Reframing the Debate: How Rethinking Special Forces Physical Fitness Standards Can Address the Unconventional Warfare Capability Gap

Reframing the Debate: How Rethinking Special Forces Physical Fitness Standards Can Address the Unconventional Warfare Capability Gap

Rory O’Connor

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.

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 (

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.

End Notes

[i] Cheryl Pellerin, “Carter Opens All Military Occupations, Positions to Women,” U.S. Department of Defense, December 3, 2015,

[ii] U.S. Army Physical Fitness School, FM 7-22, Army Physical Readiness Training (Department of the Army, 2012), xvi,

[iii] “ARSOF 2022” (Fort Bragg, NC: USAJFKSWCS), 13, accessed July 6, 2015,

[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.

[vii] Ibid.

[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,; 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,

[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,

[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.

[xx] Ibid.

[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,

[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,

[xxx] “Operational Groups,” The OSS Primer, accessed August 10, 2015,; Strategic Services, “Operational Groups Field Manual” (Office of Strategic Services, April 1944), 10–13,

[xxxi] Joint Special Operations University, “Irregular Warfare and the OSS Model” (Hurlburt Field, FL: JSOU, 2010), 14,

[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,

[xxxiii] Ibid., 4–6.

[xxxiv] Ibid., 6.

[xxxv] Ibid., 12.

[xxxvi] Ibid., 5.

[xxxvii] “ARSOF 2022,” 13.

[xxxviii] U.S. Army, “75th Ranger Regiment: The Army’s Premier Raid Force,” 75th Ranger Regiment Home, May 4, 2015,

[xxxix] Chambers II, “Office of Strategic Services Training During World War II,” 16.


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One of the points of the article is PT can help you overcome and prevail in uncertain circumstances and while fitness helps there are other ways that I was involved in that are well worth the effort.

This is a short version of a an SF training mission I was allowed to go on. Over at the SWC I have written about it in more detail but here is the short version of the one minute Green Beret Course.

In the early 70's to go SF you had to Airborne or be willing to go to jump school on your second enlistment and be at least an E5. I was already at the 82nd but not yet an E5 so one after getting off of CQ duty I decided to go to all the SF HQS and introduce myself....just to let them know I was available if they wanted me to help out with anything............Cold shoulder at most places. But a 5th group Sergeant actually new my present 1st Sergeant in the 82nd Airborne division. And about 6 months later I was drafted to learn how to be one of those Guerrilla warfighter trainees.

The operation was called "Cable Alley" and it took place near Franklin, NC and surrounding areas. What was different about this training OP was it was primarily designed to transfer skills to a new SF "A" team commander. The goal was to put him and his team and Guerrillas into as many different situations as possible and then come up with a workable plan with the resources he had then and there.

It covered everything from logistics problems, to medical problems to the usual military problems, it was not focused on just winning a war game, although it was all within the 7 steps of guerrilla warfare framework, very different at least at that point in time. We had to deal with the real consequences of his and our actions to.

The point is simulations of uncertain circumstances and developing solutions in as close to a real world environment not just digital is perhaps a better way to transfer skills and develop confidence.

Physical fitness should already be established before the actual skills transfer process begins.

I posted a shorter version of this video on the Commando blog post but it should go here to. It is the Strength and Endurance course from the JFK era, there was a version of this all the way down to elementary school. You can actually get the entire course of how Physical education took place in a normal American high school to ensure that the military would always have access a fit population ready to defend the nation. Just take a look at this can you imagine this happening in todays PC world! Unbelievable!

Outlaw 9 were you at Bragg in late 72 or early 73?

Left Bragg for Det A Berlin Bde in late 67 then onto VN and back to Bad Toelz and then left SF late 71 for Berlin to complete my MA and PhD work until returning to the CBTI 10th Devens in the late 80s for several years... never did return to Bragg.

Spent a lot of time in Berlin in orgs called JAROC-B...Joint Allied Refugee Operations Center-Berlin and 766th MI Det.

Wanted to make the official retiring of the Det A colors at Bragg but found out about it to late to go

Now back in Berlin and I have never looked back as I am doing what I enjoy which was at first a hobby and now still a hobby... defending, tracking and defeating advanced persistent threats on the net.

Have to thank the Army for giving me the chance to use their very first computers and the Arpanet in the early 90s and since then never stopped learning on the IT/software side.

BTW...several members of Det A from my old team have also retired into Berlin and or close to Berlin ....often wonder about the strange pull of the city.... others from the team are slowing but steadily dying off...a shame as it was one of the greatest single group of people that ever lived/breathed UW...they were the greatest teachers of UW and what I learned from them will never be forgotten as it saved my life a number of times.

From: "Inside the Green Berets: The First Thirty Years, a History of the U.S. Army Special Forces," by COL (Ret.) Charles M. Simpson, III. (Page 220):

"The physical requirements to enter the school were particularly demanding, with forty-five push-ups and forty-five sit-ups in a two-minute period, and a two-mile run in just under 16 minutes."

Bill... the interesting thing was this was the same standard as that demanded for the airborne school during that period.

During the Q course though the training companies every morning went through what was called the army daily dozen exercise drills and once a week a two mile run and it was up to the exercise leader to set the numbers and pace. You might be very surprised but this daily dozen actually got you into a better fitness standard than does the current army PT standards as it was designed for war not day to day.

Through until late 1971 SF also did the standard army test set that included a run, dodge and jump combo against time, a timed 50 yard low crawl,grenade throwing for accuracy and running the rung bars X number in a set time which took a certain amount of upper body strength and eye/arm coordination. When I first came into the army in early 66 I laughed about these BUT in VN and later you would be surprised how many times I used them....AND all the training was conducted in combat boots and duty uniform...not the current PT uniform and running shoes.....

Once onto a team the daily dozen was held to and if there were known pending mission sets then the physical side picked up to match the requirements of the mission if that was to be swimming or walking long distances against a set time or mountain climbing ie a class four/five mountain...

If a team member was on a PT profile then the daily dozen would be adjusted to assist the profilee......but again the key was the entire team engaged as a team not individuals....then once PT was completed the team changed and went for a coffee break ...all went...just another form of team building as we would go over the days events, check on up coming events and just talk....amazing how simply talking builds a team.

BTW....the army in 1971 had not recognized PTSD ...there was not even talk about it....although some here might not like what I say here....the PTSD of the current army comes nowhere close to being equated to the PTSD creating conditions in VN...the talking sessions that a team did during coffee often turned into therapy sessions as most of the team members had one and or more complete one year tours in VN and served in multiple different locations in VN and all had served inside the 5th and the various special projects as well as in the 1st which was rotating in and out of VN working mainly on the special projects on six months tours.....

