Reframing the Debate: How Rethinking Special Forces Physical Fitness Standards Can Address the Unconventional Warfare Capability Gap
The recent decision to open previously male-only jobs in the United States military to women has sparked serious debate over women’s ability to perform in combat. Women are now eligible to apply for positions such as the U.S. Army’s Special Forces (also known as SF), and with this development is the concern of whether or not women will be able to meet SF standards. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter’s interdepartmental memorandum issued to the service chiefs announced the implementation of guidelines to ensure that positions are now offered with the objective of improved force effectiveness while recognizing that the differences in physical ability between men and women must be taken into account.[i]
Physical standards are just as important in SF as they are anywhere else, but are the physical standards the right ones? What the debate over women’s role in combat has ignored to date is the discussion of what is truly physically required for a specific mission to be successful. In the case of Special Forces, the mission in question is unconventional warfare (commonly known as UW). From a physical fitness perspective, the Army’s focus on conventional warfare has also been embraced by SF and institutionalized as a cultural norm. What does this mean for the SF’s ability to conduct unconventional operations and other irregular warfare missions? Can physical training standards affect the U.S.’s ability to conduct irregular and unconventional warfare? Absolutely. This idea is captured in the Army’s Field Manual 7-22, Army Physical Readiness Training, which states that, “physical readiness training prepares Soldiers and units for the physical challenges of fulfilling the mission in the face of a wide range of threats, in complex operational environments…”[ii] To better prepare for the requirements of unconventional and irregular warfare, SF as an organization should reassess what is required of its soldiers’ physical fitness and change the way it uses physical readiness training to prepare soldiers to conduct unconventional warfare.
The debate on women in special operations aside, the larger issue confronting SF is that as an organization at large its readiness for unconventional warfare is inadequate.[iii] The physical standards debate, however, highlights a particular aspect of this problem. There is a disparity between SF’s top priority—closing the gap in its UW capability— and the cultural norms and values behind the training model that SF uses to become proficient in UW tasks. The question, then, is not, “can women meet the standard?” but why are these physical standards in place and are they appropriate? As physical requirements go, SF has prided itself as an organization that boasts elite soldiers in peak physical condition. However, the Special Forces physical readiness standards are ill defined in the Special Operations specific governing regulations. As noted in U.S. Army Special Operations Command Regulation 350-1 and echoed in the subordinate regulation, U.S. Army Special Forces Command Regulation 350-1, the only required physical standard that SF soldiers must meet and exceed are those established by the U.S. Army’s Physical Fitness Manual.[iv] Logically, these two regulations further state that physical fitness requirements should be based on mission requirements.[v] This guidance becomes problematic when considering what is physically required to perform a specific mission for a SF team. Throughout the older SF mission training plans, as well as the current training plans and SF Soldier’s Common Tasks Manuals, there are no clearly defined physical criteria listed to perform mission tasks successfully. Performance requirements are instead listed in a go/no-go fashion, leaving the assessment of the physicality required to complete them open to interpretation. Where then, are the physical readiness standards for Special Forces defined? These standards are actually enforced as cultural norms that have been developed over time from the beginning of SF and are discussed below.
