Demystifying the Art of Assessment & Selection
By Maj. Gen. Patrick B. Roberson, Maj. Stuart Gallagher, and Maj. Kurtis Gruters, PhD
You are alone in the back woods of North Carolina. It is ten o’clock at night, pitch black and cold as hell. The rain is coming down in sheets… sideways? Your legs are on fire from the seemingly endless number of physical events you have conducted since arriving at the course. Your back and shoulders are screaming at you from the eighty pounds of gear that you are carrying. To add insult to injury, the blister on your right foot just ripped open for the third time causing you to limp through the uneven and heavily forested terrain. As you look at your map yet again to regain your bearings, you ask the uncaring rocks and trees around you, “What in the hell am I doing?!” No response. They have no pity for you.
This is a typical day at Special Forces Assessment and Selection. For most civilians, this scenario may sound like a form of cruel and unusual punishment. At the United States Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School (SWCS), it is a job interview. Eight times a year, soldiers travel to Fort Bragg from all over the world to attend Assessment and Selection (A&S) to see if they have what it takes to become a member of the elite Army Special Operations Forces (ARSOF).
Whether it is a Fortune 500 company or an elite military unit, good or bad, every organization has some type of systemic process to recruit, assess, select, and train its personnel. Although these processes vary widely in their design and implementation, all organizations ultimately have the same goal: field the force with the right people and accomplish the organizational mission. During the summer of 2020, SWCS embarked on an ambitious initiative to holistically overhaul its training pipelines, paying particular attention to information management and the inclusion of data analytics in order to improve overall efficiency of assessing, selecting and training ARSOF. In the midst of this overhaul, a simple, yet highly relevant question was posited: “Why?” Why do we do it? What does Assessment and Selection accomplish that other job search methods cannot? The purpose of this article is to address this question, to reflect within the ARSOF community on why this process is so important, and to demystify a process that to others may seem like some sort of obscure ritual or rite of passage.
Army Special Operations – A Brief History
Modern day United States Special Operations Forces trace a lineage back to the nation’s birth. During the Revolutionary War, Francis Marion, aka the “Swamp Fox,” assembled a rag-tag group of American colonists skilled in guerilla tactics learned from Native American warriors of the day. These tactics were employed against the British forces to devastating effect. Fast forward to 1941 when the United States was drawn into World War II. The nation quickly realized the need for non-traditional military capabilities to support French and other allied resistance forces. The solution: the establishment of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS).
The OSS faced the daunting task of assessing, selecting, training, manning, and equipping a force of clandestine warriors capable of conducting covert missions in short order. These small teams would operate behind enemy lines with little information, limited support, and unclear objectives. In concert with and under the tutelage of the British Special Operations Executive (SOE), the OSS developed the United States’ first formal process to assess, select and train special operations personnel. They used a systematic approach that required candidates to demonstrate the fitness, cunning, and resilience that would be essential to their jobs. This approach was further formalized in 1948 with the publication of extensive testing and field notes in the document Assessment of Men: Selection of Personnel for the Office of Strategic Services. This book outlined the rigorous scientific process the OSS staff used to assess, select and train our nation’s clandestine warriors. Although SWCS would not be formally established as the training center for ARSOF until decades later, the legacy of the OSS and its approach to, and rationale for, assessment and selection continues today.
Modern Day Application
ARSOF prosecutes some of the country’s most complex and sensitive military missions with minimal support, under austere and physically demanding conditions, in highly ambiguous environments. This takes a certain caliber of person: someone who demonstrates high physical and technical acumen; someone who exhibits exceptional moral and ethical judgment with little oversight; and someone who believes success is possible and pursues it against all odds. While this could be the ideal profile for many occupations in the civilian world, it is absolutely critical for ARSOF. Anything less can result in significant loss of life, international turmoil, or in some cases both.
In modern military parlance, the term Assessment and Selection refers to any of the various programs used by the Special Operations Forces (SOF) community to determine who will be allowed into the community for further training as a SOF soldier. This includes the likes of Special Forces Assessment and Selection (SFAS), Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUDS), Marine Special Operations Command Assessment and Selection (MARSOC A&S) and Air Force Special Warfare Assessment & Selection (AF SWAS). Additionally, this applies also to paramilitary law enforcement organizations such as the Border Patrol’s BORTAC (Border Patrol Tactical Group), the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s HRT (Hostage Rescue Team) and police Special Weapons And Tactics (SWAT). To those aware of or associated with these programs, they convey a certain sense of awe and respect. To those who have completed one of them, the programs are considered an essential rite of passage to ensure quality and trust in the organization.
Whatever the deeper connotation, the pragmatic reality is that A&S is essentially a job interview, even if it happens to be a particularly uncomfortable one. Like any job interview, the core purpose is to determine whether a candidate is 1) A good fit for the organization (and vice versa); and 2) Whether they are sufficiently trainable for the work at hand. Critical to this function is defining “a good fit”, determining “sufficiently trainable”, and establishing the threshold for when to accept risk in selecting or not selecting a particular candidate.
