After nearly two decades of war, U.S. Special Operations Forces are still at the tip of the spear, leading the fight in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, and countless other places every day.
Despite this, young people still flock to Special Operations units in each branch to attempt a selection course to get in one of them. Unlike their conventional brethren, who after completing basic and advanced individual training, are sent to become junior members of functional units. While their training within their units will continue, they’re considered fully functional members.
In the United States Special Operations Command (SOCOM), the troops have to go through grueling selection courses, designed to separate the weak from the strong and put an inordinate amount of physical and mental stress on the candidates. The worthy will have to not only endure the hardships but thrive and operate while under the most adverse conditions the cadre can throw at them.
Each of the different services tailors its selection and qualification courses around its own individual missions and what the unit has to accomplish. Special Forces Selection and Assessment is quite different from BUD/S (Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL). And the Ranger Assessment and Selection is different from either the Marine Corps Critical Skills Operator Selection or the Air Force’s Combat Control Operator Course.
Where they all seem to find common ground is the physical hardness and preparation that each must not only meet the standards but exceed them. The never-say-quit attitude and the ability to function on their own without supervision are hallmarks of each SOF trooper.
When people picture a member of the military Special Operations community, they picture a burly, bearded badass with tats and every conceivable gadget included in their high-speed kit. But the gear and expensive toys doesn’t make SOF ‘special.’ The people do.
There used to be a poster for Special Forces back in the day that stated, “People don’t join us because we’re special, but because they are.” That is the truest statement I can think of.
The selection courses are just the beginning. Many younger troops believe once they’ve passed selection that they’ve arrived. Nothing could be further from the truth. Selection is the only the first gate in many more tests. In fact, a common tenet among all of SOF is: “Selection never stops and you’re always being evaluated.”
That’s why when the SOF units aren’t deployed on any given day in about 100 countries around the world, they are constantly honing their craft. Their training and the intensity of it is what makes the units “special” and not the kit they wear.
When SOCOM was in its early stages, the commander of the JFK Special Warfare Center, Maj. Gen. David Baratto coined what he called SOF Imperatives to serve as the basic tenets to which Special Operations Forces should operate. Then, a non-SOF officer, Lt. Col. John Collins, wrote these and they became part of who we are.
SOCOM adopted them and about 20 years later, they were rebranded as SOF Truths, but what they are called isn’t important. They are the cornerstone for any operational unit and can be used in both the military and civilian worlds. For aspiring SOF operators, these truths should become second nature. The very first of the SOF Truths gets right to the crux of the matter:
Humans are more important than hardware.
Special Operations troops make the equipment, not the other way around. The training and preparedness of the operator is the critical difference in mission success and failure.
During Operation Just Cause and the aftermath in Panama, the soldiers of the 7th Infantry Division frequently had better equipment than most of the troops of the 7th Special Forces Group who were stationed there.
The best special operators, who are highly trained and working as a team, will always accomplish the mission with whatever equipment is available. However, the best equipment in the world cannot compensate for a lack of a trained force.
That is why SOF has such stringent selection criteria and candidates will have to pass intense physical and psychological hurdles along the way. SOF units are looking for leadership potential and self-reliance.
The rest of the SOF Truths fall right in line with the first:
Quality is better than quantity.
This is especially true in Special Operations. A small, well-trained team is much more effective than a large under- or untrained one. Numbers aren’t important in filling troop billets, but filling those with the right people, trained for the right job, is the key.
A quality force is a limited resource and is much more preferable, but on the flip side, they are very expensive to train and maintain. The old adage, “you get what you pay for,” rings very true when talking about quality SOF troops.
Special Operations Forces cannot be mass-produced.
Cookie cutter training produces cookies, not special operators. Slapping a beret on everyone’s head and calling them elite is an exercise in futility, not training a force, as the military has found out with its shake-and-bake units.
Properly trained Special Operations Forces troops and units take years to get to the level of proficiency that will be needed to conduct the type of missions these units will be tasked to perform.
The joint integrated training within the community among the units takes even more time. The military learned its lessons the hard way through trial and error. The Army was always trying to tinker with the Special Forces Qualification Course in an attempt to standardize the number of troops coming through the pipeline. What it didn’t understand is that the standards never change. The quality of some classes coming through would change but the instructors would keep the standards the same regardless if 40% of a class passed or 10%.
When SFAS was first started, the classes were heavy with troops from the Ranger Regiment, the 82nd Airborne and some of the LRSU units. Those troops were very well prepared for the rigors of selection. When the number of those candidates slowed after several classes, the troops attempting selection weren’t as well prepped. The successful selection rates plummeted. The standards didn’t change nor did the way the cadre enforced them.
Any attempt to shorten the process or quicken it to meet operational needs only serves to weaken the force as a whole.
The remaining SOF Truths fall under the same basic premise that it is the people who are most important in SOF. They include:
Competent Special Operations Forces cannot be created after emergencies occur. Most Special Operations require non-SOF assistance.
If any of our potential candidates are successful in their quest and find themselves in a Special Operations unit, they will no doubt find themselves one day working with a local, host nation unit or militia force that will be woefully equipped according to U.S. standards.
Their job will be to work with the host nation forces to get the job done. Sometimes it will entail training the locals, other times, fighting alongside them. Often it will entail both. It takes a special type of warrior to accomplish those missions.
The SOF of the U.S. are a valuable resource that makes up less than 1% of the total force but they’re doing lion’s share of the fighting across the globe.