Small Wars Journal

Reorganization is Imperative to Fixing Special Forces’ Bent Unconventional Culture

Mon, 06/29/2015 - 7:43pm

Reorganization is Imperative to Fixing Special Forces’ Bent Unconventional Culture

Fletcher Schoen

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]

End Notes

[i] June 16th, 2014 interview with conducted by Defense Media Network’s John D. Gerham with USASOC’s Commander, General Cleveland. Available Online:

[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 

[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:

[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:

[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.”

[xiii] Andrew Feickert, “U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF): Background and Issues for Congress,” (2014), 7.  Congressional Research Service report. Available Online:

[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  


About the Author(s)

Fletcher Schoen is currently serving as an Infantryman in the United States Army. He was previously a research associate at the National Defense University where he wrote histories and case studies of inter-agency teams in the U.S. national security system. The views expressed here are solely his own and do not reflect the views of the United States Army, the Department of Defense, or the United States Government.



Thu, 07/02/2015 - 11:32pm

IMHO we are getting too hung up on fluency in languages. I get the impression it is becoming an excuse for so many other shortcomings.

If folks think as a foreigner speaking the native language fluently will somehow impress the locals to like you or like what you're doing....think again. They basically don't give a shit how well you can speak their language like a foreigner. There is a language trick you can pull that can completely disarm this hostile suspicion towards the 'too clever by half' well-spoken infidel but you have to have spoken the language as a child to pull that stunt off.

Obviously it is fundamental that you are understood and you understand what they are saying but I don't see how a translator attached to an ODA should pose a big problem. If you promise the dude a US passport he will take point every day.

The solution to solving this 'communication' problem is your team, or a majority of your team, must have been there for 5 years. It is as simple as that. Obviously you rotate one or two at a time but there is always a core element who have 3, 4, 5 years game-time. This 5 year deployment consists of 2 years learning, 2 years achieving something lasting and the 5th year transitioning out.

The interpreter's initial language services input will eventually become redundant (as a interpreter) as team members acquire the language. The fact the interpreter sleeps in the native quarters provides a go-between as well as an Intel source.As the fluency of the team grows the interpreters primary role becomes more of a sound box between the ODA and the native population rather than an interpreter.

Technology has come a long way since I used to sit in on meetings surreptitiously in order to listen as who was pulling who's chain. The average smart phone can get the most second-language Luddite some form of translation as to what his audience is trying say ...or not trying say. Comms reaching unimaginable places means you can receive verification or language tuition anywhere any time.

But the inescapable truth is for the first two ears you are useless. There are reasons why this is so but the primary reason is not our language skills(mind you, after two years they should be good enough) but the fact that it is only after two years will the natives begin to trust you.

This 5 year rule is no news flash. There are written accounts from Roman garrison commanders stationed on Vallum Hadriani lamenting to distant Rome inability to retain troops for more than two years in his fight against the barbarians of Northern Britain.

ALQ, IS ans BH compress these assimilation time-lines 10-fold by marrying into the local community with a mixture of money and coercion exploiting the impoverished and the illiterate.

Many folks will decry 5 years in the weeds as career suicide and you'll be absolutely right for 3 good reason:
1) Big Army doesn't even believe you're still in their Army.
2) This line of duty is not for the majority of folks who want to fly around with their wrap-around shades and their boots being buffeted by Ground Effect.
3) You're in the wrong job and your country needs you elsewhere.


What a layperson might point out:

The first sentence of the author's article above would seem to be wrong:

"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."

This would seem to be incorrect, given that these such matters ("an era of persistent conflict" and "an era of domestic budgetary constraints") seem to have nothing to do with -- and, thus, would not seem to drive or provide for -- the development and/or use of unconventional warfare capabilities.

Rather, what would seem to be more likely to "drive" the development and use of unconventional warfare capabilities would be whether certain specific "problem/solution sets" (which would make UW applicable, useful and/or necessary) have presented themselves.

