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A Hard School

June 2024
3min read


Unconventional warfare “is not only a mission,” writes CoI. Michael Kershner, deputy commander of the Army Special Forces Command; it is “an environment, a mind-set, a capability driven by unique skill sets, and a framework for action.” This is made clear in the U.S. Department of Defense’s definition of unconventional warfare: “a broad spectrum of military and paramilitary operations, normally of long duration, predominantly conducted by indigenous or surrogate forces who are organized, trained, equipped, supported and directed in varying degrees by an external source. It includes guerrilla warfare and other direct offensive, low visibility, covert or clandestine operations, as well as the indirect activities of subversion, sabotage, intelligence activities, and evasion and escape.”

The successful accomplishment of any one of these complex, sensitive tasks requires an exceptional level of skill, maturity, and determination. Although there is a degree of specialization within Special Forces groups (for example, one company in each battalion receives additional training for the counterterrorism and counter-proliferation missions), every 12-man A-team must be able to accomplish all of them while operating for extended periods of time with minimal external direction or support. Consequently, recruitment standards during peacetime are extraordinarily high and training lasts up to two years before volunteers are sent to an active unit.

The present demands have forced some changes in how the organization gets new members. In January 2002, a month after the Army instituted a freeze on Special Forces retirements and transfers, it announced the recruitment of civilians and of soldiers who had just recently joined the Army. Since 1988, Special Forces had only accepted applicants who were officers or who had attained the rank of sergeant or warrant officer. Eventually, though, the steadily shrinking pool of potential Special Forces recruits from an Army that is more than a quarter-million men smaller than a decade ago, prompted the Special Operations Command to consider this move. The September 11 attacks clinched it. Initially, some 140 civilians, 27 with degrees ranging from undergraduate to doctorate, entered under the new program called the Special Forces Recruiting Initiative.

Special Operations Command has taken great pains to ensure that this change in policy is not a return to what the retired four-star general Frederick J. Kroesen derisively calls the “instant sergeants” program instituted Army-wide at the height of the Vietnam War, when drastic actions taken to fill personnel needs in Asia while maintaining commitments worldwide led to a damaging decline in Special Forces training standards.

Most Green Berets are and will continue to be experienced sergeants who have been in the service for an average of eight years before applying to the elite unit. Training standards are never compromised, and despite the fact that most of the sergeants who volunteer for Special Forces are already maintaining the rigorous regimen of Army Rangers or paratroopers, many still fail the Special Forces Assessment and Selection process, which tests each man’s ability (women are ineligible) to navigate cross-country in complex terrain and perform such tasks as swimming 50 meters in combat uniform and boots. As for applicants with little or no previous Army training, they receive an intensive four-week preparation prior to the four-week Assessment and Selection process in order to make sure that quality volunteers are not prematurely lost.

This relentless system ultimately culls about half the nearly 1,800 applicants sent to Fort Bragg each year. Initially all the volunteers who make it through the Assessment and Selection phase focus on the basics of infantry and small-unit tactics, with a very heavy emphasis on land navigation. This is followed by intensive training in the specialty each soldier has already chosen for his Army career, such as combat engineer or communications. This phase can last anywhere from just over two months for most courses to nearly a year for the Special Forces Medical Sergeants course, which includes a four-week “deployment” to New York City and Tampa emergency rooms, where the medics gain hands-on experience with many of the same types of wounds they will encounter on the battlefield.

Every volunteer then receives intensive language training—18 weeks for Indonesian, Spanish, or German, up to 24 weeks for Arabic, Turkish, or Korean. A survival Evasion Resistance and Escape Course teaches soldiers how to survive undetected behind enemy lines—and, if captured, how to resist an enemy’s attempts at exploitation for political purposes.

The volunteers are allowed to don their Green Berets only after a 19-day unconventional warfare exercise called Robin Sage (named after an early commander of the school, CoI. Jerry Sage, and Robbins, a town in the area of the exercise), in which they divide up into A-teams and apply the lessons they have learned. Spread out over some 50,000 square miles of North Carolina, the soldiers train mock guerrilla forces, made up of civilians from the surrounding communities, and are pitted against other soldiers and local law-enforcement officers in ambiguous and adverse conditions.

In an unremittingly hard curriculum Robin Sage exercises are particularly tough—and once have proved fatal. In February 2002 they left one soldier wounded and another dead. The two men and a civilian role player had been stopped by a county deputy they mistakenly believed to be part of the exercise. The officer used live ammunition to defend himself when they attempted to disarm him.


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