Special Forces Tropes in Science Fiction

(Updated 14 March 2014)

In a large amount of published Science Fiction that deals with military conflict lately, there are a large amount of painful tropes and assumptions that are made by various authors (no naming names here, you should know them).

Partially, this is due to the increasing detachment of the U.S. Military from the General Public since the 1970s; when large scale draft forces were retired in favor of the all-volunteer force. Since then, we have had no war or disaster large enough to require the bringing back of the draft; and thus today's science fiction writers are not as experienced as many of those in the golden age of science fiction, where many authors had World War II experiences to draw upon.

This page will try to list some of the major tropes involving Special Forces (SF or SOF) in Science Fiction, and explain how these tropes got started or don’t make sense.

Trope 1: Super-Tough Training Makes Super-Men!

I'm sure you've read at least one story that goes into detail about how brutal and how tough the training is for such unit; and that out of 50 men who enter, 35 are killed, or washed out of the unit (or some such number).

Naturally, this training makes the survivors into nigh unkillable supermen.

In real life, it doesn't work this way. Each person that dies or is washed out of training is a person whose skills you have lost forever. This is especially important if the training relies on a lot of very realistic live fire training. Modern warfare is now essentially a game of chance; the person who scored a 98 on the rifle proficiency test can get killed just as easily by a stray bullet as the guy who barely passed the aforementioned test.

But what about Special Forces Training?

The reasons Special Forces units make the training so tough are in no particular order:

For those reasons, it is why initial entry training for any credible SF unit emphasizes a lot of repetitive, tiring exercises. For the SAS, it's trooping all over the ass end of the Brecon Beacons; while for the SEALs, it's carrying heavy logs (or a Rigid inflatable boat with their instructor sitting in it) above their heads up and down a beach over and over.

This does not make them better soldiers. What it does is it makes sure that the right type of personalities get into the unit.

The chances of success in a typical SF mission are already bad enough; and in many missions, there are absolutes tacked onto the mission – e.g. you must assault that airfield at a specific time, despite any problems you might suffer along the way, such as 25% of your team disappearing during the initial swim from a submarine to shore due to hypothermia.

When a mission becomes completely unhinged, and it turns from achieving the mission objective to simple survival, you need people who will keep going no matter what the cost.

In a normal military unit, you can detach people to carry the wounded or order the unit to slow down from double time to give people a chance to catch their breath.

This is not possible for SEAL TEAM FIFTY SEVEN who are exfiltrating after they successfully attacked an Outer Loonystani research facility and destroyed the Super Bubonic Plague that they were working on (along with the researchers); and are now being mercilessly hunted by the Outer Loonystani military, special secret police, and Young Pioneers. People who slow down in such circumstances have to be left behind, and you have to operate on little or no rest at all until you're safely across the border or something.

Trope 2: A Single Special Forces Soldier Is Worth Fifty Infantrymen And Wins Wars By Himself!

I'm sure you've read many stories where a single person (or squad) can seemingly sense the approach of the enemy, and can kill hundreds of enemy soldiers without breaking a sweat.

The reasons why SF can magically detect the approach of the enemy are for several reasons.

Small Units. The Special Forces soldier is employed in small units, ranging from two man buddy pairs to a squad (8 men). Some units may deploy in platoon strength (30+ men), but those are rarities in the world of SF. Obviously, eight people walking in single file in the jungle will be less easily spotted than a platoon of infantrymen walking in a loose diamond formation spread out over fifty meters.

Environmental Perception. They've received training in ‘reading’ the environment, and can recognize the telltale signs of human foot travel. The average mechanized infantryman will overlook anything smaller than tank treads, generally.

Minimization of Personal Noise. I'm sure you've read or watched the traditional “turn in all your dog-tags” sequence. Usually, this is couched as “you guys are so secret we will deny all knowledge that you ever existed” by the author. But there's actually a more prosaic reason. Dog tags jingle and make noise as you walk. You can apply duct tape to them to make them less noisier, but the best solution is to leave them at home.