Herein, I am going to use FM 3-05-130 (which now seems to be obsolete?), paragraph 1-10, as my guide; an FM which provides the following definition, criteria and historic examples of unconventional warfare:

a. Definition:

"Operations conducted by, with, or through irregular forces in support of a resistance movement, an insurgency, or conventional military operations."

b. Criteria:

"UW must be conducted by, with, or through surrogates; and such surrogates must be irregular forces."

c. Historical examples:

"UW has been conducted in support of both an insurgency, such as the Contras in 1980s Nicaragua and resistance movements to defeat an occupying power, such as the Mujahideen in 1980s Afghanistan. UW has also been conducted in support of pending or ongoing conventional military operations; for example, OSS/Jedburgh activities in France and OSS/Detachment 101 activities in the Pacific in WWII and, more recently, SF operations in Operation ENDURING FREEDOM (OEF)/Afghanistan in 2001 and Operation IRAQI FREEDOM (OIF)/Iraq in 2003. Finally and in keeping with the clandestine and/or covert nature of historical UW operations, it has involved the conduct of classified surrogate operations."

This field manual concludes this section by suggesting that "the definition (of UW) establishes a 'litmus test' for clearly differentiating UW from other activities."

Now, back to my layperson's original thought above:

One might wish to note that neither (a) an "era of persistent conflict" nor, indeed, (b) an "era of domestic budgetary constraints," seems to (c) make a/the case for developing, bringing forward and/or using unconventional warfare capabilities.

Rather, what would make the case for developing, bringing forward and using unconventional warfare capabilities would seem to be certain "problem/solution sets," which would indicate that UW warfare ("operations conducted by, with, or through irregular forces in support of a resistance movement, an insurgency, or conventional military operations") might prove useful.

Herein, such ideas/terms as "an era of persistent conflict" and/or "an era of domestic budgetary constraints" do not seem to make the grade. (Decisions re: the development, fielding and/or use of UW capabilities requiring much more specific -- and much more applicable -- criteria?)


Tue, 06/30/2015 - 3:55pm

The author wrote:

'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 author wrote another eight words but with respect I believe he should have stopped right there. We have a bad habit of explaining away war-fighting in a drive-by shooter kinda way. If warfare has one useful purpose it determines the winners stay and prosper and the losers either die or flee - usually in some form of RMA-MICkey Mouse contraption.


Outlaw 09

Wed, 07/01/2015 - 5:48am

In reply to by Outlaw 09

Just a side comment on languages --a recent study released last week on what are the second languages spoken throughout all of Europe by individual country.

Surprisingly the second most spoken language in all of Europe and that means from France to the Baltics including the Balkans is English.

When it comes to the Pacific Rim fully agree there is a problem and even in some areas in Africa key languages were always a problem.

Part of the problem in say the 10th in the late 80s was getting even a language program up (ie funding and equipment) and running and getting teams to a 1/1 or a 2/2 in the basic languages.

The core reason for the 10th while it was all in Germany being successful in languages was that the entire team was taken off of the charts and sent to Oberammergau for a language training course (Polish, Czech, German, Russian)and the entire team either sank or swam.

Same process also for Det A Berlin.


Wed, 07/01/2015 - 2:53pm

In reply to by Morgan

<BLOCKQUOTE> One way to “reorganize” would be to reduce the size of the USMC (100K total?) & turn the entire USMC into the US special operations force....our own Marine Commandos.</BLOCKQUOTE>

As was discussed with respect to a recent SWJ article about a hypothetical "<A HREF="… Service</A>" (e.g. an independent Special Forces Branch), it's unlikely that the individual services would tolerate this. If such a move took place, the services would probably reconstitute new SOF units under a different banner.

<BLOCKQUOTE>... only the USAF would keep its SOF – PJs, combat controllers, etc… because of the highly specialized nature of their work and scale of platforms they deal with...</BLOCKQUOTE>

Again, this wouldn't pass muster. We tend to think of the various SOF units as plug-and-play DA commandos, but they actually serve specific roles that are, to some degree, tailored to their parent services. For example, SEALs support the Navy as underwater demolitions and maritime counter-terrorism forces. I suspect that there is zero potential for the Air Force to keep their highly specialized SOF units while the Army and Navy's specialized SOF units are folded into the Marine Corps.

