X-COM: A Military Analysis

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Wars are usually defining moments for military organizations, main sole reason of existence relies on the probability of armed conflict to erupt and thus test their preparedness. Thus X-COM was a military force defined under the circunstances of the First Alien War, defining a concept of integration of multiple resources together to accomplish one specific mission.

But, unlike other victorious armed forces who defined how the next wars would be fought (until some other innovation or change of circunstance occured) the organization used by X-COM was never copied by any other organization or Earth, despite some valuable lessions learned through the conflict. The reasons behind this are explainable: military forces and innovation have a love and hate relationship; the conflict was kept a secret; national armed forces resented their impotence in dealing with UFOs and aliens and how X-COM got all the credit.

But the main reason was that once the aliens were gone, Earth's nations went back to business as usual: fighting terrorism, civil wars, guerrilla movements, other nations, etc. And the weapons sold by X-COM during the conflict soon found their ways into the black market and from there to fringe nations and groups leading into an increase in intensity of some wars.

Thus when X-COM ceased to exist, its model organization also passed into History, but with few academic works detailing its organization, tables of equipment and other aspects.

The Geneva meeting

In 1999 the result of the Geneva meeting of the United Nations Security Council resulted in [...] the decision was made to establish a covert independent body to combat, investigate and defeat the alien threat. This organization would be equipped with the world's finest pilots, soldiers, scientists and engineers, working together as one multi-national force.

From the published notes and interviews of participants on those high level meetings the original intention of the UNSC was not to create such a force. The proposal for the creation of a military command started on the Military Subcommittee, regarding issues such as the participation of national armed forces, the definition of regional subcommands, chain of command and other military matters. The need to coordinate all efforts in order to avoid replication of efforts was also quickly embraced by the Scientific Subcommittee, which lead to the Political Committee requesting draft proposals from both Subcommittees for discussion.

The Military proposal was analysed but the military organization was considered too complex and the time necessary for its implementation too long. Plus, national armed forces had been utterly inpotent to deal with the current alien incursions. The Political Committee also had to consider another major factor: it had been decided to keep the existence of aliens a secret to prevent widespread panic and the more people got involved in the fighting the higher the possibility that the 'biggest story ever published' would be on the mass media headlines the next day.

Then the Committee turned to the Science proposal and was more satisfied with the conclusions reached by that subcommittee. The end conclusions stated that: 'History shows that the contact with an advanced civilization brings an enormous stress to the social and cultural fabric of less developed ones. It will be necessary to contain and restrict all knowledge learned from research on the aliens until we are aware of their full potential, both creative and destructive. At the same time it is necessary for the members of this team to be fully focused on their work: this is an enterprise that will require isolation for those individuals to have creative ideas and innovative solutions since they will be working in unchartered areas.'

Another conclusion of the report was that an independent multinational team should be created to study the aliens and their craft in order to overcome the technological disparity between Earth and the aliens. This team should work in secluded locations and given all resources that it asked for. And it also listed one specific item considered necessary for their mission: to have military forces tasked with the responsability of capturing extraterrestrial beings and their craft.

This ideas were widely considered by the Political Committee as more feasable than the version presented by the Military Subcommittee: such a small force could be assembled quickly and could be gradually expanded; the multinational flavor would be kept without compromising the efficiency of the force; its existence could be easily denied; all knowledge gathered would be shared in a secure manner; and the integration of both military and civilian personnel was considered a premium in dealing with this sort of threat.

While the ultimate goal of the new Extraterrestrial Command was set to defeat the alien threat through combat and investigation it is worthwhile to notice that the notion of scientific research was replaced with investigation. The force would under military command and procedures but maintaining a heavy emphasis on science to defeat the aliens.

X-COM is born

After more consultations between all the working groups the final document was redacted to be signed by the newly constituted Council of Funding Nations (for a better look at the internal dynamics of the CFN see this document.

The new CFN immediately set to work several tasks, the most important to recruit the individual who was going to command the new force since he or she would be the key person in the entire process. But meanwhile there were other important tasks to achieve, namely to assemble all the equipment and men considered necessary to immediately start operations on January 1st, 1999.

The first personnel and equipment roster of X-COM can be consulted here and it reflects what was considered the minimum required by the CFN.

The Nature of X-COM

A Planetary Operation

Operating Bases

As the first X-COM base became operational plans had already been made to expand the force to increase its coverage of the planet, although the original schedule was quickly discarded due to lack of funding.

The Combat Operations Division

The Combat Operations Division consisted of all military personnel and equipment assigned to each base and further divided itself into two elements, Aerospace and Ground Operations. Aerospace Operations ran all fighters and transports assigned to a base and performed UFO detection, interception and carried out tactical transport for Ground Operations missions.

