“Free Pineland!” This is the cry many a prospective Special Forces student will hear during their final phase of the Special Forces Qualification Course (SFQC) that culminates in the premiere Unconventional Warfare (UW) exercise in the military, Robin Sage.
After many months of training, in some cases over a year, prospective Green Berets put all that training to the test by parachuting into the fictional country of Pineland. The former government of Pineland was a friendly one to the United States.
Following a coup that deposes the legitimate government, the SF students work with an eclectic mix of role players, former SF soldiers and soft skill MOS soldiers to raise and train a guerrilla force that will fight the enemy government troops and attempt to restore the Pineland government. They’ll teach them the basics of patrolling, raids and ambushes, communications, and medical training.
The fictional country of Pineland encompasses 15 counties in North Carolina including Alamance, Anson, Cabarrus, Chatham, Davidson, Guilford, Hoke, Montgomery, Moore, Randolph, Richmond, Rowan, Scotland, Stanly, and Union counties.
This unique training and unconventional warfare, or UW, training environment allow instructors to stress the candidates, assessing their ability to think on their feet and accomplish their team’s assigned missions. The political instability of the area, coupled with working alongside guerrillas who may act (and frequently do) outside of the rules of warfare while engaged in open warfare will place the teams in frequently faced “real-world” situations.
Robin Sage, derives its name from the town of Robbins, N.C., a central area of operations for the exercise, and former Army Colonel Jerry Sage, a World War II veteran and an Office of Strategic Services, or OSS officer who taught unconventional warfare tactics. Steve McQueen’s character Hilts in the film “The Great Escape” was based off Sage.
The enemy soldiers or OPFOR (Opposing Forces) for the exercise are generally members of the 82nd Airborne Division from Ft. Bragg. They provide a good test for the SF candidates to take on. They’re well trained and motivated to make things as interesting as possible. We’ll delve more deeply into the civilian role players in a follow-on post.
Other units from Bragg supply the soldiers for the guerrilla force or “G-Force” that the teams will work with. They are frequently what I referred to earlier as soft-skill MOS’ or non-tactical soldiers. Finance clerks, typists, truck drivers, mechanics etc. They know their own jobs extremely well but as for sleeping on the ground under a poncho hooch, going on an ambush or a raid, doing a recon of a target and moving as a unit tactically thru the Uwharrie Forest, especially at night…never. That’s the built-in factor that makes it more difficult. The SWC (Special Warfare Center) isn’t going to give the student A-teams a platoon plus of hard-charging airborne infantry types from the 82nd as a G-Force.
The guerrillas will take their cues from the G-Force commander, a retired SF operator who will be a difficult guy to win over, as one would be in the real world. Of course, the events are sequenced faster than they would be in the real world because of time constraints in the course. But this is a very challenging part of the exercise and a deal breaker for some.
The students are formed into ODAs (Operations Detachment Alpha, popularly known as A-Teams) – along with similar lines with weapons, engineers, medics and communications sergeants as well as a Team sergeant and an Operations and Intelligence Sergeant to real Special Forces A-Teams. Depending on the number of students in the class, the candidate’s detachments may have 3-4 rather than two officers and up to 15 enlisted men.
During their final instruction in Unconventional Warfare prior to infiltration of Pineland, the SF candidates will study guerrilla warfare, sabotage, intelligence, and subversion. The detachment enters “isolation” which is a planning and preparation phase. They conduct mission analysis and plan their infiltration, linkup plan, and subsequent activities.
No one is allowed in or out without being mission cleared during isolation. At the end of isolation, the team presents a brief back to the command element to show that they’re ready to complete the mission. It is in no way like the Operations Orders given by conventional units prior to an operation as each team member will take part.
The teams will infiltrate the denied area of Pineland usually by an airborne operation, but sometimes by helicopter or truck movement if the weather does not cooperate. After infiltration, there is always a long foot movement over rough terrain to test navigational skills and moving under a heavy load. The team will have to move hard and fast to make the time arranged to contact the guerrilla band.
Using their contact plan developed while in isolation, the students must affect link up with the G-Force. Once that has been accomplished, they proceed to establish rapport with the guerrilla band leaders that we referenced above, which was referenced above.
The student A-Teams must assess the overall security of the operational area and the guerilla basecamp, assess the training and support requirements of the resistance, and then… usually, after a brief and awkward ceremony welcoming them to the resistance, proceed with training and employment of the resistance group.
The training requirements are often challenging. In a real-world resistance movement, the guerillas would no doubt be hardened and used to living on the ground. The guerrillas assigned for the exercise usually have to be taught much of the basics that field soldiers take for granted. Many have never carried a rucksack other than a time or two in basic training. This is a great time to build a real rapport with the G-Force.
In my experience, most of our 45-man G-Force came from one unit, all were clerk typists, finance clerks and similar MOS’. But their leaders bought in right away, and the young soldiers, although completely out of their element became very willing and motivated participants. It made our job much easier and more enjoyable. One of the young men, had his eyes opened, he eventually re-enlisted to get reclassified and go thru SF. Some of the other student detachments weren’t so fortunate.
As the training progresses with the guerrillas, they’ll be tasked with a few softer DA (Direct Action) targets. Raids, ambushes, and some reconnaissance. The missions get harder as the timing gets accelerated. There will frequently be a couple of missions on-going at any given time. Each of the students will rotate through a leadership position of the team and will be evaluated under the stress of leading a half-trained guerrilla band.
Upon completion of Robin Sage, the students give back to the communities in the area by doing a day of Civic Action work. It may be as simple as cutting and stacking firewood for some of the families, adding a porch or in our case, repairing a roof as well as a host of other activities. Those small gestures of goodwill make for the continuing work the SF community has in the area such a success.
Normally the team will work with not only the guerrillas, the armed band of the resistance but the auxiliary and the underground, which are key components to the resistance and very valuable tools for the prospective SF soldiers.
Special Forces’ bread and butter is the working with and building rapport with indigenous forces. Nearly every other mission that SF is tasked with will have that as a key component. Therefore, language and cross-cultural communications are very important. Robin Sage is the culmination of the entire Special Forces Qualification Course as it prepares the prospective Special Forces operator for a variety of missions and most importantly how to work with indigenous forces.
Everything they will face in Robin Sage will be just the tip of the iceberg that they’ll face in the real world. Special Forces is the premiere UW fighting force in the world. The lessons the soldiers are learning go all the way back to the hard-earned and difficult days of WWII and the OSS. Upon completion, it is back to Ft. Bragg where they’ll join the regiment and don the Green Beret for the first time.
Photo courtesy US Army