The norms and values of SF physical fitness were developed by its early pioneers, and evolved over time as SF conducted operations overseas. SF training placed a premium on physical prowess as a means of evaluating one’s potential for service on SF’s hallmark organization –the operational detachment-alpha (ODA or popularly known as “A-teams”). COL Aaron Bank, regarded as SF’s founder, established at the onset that SF would be an elite unit.[vi] The rationale behind this was to ensure that every member of the unit would be able to operate behind enemy lines during guerrilla operations.[vii] Initial training lasted for approximately 52 weeks, and was designed to test the limits of physical as well as mental endurance. It was based on the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) training model during World War II and featured instruction on organizing resistance movements, guerilla warfare, specialty infiltration techniques, and increasingly longer foot marches carrying heavy packs.[viii] The final exercise following this period of training for prospective SF soldiers was a weeklong survival exercise followed by a 100-mile hike from Camp Lejeune, NC to Fort Bragg, NC.[ix] As the 10th Special Forces Group was initially being organized in 1952, members recognized early on the value of conducting training away from the cantonment areas. Bank and his planning staff believed training in rural areas without support best replicated the OSS training and operations of WWII.[x] Their training focused on self-sufficiency and independent operations, necessitating a unique approach to physical fitness. Since teams had to also prepare to conduct parachute operations into rugged mountainous terrain, a premium was placed on those who could keep up while carrying heavy loads; teams quickly weeded out physically and mentally weak stragglers.[xi] Carrying a 70-pound rucksack full of mission gear thus quickly became the standard adopted; teams could simply not afford to have soldiers who were in lesser shape physically.[xii]
Special Forces’ cultural identity would further be shaped by its experiences conducting operations over the next 40 years. Although originally established to develop and support resistance movements, SF found its mission changing as the nature of global conflict and U.S. commitments evolved. Under President Eisenhower’s policy of massive retaliation, it was no longer thought feasible to undermine support for communist regimes by any method other than capitulation or general war.[xiii] With the appetite for a mass resistance capability cooling, SF found itself without a mission until it was selected to lead the training efforts for partnered nation forces that needed assistance to conduct counterinsurgency in Southeast Asia starting around 1959.[xiv] Instead of training local groups to resist an occupying power, SF detachments changed their focus to helping indigenous groups and military partners resist communist insurgents. Vietnam marked a turning point in the shift of SF operations where SF is perhaps best known for its role in developing the Civilian Irregular Defense Group. Here, the mission was to train local villagers to defend their hamlets from Viet Cong attacks.[xv] However, as the war dragged on SF detachments found themselves tasked with increasingly more conventional missions. Instead of developing and supporting resistance groups, SF found itself conducting border security operations, convoy escorts, airfield defense, and large area sweeps.[xvi] This shift changed SF’s operational approach from training on low-visibility covert, operations to overt, long-range patrols that favored conventional tactics.[xvii] In addition, such units as Project DELTA, which employed small hunter/killer teams to penetrate Viet Cong sanctuaries, and the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam-Studies and Observation Group (MACV-SOG), with its long-range recon and mobile strike forces, developed a highly elite direct-action raiding (DA) and special reconnaissance (SR) expertise that became in high demand throughout the Vietnam War.[xviii] Following the Vietnam War, this new operational approach was codified in SF doctrine; SF’s main missions were changed from conducting guerrilla warfare to three staples of unconventional warfare, stability operations, and direct action.[xix] The preference for direct action raiding was reinforced during the 1970s and 1980s as the U.S. focused on a conventional war with the Soviet Union amidst major force reductions.[xx] Later during the 1991 Gulf War, SF used its unconventional skills to support conventional operations. SF advisors performed liaison duties between coalition forces as well as conducted special reconnaissance, direct action, and combat search and rescue missions.[xxi] The focus on DA and SR had become so engrained that in 1998, the commander of Special Forces Command, Major General William Boykin, directed the operational groups to study the relevance of UW as a mission as a whole, and recommend to him whether SF should keep UW as one of its core missions, or drop it to focus more on training local forces and on unilateral direct action missions.[xxii]
The reliance on conventional approaches to solve unconventional problems has created problems for SF regarding the training of resistance forces. More specifically, should surrogates be trained in the image of their sponsors, or is it better for their development to reflect their inherent capabilities and limitations? Should indigenous fighters resemble the iconic special operator of the post 9/11 U.S.-led campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, fully equipped with the latest technology and loaded for bear? Or would these local groups be more successful if they were molded after fighters who, similar to Anton Myrer’s stereotypical guerilla in Once an Eagle, who could survive on little to no support and win based on the ability to outthink the enemy? [xxiii] A look at Figures 1-3 below shows the evolution of SF-trained partner forces over time. Although partner forces were originally recruited from local indigenous groups and equipped in manners fitting their abilities, these fighters eventually came to mirror their SF trainers. This effect can be seen as far back as the Vietnam conflict, as well in today’s fight in Iraq and Afghanistan. These modern-day partner forces are perhaps the clearest indication of SF’s conventionalized unconventional approach reliant on the ability of teams to move heavy loads consisting of mission essential equipment over long distances to conduct operations with a guerilla force. In the 1985 article “Notes on Low-Intensity Conflict,” famed security studies analyst Edward Luttwak examines the differences in how armed forces organize for combat, using a scale that places high-intensity combat (called attrition-focused) on one end and low-intensity (called relational maneuver) on the other. On Luttwak’s scale, SF’s operational approach is closer to the attrition end with the focus on basically carrying enough equipment to effectively destroy an assigned target.[xxiv]
Figure 1: Kachin Rangers, WWII. These tribal groups were recruited to fight against the Japanese and were employed as guerilla fighters.
