The common perception of Special Forces has largely been fashioned by the media, often portraying them as "supersoldiers' whose role is purely one of causing mass destruction and inflicting mayhem among the enemy.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Certainly Special Forces candidates are selected for their mental and physical toughness and an ability to use many types of weapons effectively, however one of their main roles has and still is, the collection of intelligence information. In an age of satellites, electronic eavesdropping and computerisation, to many this seems to be a step back into the dark ages, but as was learned in Gulf War 1, relying totally on these methods leads to expensive mistakes being made.
In many cases, the man on the ground is still the best intelligence gathering device in existence. Certainly the equipment they carry may be state of the art, however the soldier who knows his enemy, their tactics and methods is in a better position to judge the enemy's capabilities or intentions than any interpreter of satellite information, drone or radio intercept. Often human observers are sent in to verify the findings of these remote sensing devices.
This doesn't mean that the role of Special Forces isn't fighting - far from it. Often there may be a requirement to engage the enemy or sabotage their installations in addition to gathering information. Occassionaly "stirring" the enemy into action is one way their capabilities can be assessed. In these days of political sensitivities and a tendency to have lawyers make decisions about what constitutes a legal or illegal target, the ability of Special Forces to obtain the correct information and also act on it, is becoming increasingly important. The perception of a steriod-blown hero, clutching a weapon in each hand and using them with deadly accuracy is however, purely a Hollywood fabrication.
Until recently most Special Forces operations came under two categories - Reconnaissance or Fighting Patrols, however with the proliferation of modern terrorism, Anti-Terrorist Operations have become a specialty and covers a wide variety of operational techniques.
Australian Special Forces - the SAS - were on the ground in Afghanistan, reconnoitering Taliban positions months before the United States announced it was going after them in retribution for the 9/11 attacks. The Australian SAS's ability to get in, observe and collect information, then get the information out without the enemy ever knowing they were there, has long been one of their specialties, and they are arguably the best at it of any of the worlds Special Forces - one reason why the US command selected them for the role in preference to their own Special Forces.
The forerunner to the Australian SAS was the World War Two Services Reconnaissance Department's Z Special Force. The book, "The Guns of Muschu" describes a mission conducted in the closing stages of the Pacific War and demonstrates the difficulties of such operations in a time when radio communications were in their infancy and helicopters - now a primary means of patrol insertion and extraction, were non existent.
The Muschu operation was a reconnaissance patrol. Its aim was to get in, obtain information, then get out again. They were not sent in to engage the enemy - in fact doing so intentionally would have been foolhardy at best. Certainly all men were highly trained combat veterans but with the enemy forces on the island outnumbering the patrol almost 100:1 the results would have been suicidal.
See also Z Special Weapons, Z Special Equipment