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Reorganization is Imperative to Fixing Special Forces’ Bent Unconventional Culture
Almost everyone in the Special Operations Community recognizes the importance of Unconventional Warfare (UW) in the current environment of persistent conflict and domestic budgetary constraints. Yet, the full spectrum of UW capabilities has been underappreciated both as a mission area and corresponding capability set. As a result U.S. Army Special Operations Command’s (USASOC) capability to execute the UW mission has declined, particularly in denied and hostile environments where UW operations are hardest to conduct. USASOC’s Commander, General Cleveland, has recognized the decline in UW capabilities. In June, 2014 he stated, “We need to address a key capability gap for “high-end” UW. By “high-end” UW we mean the full range of conditions for unconventional warfare.”[i] Part of the blame for this critical gap lies with USASOC itself, which—until it began the reorganizations outlined in the ARSOF 2022 vision–had not organized effectively for UW missions. Without dedicated UW organizations the high operational tempos and larger force requirements of the last 14 years diluted the language skills and personnel selection processes that make the Special Forces (SF) capable of operating unconventionally. The changing makeup of the force and the requirements of two long campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan bent SF’s organizational culture away from the unconventional approach and degraded UW capabilities. SF’s organizational culture has come to value direct action. Because USASOC has not, until now, organized to build UW skill sets and capabilities and has sacrificed aspects of the selection and language requirements that made SF effective at UW it will have a difficult time rebuilding the prestige of the indirect approach solely through reorganization. Without reorganization and further identification and selection of a dedicated UW force USASOC risks entrenching a SF organizational culture that devalues the UW mission with deleterious efforts on UW capabilities.
Under General Cleveland’s command, USASOC has produced two documents that elaborate on the goal of increasing UW capabilities for SF. The first was, ARSOF 2022, which outlined a 10 year plan to overcome deficits in UW capability. It stated that, “The most critical gap in ARSOF special warfare capability exists in the UW mission set…Over the next 10 years, USASOC will make a concerted effort to address this critical gap and others by rebalancing the force and developing an enhanced ARSOF capability to conduct special warfare in concert with joint and interagency partners.” [ii] The other document that embodied General Cleveland’s concern over the UW capability gap was the ARSOF Operating Concept published in 2014. The document states, “ARSOF will face several challenges in the future operating environment to effectively execute the full range of UW operations. ARSOF must design and field new capabilities to operate in denied areas.” These official pronouncements and publications have been followed by the creation of real organizations such as the Office of Special Warfare, personnel policies designed to recruit and retain experienced UW practitioners and attract foreign language speakers, and the ongoing reorganization of each Special Forces Group to include a 4th battalion specializing in UW. However, these adjustments to organizational structure are insufficient, and must be reinforced with changes to the way SF soldiers are recruited and trained. To explain why, it is necessary to examine in greater detail how USASOC’s unconventional culture changed during the Global War on Terrorism and thus what may reasonably be expected of the new changes in organizational structure and personnel.
USASOC had to meet the requirements of fighting the long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but in doing so it violated one of the salient Special Operation’s Truths: “SOF cannot be mass-produced.” A prime example of this is the way USASOC played with the language requirements to graduate the Special Forces Qualification Course (SFQC). Language skills are critical to the UW mission, and are required in every task SF team members face, from gaining the trust of potential allies to negotiating political settlements. As Dr. Turnley, a senior fellow at the Joint Special Operations University, wrote, “[A SOF operator] must be able to speak their language, both literally and figuratively…if he is to manage the balance between non-kinetic means of persuasion…and the direct application of force. This requires not only linguistic fluency but also the ability to recognize and exploit local means of getting things done. In short, he must be cross culturally competent.”[iii] Language requirements were raised from memorized proficiency (the most basic level) to elementary proficiency in 2004 to try and correct for the fact that in the year of 2003 only 10% of SF NCOs and Officers were qualified in a language.[iv]
Today only oral proficiency is tested, rather than reading and writing. This came about due to practitioners telling a USASOC study group that they never used reading and writing and that a verbal test would be better.[v] Even if this scaled back definition of elementary proficiency in a target language is adequate for rapport building and training foreign soldiers on basic rifle marksmanship and squad level maneuvers, it is wholly insufficient for the political-military work required for high-end UW capacity. Even if every team member was qualified in a local language, most teams were sent to Afghanistan and Iraq despite their regional and language orientations without a single team member being able to speak the local languages. SF teams were forced to rely on local interpreters to communicate.[vi] As teams operated for long stretches without language skills they began to devalue the skillset.
