Restricted U.S. Army Special Operations Forces Manual

The following manual was originally published online last April in a post on the Weapons Man blog.


FM 3-18 Special Forces Operations

  • 160 pages
  • Distribution authorized to U.S. Government agencies and their contractors only to protect technical or operational information from automatic dissemination under the International Exchange Program or by other means.
  • May 28, 2014


FM 3-18 is the principal manual for Special Forces (SF) doctrine. It describes SF roles, missions, capabilities, organization, mission command, employment, and sustainment operations across the range of military operations. This manual is a continuation of the doctrine established in the JP 3-05 series, ADP 3-05, ADRP 3-05, and FM 3-05.

The principal audience for FM 3-18 is all members of the profession of arms. Commanders and staffs of Army headquarters serving as joint task force (JTF) or multinational headquarters should also refer to applicable joint or multinational doctrine concerning the range of military operations and joint or multinational forces. Trainers and educators throughout the Army will also use this publication.

There has always been a romantic fascination with special operations forces (SOF). The idea of secret commandos or Rangers striking from the shadows surprising the enemy with overwhelming speed, violence of action, and cutting-edge technology appeals to America’s image of highly trained, elite Soldiers. There is, however, another Soldier who fights from the shadows. This one is perhaps less known and far less understood. His real weapons are a deep understanding of terrain, the relationships built, and the influence developed to motivate and train others to take up the fight. These Soldiers are the U.S. Army SF, the “quiet professionals” whom history and popular culture often overlook. Designed to organize, train, and support indigenous personnel in behind-the-lines resistance activities, SF belongs to an organization unique in the Army’s history. Founded at the Psychological Warfare Center at Fort Bragg in 1952 and based upon lessons learned and formation used in guerrilla warfare during World War II, its sole purpose was UW. The experience in Vietnam gave SF a second purpose: countering a subversive insurgency. This brief history identifies the precursors and major developments that created modern U.S. Army SF.


2-3. SF operations historically have been used to shape the environment, to conduct condition-setting activities, and to enable maneuver warfare or other operations. The discreet, precise, and scalable nature of SF operations often makes them a more attractive option in instances where a large force structure may be inappropriate or counterproductive or may incur political risk. When used effectively, these types of operations can yield disproportional benefits.

2-4. SF operations are one means by which the President of the United States, Secretary of Defense, Department of State country teams, and geographic combatant commanders (GCCs) can shape an environment to support the U.S. National Security Strategy. The National Security Strategy prepared by the Executive Branch for Congress, outlines the major national security concerns of the United States and how the administration plans to deal with them. It provides a broad strategic context for employing military capabilities in concert with other instruments of national power. SF contributes to the National Security Strategy in the following ways:

  • As an instrument to implement or enforce U.S. National Security Strategy outside of an overt military campaign, SF specializes in persistent engagement. SF implements the National Security Strategy developed within a strategic security environment characterized by uncertainty, complexity, rapid change, and persistent conflict. They possess capabilities that enable both lethal and nonlethal missions specifically designed to influence threat, friendly, and neutral audiences. They shape foreign political and military environments by working with HNs, regional partners, and indigenous populations and their institutions. Such proactive shaping can help prevent insurgencies and/or conflicts from destabilizing partners and ultimately deter conflict, prevail in war, or succeed in a wide range of potential contingencies.
  • In support of a military campaign, SF acts as a force multiplier through UW and extends the operational reach to influence and strike enemy forces throughout their depth. The use of SF to organize, train, and employ indigenous forces operating in the enemy rear area prevents effective employment of reserves, disrupts command and control and logistics, and forces the enemy to cope with U.S. actions throughout its entire physical, temporal, and organizational depth. Utilizing indigenous information networks provides powerful tools for leaders to synchronize efforts. Synchronized efforts between conventional and unconventional forces offer Army leaders with the capability to integrate actions along with interagency and multinational efforts to overwhelm the enemy and achieve decisive results. UW is the signature excellence of SF. Whether used as a supporting effort to major combat operations or as an alternative, UW strikes the enemy in times, places, and manners for which the enemy is not prepared, seizing the initiative by forcing the enemy to defend everywhere at once.