<BLOCKQUOTE>OPCON all active SFGs to CIA, move the SFGs overseas to their AORs, and embed the teams in their particular areas of focus for long-terms... Being permanently based in the SFG AOR would also enable ODAs to maintain & improve their language capabilities and become actual experts in their specific area of focus.</BLOCKQUOTE>

I think there's some wisdom to this, as it mirrors some of the institutional traits that made some historical armies (e.g., the British Raj and the Roman legions) successful. However, I don't suspect that the CIA, which aligns primarily with the DA and SR missions of the SOF community, and will likely be less eager to take on the FID and UW mission sets. I also suspect that the candidate pool for even three year, mostly unaccompanied tours to some of the more austere environments on our beautiful blue marble would be conspicuously sparse.

Outlaw 09

Thu, 07/02/2015 - 4:05am

In reply to by Bill M.

Bill-- a former SF officer who I highly respect from his AFG service asked me the same thing recently.

I will post something on this as regardless of what the regular Army says ie Rangers and co--SF is unique and will always remain unique--it only lost it's way as it tried to survive the transition over to regular Army.

UW is the key going forward and I think even the new strategy review by Dempsey reflects this and definitely the new SecDef has pointed the way forward for at least the 10th.

But there is no time to waste as the global UW movement led by Iran, IS, China and Russia are in full progress and we need to catch up fast and regardless of what many say--UW will dominate the 21st century as the new but old coming warfare between countries as it is a full one step below all out conventional warfare--much like the 50s thru 70s the "wars of liberation".

IMHO the recruiting for members has to go back to the 60s--where one was asked to join ---not just the blanket concept now of try out--even at the height of the VN the "old style" was able to select a remarkable group that carried the fight even as young Sp4s/SGTs and the mission sets never suffered. Do a blanket recruiting concept and you get blanket results --great at filling numbers but not so in other areas.

With the current professional army and those coming in ---this old style will be suited to find those that really want to do UW not pull triggers--in the old days shooting was the last result as you sometimes were not the "strongest party in the game".

BUT it will require all ODAs to truly and fully understand "political warfare" and the UW strategies of Iran, IS, Russia and Chinese and others as the 21st century will be interesting just as it was for us with Che, Mao and company.

Bill M.

Wed, 07/01/2015 - 7:46pm

In reply to by Outlaw 09

SF is still regionally orientated, but the large rotations into Iraq and Afghanistan over the years has eroded that focus out of necessity. The NCOs will probably get an opportunity to deploy to their focus region, hopefully multiple times. The officers with their limited team time may only have seen the Middle East during their team time. It is a fact of life we have live with. Regardless, SF soldiers with a special warfare mentality will aggressively seek to understand the local dynamics whereever they go. Language is important, but it does not define us. Those who claim language is the only thing that separates us from conventional forces do not understand SF, but it is always desirable and even essential in many cases.

Based on your experience, what should SF do differently now to better enable us to deal with modern threats and still maintain our unique UW skills?

Outlaw 09

Wed, 07/01/2015 - 12:31pm

In reply to by Morgan

The old days SF was in fact AOR specific--the 1st was based on Okinawa, the 8th in Panama, the 10th in Germany and since it was wartime the 5th in VN--the remaining Groups, 3rd, 6th, 7th were at Bragg and Det A was in Berlin.

The 10th covered into the ME, the 8th all of Middle/Central and South America, the 1st the Pacific Rim, Korea and then in those days VN as well and since all the Companies now BNs of the 10th were based in Germany it was able to constantly support whatever missions came up.

The 3rd, 6th and 7th floated and supported whatever else that needed to be covered and acted as back fill for the forward based Groups.

And the manpower numbers were in the 12/13K range and that was no lack of recruitment problems--actually in those days--you did not go out to tryout to see if you could make it --you truly were approached by SF and then after testing you could still say no--if yes you were slid into the training cycle--airborne, then AIT anywhere in the Army and then on to Bragg for specialist training and then onto a team.

Worked well for years and the ops tempo was not slow--actually when the 10th redeployed leaving Company A behind the remaining companies at Devens rotated in and out as the ops tempo was always high as VN was still in progress--even up to 1973/74.

Now with the 5th available it would be easy to shift them around to match their AORs--cost savings are there if one does not fudge the figures--just look at where the forward 10th BN sits--in Stuttgart and it has to be literally transported to where ever it needs to go--move it to the International European NATO SF Center near Ulm--quiet and the center now of all European NATO SF training anyway with a US SF presence already.

Bill M.