There is a theory about the "five dysfunctions of a team" that is now popular in the business world and we in the early 70s were already overcoming those five dysfunctions without realizing.... we were roughly 45 years ahead of the game....

Absence of trust—unwilling to be vulnerable within the group
Fear of conflict—seeking artificial harmony over constructive passionate debate
Lack of commitment—feigning buy-in for group decisions creates ambiguity throughout the organization
Avoidance of accountability—ducking the responsibility to call peers on counterproductive behavior which sets low standards
Inattention to results—focusing on personal success, status and ego before team success

We were highly successful during that period as SF had inherently addressed all five dysfunctions when it was created.......

NOW add one of the best trained UW organizations ...current SF cannot match the past...they can though build their own but it means avoiding the above five dysfunctions.

Outlaw said:

"Through until late 1971 SF also did the standard army test set that included a run, dodge and jump combo against time, a timed 50 yard low crawl, grenade throwing for accuracy and running the rung bars X number in a set time which took a certain amount of upper body strength and eye/arm coordination."

"... AND all the training was conducted in combat boots and duty uniform...not the current PT uniform and running shoes....."


Roger that. I came in the Army in 1970 and remember doing most of this stuff in basic -- and as you describe above (to wit: in combat boots and duty uniform).

Here is FM 21-20, the "Physical Readiness Training Manual" for 1973 -- which I found on-line.

Scroll down to Chapter 26, Physical Fitness Tests ... , beginning at Page 246, and check it out. Other interesting stuff in here also.

(For example: The ingredients for the "daily dozen," etc., to be found at Chapter 10, beginning at Page 35?)

Important follow-on note and clarification question re: my COL Simpson quote in my comment above. His book is published in 1983, and the quoted material that I provided is found in the very last chapter of his book, entitled: "The Future of Special Forces." This suggesting that the school standards he was talking about (45 PU & 45 SU in 2 min. each, and 2-mile run in just under 16 min.) were early 1980's standards, and not the stuff of the 60s and 70s?

Bill C.,

Army Special Forces adhering to Army Physical and other standards is one reason more specialized units that adhered to higher standards were required for some missions. A lot of our better SF soldiers went to those units, others liked the SF mission and stayed, while others wanted join more specialized units but knew they couldn't make the cut, and more often than not it is these individuals who frequently bad mouth the more specialized units. It embarrasses SF and the specialized units, since at the end of the day we're all SOF brothers. Fortunately, 95% of SF can achieve much more than minimum standards because they're motivated to excel and get the mission accomplished.

In my time, different ODAs would train to different standards (always higher than army standards) depending upon their mission. Combat Dive Teams and Mountain Teams both had very physical missions, but the type of fitness required differed. To give you an idea of what one of my team sergeants' standards were for our quarterly test I provide the following example. It consisted of a morning and evening test. In the morning we would take the standard Army PT test for record (push ups, sit ups, 2 mile run), followed by max effort in pull ups and dips, and then a 500 meter swim in the pool. In the evening we do a 18 mile ruck march. His philosophy is we don't know what our mission is going to be, so two things everyone on the team had to do was be fit and be able shoot exceptionally well. That is one example out of many, some had tougher standards, others lesser. I don't think team sergeants have the same degree of freedom in training their teams today based on how SF became increasingly managed top down (that may be hanging with its newest leaders). bring up and interesting point and that was one of the major changes when SF brought in the cross arrow officer structure.

During my phase of SF the officers that made up the team the CO and the team XO officer were there by choice...this is the critical piece why...because at that time inside Big Army if say a WP graduate took two two years out of his career to go to SF it literally was the kiss of death for the officer as the two year gap was never fully explained on their OERs...that was the perspective of the Big army officer class at that time.

The unspoken rule for Big Army was ..they did not have any command time of anything during the two years as a 10 man team did not even rate as PLT LDR time and that was a major gap in their OERs.

This was especially true for the ranks of LT through say CAPT maybe MAJ at the B Team levels.

Example we got one of the first black officers a LT straight out of WP and the first in SF...a great young officer who was told privately by higher officers outside SF about five months later that if he had wanted to make the Army a career he had to move on and he did.

BTW there were times the ODAs did not have officers due to this problem of it hurting their OERs thus the Team SGTs were in fact also the team officers and team manning sometimes was in the 10 range for months.

Secondly since the officers were not SF trained they relied heavily on the Team MSG and it was the Team SGTs that drove the team in training and exercises and if the officers were smart they allowed it as their OERs would look great for the year. And the interesting thing was the ODA members knew this so they never allowed the team officers to look bad and often trained them in the various MOSs simply so they knew what to do and when to do it and in return the officers always had solid OERs.

My 10th ODA Team Sgt had fought as a 13 year old partisan with a Polish Soviet guerrilla unit and then at the end of the war fled to the West and joined the US Army and then was picked up for SF.....he spoke fluent Russian, German and Polish, was extremely well versed in Soviet weapons and would during long marches break out into a Soviet fighting/marching song...12 guys marching through the Italian mountains singing Soviet war songs in Russian. He had done multiple tours in VN and had been on the White Star team in Laos.

BTW Company A, 10th SFG in late 70 had the first truly SF trained black Company First SGT assigned to it, tall and physically built and though at first appeared to be on the heavy side but put him on a set of skis and he was the ultimate form of grace going down a mountain and could out cross country virtually anyone at that time excluding the SF European Det CO also at that time the first fully trained COL who had chosen SF instead of a Big Army career as he should have made at least one star as he was the highest in his WP class and highly decorated out of VN.

A big difference from the then to today...

What is UW, after all? Basically the norm after 1945.

Notable (conventional) exceptions:

The Korean War, the Israel-Arab wars, parts of the Vietnam War, the Iran-Iraq war, the Falklands, parts of the Balkan Wars (1991-1996), the NATO Kosovo campaign, the two US-led Iraq interventions, the PRC-Vietnam border conflict, the India-Pakistan war over Bangladesh, the Horn of Africa wars between Ethiopia and Eritrea, the North Sudan-South Sudan war...these are the ones that come readily to mind.

All the rest has been mostly UW or small wars.

Nuno Rogeiro
Lisbon, Portugal

Do CIA elements conduct UW in any form? If so, should SF physical fitness requirements be modeled after CIA UW elements with SF becoming more of a CIA-oriented asset?