2-5. Two keys in achieving tactical, operational, and strategic successes are flexibility and adaptability. U.S. Army SF Soldiers work in small teams and are well known for taking initiative, acting quickly, and having an affinity for innovation in thought, plans, and operations—all important factors in a flexible organization. This type of flexibility allows small-footprint, politically sensitive responses when large-scale military employment may be inappropriate or denied. Adaptability first requires an understanding of the operational environment. Sustained engagement around the world, along with scalable features, makes SF teams the most ubiquitous ground forces with both lethal and nonlethal capabilities. Their low profile and an inherent need to network with interagency partners, indigenous populations, and indigenous systems reflect the adaptive nature of SF teams. Their widespread and persistent engagement makes SF teams agile and responsive to rapidly changing regional situations that affect our national security interests.

2-6. The 2010 National Security Strategy reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to retaining its global leadership role and defined U.S. enduring national interests as follows:

  • The security of the United States, its citizens, allies, and partners.
  • A strong, innovative, and growing U.S. economy in an open international economic system that promotes opportunity and prosperity.

Respect for universal values at home and around the world.
An international order advanced by U.S. leadership that promotes peace, security, and
opportunity through stronger cooperation to meet global challenges.

2-7. The National Security Strategy and the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review together guide the establishment of U.S. national military objectives as follows:

  • Counter violent extremism.
  • Deter and defeat aggression.
  • Strengthen international and regional security.
  • Shape the future force.

2-8. The 2012 Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense articulates strategic guidance for the DOD after a decade of war. It shapes a joint force for the future that will be smaller and leaner, but agile, flexible, technologically advanced, and ready to confront and defeat aggression anywhere in the world. It projects a changing security environment of complex challenges and opportunities. Basic tenets include the following:

  • Rebalance engagement toward the Asia-Pacific region while continuing defense efforts in the Middle East.
  • Conduct counterterrorism and irregular warfare.
  • Deter and defeat aggression in one region while committed to large-scale operations elsewhere.
  • Project power despite anti-access and area-denial challenges.
  • Counter weapons of mass destruction.
  • Operate effectively in cyberspace and space.
  • Maintain a nuclear deterrent.
  • Defend the homeland and provide support to civil authorities.
  • Provide a stabilizing presence abroad during a significant reduction in resources.
  • Conduct limited stability and counterinsurgency operations.
  • Conduct humanitarian, disaster relief, and other operations.

2-9. SF plays a vital role in supporting U.S. national strategy. Through varying applications of UW, FID, counterinsurgency, preparation of the environment, security force assistance, direct action, special reconnaissance, counterterrorism, and counterproliferation of weapons of mass destruction, SF has proven its utility in conflict, cold war, and contingency operations. SF discretely shapes the operational environment in both peace and complex uncertainty. SF strengthens U.S. interests by sustained engagement with allies and partners.

2-10. SF units normally conduct special operations supporting the theater special operations command (TSOC) within the GCC’s area of responsibility. These operations are conducted in support of the U.S. Ambassador and country team or in conjunction with joint operations being conducted in accordance with a command relationship established by the designated joint force commander (JFC). In either situation, SF offers military options for situations requiring subtle, indirect, or low-visibility applications. The small size and unique capabilities of SF give the United States a variety of appropriate military responses. These responses typically do not entail the same degree of political sensitivity or risk of escalation normally associated with the employment of a larger and more visible force.




3-14. UW is the core task and organizing principle for Army SF. UW capabilities provide the method and skill sets by which all other SF missions are accomplished. SF is specifically organized, trained, and equipped for the conduct of UW. SF is regionally oriented, language-qualified, and specifically trained to conduct UW against hostile nation-states and non-state entities to achieve U.S. goals.