Wed, 07/01/2015 - 12:14pm

In reply to by Morgan


All SF soldiers are trained and somewhat educated to conduct UW. Advanced skills are not as widely dispersed nor should they be. The fact of the matter is there isn't that much true UW work to be done beyond what the CIA's paramilitary can manage. USASOC went in the right direction with special warfare, it is FID and counter UW where the bulk of our SF soldiers will be employed. These will mostly continue to be unconventional in character, but that does not in itself make it UW. USASOC is going the right direction now, the only significant changes we need in the short to mid term is better interagency integration, and changes in joint doctrine that compel the GCCs to integrate special warfare into their plans, and not as an afterthought.


Wed, 07/01/2015 - 11:58am

In reply to by Outlaw 09

Outlaw....agreed....all SF BNs should be doing UW.

Is now the time to look at some radical ideas for how all of our SF/SOF elements are used/ organized?

COA 1 - One way to “reorganize” would be to reduce the size of the USMC (100K total?) & turn the entire USMC into the US special operations force….our own Marine Commandos. Marines have a history of operating in “Special Operations Capable” status, are already positioned far forward, enabling quick insertion and relatively easy support, are designed to be quite self-sufficient with their own ground, air, and sea assets; such a reorientation would allow the Marine Corps to justify its existence (again) and capitalize on its traditional independence, ethos, & history (i.e. The Small Wars Manual). The Army would give up all SF/SOF and Ranger units (including aviation), & the Navy would roll its SEALs into the Marines (Marine SEALs), only the USAF would keep its SOF – PJs, combat controllers, etc… because of the highly specialized nature of their work and scale of platforms they deal with. This might also reduce or even eliminate the current budget battles that occur between service SOF leadership.

COA 2 – OPCON all active SFGs to CIA, move the SFGs overseas to their AORs, and embed the teams in their particular areas of focus for long-terms… other words, the ODAs would live in their province/district/city of interest (all 1st SFG moves to Japan or PI, all 5th SFG moves to Egypt or Oman, etc…). This may allow us to develop and wage a long-term IW campaign and re-develop/refine UW efforts (through contacts with local groups), which may reduce the need to use conventional forces and all of the political baggage that goes with it. Being permanently based in the SFG AOR would also enable ODAs to maintain & improve their language capabilities and become actual experts in their specific area of focus.

Outlaw 09

Wed, 07/01/2015 - 9:57am

In reply to by Bill M.

Bill M--SF UW began losing priority when Big Army decided to reduce SF ie just another name to destroy SF after the drawdown inside SF began in 1973.

Big Army had awaited it's chance after the 5th SFGA Commander had been relieved due to the execution of a SVN triple agent who was the main 5th Group interpreter.

Part of the rift between the then SF and the Big Army was the simple fact that SF of the 50s-early 70s answered to the CIA not to the Army.

That is inherently why SF UW was so good during that period--we fed off of the OSS/CIA and the Cold War even up to 1989/1990.

When SF was transitioned to the Army the only why they could prove their value to the Army was doing SR and DA which really are just offshoots of UW and had been developed in the Vietnam War ie MACV-SOG program and the other named projects ie Delta, Roadrunner, Mobile Strike Force, Hatchet Teams and yes even the CIDG program was bred from UW.

When I went back on a volunteer tour to the 10th in late 80s they was no language program to speak of at all and the only real language abilities resided in the CBT-I and their SOTA teams.

The ODAs had be clamoring for a language program and the then Commander Jesse Johnson asked me to develop one and I together with the first new SOCOM Cmdr who freed up 400K for me--we put one together, got it staffed, approved, funded and into multiple contracts and a brand new state of the art language lab all in six weeks before the end of the FY--then came the move came to Carson, then Desert Storm and then life took a different turn and now SF is back to where it was in the 1989 when they conducted their last large scale UW exercise as part of the last Reforger before the Wall came down.

BTW the last Reforger was really a major DA operation against selected LOC targets and nothing to do with true UW. There had been no attempt to link any of the teams up with an "in country insurgency" and then branch out during the exercise and or insertion and grown your own guerrilla group which was practice until one dropped dead during the 60s early 70s.

The Soviet Union and now Russia had a inherent fear of those teams in the 60/70s and watched our exercises and SF bases like hawks. My team which had been in Bad Toelz for an exercise in Germany got "blamed by the Soviets for being in the Prague uprising and fighting together with those in the square"--why because they had lost sight of us and then Prague was hot so they just instinctively blamed us.