Morgan...just a side comment...SF from it's very inception was until the mid 70s always a CIA asset and if you were an intel SGT your advanced training was always given by the CIA.....OR the IED/ADM training given to our engineer SGTs.....also CIA trainers... this is why Big Army simply did not like SF...not counting their avid dislike of the beret....

SF had one truly designed UW was Det A, Berlin Bde....which BTW all of our missions and training techniques are still classified 30 years after the unit was disbanded. The unit itself was finally "declassified late 2014" and we were finally able to come out of the dark and state without going to jail that yes we were SF.

Surprisingly all former members of Det A maintained that silence for 30 years until 2014...notice how quickly ST6 open their mouths concerning UBL.

Our personnel records for example where always handled in a separate Army section which was classified and the mission sets for the various SF Groups matched the various CIA global areas of operation. BTW we were not in it for the salary as an E5 in VN was a whopping 375 USD per month tax free and that included danger pay, pro pay for my MOSs/language, jump pay and EOD pay...we were in it for SF itself (the flash insignia said it in the 60s "To free the oppressed") and all the fun, travel and adventure the recruiter told us we would be doing when he spoke with each of us before we signed the volunteering for SF form....and it was a lot of traveling in the years after that.

In VN is where Big Army took a seriously disliking to SF when the then Commander of the 5th SFGA in 1969 was charged with the killing of a verified triple agent...worked for us, the SVN and the NVA. He had passed info to the NVA on three MACV-SOG team insertion missions which then led to the teams disappearances and the deaths of six US SF.

Big Army did not like the fact as well that even though we worn the green uniform we answered to the CIA whether it was the CIDG program, or any of the special projects and or the Mobile Strike Forces...

Here was the catch that countered the constant complaints of Big Army...we were amazingly successful whether it was the CIDG programs, or the intel collection side and or the special 1970 80% of all hard intel not counting SIGINT was coming from the 5th SFGA.

The down side and this is Big Army's failure...they did not supply anything to the 5th...except our salaries.....everything else came via CIA funding which resulted in each SF solider having to say "live" food wise off his extra paid rations in my case a whopping 19 USDs per month...even if the entire ODA chipped which they did we were always on the hunt for food, construction materials, munitions and weapons and swapping became a way of ODA survival much to the dislike of the various US Army Commanders throughout SVN.

It got so bad that once in late 1969 in the Congressional funding cycle we received a message indicating munition supplies were extremely low due to the lack of funding and we had our choice of ONE mortar round for the month...caliber/type was our choice and see there one round was duly coptered in.... BUT if we were attacked they stated we could get an emergency resupply.

Even in the early 70s the 10th SFGA in Bad Toelz was receiving and carrying out CIA sponsored mission sets.

UW fell to the wayside when SF "rejoined" Big Army in the mid 70s during a massive downsizing that almost eliminated SF completely.

NOW after Iraq and AFG the CIA has it's own shooters (usually former SOF) thus the dependence on CIA is not as strong as it should be in the new non linear UW world.

BUT back to the core issue....SF today has to revamp their recruitment policies ie go back to the proven method of individually selecting recruits and then rebuilding the Q courses to reflect a pure UW strategy as the non linear warfare being seen today in the now so called grey zone is nothing more or less than what we saw in the 60s to mid 70s....

UW has basically never really changed......what has changed is the technology and equipment so SF has to have recruits that eat, breath, and sleep UW and that requires now after Iraq and AFG a new breed of SF that can speak the various languages, hold deep theoretical discussions on say information warfare and yet if needed train, live and fight with UW forces for periods of one year or longer.

Outlaw wrote,

'....yet if needed train, live and fight with UW forces for periods of one year or longer.'

Even someone as qualified as Outlaw suggests you need a year to be effective. IMHO I would suggest most of us require considerably longer.

This leads to the 'Three Year Plan' wherein you rotate the appropriate number of team members that allows the last member/s of the original team to leave at the end of the third year.If for what ever reason it's not possible to maintain the original team's core mano-mano relationships with the natives you call up someone who's completed his own 'Three Year Plan' and is willing to replace the casualty and quickly assimilate.

This way there will always be someone in the team with at least 2 years of ground truth experience to carry the UW fight. If the need arises any replacement/addition can be brought up to speed by the original team in a fashion that doesn't spook the natives.

Not only are 'Three Year Plan' teams more effective but you don't need anywhere near as many in each team to maintain cohesion. In fact after 5 years one team member(with a minimum of two years local experience) should be all the natives need to execute effective UW.

Outlaw wrote,

' generation up through say the rank of SSG was largely single but the number of single SFCs and MSGs'

One thing for sure I can't imagine how you could manage with a wife and/or kids. I would have thought that impossible.

In another thread someone pointed out if females are to be considered then surely some 50 year old campaigner would be as physically able as a 25 year old female fresh out of Fort Bragg. Leaving aside the 30 years of extra experience I imagine the only possible reason you'd deny the veteran would be the old salt had succumbed to 'Le coup de Bamboo.'

Having said that I for one have never understood the obsession with physical strength. In the jungle even men well over six feet are under 180 pounds after a year living with the natives. At 5' 10' I was stuck on 150 pound - malaria didn't help - but not surprising you end up with the same physique as a native. In the jungle muscle mass can act like a thermal blanket that can lead to heat exhaustion much more readily than someone who is all bone and sinew.

In the Hindu Kush the absence of malaria and sources of sweet water added maybe 10 pounds max but high altitude and heavy muscles also don't mix. Once again even the biggest dude was soon whittled down to well under under 200 lbs of bone and sinew after a year living with the natives.

And all of this weight loss can occur in a state of perfect physical/mental health.

I mean to say have you ever heard of a Sherpa going into a gym?

Outlaw I was wondering how much did you weigh when you left VN?


RC....several answers

1. the one year rotations work far better than one thinks....namely about 75% of the team is constant and 25% rotating in and out and then the remaining 75% actually staggers through the year thus IMHO there was always as least 60% institutional knowledge in the team...very sufficient to carry on ops.

2. actually in some ways I am not against women in ODAs....having worked with women interrogators on the front lines in BCTs and then Abu G they can do the job....the plus is that in the CIDG mode we actually could have successfully used women why because of the families that lived with their service members and the families in the villages around us.....there were times I wished I had a female touch with those families since the wife and daughters in those families were very well informed just as in Iraq...I even used once the wife of an top insurgent we captured to keep him talking by allowing her to talk with him on the cell....her influence on him was critical and moved us forward in a major way.

