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SWAT vs. Special Forces: A Valid Comparison?

by Steven J. Kaplan

From time to time, I come upon internet discussions centering on which is the superior "fighting force", civilian SWAT teams, or military special forces. Since the arguments from both sides are usually emotional and lacking of any logic, I accepted the self- imposed challenge to examine this issue from a more rational perspective. Let us first look at what SWAT is, noting that we are using SWAT to represent all special tactical police units, regardless of what they are called. SWAT (Special Weapons And Tactics) is a special unit of a civilian police department, whose methods are those of a paramilitary tactical unit. Responsibilities of these units include but are not limited to hostage rescue, security for visiting dignitaries, rescuing officers or citizens, riot control, assisting in serving warrants to high-risk subjects in high risk environments, counter-terrorist operations, and providing superior fire power. All of this is done with state-of-the-art weaponry, high-tech vehicles and transports, and extreme physical conditioning.
SWAT officers are selected from volunteers within their agencies. They usually have to have been an officer for a minimum number of years before applying, since they are in fact law-enforcement officers who must be familiar with policy and procedures. Physical and psychological tests are administered to candidates, with the physical component most rigorous. This is certainly appropriate given the nature of their duties and responsibilities. Once an officer is selected, even more specialized training is undergone, which he must be qualified in. These include marksmanship, explosives, sniper training, and hostage negotiation.

Turning now to special forces, we note that there are numerous special forces units in the Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Force. As is the case with SWAT members, service- men volunteer for these units from within their respective branches. While there is some overlap (one example would be the Army’s Rangers, Green Berets, and Delta Force) in the specific responsibilities of any given unit, there is more in common. The applicant is given a psychological evaluation, and undergoes extremely rigorous physical training in a myriad of areas lasting weeks. The percentage of those who ultimately enter the special forces ranks is small.
The above very general overview of the two entities in question reflects great similarities. Specific differences as to types of weapons, nature of physical skills, etc. are not pertinent to the question posed in the article’s title. The real difference is that as a civilian police unit, albeit at a highly specialized and trained one. SWAT is involved with resolving high risk situations with a minimum loss of life, property, or injury. This is not the goal of special forces. Unless a mission is one of reconnaissance of some sort, the goal of the military is to kill the enemy. It serves no purpose to hypothesize as to whether the SWAT member could accomplish the military mission of a special forces unit, or vice versa. Both SWAT and special forces are not teams competing in a wrestling or boxing or MMA arena. Protecting civilians and national defense are services, vitally important services, not games.
In conclusion, not only is comparing the two units invalid, but one which serves no logical, rational purpose.

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