Even Putin as a KGB officer in Dresden had been tasked to recruit agents in and around Bad Toelz in which he was not successful if one believes his own comments.

If SF wants to get back to UW then all of the Groups should be doing it not just one BN---everything and I mean everything comes out of UW--my team during that period did everything from UW, to DA to SR, to FID to recruiting and training guerrilla units to early morning single engine insertions in countries not named for rescue and recoveries of downed pilots and none of it was high tech--even our radios were OSS/CIA crystal radios and yes even I could key in 18 words per minute and I was not the radio operator if I had to.

Groups should be task assigned to specific geo regions and their language abilities built around that region and team members once assigned to that Group remain with that Group that is the only way to built language capacity on specific languages.


Wed, 07/01/2015 - 8:10am

In reply to by Bill M.

<BLOCKQUOTE>That is our reality, we can't guess where we're going to fight next.</BLOCKQUOTE>

Can't? Or decline to do so?

<BLOCKQUOTE>How many years did it take after 9/11 until we started training our folks in the various Afghan languages?</BLOCKQUOTE>

Fourteen years and counting.

Despite the snark, appreciate your cogent and accurate analysis as always, sir.

Bill M.

Tue, 06/30/2015 - 10:08pm

In reply to by Outlaw 09

Why? Training distractions galore for one, but even worse is the increasing load of mandated training that has little to do with our mission. Furthermore, since my time started in SF we always had a hard time maintaining even basic language proficiency for several reasons. Low motivation to focus on it, frequently changing our languages, ad hoc instructors using poor teaching methodology outside of DLI. During the cold war 10th Group had teams focused on specific countries, which made maintaining proficiency a bit easier, but it meant little having a team that could speak Russia when they arrived in northern Iraq. That is our reality, we can't guess where we're going to fight next. If for some unforeseen reason we need to deploy several SF teams to Bangladesh or Burma we will have few to no SF qualifed personnel who can converse in those languages. That is reality, and in my opinion we need to learn to adapt to this reality. How many years did it take after 9/11 until we started training our folks in the various Afghan languages?

Language skills have always been a major challenge, but they are far from our only problems when it comes to UW. The author mistakenly believes we started losing our UW skills in the past decade, the reality is that UW started to lose priority in the mid 80s in most of the force. The focus shifted to SR so we could direct our joint fires. A very conventional form of warfare that under utilized SF capabilities.

Outlaw 09

Tue, 06/30/2015 - 3:28pm

Why is it so hard for the current SF to not look at the past??

They had premier UW units already in the 10th SFGA originally based in Bad Toelz Germany but then some genius moved them to Stuttgart and the same genius moved the rest of the 10th from Ft. Devens to Ft. Carson making it even longer to deploy them back to say Europe where there is an ongoing war where Russian SF is playing a major and critical role.

AND the only existing SF unit that was ever fully UW and only this Janaury 2015 became declassified--Detachment A Berlin Bde was largely unknown in SF circles in the 50s through the 80s--known only as a very hard to get dream assignment but not much else was known concerning their mission sets which are still largely classified even after 60 years.

And the Company A 10th UW years in Bad Toelz are rarely talked about these days.

A large part of the problem is that the UW training of that period incorporated doctrine, tactics and equipment that is no longer available in the inventory AND this is the big difference the 77th personnel were the core of the UW experience and there is no other experience set to fall back on as my SF UW generatiion is slowly disappearing.

Why does the military always recreate the wheel to include the USA SF especially when the 10th shortly before being told to move to Carson had for the first time fully focused on the necessary language training needed for UW--then we get Iraq and AFG and everything falls apart.

SF grew to 12-13K during Vietnam and still supported a UW mission set while actively supporting a wartime mission with the 5th in VN and still was able to build UW teams--why is it so difficult now??

UW is not rocket science and the expertise has always been there.

With the DefSec openly committing during his trip to Europe-- SF to support European defense especially in the Baltics and to counter the Russian UW doctrine of non linear warfare they better hurry up their reorg as the Russian SF is gaining invaluable wartime tactical experience in eastern Ukraine as we speak.


Tue, 06/30/2015 - 1:30pm

This is a fantastic article describing the internal manifestations of a wider challenge. Many thanks to the author.