Just a side comment...when I was wounded by an AK round on my back...the US aid station pulled the bullet but the path it took had to be regauzed every day and then sewn when the edges/tunnel had started to heal...this was done by a 16 year old Cambodian girl who had been trained by our SFC medic...he let her do everything as her part of her ongoing training....

3. I went to VN weighing in at first R&R in HI which really was a cover to fly to SF I was then 155 by the time... I left after 18 very long months... I weighted in at a very tan and fit 135, it took about a year at Bad Toelz Germany to come back up to the 180 range that I think was due to the long swim hours I put in.

You bring up and interesting comment....if I look at the physical build of the current SF I worked with say in Iraq and later at Ft. Irwin I was a weakling. If I look at SF in say VN and in Berlin we were all compared to today weaklings...BUT we knew how to load balance and walk for miles and miles and miles in any terrain.....why because a lot of physical ground movement is mental in nature and the SF of then had the mental picture fully in their minds....was it easy by no means but we could move 50, 60 or 70kms with heavy loads and at the end drop them and go into full combat without missing a beat...why most of us had done the same thing daily in VN. The mental game is interesting....when I got to VN the old timers talked about the "bamboo dance" I would soon learn.....after the first couple of ops in bamboo jungle I was beat mentally and physically.... the SFC who was responsible for working me into the AOR kept not fight it......make it a game and learn to dance....after 18 months I could move with an ease and grace that was amazing hour after hour.

In 1971 I worked an op with Turkish mountain troops who could literally walk you into the ground with minimum water...they actually had a similar concept and made a game out of it as well.

In VN while my recon company carried only water, meals and ammo I had to carry extra ammo, less meals, more water and more grenades as my company tended to have a high rate of fire..and resupply was not very "escort" ie a local RO carried only water and meals as I was his protection so to speak.

When you as the advisor built the bonds with your unit they will walk across water for in late 69 I got a call from my team and the tenor was we will leave it up to you ...the 7th Cav had a BN penned down in a brutal LZ ambush by an estimated REGT minus NVA unit that they did not know was there...they basically landed on top of them....I/my company was the only available ground force close by and we were only 100 plus me.

I sat down with my company CO counterpart and his PLT leaders and told him the problem and said if he did not want to go I would respect that and we would pull out of the area. In the end there was a simple question...will you lead us and have air support on the radio.

Off we went and seven hours later my company had only 20 walking the rest were wounded and or killed yet we fought the exit free for the 7th to come off the LZ and in the process seriously damaged what turned out later to be an elite Ho REGT which then pulled back into Cambodia to rest and refit.

I did not leave the area until all of my company was counted for and evaced that is what the advisor must do to maintain that bond.

After that the 1st Cav would provide me with any support I ever needed in the area until I left VN and I had all the free drinks I could inhale in their officers club in Quan Loi their major III Corp firebase.

We then recruited new Cambodian fighters, trained them and then reengaged....with the core survivors as the company leadership.

VN was all mental not physical...maybe that is what drove the SF recruitment concepts in the 60s.

Very enlightening...thank you. Given what you've said, maybe the question isn't about SF physical fitness standards but whether we need to have US Army Special Forces at all. If the CIA has its own shooters (I believe Mike Spann was one) and is doing UW, and "Big Army" is developing "advise and assist brigades" made up of conventional troopers to assist our foreign military buddies, does it make sense to keep SF? If so, do we need seven groups (5 active, 2 ARNG) and one division-sized HQ? we need SF???....yes we do as I for one have worked with over 44 BCT staffs and regardless of the the Big Army story of advise and assist bdes they actually have not been successful at all.

If we take the building of the Iraqi and AFG armies we built them in the image of the Big US Army with a very long footprint and both are struggling against IS and the resurging Taliban.... why is that....both are UW specialists.

Now if the Big Army had placed SF into the fight at the very beginning to begin a CIDG similar program which SF finally did in late 2010-2011 we would be far longer down the road against say the Taliban....but we did not so you get now the recent articles talking about the rebuilding of the AFG Army and the complete retraining of the Iraq Army.

What a wasted amount of time and money to start all over again....when SF teams living with, trainig with and fighting with their counterparts would have led to success ie not what we are seeing now in both Iraq and AFG.

If you really pay attention to Iraq and AFG---- who is leading the various local national operations now against IS and or the Taliban ...US SF trained SF counterparts...that speaks to how they were trained and led.

In some aspects SF has been so far ahead of Big Army when it comes to regionally alaigning their Groups to specific global AORs.

The two ARNG Groups have become more important over the years as backfillers to a very over deployed regular ODAs and it gives a change of pace for those on regular duty who get burnt out and want to leave regular service but maintain their SF affilation and basically be with their families.

When it is all said and done the current SF manning level is not far from the VN era manning levels ....THE biggest difference is that in the VN era ODAs did not war deploy as a complete team....individuals deployed into open ODA positions WHY...the SF Bragg training was such that an individual could slide into his MOS regardless of what the ODA was focused on and or where it was based.

Thus the ODA was constantly in the combat zone and in a specific AOR and a high level of institutional knowledge about that AOR was always available and there was never any "slack" in combat operations.

A massive plus over the deployment of an entire ODA say for 4-6 months at a time then a new is hard to build deep cultural relations with your counterparts when teams are coming and going.....

I knew for example every nook and cranny in my AOR, I knew the enemy fighting tactics, I knew his habits and his favorite ambush sites and his bunker points and I knew my counterpart and his men under him...AND this is the hugh living and fighting with your counterparts it makes a big difference meaning in a really tough fire fight you knew they would follow you why because they had seen you perform with them under fire and trusted you to take them through it.

PLUS I knew the population living around our camp and I knew their inclinations politically, socially and I knew when I made a mistake it would cost me their support...I did not make many mistakes.

BUT this current Army is so risk adverse over body bags they would never implement a similar program. Would Big Army accept a loss rate of 50% KIA and WIA that we ran during the heavy years of 68 though 70????

Something else that is far differnet between the two generations of generation up through say the rank of SSG was largely single but the number of single SFCs and MSGs was above average when compared to today so one year tour rotations was far easier to conduct as no family was stressed for a compete year. Why was that??...a vast pay difference when compared to today...even at the rank of say SFC or MSG the salary was tough to support a family on thus the push on Pro Pay and language pay.

Also the reenlistment Bonus was nothing compared to if you reinlisted in SF it was out of respect for SF and the desire to remain reinlistment Bonus was a whopping 250 USDs (taxed BTW)and a unit or location of my choice.