ARSOF A&S courses at SWCS (namely, Special Forces, Psychological Operations and Civil Affairs) are specifically structured to assess candidates along eight core attributes: Integrity, Courage, Perseverance, Personal Responsibility, Professionalism, Adaptability, Team Player, and Capability. These attributes are defined and reinforced through routine and detailed analysis of the job requirements. Without these attributes, an individual cannot and will not succeed in ARSOF, and worse yet, may cause irreparable harm to national interests. By linking the job interview to the critical attributes required for the job, ARSOF maximizes the likelihood that it will hire the correct personnel for the job.
What makes the ARSOF A&S process particularly effective is the application of physical, mental, and emotional duress. A&S itself generally has three major components: 1) An assessment of the candidate’s individual capability at present; 2) An assessment of the candidate’s ability to learn and apply a new skill set; and 3) An assessment of the candidate’s ability to work as part of a team. These phases are all conducted under conditions of high physical and emotional stress. The added stress is in part to assess physical fitness and stress tolerance, but perhaps more importantly, it allows evaluators to assess performance in conditions that reflect the reality of the job. ARSOF soldiers are often in positions where the stress and fatigue of a mission takes up any cognitive reserves left to that individual, yet they still must perform. By physically and emotionally exhausting candidates, it is possible to see who they are at their very core – Put it another way, they are simply too tired to put up the social barriers one might normally use to hide characterological flaws or interpersonal weaknesses. It also demonstrates what sort of cognitive capability each candidate has “in reserve”; do they continue to demonstrate sound judgment and problem solving even when completely and thoroughly exhausted?
It is important to note that nothing about the A&S process is difficult just for the sake of being difficult. Everything about it is designed to assess the likelihood that a potential candidate will be capable of doing the job; nothing more, nothing less. Those that are selected are deemed to have a sufficiently low risk of failing the required standards. This individual risk must be balanced against risk at the organizational level – specifically, of not being able to maintain a force of sufficient strength to execute the unique ARSOF mission. However, that individual risk cannot be compromised due to the cost of getting it wrong. Under this constraint, balancing risk at the organizational level requires constant refinement at recruitment, A&S, and training rather than any compromise of individual standards.
As with many technical jobs, ARSOF soldiers have a skill set that is rarely found outside of the organization. Accordingly, candidates are not assessed under the assumption that they can do the job right away, but rather for their potential to do the job after training. ARSOF is both physically and mentally demanding, and the technical parts of the job are only more so under stress. Where a lapse in characterological fitness can result in critical harm to the nation, low physical or cognitive fitness can similarly result in mission failure. Special Operations candidates must demonstrate they are exceptional with respect to physical fitness and intelligence out of necessity of the job. The ARSOF job interview is designed to assess this. Moreover, A&S informs leadership with regard to whom they should invest. Only those who show that they can work and learn under extreme pressure and fatigue will be selected to enter the training pipeline.
Assessment & Selection for an Ever Evolving Security Environment
Since the days of the OSS, the ARSOF A&S process has been designed and refined over time to assess an individual’s ability to succeed, with training, in the unique job of an ARSOF soldier. In this vein, SWCS’s recently established Plans and Analysis section has worked diligently to place data capture and analysis at the forefront of the ARSOF force production cycle employing a recently implemented online performance collection application, which is utilized for all ARSOF training pipelines. Using this data and cutting edge analytics, SWCS has begun to identify where the organization can optimize the entire system by: 1) Recruiting more effectively, 2) Refining the risk analysis at A&S, and 3) Personalizing the training that follows. While ARSOF A&S has always been a data-informed process since the days of the OSS, modern approaches to analytics have opened the door for maximizing the quality and quantity of ARSOF graduates while simultaneously minimizing the cost, thus promoting maximum efficiency. This is a significant shift in the cultural mindset to employ across the ARSOF enterprise as one must break down the barriers of past, while simultaneously ushering new systems and a new ways of thinking about data and its usage.
This new approach to data collection and consumption has inevitably placed new demands on the organization. However, as Great Power Competition (GPC) moves to the fore, the world becomes increasingly more complex and warfare more nuanced. As such, the demands placed upon ARSOF personnel also grow more challenging. And although ARSOF will continue to do what they have always done when they answered the call, the nation’s leaders will undoubtedly require more of its ARSOF soldiers. Hence, moving forward it will be more important than ever for ARSOF leadership to be creative and push the limits of the force while maintaining high standards and balancing risk with respect to force requirements and mission accomplishment.
As the contemporary security environment continues to change and world’s technological landscape flatten, we are reminded that the capable human is still our nation’s greatest and most reliable investment. We look to history, our fellow services and in some cases industry to share lessons learned on the best way to assess, select, and train the right people in the right way to accomplish the most challenging of missions. Coming full circle, we return to the question that was initially posed, “Why do we conduct A&S?” Despite the litany of in-depth discussions that were had about the science, operations and organizational aspects associated with Assessment and Selection, in the end, the answer was simple: Good people. It is good people that are the key to developing and maintaining high performing teams and organizations. It is good people that will ensure ARSOF is postured and ready to compete, deter, and win against adversaries, anywhere and at any time. And it is good people that the SWCS Assessment and Selection programs that will continue to find every day to fill its precious ranks.
Veritas Et Libertas!