Elsewhere, all that early entry training in extreme environments to prove willpower comes to the fore here with water discipline. If you take a swig out of your full canteen and then replace it on your hip, the now partially full/empty canteen will begin to slosh/gurgle. Multiply that by several men, and that's noticeable noise. So you don’t take sips from your canteen as you feel thirsty. You instead fight the urge to take a drink until you and everyone else in the team is thirsty enough to drink all of the water in their canteens, leaving them empty and noise-free.

Relaxed Grooming and Feeding Standards. Most Special Forces Unit have relaxed standards vice conventional forces for a multitude of reasons, from morale to tactical purposes.

Did you know that in South America at least in the late 1980s, many of the local soldiers wore cologne when they went out into the jungle? This meant that their opponents could smell the unit before they could see them. Additionally, the foods that you carry and eat can and do have an effect on your personal smell, which becomes noticeable in numbers.

In Vietnam, some SEAL teams would eat only Vietnamese cuisine before missions and during missions they’d eat rice balls. This meant that when the NVA/Vietcong smelled a group of people in the jungle, they’d smell someone who had been eating Vietnamese food, and not US Army rations and assume that they were friendlies. (If you’ve ever smelled nuc mam, you’d understand this tactic right away).

Additionally, some SEAL teams stopped using standard US Jungle boots, going to the beta-boots that the ARVN wore, before finally settling on the rubber tyred sandals the VC used. There was a method to the madness.

They knew that the VC knew that Marvin the ARVN would just go out, fire a couple thousand rounds into the jungle, then go back into barracks, so they weren't that much of a problem when encountered. So if you took advantage of that by wearing Beta-boots instead of normal US Jungle boots; the VC would see your tracks and go: “Ah, Marvin the ARVN is in the area; everyone calm down, they won't press us too hard.”

Silence is Golden. Simply put, human voices carry a long ways. If you’re disciplined enough to not talk on missions and use hand signals, that goes a long way in getting a situational edge, particularly when your opponent talks a lot.

So why do SF do So Well, Then?

So if they’re not supermen, how do Special Forces score such absurd kill ratios; such SEAL Teams in Vietnam killing about 200 Vietcong over several missions for zero serious wounds received during that timeframe?

Choosing your Enemy: Special Forces avoid pitched stand-up battles whenever possible. If they come across a unit that is significantly larger than them, they let it pass, and when possible, pass the word on about that unit. (“This is Fox Five, large amount of VC entering grid square FG51, recommend artillery strike in battalion strength to eliminate VC”).

Smaller units are more to their picking and will be attacked, depending on the mission orders. SF teams might have orders to avoid all enemy contact and set up reconnaissance outposts in a vital mountain pass in advance of a major search-and-destroy operation by a friendly unit. Thus, when the enemy begins fleeing through that pass; the SF team can then call in artillery and airstrikes via radio or laser designators.

Excessive Firepower for Size: Special Forces aren't subject to the whims of TO&Es like normal units are. If they want their 8-man squad to carry four automatic rifles, two 7.62mm machine guns, and two grenade launchers; then they'll do that, instead of the standard 11-man squad carrying nine automatic rifles, one 7.62mm MG, and one grenade launcher. That firepower when concentrated into a kill sack is pretty devastating; in addition to whatever mines and booby traps they can emplace.

Use of Ambushes: Spot an enemy platoon walking it's way down a trail in the jungle? While the enemy platoon sets down for the night; you keep moving to set up an ambush position down the trail with claymores and bouncing betties for the next day.

Important Tip: Do not place all of your booby traps straight along the path. Only put a few on the path; and then place the majority of your traps where you imagine the enemy will dive for cover.

The ambush then goes down like this:

The advance scouts of the enemy column are allowed to pass. If you fire on them, then the main body will halt and then attempt to outflank you. Engaging the first half of of the main body isn't a good idea either. You want to cut off their escape route; so you need to bring their rear guard under some sort of pressure as well.

Once everything is in the right place; you trigger your claymores and bouncing betties via command electrical ignition.

Why commanded electrical ignition instead of unattended pressure/tension traps?

Because of two things.

  1. Murphy is along for the ride. If you set up tripwires, the enemy column won’t trip them at 0700 hours as they move out on the march, but a farmer and his cows at 0620 hours.