Which has led to some ODAs reportedly lacking any members who have maintained elementary proficiency in any language after graduation from the qualification course.[vii] A snapshot of officer’s language skills from 2010 reveals this situation in harsh statistics. Neither changes in language testing or constant operations within a specific area of the world have increased language skills among officers by more than 10% over 7 years:
“Of the 1254 [SF Officers]; 244 (19%) are qualified in a language. Of those 244…128 (10%) officers are at or above a 2/0/2[speaking/writing/reading score]...those at or above a 3/0/3 are represented by 37 (3%) officers…Further analysis shows that languages in demand, reflecting current OEF and OIF requirements, are spoken by 32 (2%) officers. These languages are 17 Tagalog speakers, 8 Persian Farsi speakers, and 7 Arabic speakers. There are no officers qualified in Pashtu, Dari, and Urdu.”[viii]
Not being able to converse in local languages contributes to a corresponding loss of cultural competency. It bends a team’s culture away from nuanced solutions to problems and towards violent clashes. An Operational Detachment Alpha (ODA) that depends on translators is more likely to suffer from culture-shock and misunderstandings as well as isolation from the population they are there to engage with. The necessity for linguistic capabilities in building cultural competency is debated by some practitioners, but most academics agree that language skills are vital to operating at in an environment where tactical actions have strategic consequences.[ix] Common sense dictates that one or two interpreters cannot be with each of the 12 members of the ODA at once and so even basic rapport building among the targeted population suffers. Without access to the political and cultural subtleties provided by language and regional expertise, it is all too easy to resort to force. The “force first” approach is glorified by some in the SF community, an attitude exemplified by the following commentary from a Senior Special Forces NCO: “The Army says I speak French, but I don’t speak French. I only speak two languages: 5.56mm and English.”[x]
Language skills were not the only UW capability that suffered from rapid increases in force structure to meet requirements in Afghanistan and Iraq. Professional standards of the SFQC were lowered for a period of time roughly coinciding with the surge of forces into Iraq in 2007 up to and including the 2010 decision to double the size of USASOC and add an extra battalion to each SF Group. The 2010 decision led to a watering down of selection criteria. Students who failed to pass sections of the SFQC were granted third chances, a practice virtually unheard of today. Students were also given the opportunity to switch Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) training courses after failing their MOS a second or third time, which is an option exercised only rarely now and mostly for washouts of the Medical MOS. Disciplinary infractions including alcohol-related incidents were not as harshly dealt with as they are today. Elite units rely on rigorous selection and summary release for not meeting standards in order to ensure they are the best force possible. Deviation from this brings a host of problems.
By relaxing disciplinary, professional, and language standards USASOC was able to meet expanded operational needs for SF, but in the end actually wound up undermining the image and idea of unconventional warfare. Increasing force structure at the expense of quality led to ethical failings, drug-abuse, and alcohol-related incidents, even down range.[xi] Even some of the best quality soldiers are changed by the pressures of continuous combat. A recent study in the Journal of Special Operations Medicine showed that SOF personnel screened positive for post-traumatic stress disorder at roughly double the rate—between 16 and 20 percent—of their general purpose force counterparts. The rate for combat-arms Special Operations Forces was even higher.[xii] In 2011 the problem had become so troubling that the Commander of USSOCOM, Admiral Olsen, testified to Congress that the fabric of SOF was “fraying.”[xiii] As the force frayed and the physic wounds of combat left their mark, the very idea of unconventional warfare in the eyes of the regular Army was at risk of being discredited. The more SOF looked undisciplined the more their commanders were forced to reel them in and curtail the freedom of action necessary for an unconventional culture to flourish. Major Gant became the poster boy for this in a process told in aching detail in American Spartan.
