Over the years, many have lamented the end of Special Forces, foreseeing the destruction of the Green Berets, a slipping of training and selection standards, and plenty of general navel-gazing about how it “use to be.” Hell, I remember buying a copy of Soldier of Fortune magazine in the PX at Fort Bragg over a decade ago with a cover story on this topic. When MARSOC (Marine Raiders) first hit the scene and declared that their main mission would be unconventional warfare, there were many in the Special Forces community who perceived them as edging in on their mission, and ultimately preparing to take it from them. This turned out to not be the case, mostly because MARSOC wasn’t up to stripping that mission away (as good as those guys are) and a number of other institutional issues that I’m not going to outline further at the moment.
As it turns out, the real threat to the Green Berets may actually be the brain child of a former Special Forces officer named General Milley who currently serves as the Army Chief of Staff. The new unit is called the Security Forces Assistance Brigades (SFAB). On paper, the SFAB is designed to conduct Foreign Internal Defense (FID), which is the training and advising of foreign militaries. Until now, this has been a doctrinal Special Forces mission. General Milley insists that the SFAB will only be training conventional forces, while Special Forces will train foreign commando units which is what they have always done. This was an especially odd justification coming from General Milley who is a former Special Forces officer. Green Berets have trained conventional forces from the Philippines to Colombia.
Beyond that, a number ill-conceived ideas related to the unit’s insignia and name resulted in some early PR nightmares for the SFAB. First, the acronym for SFAB shortened to SF is that same as Special Forces. Second, SFAB members will wear a green beret, the traditional headgear worn by Special Forces (hence, the Green Berets) which was first authorized by President Kennedy. The Army insists that the these berets are Army green rather than the rifle green color that Special Forces wears, but they look identical. Finally, the nickname for the SFAB was to be “The Legion.” This has been the nick name of 5th Special Forces Group for decades, something else that General Milley would know since he served in that unit previously. What in the world were they thinking in making these decisions? These moves served to anger the Special Forces community while doing nothing to help SFAB or its cause.
Now let’s get into the nuts and bolts.
The first SFAB brigade is currently being stood up with five more to follow, for a total of six brigades with about 800 officers and sergeants in each. The Army says that these soldiers will, “receive special training through the Military Advisor Training Academy to include language, foreign weapons and the Joint Fires Observer course.” By comparison, lets look at U.S. Special Forces. A recent GAO report shows that there are over 22,000 soldiers under Special Forces Command and an additional 1,891 at the schoolhouse, the Special Warfare Center. Additionally, Special Forces soldiers are required to maintain an array of special qualifications such as military free fall, combat diver, language capabilities and advanced intelligence gathering skills. These skills are mostly important for conducting another of SF’s doctrinal missions, unconventional warfare.
The problem is, Special Forces hardly ever conducts unconventional warfare. There was one shining moment for 5th Special Forces Group after 9/11 but otherwise their mission has been largely focused on Direct Action, FID or combat FID which combines the two. Lately, this is codified as triple A: Advise, Assist, Accompany as seen in action in places like Niger and Syria. However, when it comes to unconventional warfare, the Green Berets have been sorely lacking, despite making well intended efforts to re-capture this capability. When was the last time a Special Forces team did a military free fall infiltration? A sub-surface infiltration? Waged an unconventional war? The answers are not lately, if ever. When it comes to free fall and SCUBA operations, they max our risk assessments so hand wringing Army officers will never approve them. Why maintain these expensive capabilities if we don’t use them and never will?
The point here is that Special Forces are expensive to train, keep qualified and maintain. If you are a bean counter in the Pentagon you will quickly see that SFAB gives you 90% of the capabilities of Special Forces at a fraction of the cost. Sure, you can say that Special Forces is highly qualified, that they bring a lot more to the table than SFAB ever will. I would agree with that, but it is also irrelevant. In the thinking of the Department of Defense, they are unconcerned with the quality of the job done. Their focus is on accomplishing the half-measured solution, especially if it shaves off some funding costs. In short, the Army concerns itself with warm bodies, not hyper-competent innovative soldiers who can think on their feet.