  2. Hearts and Minds. You may not be able to recover your traps, and having booby traps with your markings on it killing farmers after you’ve left the area won’t endear you to civilians.

The first blasts go off, cutting down the front and rear of the enemy element. You wait a couple seconds for the enemy to realize he's under attack, and to move out of the kill zone and dive for cover by the sides of the path; then you trigger the majority of your booby traps aimed at where you judged cover to be. All during this, your men are pouring automatic and grenade fire into the enemy body. You let it go on for a couple more seconds; then give the order to retreat.

As your troops retreat, you set up noise makers and booby traps to cover your escape. The noise makers give the impression that you're still firing hundreds of rounds, while the booby traps prevent anyone from following you down your escape path.

Done right, you can pretty much eliminate smaller groups; and put a serious dent in medium sized groups.

The key here is don’t stay behind for a stand up fight!

In those kind of fights, you lose; as it then becomes a game of chance and attrition, and those favor the person with the bigger army, and that person isn't you.

Once you've exfiltrated the immediate ambush area; you go to ground and wait several days before resuming operations against the enemy, if you have enough ammunition to set up another ambush.

Why wait? Because you want to see if your operation has caused a hornet's nest of enemy activity in the area – you might need that ammunition you have left to cover your escape from a battalion of troops sent out to beat the country for you.

Plus, you don't want to make it really obvious that a SF group is operating in the area via a whole string of attacks in a short time in a smallish area (remember, once you've parachuted in, you're basically light leg infantry; so you can't move that far in a short period of time).

This is called geographical profiling. If you keep striking in a small area, people can pinpoint your location to a rough area by estimating travel times, distances, and attack sites.

Trope 3: A Super-Trained Ninja-Forces Special Forces guy can sneak anywhere and/or kill anyone.

You've probably read this at least once. Maybe twice. Our super-genetically engineered superman soldier manages to sneak into a military base, plant his bombs; and then leave, without anyone noticing them. Or he steals something sufficiently interesting.

A collorary to this is our super-ninja soldier sneaking up on a lone soldier and breaking his neck; then proceeding to kill the other guys in that patrol one by one until they're all dead. Or something like that.

This is actually one of the more realistic tropes out there, but it's misused horribly and people don't understand the rationales for why the trope works in the first place.

Here are the reasons this trope works:

Sneaking somewhere quietly isn't technically that difficult.

You just have to move as slowly as possible; because movement is noise and possible detection. This means instead of simply crouch-walking across a soccer field sized distance to reach a guard post in a few minutes; you need to take an hour or more, slowly moving across the distance. This is not only very tiring, but requires intense willpower, as your natural reaction is to get out of that kill zone as fast as possible; not to take hours to cross it. This is another reason why special forces training is deliberately made tough – to weed out the people with poor willpower.

Guarding something is really hard.

You need to have good leadership that keeps the guards properly motivated.

It's easy to keep them motivated to properly search the riverbed under that bridge you're guarding in bright sunshine and moderate temperatures. But what about when it's night-time and temperatures are in the sub-zero range? The guards won’t want to come out and play.

This is especially true if they have poor leadership.

Telling a bunch of guards “We have news of saboteurs in the area...be vigilant!” then leaving them out in the cold while you go inside a heated building to eat food and drink schnapps will leave the guards demoralized and unlikely to do the job as well as they should be doing it.

Guard quality also comes into play here. Third line troops or hastily impressed civilians will be doing all sorts of stupid things like lighting cigarettes on duty at night or sticking to absurdly obvious routines.

Guarding something really, really well is manpower intensive.

Let’s use Bolling AFB in Washington DC as an example. It's a rather small Air Force Base that exists as a Headquarters base to support the Air Force in the DC region. Measuring Bolling on Google Earth gives me about 40,600~ feet of perimeter to be guarded, with about 19,000~ feet being riverfront perimeter.

If we place a guard tower every 680 feet, which is the distance between guard towers at Jessup State Prison in Maryland; that gives us about 60 guard towers we have to man.

