Despite being mortal enemies for several decades
throughout the Cold War, the new world order
following the fall of the Soviet Union has
seen American and Russian special forces conducting
many of the same missions.
Combating common foes that seek to spread
radical agendas and promote terrorism, and
acting as the elite vanguard of their nation’s
forces, just how similar or different are
US and Russian Special Forces?
That’s what we’ll explore today, in this
episode of The Infographics Show- US Special
Forces vs Russian special forces.
Special forces refers to elite military units
tasked with unconventional or specially difficult
missions that require great skill and generally
engender great risk.
From Sparta’s famed 300 who helped thousands
of other Greeks hold the line against an invading
Persian horde in ancient Greece, to the infamous
Otto Skorzeny and his brilliant raids against
Allied targets during World War II, special
forces have always existed in spirit if not
designation throughout human history.
At their core, special forces are nothing
more than highly skilled operatives conducting
missions too complicated or difficult for
large conventional forces to accomplish, but
it was only after World War II that militaries
around the world formally created small elite
units and designated them as ‘special forces’.
No matter their country of origin, all special
forces hold five basic mission types for which
they are responsible:
Counterinsurgency- though the counterinsurgency
role of special operations forces has come
to the limelight in recent years thanks to
America’s Global War On Terror, the first
heavy use of special forces in counterinsurgency
operations came during France’s, and then
later, America’s war in Vietnam.
Partisans and terrorists have always constituted
a major threat to friendly military forces,
and work by undermining any potential gains
made by defeating enemy conventional forces.
Partisans and terrorists can be difficult
to combat, as they do not wear identifying
uniforms and wage asymmetrical warfare- or
irregular warfare- typically from inside friendly
The need to combat these shadowy threats gave
rise to one of SF’s most important missions:
Counterinsurgency ops are a mix of law enforcement
and military missions, requiring detective
skills to track and locate insurgents and
then eliminating or apprehending them.
With the risk of so much collateral damage
in terms of civilian casualties, counterinsurgency
is a job best left to special forces rather
than conventional forces, and an over-reliance
on conventional forces to do the job in Vietnam
is at times attributed for the poor performance
of the US in the war.
Unconventional Warfare- without a doubt the
cornerstone of special forces operations,
unconventional warfare, or UW, covers a very
wide range of mission types.
These can range from targeted assassination
of High Value Targets, or HVTs, disruption
or overthrow of governments, or conducting
guerrilla raids deep inside enemy territory.
A special forces icon, Major Benjamin Tallmadge
fought the British during the American Revolutionary
War, and was famed for leading raids deep
into enemy territory and striking at British
supply trains, burning them to the ground
or stealing the supplies to bring back to
American forces greatly in need of arms and
Frowned upon at the time by his military contemporaries,
specially other American officers who viewed
his execution of war as ‘improper’, Major
Tallmadge has become a hero to the American
SF community, and a template for special forces
doctrine for centuries to come.
Direct Action- Direct Action missions can
be best described by a motto familiar to many
American soldiers: “Our job is to kill the
enemy and break his sitt.”
Ranging from seizing and capturing high value
personnel, materials or locations, to outright
destruction of enemy assets, Direct Action
engagements are very high intensity and very
brief duration engagements meant to surprise
an enemy and hit them where and when they
are least expecting it.
This is another area where special forces
shine over the use of conventional forces-
with smaller unit sizes and more specialized
skill sets, special forces are able to move
much more quickly and thus strike in much
more unexpected ways or times than larger,
less maneuverable conventional forces.
Foreign Internal Defense- Foreign internal
defense missions involve special operations
forces training and equipping foreign allied
Different than Security Force Assistance missions,
Foreign Internal Defense ops are more geared
at aiding allied foreign forces to combat
insurgency, terrorism, and even disrupting
enemy special forces missions against them.
Today in Korea, American Special Forces regularly
train with their South Korean counterparts
to respond to and eliminate the threat from
North Korean special forces- and with an estimated
special forces strength of over 200,000 soldiers,
South Korea faces a huge security challenge
in the event of war from North Korea’s most
Special Reconnaissance- Special Reconnaissance
missions are a major part of where American
SF forces earn the nickname “the quiet professionals”.
Typically consisting of very small unit sizes,
SR missions are meant to collect information
deep in hostile or politically sensitive territory,
with the explicit goal that the unit’s presence
is never detected.
Because Valuable intelligence can be rendered
worthless if an enemy realizes it’s been discovered,
SR missions require the utmost stealth and
Sometimes SR missions can be carried out in
extremely politically sensitive situations,
necessitating the complete disavowal of any
involvement by the nation conducting them-
this means that any discovered or captured
operatives may be completely on their own,
making SR missions some of the riskiest a
special forces operative can undertake.
Security Force Assistance- Security Force
Assistance operations involve the use of special
forces to coordinate with friendly allied
militaries and aid them with training and
developing military doctrine.
Long a hallmark of US Army Rangers, SFA operations
may range from making contact with guerillas
deep in enemy territory, or simply a deployment
to an allied, less developed nation that needs
help establishing a proficient military force.