Compare that to today.....


Thanks for this outstanding SF history. I started the qualification course in 1979, and the focus was attrition because of anticipated force cuts for SF. We had 3 active duty SF groups at the time, and the army was planning on deactivating one (that was the word on the street, could have been rumor, but it moved with the atmosphere at the time).

This was before Congress mandated the formation of USSOCOM to ensure SOF was adequately funded and protected from the SOF haters in the conventional force. SOCOM haters in SF today don't know, or forgot, that SOCOM saved us. Before SOCOM, SF leaders had to demonstrate SF utility to the conventional army to save the force, so our focus shifted to strategic reconnaissance and direct action. I was too young and inexperienced at the time to appreciate how damaging this was to SF.

I agree with your comments that SF did UW well when they worked for the CIA. There are a lot of reasons for that, but primarily it is our command and control structure that is overly conventional, officers indoctrinated in army culture, and SF leaders who confused supported the conventional force with conforming to conventional norms. furthermore, we don't recognize and listen to talent, instead we assign credibility to one's rank. The smartest guy in the room is usually the E7, but his voice isn't heard. We have a lot of latent talent sidelined by our prevailing conventional culture.

I would like to hear more about SF selection and entry training when you joined.

Bill...will answer your question in two parts...reference recruitment selection I have no earthly idea what they used and it is still a puzzlement to me so many years later.

I had volunteered for the Army out of the University of Texas mid way through my studies.....was actually doing well but VN was on so I wanted to join.

I went to Ft. Polk for basic and about two weeks before the end of the training cycle three of us were called out on a Friday afternoon company formation and told someone wanted to talk to us...

Standing nearby was a SSG in starched jungle fatigues and wearing a green beret......he introduced himself and said they had reviewed the records of 1800 trainees that were completing basic and had chosen us (3 out of that class of 1800) and would we be interested in taking a series of battery tests on Saturday which lasted the entire day. He had just come from VN and was the SF recruiter at Polk.

After we completed them he said he would grade them and see us again on Sunday.

On Sunday he told us we had all scored well and now we had three decisions to make, 1) go airborne, 2) join SF and 3) volunteer to go anywhere SF sent us.

We signed all three forms and were then told that the Army would send us to any of the advanced training schools and SF did not care where we went and SF would see us eventually at Bragg..I went to combat engineer training, one went to artillery and one went to infantry training. We said then an interesting comment ....SF knows you are coming and if there are any problems contact us.

After completing CE training I learned the unspoken power of SF in 1966.... after completing CE I was told I was heading to the 18th CE Bde VN, when I told my company CO that I was to go on to SF training he laughed and said nothing is in the records so you are heading to VN.

We only received in those days 60 USDs per month and all you can taking my last 25 I went to the Greyhound bus station where there was a Western Union and for 25 USDs sent an urgent telegram to the SSG in Polk...that is all I had.... just his name, rank and base....and mentally got ready to head for VN as a PVT you just followed the herd in those days.

That was a Saturday......Monday morning I was standing in front of the company commander being chewed out for personally contacting DC...evidently the Training Bde Commander got an urgent call Sunday from a COL chewing him out for attempting to sent a SF recruit to VN and I was to be put on an Army train and sent to Benning was on that train about three days later.

That was to me the first indicator that in fact SF tracked you very closely.

Arrived in Benning on a Sunday and was told you will have to wait a week to start airborne training then three hours later someone rushed in and told me to start the next morning as they had not seen the SF form in my records and DC had called to see if I was scheduled to start Monday.

A critical indicator of just how close some of use were actually tracked....after completing the Q course and being assigned to the 7th I thought about making SF a career so I went to the recruiter and asked what I could get if I reinlisted at that point...within a day he had an offer for Det A Berlin Bde.....not knowing what I know now I almost turned it down as for us at Bragg Det A was regular army unit....took it anyway as I wanted to go to Germany...once word was out a lot of the senior SGTs were dumbfounded as they had been trying for years to just get to Bad Toelz and how did I rate berlin as a SP4.

Second indicator.

Shortly before leaving VN I was approached by the Command Liaison Detachment in Saigon and asked what my next plans were as I needed to get my paperwork in...they suggested going back to Berlin but I took the 10th in Bad Toelz because I wanted to travel and Berlin was a pain for that.....within one week the Inter Theater Transfer was approved and even the old timers asked how I knew what a ITT was and just how did I get the 10th when they had been trying for years....

Third indicator....

At the 10th until I left there were also other indicators...I had by then reached SFC inside five years ...which only meant the death rates were high and I had three MOss thus could compete in all three so rank was fast.

the next indicator was when COL Feisenhammer the European Det Commander tried to extend me he offered MSG immediately as he seemed to know my complete SF history...when I turned it down to get out and complete my studies he said the move was correct and to do well in the university...he wished me well and I was out.

Fourth indicator...

Even after coming back into service after receiving a direct commission as a Interrogation WO in 1988 with the 10th for a volunteer tour "it was suggested that I take a two year break using the DLAST program all expenses paid to study the former Yugoslavia, including language training and vacations in Yugoslavia"...those at the Combat Intel Company (CBTI at that time in the 10th) especially the CO stated he would not let me go until a call came in and I was released from my volunteer tour and off I went back to my MA degree university Boston...for advanced international relations courses and language training sponsored by the IC/ on one...was the greatest two years of my army career and with a salary at that. The interesting key was the advanced studies could not result in a I could pick and choose what I wanted as long as the IC said yes to the proposals.

Then I ended my volunteer tour and went back into the RSTI intel training on the Reserve side and then from there the rest is history so to speak..after that I seemed to be on a treadmill with the intel side up and into Iraq and then back to Ft. Irwin with the COG team working with Bde Staffs prepping them for Iraq and then AFG.

I am still to this day puzzled myself as to the selection criteria.....

What ever it was it was solid as those that I met in Bragg had similar stories and none failed anywhere along the way and all went onto the 5th in VN or onto ODAs and believe me we as a group were a total mixed bag of personalities and diverse cultural/economic backgrounds.

But did we know UW by the time we left Bragg..we sure did.

WOW thanks for the first hand insight. De Oppresso Liber

The increase in UW, political-military «exotic» conflicts, combat in areas without governance and failed or quasi-failed states, also increased the need and demand for SF/SOF everywhere in the world.
Even countries like the PRC developed their own SF/SOF in the past 15 years or so, from rather conventional type of operations and reasoning.
Others preferred to fight those challenges outside the military, creating armed wings in their police, security and intelligence organs.