Initially it was equipped with Interceptor and Skyranger aircraft, which were new designs that were just starting to come from the production lines and hadn't proven themselves in combat. The Interceptor initially was capable of downing small and medium UFOs but could be quickly outrun and outgunned, even after being reequiped with the lastest Laser Cannons and Plasma Beams and eventually was replaced by the Firestorm and Avenger.

And the Skyranger became the craft associated by the public with X-COM due to its role in the war.

Ground Operations

Personnel and Ranks

Ranks in X-COM were very simple when compared to the military of nearly, if not all, countries. Initially there were no provisions regarding the rank structure of combat personnel, with all recruits being named 'Rookie', much to the chagrin of the soldiers, who soon started unofficially to establish more ranks in order to reflect battlefield requirements and were later adopted by the force. While regular militaries have more than 20 ranks (from the lowest private to a 5 star general), X-COM only had 6, [Rookie], Squaddie, Sergeant, Captain, Colonel and Commander, each corresponding to the usual classifications of rank : Enlisted; Non-Commissioned Officers; Company Officer; Staff Officer; and General Officer. In order to cap the number of officers present and to reflect the more usual combat deployments a set ratio of officers to enlisted personnel was established.

Combat Units

It took even longer for X-COM to standardize its combat units due the haste of the war, the differences in personnel assignment to bases and the ever changing mission requirements. Combat units would be composed on a ad hoc basis and split once they were back to base because of the high ratio of casualties.

There was an attempt to create some measurement of standardization on the late stages of war, using the existing rank structure. However, in many cases operational conditions prevented those units to deploy according to their tables of organization and equipment and it was kept only as a measure of administrative organization.

The simpler system was adopted each officer rank (NCO and commissioned) also corresponded to a similar level on X-COM's combat organization.

  • Combat Section - 4 Rookies/Squaddies + Sergeant = 5 soldiers
  • Combat Team - 2 Level 1 + Captain = 11 soldiers
  • Combat Unit - 2 Level 2 + Colonel = 23 soldiers
  • HQ - Commander + 2 Sergeants + 4 Rookies/Squaddies = 7 soldiers

On paper, the force organization of X-COM consisted on the HQ plus a number of Combat units, each base having at least 1 unit assigned to it. But in reality most bases had Teams or even Sections and some outposts had no combat personnel at all.


Typical deployment modes included:


1 Team + 1 HWP (less 1 soldier)

1 Team + 3 soldiers

1 Team + 2 HWP + 1 soldier


1 Squad + 1 soldier


1 Unit + 3 soldiers

1 Squad + 3 HWP + 3 soldiers

The Research and Development Division

The role and importance of the Research and Development (R&D) Division on the war rivals with the Combat Operations Division. At the end of the conflict X-COM troops were almost exclusively equipped with the latest weapons, armor and craft, all designed by the Science Division based upon knowledge derived from research on alien technology. And the end the aliens' defeat was only possible due to the knowledge learned and applied by the R&D Division.

The Research effort involved several hundred scientists spread out through X-COM's bases equipped with laboratories. To coordinate this effort the scientists created an online database which was quickly named the UFOPaedia as a collection of all knowledge learned by X-COM. After the war its files were declassified and available to the public, although researchers have pointed out that there are references to at least one subject that were not released and that raise the possibility that some materials were kept secret from the X-COM Commander by the R&D for reasons unknown.

If proven, these claims simply add up to the other known clashes between the R&D and the Commander concerning the direction of the research. While scientists were keen to understand first the larger picture, the military were more interested in pratical battlefield applications.

Special Forces Unit or Intelligence Agency?

The first question regarding X-COM concerns its nature. Usually the force is general known as 'Special Forces'(SF), which can be defined as:

"Special operations are highly-trained military units that conduct specialized operations such as reconnaissance, unconventional warfare, and counter-terrorism actions".

However, this definition clearly does not fully correspond to the definition of X-COM's roles, which also include 'investigation' and 'defeat' (giving it a more strategic role than the one played by an SF unit, with a specific objective - defeat the alien threat).

The other possible model to apply to X-COM is the 'Intelligence Agency' (IA), defined as:

"An intelligence agency is a governmental organization that for the purposes of national security is devoted to the gathering of information (known in the context as "intelligence") by means of espionage, communication interception, cryptanalysis, cooperation with other institutions, and evaluation of public sources."

But, while an IA is more close to match X-COM's mission, there is a major point that is not covered by this definition, its specific mission, to 'defeat the alien threat'. IAs do not have such specific proposes: they are large bureaucratic institutions made with more generic proposes and with a logic of continued existence.

Thus, the answer to this question is probably more akin to a unit like the UK's Special Operations Executive (SOE), which was created by Churchill to "set Europe ablaze". Amongst its missions:

  • Encourage and facilitate espionage and sabotage behind enemy lines
  • Serve as the core of a resistance movement in Britain in the possible event of an Axis invasion

X-COM thus had a specific mission and used SF forces and Intelligence processes (scientific research, interrogations, etc.), while also developing its own equipment (like the SOE did).