As SF’s organizational culture has been bent away from its unconventional roots by diminished language skills and constant deployments, the cultural appeal of direct action missions has increased within SF. SF should be proud of its unconventional heritage and mission set but some of its members feel they can only justify their existence by emulating other SOF direct action forces. Because of the Global War on Terrorism, participation in combat—and in the SOF community, direct action raids—is the tradable currency of the social and professional hierarchy of the Army. New soldiers feel particularly untested without it. This inferiority complex falls especially hard on the most impressionable members of the SF community, the 18 X-Rays.[xiv] The SFQC should socialize these soldiers to appreciate the indirect approach, but the opposite usually occurs. Upon ascension to the SFQC, many of these new soldiers come to revere the instructor NCOs who have spent the most time in a direct action role. For obvious reasons their war stories and deeds have more social appeal to new soldiers than the proverbial three cups of tea with a village elder. They come to covet the idea of becoming, “door-kicking, barrel-chested freedom fighters killing bad guys for America.”[xv] This idea is reinforced by some cadre who show self-produced deployment videos to their students. These videos invariably contain only “high-speed” military activities like fast-roping from helicopters or using mini-guns in night raids, usually set to heavy metal music and are widely viewed on YouTube. No less an observer than Aaron Bank, founder and first commander of 10th Special Forces Group recognized the difficulty in ensuring that ODA’s trained for UW because "these [missions] are easily neglected in favor of more exciting guerrilla tactics."[xvi] Rangers, the Army’s premiere direct action raiding force, add fuel to this fire by calling SF a “retirement home for old Rangers” and referring to SF guys as overweight soldiers “handing out soccer balls in foreign countries while the 75th goes on the real missions.”[xvii] SF NCO’s in turn heap this same derision of soft-skills on Civil Affairs (CA) and Psychological Operations (PSYOPS). This has resulted in a culture where soldiers must show themselves to be proven and prolific warriors before they can even think of becoming warrior-diplomats. A telling example of this mindset comes from a retired SF Lt. Col who wrote a book about becoming a Green Beret Officer:
While [SF] may on occasion appear to act like an armed version of the Peace Corps, we are, at our core, soldiers, which mean we are killers…. In the end, both [surgical strike and unconventional warfare] come to the same place: killing somebody. The question then becomes who pulls the trigger.[xviii]
USASOC leaders have taken steps to correct the capability gap in unconventional warfare through the creation of the Office of Special Warfare (OSW) which “is a deliberate investment…to build an enhanced, full-spectrum UW capability.”[xix] It has also reorganized the 4th Battalion in each SF Group to focus on the UW mission set. Creating the OSW as the focal point for UW expertise and UW planning support to the Theater Special Operations Commands is an excellent start. It creates an organizational structure in which USASOC can concentrate UW expertise. But new organizations will not be enough if the right people are not found to populate them. This task will be all the more difficult if the organizational culture, poor language skills, and watered down selection criteria for the SFQC are not corrected. Moves are being made to raise the physical, mental and disciplinary standards in the SFQC currently. However, less attention is being paid towards language skills or combating the bias towards direct action in SF’s organizational culture.
This means that the burden of developing a UW culture will fall heavily on the OSW and the 4th Battalions as they also work to develop an effective process to identify soldiers who possess language, tactical, and cross-cultural skills while they are still in the SFQC and divert them into an augmented training pipelines as early as possible. Separation would create a widely held unconventional culture and in turn a sense of mission. A sense of mission “confers a feeling of special worth on the members, provides a basis for recruiting and socializing new members, and enables the administrators to economize on the use of other incentives.”[xx] Thus the OSW will help define the unconventional culture and the indirect mission UW embodies in relation to the regular SFQC pipeline. Thus the organizational advantages that come from the OSW will not create a better UW capability unless they are consciously exploited to build the up SF’s unconventional human capital.