But in all countries SF/SOF are being revamped, restructured, sometimes renamed, re-equipped and acquiring new roles and missions.

There were always, though, largely unchanged nucleus of guidelines and practices, basic sets of principles and rationales, at the inception of these essential actors. These «permanent» features are still valid, and make SF and SOF units develop in solid ground, in most countries that had them for longer periods.

So «tradition» and «experience» (some would say also «pedigree») are important here, although they are not everything, as quick learning of lessons and adaptability prove also crucial.

This is true for the US as it is for our own (Portuguese) CTOE (land), DAE (sea, air, land), CPAT and UPF (airborne), Polish Formoza or Italian COMSUBIN units.

The changes I mentioned have to do with new physical scenarios and places of intervention, new threats, new technologies, but also new requirements, both operationally dictated and ordered by political decision-makers.

It seems important that this article stressed ideas like «goals», «criteria» and «standards» vs. «who should enter». The worst disaster would be a politically/ideologically motivated quota system for SF admission.

Also the tendency - in certain countries - to overuse SF/SOF as they are the ones more available, more equipped or more ready to respond is worrisome: if SF/SOF are to be employed everywhere in any circumstances and not as a tailored, precise, resource, what makes them so «special»?

Finally: to believe that SF will do always «everything», even the impossible, and not to equip, train or refresh them sufficiently, is a serious case of folly.

Nuno Rogeiro
Lisbon, Portugal

Would highly suggest going back to the SF recruitment phase and then the qualification phases for each MOS for say 1965 through 1970 and then compare it to the recruitment and qualification phases of today.

Night and day would be the result.....the recruitment phase today is based on a volunteer system and then weed out...the selection process in say late 1965 early 1966 was SF selecting you on whatever the selection criteria was then...this did in effect take 1 out of a 100 or say in my case 3 out of 1800 and fitness was not a criteria...mental fitness and agility, critical thinking, out of the box thinking required to complete a given mission was AND virtually all Q course members and then ODA member could "sing" UW theory and ops.

BTW...then look at the success of the 5th in VN in which everyone of these points was pushed to the maximum limit.

Then look at the qualification phase where there were virtually no drop outs even in the face of the toughest fitness standards throw at was considered to be a mind set game and those selected had the mindset to finish and the trainers wanted you to finish.

It was a pride thing to finish and Bragg knew how to challenge one but it was easier as the trainers were VN vets, many had initially been in the 77th and the then 3rd, 6th and 7th Groups were on Bragg thus a comingling between trainees and those trained was a given and the then ODA team members would also pass on ways to make it through the Q course.

BUT here is the big difference...the entire Q course and later ODA teams were 500% focused on UW and strictly UW.

Why because everything else in the various mission sets come out of UW...FID, SR, DA, CUW, etc.

In the mid to late 70s when SF was fighting for survival inside the Big Army the mission sets were simply put SR and DA as that is what SF "sold" to the Big Army as what Big Army could not do.

That is when I believe SF lost their way and that was what SF again "sold" in Desert Storm, and Iraq up to about 2009.

Once we were through the Q course fitness was a matter of the ODAs individually based on their wartime mission sets which each team had assigned.

Example I came into Bad Toelz in mid 70 and was asked during you swim, answer was yes and then I found myself on a combat swimming team and for the next three or so months in the pool for hours led sometimes with the SF European Det Commander leading the swims.

Then the team was ready to a long series of exercises in the Med and other locations...the same was for teams focusing on the mountains, and say denial operations.

Each ODA was responsible to be ready for the mission sets which sometimes came hard and heavy--- fitness was never a question.

BTW...another comparison...we had some small and rather thin team members who were ROs that carried far heavier radio equipment than do teams today and if they could not carry it... it was divided up and in those days you carried everything you needed as air resupplies came few and far between so 70-90 pound rucks were a normal. Remember that the equipment used then is nowhere close to what is now available at least on the load carrying side.

So again highly suggest going back to the 1965-70 days and seriously look at the selection process and Q courses AND blend in the Det A history as the grandfather and SF can finally get back to the job it was created for.....

UW and all the various mission sets levels of UW......

This is a good article that reopens an old debate on standards and training requirements for Special Forces (SF). I think MAJ O'Connor is asking the right questions, but we will fool ourselves if we think we have the right answers based on pet peeves or personal experiences. Standardization of standards for initial SF training is needed; however, pursuing standardization of SF operational units hinders our ability to adapt to the environment. SF has a broad mission set across the globe which makes it impossible to train everyone in SF for everything. However, SF entry training selects soldiers with certain attributes and then provides them the training and education to adapt to dynamic and complex environments.

Unconventional Warfare training provides a mindset and skills that are applicable to a wide range of missions beyond the rare occasions that SF will employ to conduct UW. A key component of SF basic attributes is a high degree of physical fitness, but the author addressed that sufficiently. I think it useful to view SF ODAs as comparable to OSS Operational Groups (OGs), which implies a continued focus on a high level of fitness and mastering diverse combat skills to include sabotage, raids, ambushes, martial arts, etc. Once we accept that SF ODAs are not the end all, be all, when it comes to UW, we can begin to explore the roles of women and other potential UW operators, to include the need to recruit certain individuals off the street to augment ODAs for select missions based on language, area knowledge, and/or skill sets.

The British Special Operations Executive (SOE) and the OSS both recruited and employed women in dangerous and critical roles in the UW effort against the Axis powers. They were not part of the OGs, but could integrate and participate with OGs for select combat missions if required. We’re also likely to need cyber, political, and other experts to augment SF ODAs. The type of people we need will likely have little use for putting up with Army bureaucratic crap and mindless regulations, so how do they fit into our future UW force? Do we gray the line and create hybrid military/civilian force again?

SF is on the right track now, but that wasn’t always the case. During the late 80s and throughout the 90s, some SF leaders chose to ensure SF conformed to Army standards, which are quite low in fitness, skill, and desired attributes. While most SF soldiers would strive to rise well above those standards as a matter of pride, it wasn’t a hard requirement. It wasn’t too many years ago, many SF officers were saying SF would never do UW. SF leadership shut down access to advanced sabotage training, and then attempted to shut down key intelligence skill training. To top it off the madness, the focus for a short period of time SF training focused on Army common tasks and 12 mile road marches to Army standard (which should be well below SF standards). None of this was relevant to what SF should uniquely bring to the fight as part of the joint force. These were all efforts to conventionalize SF. Sadly, it took 9/11 to bring a new breed of SF leaders to the fore that is now steering SF once again to focus on developing their special warfare skills and all that implies.