So with similar missions, and in recent times
with similar terrorist enemies, how do US
and Russian special forces compare to each
With the vast amount of their operations kept
secret for decades, it is impossible to ascertain
which force is more effective than the other
as there simply exists few if any true comparison
Also due to the difference in ideology and
doctrine, US and Russian special forces may
undertake many of the same types of missions,
but can vary widely in how and why they conduct
The old adage of apples and oranges may apply
However, we can look at some major similarities
and differences between the two.
Both nations operate a number of different
units under the general designation of ‘special
forces’, who’s missions and training can vary
On the whole though one of the major differences
between US and Russian special forces is the
composition of their units.
American Special Forces tend to adhere to
a doctrine of skill specialization, in which
each member of a team has a unique specialty
and numerous and overlapping sub-specialties.
For instance, one team member will be the
team medic, but will also have training in
communications and demolitions- though his
primary job is to serve as medic.
Russian special forces tend to favor a more
general approach without unique specializations,
which is why on the whole Russian special
forces are more focused on the direct action
mission of special operations- a deficiency
identified in modern times that has seen some
expansion in training for Russian operators.
While select American special forces such
as Army Rangers and Navy SEALS share a similar
and more narrow focus, the American special
forces community as a whole is a far more
flexible organism than Russian special forces,
able to undertake a greater variety of missions
and bringing more varied disciplines to the
The narrower focus of Russian special forces
is an unfortunate holdover of the Soviet era,
when the Soviet military forced their special
operations forces to focus almost myopically
on the destruction of NATO missiles and high
value targets in the case of war.
Another major difference between US and Russian
special forces is a general disregard for
collateral damage by Russian operators, who
are more concerned with results than public
One famous example is the response to the
kidnapping of four Soviet diplomats in 1985
by the Muslim Brotherhood, conducted in retaliation
for Soviet support of Syrians.
Dispatching the KGB’s Alpha Group, the Russian
operatives arrived in Beirut, Lebanon just
as one of the hostages was executed.
Rather than moving to rescue the remaining
hostages, Russian operators instead tracked
down and took hostage several family members
of the terrorists, torturing and dismembering
them and sending body parts to the terrorists.
The tactic worked and the remaining hostages
were released, and no Russian diplomats were
molested again for two decades in the Middle
Yet while Russia’s adoption of brutal tactics
may have been effective in this specific case,
it comes at a major cost of public perception,
and could in fact backfire by raising public
anger against Russia.
Russia’s ongoing difficulties with Chechnya
is believed to be compounded by brutal retaliatory
measures by Russian security forces.
Preferring the hammer to the surgical knife
though is a long hallmark of Russian military
doctrine, and further evidenced by the slow
adoption of precision-guided munitions by
a military that prefers to intimidate via
overwhelming firepower without much regard
to collateral damage.
This doctrine would once more come into play
during the Moscow Theater hostage crisis of
October, 2002, when 850 hostages were taken
by Chechen terrorists.
After two and a half days of stand-off and
no concessions from either side, Russian special
forces pumped an as-yet undisclosed gas into
the building and initiated an assault which
would see all 40 terrorists killed, but as
an adverse reaction to the mystery gas, 130
hostages also died.
When Islamic militants took several hundred
school children and teachers hostage in Beslan
in September, 2004, Russian special forces
once more laid siege to the hostage takers.
After a furious firefight all of the terrorists
were killed, but so were 186 children and
20 Russian operators- though witnesses reported
that many of the Russians died or were wounded
trying to heroically shield children from
Striving for decades to build a safer and
more structured world order in order to avoid
the mistakes of pre-World War II Europe, the
US has for a long time sought to preserve
its identity as a global leader- recent Presidential
Knowing that such heavy-handed tactics as
Russia’s would endanger that perception, US
special operation forces are more focused
on avoiding unnecessary deaths and obeying
Rules of Engagement.
While this may at times perhaps limit their
effectiveness in a given situation, it does
preserve a generally positive perception of
American special forces which has made them
welcome in nations around the world as they
aid allies and regional partners such as the
Philippines in combating their own terrorist
threats or improving the capabilities of their
American SF doctrine of maintaining a ‘light
footprint’ effect however does come with a
cost, and in the last two decades they have
suffered significant casualties in their efforts
to combat terrorism around the world.
It is impossible to truly determine which
force is better than the other without directly
pitting the two nations in open conflict,
which thankfully has never happened.
However, from the bold parachute raids behind
German lines into occupied Soviet territory
in World War II, to daring attacks against
British supply lines during the American Revolutionary
War, both Russian and American special forces
share a common heritage of courage and professionalism.
Though they may differ in doctrine and ideology,
ultimately both Russian and American special
forces have one similar job: kill the enemy
and break his sitt.
So, which do you think is a better approach-
Russian doctrine of overwhelming force, or
America’s precise surgical strikes?
Which would you rather serve with?
Let us know in the comments!
Also, be sure to check out our other video
What to do if there is a nuclear explosion?!
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