Source: David W. Hogan, Jr., U.S. Army Special Operations in World War II (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1992), 109. http://www.history.army.mil/html/books/070/70-42/CMH_Pub_70-42.pdf
Figure 2: MAVC-SOG Reconnaissance Team with Montagnard Soldiers. These mountain tribesmen were recruited by U.S. Special Forces and received advanced reconnaissance training, to include military free fall techniques.
Figure 3: Afghan National Army Special Forces Soldier, 2013. These soldiers were trained using U.S. methodologies and use American techniques and equipment.
Source: Photo by Sgt. Jared N. Gehmann, U.S. Army (https://www.dvidshub.net/image/1137561/anasf-clear-ied-ab-band#.Vm-XTcodg4p)
In other words, despite being organized to conduct guerilla operations, many SF partner forces over time were trained and employed in a manner more appropriate for conventional forces. From a physical fitness perspective, SF’s preference for the attrition-style approach has meant that its partner forces also need to have the physical capacity to bring with them everything needed to overpower the enemy—weapons, ammunition, radios, batteries, and special equipment. As Luttwak states, however, low intensity wars cannot be won merely by efficient application of firepower.[xxv] While Luttwak’s thesis focuses on organizations, his argument can also be applied to physical standards. Soldiers should instead develop partner forces in response to each particular situation, circumstances and environment, versus merely creating copies of themselves focused on traditional maneuver warfare.[xxvi] Thus, the Jedburgh model of physical training, through its emphasis on developing the physical ability to handle extreme stress and uncertainty rather than the ability to bring overwhelming firepower to bear, appears to be more suitable to developing the type of physical fitness and toughness needed to meet today’s UW requirements.
The resulting focus on DA and SR missions as foundational SF training resulted in cultural norms that have steered away from conducting sustained UW operations. Instead of emphasizing capabilities required for soldiers to conduct operations such as espionage, sabotage, and subversion, over time SF has placed a premium on training that has focused on raids, ambushes, and small unit tactics. This choice has resulted in an institutional culture that has embraced the 100-lb ruck infiltration as the sine qua non of physical readiness standards. Responding to General Boykin’s question of the relevance of UW, Colonel Gary Jones and Major Christopher Tone noted SF teams were more comfortable conducting long-range reconnaissance and raids than they were conducting UW in a denied area.[xxvii] The debate over women in SF finds the community back at the topic of mission focus. After years of conventionally oriented operations, albeit with partner forces, SF as a community once again must re-examine its core missions and unconventional roots to support national objectives. Instead of focusing on whether or not women can meet the same standard as men, however, Special Forces now has the opportunity to re-examine its approach to training itself to see if there exists a more appropriate model to meet the priorities set forth in the US Army Special Operations Command’s most recent vision statement, ARSOF 2022.[xxviii]
ARSOF Next, a companion document to ARSOF 2022 that establishes the common characteristics of all U.S. Army Special Operations Forces (ARSOF), lists toughness, perseverance, and operational aptitude as some of the defining characteristics of all ARSOF soldiers.[xxix] While perseverance and being physically fit (as a part of being operationally apt) are two simple measures of one’s commitment and resiliency, toughness takes these traits one step further by embodying one’s ability to push himself—or herself—through seemingly insurmountable odds to accomplish the mission. One of the best ways to develop toughness is certainly through challenging, realistic training. But what skills and tasks should SF train for? While SF soldiers will always train on mission-specific tasks to prepare for deployment, there is room to change the basic assumptions about what builds the basic foundations of expertise, physical fitness, and toughness. In planning the physical standards for future unconventional warfare, should SF use its recent experience in Iraq and Afghanistan as a model, or is there a better example? Successful examples of unconventional warfare campaigns may offer insights to determine and assess which physical attributes are the most appropriate when training SF soldiers.