3-15. UW is defined as “activities conducted to enable a resistance movement or insurgency to coerce, disrupt, or overthrow a government or occupying power by operating through or with an underground, auxiliary, and guerrilla force in a denied area.” The United States may engage in UW as part of a major theater war or limited regional contingency as an effort to support an insurgency or resistance movement. Experiences in the 1980s in Afghanistan and Nicaragua proved that support for an insurgency could be an effective way of putting indirect pressure on the enemy. The cost versus benefit of using UW must be carefully considered before employment. Properly integrated and synchronized UW operations can extend the application of military power for strategic goals. UW complements operations by giving the United States opportunities to seize the initiative through preemptive or clandestine offensive action.

3-16. UW is inherently a joint and interagency activity. For its part, SF units are designed to accomplish the following significant aspects:

  • Infiltrating denied territory and linking up with resistance forces.
  • Assessing resistance forces for potential sponsorship by the U.S. government.
  • Providing training and advisory assistance to the guerrilla forces or the underground.
  • Coordinating and synchronizing the resistance activities with U.S. efforts.
  • Transitioning guerrilla forces into post-conflict status as well as anticipating and influencing situations where former resistance elements could develop into an armed insurgency against the newly formed U.S.-sponsored government.

3-17. Planning for UW is different from planning for other special operations. UW involves long-term campaigns that require operational art to put forces in space and time and integrate ends, ways, and means that attain the desired U.S. political or military end states. The sensitivity of the planned action dictates the level of compartmentalization the United States must use to ensure operational security.  Parallel planning by all levels ensures that each level understands how their mission integrates with the
missions of other levels.

3-18. Military leaders must carefully consider the costs and benefits prior to making a decision to employ UW. Properly integrated and synchronized UW complements other operations by giving the United States or HN opportunities to seize the initiative through preemptive covert or clandestine offensive action without an overt commitment of a large number of conventional forces.

3-19. The goal of UW operations is a change in political control and/or perceived legitimacy of regimes. Hence, UW has strategic utility that can alter the balance of power between sovereign states. Such high stakes carry significant political risk in both the international and domestic political arenas and necessarily require sensitive execution and oversight. The necessity to operate with a varying mix of clandestine and covert means, ways, and ends places a premium on excellent intelligence of the UW operating area. In UW, as in all conflict scenarios, SF must closely coordinate activities with joint, interagency, intergovernmental, and multinational partners in order to enable and safeguard sensitive operations.

3-20. A TSOC typically tasks SF to lead a UW campaign. UW will usually require some interagency support and possibly some support by conventional forces. The prevailing strategic environment suggests a TSOC and staff must be able to effectively conduct and support UW simultaneously during both traditional warfare and irregular warfare. In some cases, SF conducting UW will be the main effort, with conventional forces playing a much smaller and supporting role.

3-21. Each instance of UW is unique; however, UW efforts generally pass through seven distinct phases: preparation, initial contact, infiltration, organization, buildup, employment, and transition. These phases may occur simultaneously in some situations or may not occur at all in others. For example, a large and effective resistance movement may only require logistical support, thereby bypassing the organization phase. The phases may also occur out of sequence, with each receiving varying degrees of emphasis. One example of this is when members of an indigenous irregular force are moved to another country to be trained, organized, and equipped before being infiltrated back into the UW operations area.


6-76. The U.S. military can provide resources such as material, advisors, and trainers to support these FID operations. In instances where it is in the security interest of the United States, and, at the request of the HN, more direct forms of U.S. military support may be provided, to include combat forces. The following principles apply to FID:

  • All U.S. agencies involved in FID must coordinate with one another to ensure that they are working toward a common objective and deriving optimum benefit from the limited resources applied to the effort. In almost all cases, the U.S. ambassador assigned to the HN is the supported key U.S. official.
  • The U.S. military seeks to enhance the HN military and paramilitary forces’ overall capability to perform their internal defense and development mission. An evaluation of the request and the demonstrated resolve of the HN government will determine the specific form and substance of U.S. assistance, as directed by the President.
  • Specially trained, selected, and jointly staffed U.S. military survey teams, including intelligence personnel, may be made available. U.S. military units used in FID roles should be tailored to meet the conditions within the HN.
  • U.S. military support to FID should focus on assisting HNs in anticipating, precluding, and countering threats or potential threats.

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