The Special Operations community is always under the spotlight even though they themselves would rather remain in the shadows as the “Quiet Professionals” but because of their nature, the public and the government are fascinated by them.
As a result, too many times, people in government with no operational experience, nor any idea what it takes to operate in a Special Operations environment, read up a bit and become instant experts. They then try to get involved with the training and assessment with Special Operations troops. This usually doesn’t end well.
Recently there was a story out of the UK that some in the government wanted to abolish the reserve SAS regiments, the 21st and 23rd as their training standards were different than the active component (22nd SAS) and that their role was ill-defined. Two candidates died of heat-related injuries on a ruck march in the Brecon Beacons. Don’t think for a minute that this wasn’t a talking point in Washington also. One thing in the favor of the US is that all training for SOF units be it, active or reserve component is done to the same standard in the same schools.
This week a report was issued that the Special Operations Forces (SOF) “The Role of Special Operations Forces in Global Competition,” where the focus of the SOF should be in preparing for the next conflict rather than just fighting in the current ones on-going. In it, the SOF community may have to be expanded to meet future requirements.
Both developments ultimately lead to one question, “Should the standards for SOF be lowered to meet the new challenges?” And the answer to that is a resounding No.
By their very nature, the mission of SOF is extremely challenging and the job gets tougher, not easier when the individual troops find themselves in the operational SOF environment. The individual units must identify, develop, and provide the necessary training to produce troops that can operate in their environments.
Although their standards are generally similar throughout in looking for troops that have an extreme sense of self-reliance and the ability to function with or without supervision, there are differences in each. The US Army Special Forces Selection course is one conducted with both officers and enlisted candidates together. The focus is on the mental aspect as well as the physical.
The Rangers conduct a different assessment process and the officers and senior NCOs go thru a different course than the junior enlisted troops. Because in their environment, the roles will be very different than say as a member of an A-team.
The Navy SEALs BUDS course gets physically demanding with an increased focus on the candidates becoming more comfortable in the water. While the core values of each are basically the same, each unit has dedicated its selection criteria on what their units will need to be able to perform.
As we’ve seen in the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and now Syria, the standards of the SOF need to remain high. In fact, if anything they need to be even higher. As the demands increase and the tools of the trade become even sharper, the standards for becoming an SOF member should never be lowered.
In the past decade and a half since 9/11 Counter Terrorism (CT) and Counter Insurgency (COIN) have received the bulk of the focus of SOF tasking while Unconventional Warfare (UW) skills haven’t used as much.
As the conventional or “Big Army” is standing up brigades of soldiers to conduct security assistance training missions, that traditionally have been done by SOF units, this will ease the burden of SOF units. But if history is any indicator, they’ll attempt to begin blending in missions that traditionally have been done by SOF units in the FID realm.
We were witnessed to this in 1991 when Army Brigades were conducting security assistance training missions, someone in the Pentagon said that the brigades were “more cost-effective” than SF units conducting FID and that the Big Army should become the point for those type missions.
That myth was dispelled quickly when members of Congress and the Armed Services Committee came to Ft. Bragg and were given the “dog and pony” show of what an A-team can do in the FID environment.
So while the mission priorities will change with the environment and the political climate, the core values of SOF units never will. And despite whether the need to expand the SOF community comes to fruition or not, one thing should never change. The standards by which we identify, assess and train our Special Operations Force warriors should never be lowered.
Photo courtesy DOD