Figure each guard tower has one guy looking outwards, two guys looking up and down the fenceline, a pair of guys in the central core manning the telephone and video/sensor bank...and you have 360 guys there.

Add in the need for roving patrols to check the fenceline -- if we figure two guys per patrol, and they check the fenceline between each guard tower on their routes; that's another 120 guys.

And that's just the outer perimeter. You need layers of protection so that one failure doesn't turn into the worst case situation. You need roving vehicular patrols to patrol the base's interior roads; plus of course the usual guards at especially sensitive sections of the base, like the guards on duty at the entrance to the main HQ, and you can easily add in another 120.

Figure in another 30 guys to act as a dedicated quick reaction force; and you have a total of 630 guards on a single shift. Figure in another shift and half of guards, so that you can have a 24 hour guard force, without straining the guards too much with twelve hour shifts on the line; and you have a force of 1,575 men to guard the base.

That's about the size of a Battalion. Add in the typical HQ force for a unit of this size, and you've cracked 1,600 men easily.

In the real world, Bolling AFB actually has about 1,500~ people who work there; so our security force is about equal to the working population.

While something this intensive would most certainly be done for someplace where super advanced stuff is being worked on; or for a super weapon storage dump..for someplace a bit more common, the matter comes down to money.

Guards are expensive, compete with other personnel for facility space, and don't contribute much to the facility's mission. So to a facility commander trying to squeeze his budget and look good to his superiors; the first thing he'll do is cut the guard force before he cuts the buffet service in the DFAC.

Guarding something requires a lot of attention to detail.

Good security requires a lot of attention to little details. For example, take a guard changeover. Is someone always watching, or does the guard on duty leave one minute before his replacement arrives?

It's easy to say “I want the guard changed on the top of the hour every hour,” from a utilitarian standpoint. You can simply give that order to the guy in charge of your base security detail and forget it.

But...will your subordinate take the easy way out and simply have unchanging shifts every day, or will he take the time and effort to plan out not one, but multiple staggered multi-day shift cycles allowing for random shift variations from week to week?

Inattention to details like that can trip you up if the bad guys are watching. Plus, you won't always have a totally permissive environment.

Back around 2005, insurgents got a suicide bomber onto an American base in either Iraq or Afghanistan by simply watching the change of guard for days and then entered the base through a breach in the base wall that they had found earlier when guard shifts were changing over.

The location may not be conductive to good security.

If the defenders are operating in an incredibly permissive environment, they can bulldoze a ‘no man’s land’ several hundred meters wide, set up continuous barriers with no gaps or holes in them, and ensure that all grass or shrubbery nearby the base is cut down or mowed to remove concealment. Additionally, you can carry out serious engineering projects to allow drainage from the base through features that don’t provide cover – no huge ditches by the sides of roads, for one.

In a hastily constructed field base, or in a foreign country, the problems of security are much harder as your barriers will likely have been put down as fast as possible by combat engineers, and you’ll be prohibited from altering the land significantly to make your life easier – “We can’t upset the locals by cutting down every tree for a mile, Major.”

The environment might also have an effect – fast growing jungle that requires a serious effort to clear back on a regular basis, or having to replace security equipment due to environmental factors (corrosion due to humidity).

In a semi contested area, even going outside the wire to check on things or cut back on the jungle undergrowth to ensure fields of fire could become a major effort due to enemy interference.

Another major problem is that the base security force will always tend to be a bit shorthanded; all the more so in wartime; particularly if the location is one of middling importance.

The tempo of constantly being on high alert – even with multiple shifts to give people time to rest – will burn even the most motivated person out over time. People will get sick or injured doing their job; all the more so if you are operating in a strange land that doesn't fit your cultural norms and has all sorts of weird diseases to prey on your personnel.

Lots of places aren’t optimal for being guarded.

A lot of places have poorly laid out lighting arrangements that ruin night vision. For example, you have a brightly lit parking lot next to a guard tower. This ensues that when the shift changeover happens, the replacement guards will ruin their night vision for the next hour or so as they walk to the guard tower.

Infiltrators can pick the time and place of action.

