high demand, Air Force commandos must find new ways to cope with stress of duty |". Gaffney Ledger. Retrieved 2013-05-04. 
  13. Naylor, Sean D. (3 Sept 2010). "JSOC task force battles Haqqani militants". Retrieved 16 May 2011. 
  14. Naylor, Sean D. (1 March 2011). "McRaven Tapped to lead SOCOM". Retrieved 15 May 2011. 
  15. Priest, Dana, and William M. Arkin, "‘Top Secret America’: A look at the military’s Joint Special Operations Command", Washington Post, 4 September 2011.
  16. McNab, Chris (2013). America's Elite: US Special Forces from the American Revolution to the Present Day. Osprey Publishing. ISBN 978-1780962849. 
  17. JSOC entry
  18. Rowan Scarborough (15 March 2004). "Agencies unite to find bin Laden". Washington Times. Retrieved 15 March 2009. 
  19. "Joint Special Operations Task Force Operations". 26 April 2007. Retrieved 2013-09-19. 
  20. Collins, John M.. Special Operations Forces: An Assessment (Nov 1, 1994 ed.). Diane Publishing. pp. 69–71. ISBN 1410223140. 
  21. 21.0 21.1 "Special Air Service Regiment". Australian Army. Retrieved 30 September 2013. 
  22. Lee (2007), p.95.
  23. Epstein, Rafael; Welch, Dylan. "Secret SAS teams hunt for terrorists". Retrieved 30 September 2013. 
  24. Ann Scott Tyson (24 July 2003). "Anatomy of the raid on Hussein's sons". Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved 17 March 2009. 
  25. Urban,Mark Task Force Black p.83
  26. Blair, David (2003-07-23). "Saddam's sons killed in raid". Telegraph. Retrieved 2013-09-30. 
  27. Ann Scott Tyson. "Anatomy of the raid on Hussein's sons". Retrieved 2013-09-30. 
  28. Siobhan Gorman; Julian E. Barnes (May 23, 2011). "Spy, Military Ties Aided bin Laden Raid". Retrieved June 18, 2011. 
  29. Marc Ambinder (2011-05-02). "The Secret Team That Killed Osama bin Laden - Marc Ambinder". The Atlantic. Retrieved 2013-09-30. 
  30. "Graphic: Osama bin Laden killed at compound in Pakistan". The Washington Post. 2011-05-05. Retrieved 2013-09-30. 
  31. "‘No Easy Day: The Firsthand Account of the Mission that Killed Osama bin Laden’". RedState. Retrieved 2013-09-30. 
  32. "Special Operations Elite and the Osama Death Op". Prison Retrieved 2013-09-30. 

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