The creation of the OSW and reorganization of the 4th Battalions if augmented with supporting selection initiatives will do much to reverse the decay in USASOC’s UW capability. With enough time dedicated to selecting the right personnel and providing them with proper professional opportunities within the 4th battalion, the OSW will be able to field SF teams capable of bridging the UW capability gap recognized by General Cleveland. These UW teams with their advanced language abilities, internal selection processes, and specialized personnel management will become the nation’s premier UW force. Beyond ensuring a true UW capability exists, the command of USASOC needs to hold these units out as the teams to emulate and the ones younger SF members strive to join (much like the Special Mission Units are for the Rangers). This is one of the keys to fixing the unconventional culture of SF. For if the status quo remains, the legacy of the last 14 years of conflict will be a force that fought long and hard, but lost the ability to influence the fight in other ways. [xxi]
[i] June 16th, 2014 interview with conducted by Defense Media Network’s John D. Gerham with USASOC’s Commander, General Cleveland. Available Online: http://www.defensemedianetwork.com/stories/interview-with-lt-gen-charles-cleveland-usa-commanding-general-u-s-army-special-operations-command-usasoc/.
[ii] ARSOF 2022 is the title of the July - September 2014, Volume 27, Issue 3 of the Special Warfare Magazine which was devoted entirely to the vision of future ARSOF. Available Online at http://www.specialoperations.org/ARSOF2022_vFINAL%5B1%5D.pdf.
[iii] Jessica Glicken Turnley, “Cross-Cultural Competence and Small Groups: Why SOF are the way SOF are,” Joint Special Operations University Report 11-1, (March 2011), 12.
[iv] MAJ Jason Floyd, USA., “Retooling Special Forces Officers for the 21st Century,” (Masters of Military Studies Research Paper, USMC Command and Staff College, 2010), 18.
[v] Sarah C. Bienkowski and Dr. Eric A. Surface, “Special Operations Forces Mission-related Language Requirements: What skills should be tested?” (2013). This report is a briefing prepared by SWA consulting, Inc. for the ILR testing committee. The Project was Sponsored by the SOFLO and USSOCOM. Available Online: http://www.govtilr.org/TC/Presentations/March%202013_Briefs/SOF%20Language%20Requirements%20and%20Testing%20Needs%20ILR%20Testing%20Committee%20March%202013%20Final.pdf.
[vi] Jim Thomas and Christopher Dougherty, “Beyond the Ramparts: The Future of U.S. Special Operations Forces”, (Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment, 2013), 43. Available Online: http://csbaonline.org/publications/2013/05/beyond-the-ramparts-the-future-of-u-s-special-operations-forces/.
[vii] Author’s conversation with a serving Special Forces NCO’s who wishes to remain anonymous.
[viii] MAJ Jason Floyd, USA., “Retooling Special Forces Officers for the 21st Century,” (Masters of Military Studies Research Paper, USMC Command and Staff College, 2010), 18.
[ix] For an excellent discussion of this debate see Russell D. Howard, “Cultural and Linguistic Skills Acquisition for Special Forces: Necessity, Acceleration, and Potential Alternatives,” Joint Special Operations University Report 11-6, (2011).
[x] Author’s Observation.
[xi] These troubling trends were circulated in an internal report commission by then USSOCOM commander Admiral Eric T. Olson in 2011.
[xii] Matthew Hing, MD; Jorge Cabrera, MD; Craig Barstow, MD; and Robert Forsten, DO; Special Operations Forces and Incidence of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Symptoms,” Journal of Special Operations Medicine,12 Ed. 3, (Fall 2012), 23-35, Abstract available online at http://www.ncbi. nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23032317.”
[xiii] Andrew Feickert, “U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF): Background and Issues for Congress,” (2014), 7. Congressional Research Service report. Available Online: http://fas.org/sgp/crs/natsec/RS21048.pdf.
[xiv]18 X-Rays Describe Soldiers who enlist with the guarantee of attending selection and following on to the SFQC if selected during SFAS.
[xv] This was an actual quote from an SF cadre that the Author heard during a speech after selection.
[xvi] Alfred H. Paddock, Jr., U.S. Army Special Warfare: Its Origins, (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas 2002), 119, 151.
[xvii] All of these observations come from author’s colleges in the SOF community.
[xviii] Tony Schwalm, the Guerrilla Factory: The Making of Special Forces Officers, the Green Berets. (New York: Free Press, 2012).
[xix] ARSOF 2022, II.
[xx] Susan L. Marquis , Unconventional Warfare, (Washington, D.C., Brookings Institution Press 1997),45