A tough but incredibly important, I believe, question here:

Re: the unconventional warfare "credibility" (rather than "capability") gap, should we look first to -- not "special forces physical fitness standards" -- but, rather, to the debacles/reversals experienced in the so-called (still-born) Arab Spring?

These such debacles/reversals suggesting that UW (although not UW's fault of course) may no longer be a viable option and, thus, may no longer be a viable tool in our combatant commanders' and our commander-in-chiefs' tool box?

This, because no one today, an especially not the U.S./the West, wishes to see another state and its diverse societies (and certainly not WMD-armed such states and societies) become "internally destabilized;"

This, via one's own, or another's, efforts to coerce, threaten and/or undermine these presently-viable, standing and otherwise functioning regimes. (Regimes that -- if left alone -- have proven that they can "keep the lid" on their own Pandora's Box?)

Thus to ask, if UW, in truth, is somewhat "off the table" today; this, because of the catastrophically negative results seen recently in the Greater Middle East, then how does this amazing and compelling fact/development effect what special forces physical fitness, and indeed other standards, might look like -- today and going forward?

(Final thought: Will "economic sanctions," thus and as we are seeing today, come to replace UW -- and indeed the personnel capable of and conducting same -- in the "regime-change-shy/adverse" world of the early 21st Century?)

And there in lies the struggle with bringing UW back to life and it's relativity. Lack of understanding of the tenants and mechanisms of UW that separate it from all other forms of warfare hurts our nation as an unused misunderstood tool of might. Full spectrum phase 1-7 UW is not always the answer. Phases of it can be applied to all of it with phase 0/1 being the most critical. The Arab spring called for a reaction in both strategy and tactics the operative word being reactive with the implication being we were not prepared.

UW is a proactive strategy of maneuvering, gathering, preparing, training, redirecting, deterring and preventing. The understanding of UW is what appears to be lacking among today's decision makers. While conventional and hyper-conventional SOF troops are reactionary forces by design i.e. once an incident happens they are deployed to deal with the problem such as hostage rescue before a hostage recovery force is activated there first must be a hostage. UW is a game of chess.....carefully thought out stratagem full of options if the right pieces are used.

Warriordiplomat, et. al:

But is UW, post-the still-born and disastrous Arab Spring, still best described via the idea of a "game of chess;" this, if -- even before the game begins -- and even before the first move is made:

We, our opponents, and indeed the rest of the world-at-large, know that we do not wish to, and most certainly will not, threaten, undermine, "place in check," remove from the board, and/or otherwise place in jeopardy any of the key components (the king, the queen, the knights, the bishops, the rooks) of the oppositions' standing government; especially if such standing government is (a) WMD-armed and (b) keeping the lid on its own Pandora's Box? (This such mind-set, shall we agree, does not occur in a game of chess?)

This because -- as the recent Greater Middle East debacle proves -- we have no follow-on game, to wit, no ability to -- with all our King's horses and all our King's men -- put Humpty-Dumpty back together again? (As we would like to, or even as he was before.)

Thus, within this present-day context -- which, as I describe above, does not appear to lend itself to a comparison to a game of chess -- to consider how special forces physical fitness, and indeed other special forces standards, might be/will be effected by this "sea change" in our thinking?

Phase 0/1 operations? To be, for the most part, likewise ruled out -- or at least to be more carefully considered. This due to (and again looking to the contemporary Greater Middle East) our new-found understanding and new-found appreciation of such things as the "law of unintended consequences?"

The Arab spring is a perfect example of a lack of understanding of 2nd and 3rd order effects of tampering with a cultures social system without a thorough study of its consequences. The greater middle east debacle proves that we had no well thought plan for post Saddam(stability in the ME)or Ghaddaffi(Stability in Africa). The lack of strategy has shown itself to be disastrous that has set the climate for unexpected consequences. Unexpected is the tragedy of it all I think most with an appreciated for history, tribal societies and the order of the region as THEY understand it would have seen it. IMO the thinking that goes into the UW/chess game analogy, is the same thinking that must go into strategy. The region has been a mess since we western nations created nations out of tribal homelands with western styled governments.

I believe the tenants of UW does exactly what it is intended to do and that is it gives options. It gives insight into the society and policy of how they do business. It gives the United States early warning of who is an up and comer and or shifts in tribal power and most important international/regional influences that are starting to bare teeth so to speak. From the micro of the people on the ground should flow the macro strategy of course factoring in economics, resources etc...

The Arab spring is an example of again not thinking with the chess analogy strategy of 2-3 moves ahead. These consequences have puzzled those who are not grounded in reality(Acadamia, think tanks)and that is the consideration of thinking that a society with little change for thousands of years to include new cultural and genetic influx is like us and therefore would react as we would with the new opportunity. The situation we find ourselves in is a game of reaction not pre-emptive employment to avoid, redirect and contain.

Again in the example you gave there was no apparent application of strategy that lends itself to adapting to the "law of unintended consequences". Again UW practitioners even if only in thought recognize that there are always unintended consequences with humans. The idea I am talking about is found in the SOF truths.

Understand the operational environment
Recognize political implications
Facilitate interagency activities
Engage the threat discriminately
Consider long-term effects
Ensure legitimacy and credibility of Special Operations
Anticipate and control psychological effects
Apply capabilities indirectly
Develop multiple options
Ensure long-term sustainment
Provide sufficient intelligence
Balance security and synchronization

To go back to original topic of UW fitness and how it applies, my thoughts are that the mind of a UW soldier must be honed and conditioned to compliment the natural aptitude one has towards UW. The mixed signals of short term operations, planning and application vs long term endurance of interests, will and strategy are not compatible. If we are going to have a UW capability and train for it we must control the mental conditioning for endurance, strength(physical and mental) and perseverance over uncertainty by avoiding the short duration mindset in anything we do. Short duration high intensity competitions with rankings and instant feedback are not suitable for someone who thinks long term. The crossfit culture of thinking IMO feeds the impatient immediate feedback mentality we live with today. Also I have noticed the practitioner are self consumed constantly looking inward which again if this is a norm and it appears to be it is not what is ideal for UW.

My two cents,
If you master the skills to find clean water, clean food, ammo supplied by enemy dead and a place to sleep where you won't get your throat cut; the natives will not only follow you anywhere, they won't let you leave.