Even with the best preparations and advantages for the guarding force; the saboteurs can just wait for the right time. If time isn’t a factor, they can spend a few days throwing rocks at the fences or letting loose rabbits to screw with the security systems; so that by the end of the second day, the guards no longer respond when the security system detects movement -- they'll just assume the system is just on the fritz.

Trope 4: Special Forces Missions never go Catastrophically Wrong

In a lot of fiction, the missions may get a bit hairy, but they never catastrophically fail.

In real life, SF missions have high probabilities of catastrophic failure, such as the following examples:

First SAS Mission, November 1941: The very first Special Air Service raid was a parachute drop behind enemy lines to support the Operation Crusader offensive via having groups of armed men sneaking up to plant bombs on Axis aircraft at airfields.

It failed utterly as a third of the unit was killed or captured, despite their impressive selection training.

Meanwhile, the Long Range Desert Group, at roughly the same time, using standard troops picked and given a rough course in driving in deserts, basic survival skills in deserts, and how to shoot a machine gun from a fast moving vehicle achieved far more success by simply driving down the runway with non-impressive people simply hanging over and hosing the place down with incendiary bullets.

Germany 1960-1991: This one is more of a hypothetical. The Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact had an enormous amount of “Special Forces” units devoted to various specialist duties, like saboteur/partisan duty behind NATO lines.

It was expected that each Spetsnaz unit would eventually be destroyed, but in the cold calculations done by Warsaw Pact leaders, if a Spetsnaz unit found a nuclear-armed Pershing SSM battery and destroyed it; it’d more than justified the cost in manpower and training for the unit.

On the other end of the spectrum, the US Army had groups of Green Berets who would infiltrate the forward battle area with SADM/MADM atomic demolition munitions to ensure that key transportation infrastructure was absolutely destroyed, as NATO planners knew that in order to have a chance of stopping the Soviet Tide, they couldn’t afford any chance of a bridge over the Rhine remaining intact at all; and atomic demolition munitions assured this.

Panama 1989: We need to disable Manuel Noreiga's LearJet at Punta Paitilla Airport in Panama. How do we do it?

Do we send in a two-man SEAL sniper to rent an apartment across from the airfield to study the airfield and give them a laser designator to blow up Noreiga's LearJet in it's hangar with a LGB from a F-117 or F-111?

Nope. Too easy.

What about sending that same sniper team and putting them on the roof of the cafeteria of the airport? This way they get a better view of the hangar and if the LearJet tries to taxi, they can shoot out its tires.

Still too easy.

We’ll insert a team of eight men, have them commandeer a local vehicle for transportation. They drive to a hole in the fence around the airfield that previous reconnaissance found. Upon reaching the hole, four men will remain behind with the vehicle as rear guards. The other half of the team will enter the airfield through the hole, cross the airfield to the hangar while killing any guards with silenced MP-5 submachine guns and then disable the plane via placing a bomb on it.

Who do you think we are? Rangers?

We'll go with the original plan, and insert two platoons of SEALs (48 men in all) at these cliffs at the end of the 3,500 foot long runway. Once we have scaled the cliff, we’ll move down the runway towards the hangar. One squad will disable the LearJet while another squad drags whatever small airplanes we find across the runway to prevent it from being used. The remaining squads will be used for security.


After scaling the cliff-face, the SEALs found that the airfield was incredibly well lit with absolutely no cover at all. Was the mission aborted? No.

They advanced down the runway, disarmed any guards they encountered and began dragging aircraft across the airfield to block it off.

Suddenly, a radio message comes in saying that armored cars are possibly headed to the northern side of the airfield.

At around this point, a bunch of Panamanians in nearby buildings spot the SEALs advancing and warn the other guards (including those inside the hangar) via radio.

By this point in the mission, one of the squads is within 100 feet of the hangar. Due to being alerted, the hangar guards have dressed and are in defensive positions. They call upon the SEALs to surrender.

The response is to demand that the Panamanians surrender to them instead.

The guards’ reply is several long bursts. This wounds all but one of the SEALs near the hangar. Elsewhere, the guards across the airfield open fire on the SEALs, catching them in a crossfire, killing several and wounding more.