While many units were noted for their innovative approaches to training, the methods used by SF’s predecessor stand out. The OSS, whose Special Operations (SO) and Operational Groups (OG) branches focused on conducting UW operations against the Axis powers, emphasized physical fitness as a key metric in the selection and training of recruits. While both units placed a premium on physical fitness, the operational approaches of each created distinct differences in standards of training, equipment, and physical requirements. OSS training revolved around paramilitary techniques— ambushes, raids and sabotage. Of the two branches, however, OGs focused more on guerilla warfare tactics to accomplish its UW goals.[xxx] OGs were designed to function as the operational core of guerilla groups and to execute unilateral operations against targets behind enemy lines and as such were the inspiration for today’s Special Forces Operational Detachment-Alphas.[xxxi] The SO Branch’s Jedburgh teams, on the other hand, emphasized training on sabotage. Physical training for these operations focused on toughening exercises and challenges to strengthen each SO operative’s character and resiliency to stress. It consisted of various obstacle and assault courses, hand-to-hand combat training, shooting, and mock missions.[xxxii] Training was designed to increase the physical fitness, morale, and confidence of operatives, and featured “mystery” shooting scenarios in unfamiliar structures as well as explosives placed on assault courses to test the courage of each trainee.[xxxiii] The OSS firmly emphasized developing individual prowess, self-confidence, and self-reliance.[xxxiv] With this focus, training subjects ranged widely in the OSS’s approach; varying from hand-to-hand combat to lock picking.[xxxv] The goal of training was to have each operative supremely conditioned for the “…aggressive and ruthless action which they will be called upon to perform at later dates.”[xxxvi]
Why then does this distinction between the operational approaches of guerilla warfare and espionage, sabotage, and subversion matter? The latter approach exemplifies many of the skill sets missing in Special Forces today. ARSOF 2022 calls for a rebalancing of mission skill sets; SF will focus its efforts on unconventional warfare, psychological warfare, foreign internal defense, and civil-military operations.[xxxvii] With over 60 years’ worth of operational experience in foreign internal defense, and relatively little in unconventional warfare, SF needs to adjust its training to address this imbalance to avoid unnecessary duplication of capabilities with such units as the 75th Ranger Regiment, which focuses more on large-scale forcible entry.[xxxviii] Adding a foundational layer that emphasizes the ability to deal with extreme uncertainty to each soldier’s basic skills and training would not only enable SF soldiers to better embrace an unconventional mindset, but could also enhance the capability of Special Forces to improve in each of its mission sets. This has to begin with physical training and the well-crafted standards to drive this training.
The issue, then, is not whether or not women can serve in Special Forces, it is rather what exactly must Special Forces accomplish? To provide senior decision makers with better and more unique options for responding to the numerous threats facing the U.S., Special Forces must develop physical training standards that elevate the ability to deal with uncertainty and handle stress. The OSS proved that events such as confidence-building obstacle courses and leadership reaction courses were effective in preparing its agents for the extremes of unconventional warfare. Special Forces should consider adapting its physical training model to become more in line with the OSS’s regimen that focused on tackling the unknown. Major General John K. Singlaub said of his OSS training, “[T]hese were individual skills that are perhaps useful but are most important for training the state of mind or attitude, developing an aggressiveness and confidence in one’s ability…”[xxxix] While forced marches, long distance runs and weightlifting are important to build elite soldiers, the true goal of Special Forces physical training should reflect that which was sought by the OSS—complete confidence to handle uncertainty.
[i] Cheryl Pellerin, “Carter Opens All Military Occupations, Positions to Women,” U.S. Department of Defense, December 3, 2015, http://www.defense.gov/News-Article-View/Article/632536/carter-opens-all....
[ii] U.S. Army Physical Fitness School, FM 7-22, Army Physical Readiness Training (Department of the Army, 2012), xvi, http://armypubs.army.mil/doctrine/DR_pubs/dr_a/pdf/fm7_22.pdf.
[iii] “ARSOF 2022” (Fort Bragg, NC: USAJFKSWCS), 13, accessed July 6, 2015, http://www.soc.mil/Assorted%20Pages/ARSOF2022_vFINAL.pdf.
[iv] These two regulations govern training management as well as individual and unit training requirements for their respective commands. See USASOC, “USASOC Regulation 350-1: Army Special Operations Forces (ARSOF) Active and Reserve Component Training, w/Ch 1, July 2006,” 24 Jul 06, 28; USASFC (A), “USASFC/ARNG Regulation 350-1: U.S. Army Special Forces Active and Army National Guard Component Training.,” 22 Feb 10, 34.
[v] USASOC, “USASOC Reg 350-1 w/C1,” 33; USASFC (A), “USASFC/ARNG Regulation 350-1: U.S. Army Special Forces Active and Army National Guard Component Training,” 34.