I have to say that this article is one of the better articles written about UW and fitness. Still serving I see the latest trend called functional fitness/cross fit culture as being a detriment to the UW mindset. The mindset of many in the force is more like an obsession with fitness than a commitment to the mission. The cross fit culture is geared towards short duration competitions between fellow enthusiasts, many of those who practice it struggle immensely with the thought of not being able to eat with precision and missing the WOD's. The fitness is excellent the mindset and intense methodology is a perfect fit with a conventional DA shorter duration type of mission.


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.


There is a correlation between fitness, psychology and UW IMO. The training of UW soldiers must be different than it's current commando mindset. If we are going to mesh the mindsets with the type of mission. A UW mentality has to be of one who does not consider beyond the current phase of warfare, the patience to work without a not yet known end state. Confidence to endure the uncertainty. The mindset of our people should without a doubt include the methodical, strategy minded thinking process. Selection for Special Forces is intended to strip preparation and conditioning removing them from the equation. The mindset is what a candidate is left to overcome adversity of the events. Our SFAS has this element to some degree however today it is corrupted with the pre selection training that essentially prepares soldiers for what to expect. Though soldiers receive little to no information while being assessed there is still a definitive end the expectation of what to expect.

The main issue from my own experience is our lack of real experience with UW. In order to be good at it one must actually do it, for us to understand preparing soldiers for it there must be some reference of its requirements. I think of OSS as part of our history the other lesser recognized is the truest UW experience that is relative to doctrine and that is Wendell Fertig, Russel Volckmann, Don Blackburn and the others left behind in the Philippines when GEN MacArthur was ordered to leave. This was IMHO the uncertainty described when referring to mental conditioning of OSS operatives.

If we are going to truly reclaim UW and select, assess and train our soldiers accordingly. I can't think of a more appropriate template than a bunch of soldiers left behind, without guidance or direction from the Army and no knowledge of when or if the U.S. will return. We want to understand UW we must appreciate what it took for the American Guerrillas of WW2. All the high end articulation and studies in the world cannot capture the reality of what it takes. Then and only then can we truly talk about male/female integration of combat forces and what we are asking our potential prospects to be capable of doing.

A fitness program designed to prepare one for guerrilla warfare should leave you very lean. perhaps scrawny by the GI JOE standards of today's special "warriors". I expect a program that focused almost exclusively on endurance would be a major job dissatisfier for troops who spent years putting on muscle. I saw a SEAL PO become extremely agitated when informed he was to attend Ranger solely because he dreaded losing the muscle mass he had spent so much effort getting.

The focus today is no doubt built around short duration thinking. I can agree with the current crop like the mentioned SEAL being dissatisfied without the ability to hit the gym and eat 3000+ calories a day along with the fringe benefits of approving/admiring stares from soldiers, civilians and females. The profile of someone suited for guerrilla warfare/UW would by the nature of the job would put a higher value on endurance and a premium on mental strength.

My comment is 100% from an "armchair", but just before reading this article I had read a comment 'Crushing Fear & Taking Risks' on LinkedIn by a former UK SF officer, Daniel Simmons, which meshes in with the article. Dan has written a series of short comments reflecting his experience which are worth reading.

Link for LinkedIn users:

An easier link to the short comments is:

I was Jerry Boykin's deputy CG during the time frame mentioned. The debate was not about "dropping UW", it rather was about defining UW. The title of Mike Jones' article says it all - UW was redefined and broadened as encompassing elements of all SF missions. Mike was the commander of the 3rd Group. The capstone of SF training is the Robin Sage exercise, a UW exercise with guerrilla forces that was cited by both 5th and 3rd Group personnel as their best training for what they later faced in Afghanistan. The key element (as Mark Boyette, another former 3rd Group commander) said, SF accomplishes its missions "through, with, and by" local forces. Although it is true the perceived glamour of DA missions and, in some circumstances, the necessity that SF accomplish such missions as they are the only capable force available, does sometimes cause too much attention to be placed on this capability. But the real reason for the 70 or 100-pound rucks is you have to sustain yourself and maintain capability (move, shoot, and communicate) for extensive time frames during the classic UW mission.

'The true goal of Special Forces physical training should reflect that which was sought by the OSS—complete confidence to handle uncertainty."

With all due respect to the author, I tend to think of it more as "ability to handle uncertainty"?

There's often a substantial gap between confidence and ability.

Much as there's a substantial gap between identity(How we see ourselves) and reputation(how others see us).

Besides the latter in both pairs needing to achieve high standards, they need to overlap as identically as possible for optimal performance don't they?

In my experience conducting assessment(NOT selection or continuation training for SOF) activities, I've found that physical fitness plays a significant factor in cognitive capability(mental agility, decision making, observation, problem solving).

Classroom comfortable cognitive capability can degrade dramatically when physics comes into play carrying "W" weight, over "X" distance, "Y" height, at "Z" speed.

That means otherwise cognitively suitable candidates are disqualified due to poor fitness or insufficient physiological capacity.

So doesn't the necessarily high safety/fudge factor requirement for physical fitness directly relate to protecting/enhancing candidate steady state cognitive capability from the degradation of stressors?

The old, current, and future mission sets all require selected candidates inoculated from physical, mental, emotional, and social stress consisting of durable functional fitness, mental tools, personal failure points of reference, interpersonal skills, and life experience.

So doesn't reduced physical standards risk a "cascade" across mental/emotional/social stress management disrupting performance?

Is that risk worth the potential reward?

And is the reward clearly articulated?

If physical standards are reduced due to a change in mission set/requirements for SF that allow physiologically less capable female candidates, wouldn't logic dictate that the "main effort" should be almost exclusively focused on longer term retention of 40-50+ year old current serving SF senior NCOs who have maxed out on SME, language, area, esoteric, and life skills and still remain comfortably above any new reduced standard until their 50's-60's?

While it's not a binary decision(women due to changed standards OR older/longer SF retention) wouldn't financial and operational logic dictate that the nation would receive a higher return on investment retaining existing and long serving SF longer(thru changed standards) than entry level SF with changed standards?

Thanks for the consideration

The author seems to want more individual navigation courses over rough terrain- days on end crossing streams or climbing cliffs etc. Is that it?

What if it's not conventional training? What if it is not possible to do what is most cherished by SF doctrines? If you had to start over from scratch, with the Northern Alliance versus Eastern Alliance 102 vs 88 days (and Iraq) experiences, how would you think about it?

If you had to get rid of your most cherished ideas about yourself, and start over again, how would SF look?