The other SEALs nearby rush forward to protect the two squads under fire and in the chaos of it all, one of the SEALs manages to hit the LearJet with an AT-4 rocket before the SEALs withdraw.

Damaged LearJet

That's not exactly mission accomplished there. The plane is damaged yes; but it certainly does seem to be flyable to me; as long as you stay low enough to not need pressurization and no key wiring was incinerated by the AT-4.

Ultimately, the planned five hour mission to seize and destroy Noreiga's LearJet became a 37 hour mission before they were relieved by US Army Rangers.

Anyway, the planned five hour mission became a 37-hour one before the US Army Rangers replaced them.

NOTE: This ties into what was written earlier about what SF training self-selects for: people who can adapt to disturbingly extreme conditions.

Persian Gulf War 1991: An inordinately large amount of Long range SF missions against Iraq failed when they were detected by nomads or other random people on the march to the target and had to abort the mission. Many of the teams had been inserted by helicopter fairly deep into enemy lines, and thus had nice 100+ mile or more hikes to reach the border. One of the more notable ones was the Bravo Two Zero mission that has seen every single survivor write a book claiming that their survival was a spectacular success.

Wait, if Special Forces are so limited, why does everyone have them?

Special Forces are actually pretty cheap as far as money goes.

You can easily find an abandoned military installation to house your SF unit such as an old military airfield that closed down thirty years ago.

A lot of the stuff that SF needs is already in stock in the military supply system; and the custom stuff like dune buggies can be acquired fairly cheap; since you're only buying two or three of them.

The really big ticket items like specialist aircraft (MH-53 Pave Lows) are expensive, but they also do other roles like search and rescue when they're not transporting special forces; so their cost can be split with other military units.

Special Forces also provide a useful recruiting tool to get people to join the military with the promise of becoming a supercommando – those types wouldn't have joined to become a tank driver.

Yes, you lose them for a while while they waste everyone’s time by failing SOF selection, but you then own them for three years. Who knows, they might even re-enlist!

The Big Downside of Special Forces

If you have fairly high recruitment standards for SOF, good personnel are attracted to the unit, and hence placed in greater danger than they would be in a normal conventional unit.

Several years ago, an acquaintance of mine who served in the Royal Thai Army said it best:

So man who might be good corporal or sergeant in regular unit serve as private in specialist unit. Also they get killed like privates in specialist unit. So there is measurable cost to regular units in not having so good NCOs.”

They further explained how this ‘brain drain’ was a serious problem for the Royal Thai Army; as the RTA's pool of good NCOs is very limited compared to other nations.

So, instead of having a permanent special forces establishment like in other nations; the RTA's SOF units are more of a support unit (Scout/Sniper/LLRP), and they are seen as a regular assignment as far as professional development goes -- you join the unit; train up to the required standard; and then go back to the regular RTA, taking the skills you learned with you.

The danger of an overly large special forces branch of your military is that they will act like the Army Air Forces / Airborne did to the U.S. Army in World War II. What happened was that the best inductees who scored highest on the aptitude tests were grabbed by various specialist/technical units, leaving very little quality manpower to be assigned to the Infantry branch, which then suffered the attendant problems.

The same thing also applies to your officer pool – you have fairly high ranking officers leading special forces units from the front with the same chance of being shot as a specialist. Those people could be put to better use as staff officers rather than leading the charge towards a machine gun nest.

The Biggest Issue with Special Forces in Science Fiction

Is...that all military units, tactics and strategies are products of their time.

While there are a few global permanent operating factors at play that work all the way from Ancient Rome to 2300 AD; a lot of things change.

What works for a SEAL Team in 1970 Vietnam won’t work for a SEAL Team in 2048 Somalia!

This is a serious problem with a lot of science fiction authors – they “file off” the feel of a particular era or time – say, the Vietnam War – and transpose it forward into their fictional universe, without taking into account the factors in play that made the Vietnam War the Vietnam War as we know it.

Because this also affects regular military troops in addition to special forces, I’ve chosen to explain all this in a separate essay:

Writing Intelligent Military SF