[vi] COL Aaron Bank, USA (Ret), From OSS to Green Berets (New York, NY: Pocket Books, 1987), 193.
[viii] Ibid., 191–192; Chalmers Archer Jr., Green Berets in the Vanguard: Inside Special Forces, 1953-1963 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2001), 8.
[ix] Archer Jr., Green Berets in the Vanguard, 9.
[x] Bank, USA (Ret), From OSS to Green Berets, 195–197.
[xi] C. M. Simpson and R. B. Rheault, Inside the Green Berets: The First Thirty Years, a History of the U.S. Army Special Forces (Presidio Press, 1983), 40, https://books.google.com/books?id=opPfAAAAMAAJ; COL Aaron Bank, USA (Ret), From OSS to Green Berets, 193.
[xii] Simpson and Rheault, Inside the Green Berets: The First Thirty Years, a History of the U.S. Army Special Forces, 40.
[xiii] James S. Lay, Jr., “A Report to the National Security Council by the Executive Secretary on Basic National Security Policy,” NSC (Washington, D.C., October 30, 1953), 3, http://fas.org/irp/offdocs/nsc-hst/nsc-162-2.pdf.
[xiv] Kenneth E. Tovo, “Special Forces’ Mission Focus for the Future” (Monograph, School of Advance Military Studies, USA Command and General Staff College, Dec 95), 8, https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/b4/Special_Forces_Misio....
[xv] Shelby L. Stanton, Green Berets at War: U.S. Army Special Forces in Southeast Asia, 1956-1975 (Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1985), 43; Simpson and Rheault, Inside the Green Berets: The First Thirty Years, a History of the U.S. Army Special Forces, 103.
[xvi] Stanton, Green Berets at War: U.S. Army Special Forces in Southeast Asia, 1956-1975, 65, 90.
[xvii] Ibid., 23–24, 30–31.
[xviii] Ibid., 195–211.
[xix] Tovo, “Special Forces’ Mission Focus for the Future,” 10.
[xxi] Ibid., 16–17.
[xxii] COL Gary M. Jones and MAJ Christopher Tone, “Unconventional Warfare: Core Purpose of Special Forces,” Special Warfare Magazine 12, no. 3 (1999): 4.
[xxiii] In this section, Myrer’s protagonist Sam Damon travels to China prior to America’s involvement in WWII to observe Chinese irregulars fighting against the occupying Japanese. With virtually no supplies of their own, these guerilla fighters were forced to outwit the enemy, often times accepting extreme risk to sustain themselves and continue to fight. See Anton Myrer, Once An Eagle (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2001), 643, https://books.google.com/books?id=YhGbQ_y1QTMC.
[xxiv] Edward Luttwak, “Notes on Low Intensity Conflict,” Parameters 13, no. 4 (December 1983): 13.
[xxv] Ibid., 16.
[xxvi] Ibid., 16.
[xxvii] Jones and Tone, “Special Warfare,” 7.
[xxviii] “ARSOF 2022,” 18.
[xxix] “ARSOF Next” (Fort Bragg, NC: USAJFKSWCS), 35–36, accessed July 6, 2015, http://www.soc.mil/swcs/SWmag/archive/ARSOF_Next/ARSOF%20Next.pdf.
[xxx] “Operational Groups,” The OSS Primer, accessed August 10, 2015, http://www.soc.mil/OSS/operational-groups.html; Strategic Services, “Operational Groups Field Manual” (Office of Strategic Services, April 1944), 10–13, http://www.soc.mil/OSS/assets/operational-groups-fm.pdf.
[xxxi] Joint Special Operations University, “Irregular Warfare and the OSS Model” (Hurlburt Field, FL: JSOU, 2010), 14, http://jsou.socom.mil/JSOU%20Publications/2010JSOU-OSSS_SympRpt(Nov09)_final.pdf.
[xxxii] Dr. John Whiteclay Chambers II, “Office of Strategic Services Training During World War II,” Studies in Intelligence, Getting Ready for Conflict, 54, no. 2 (June 2010): 2, https://www.cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence/csi-pub....
[xxxiii] Ibid., 4–6.
[xxxiv] Ibid., 6.
[xxxv] Ibid., 12.
[xxxvi] Ibid., 5.
[xxxvii] “ARSOF 2022,” 13.
[xxxix] Chambers II, “Office of Strategic Services Training During World War II,” 16.