Furthermore, when unconventional warfare missions do need to be conducted, recent history shows that the Special Operations community would rather throw JSOC at the problem. Libya was an unconventional warfare mission but Delta Force was the weapon of choice. Syria was an unconventional warfare mission but Delta Force was the unit tapped to go. Yemen was another unconventional warfare mission, but SEAL Team Six did the real work on the ground. Yes, Special Forces was also deployed to these countries but their mission was to conduct FID, the types of missions that SFAB will do. Special Forces will no longer be bringing anything unique to the table.
Yes, Special Forces has other jobs as specified by their Mission Essential Task List, Counter-Narcotics for instance. Other units and agencies can do that as well. Counter-proliferation? Not sure how much of that is even going on, but others can do that as well. Special Reconnaissance? There are probably 10 different units who are better trained and prepared for that mission than Special Forces is.
What General Milley has done, is set himself up to be the Colonel Yarborough of conventional Special Forces, spelling the death knell for the Green Berets that he previously served with. This was probably not intentional; there is no reason to believe that the General is a bad man. Without a doubt, Special Forces is over-taxed, running combat and training missions all over the world. The force is exhausted, depleted and facing serious issues regarding retention, training and recruitment of personnel. 16 years of war and unmitigated calls for excessive expansion has taken its toll on the unit. General Milley must see this and wants to plug some gaps.
A big part of this wound is self-inflicted by Special Forces as well. Special Forces has become too big, too bloated, has wasted funds, become bureaucratic, engaged in numbers games at the schoolhouse, and other cynical ploys that place metrics and commander’s dashboard computer tools ahead of real leadership. Special Forces failed to say no when DOD asked them to compromise standards to rapidly expand the force. It seems odd, but after 16 years of war, one of the big problems in Special Forces is a lack of experience. The turnover rate is mind-boggling. Guys go through the Q-Course, see what is going on at their unit, and quickly head off to Delta Force selection, drop their flight packet, become an officer in another unit, or leave the Army entirely. If people knew the real numbers of soldiers popping smoke, they would be absolutely shocked, and so would Congress.
This op-ed is not intended to be anti-Special Forces. Far from it. I am, and always have been, an advocate of military reform. Special Forces is the capability that America needs, but in order for it to succeed, it needs real leadership — people who have a deep understanding of unconventional warfare, and it needs to invest in the human and intellectual capital of its men. Careerism has absolutely gutted the force. Why are we so desperate to get promoted? Is that extra $250 added to your pension really worth destroying the unit and harming American national security?
What is happening with the pilots in the Air Force provides a crystal ball for us to gaze into and predict what is about to happen to Special Forces in the coming years. The Air Force cannot retain pilots, can’t train new ones fast enough, and is facing the prospect of their pilots being replaced at a slow roll by unmanned aerial vehicles. Aviators, like Special Forces, carry a lot of arrogance and hubris along with them, character traits that tend to be self-destructive over the long haul. But you say a little bit of arrogance and hubris is what leads to esprit de corps? Wake up folks, the Pentagon could care less about that. Stealing the black beret from the Rangers and giving the green beret to SFAB should demonstrate that perfectly well.
Some of the fault for this crisis lands with the officers who chased the experienced soldiers out of the ranks and replaced them with yes-men and Sergeants Major who act as nothing more than secretaries for “their” Colonel. Much of the fault also lies with the men. The force has gotten younger, more immature, and continues to carry their egos around in a kit bag wherever they go. After over a decade of constant deployments, something had to give. With today’s Special Forces broken, bloated, expensive, and largely conventional in nature, it makes perfect sense that it would be replaced by something new the same way Air Force pilots are gradually being replaced by remote control air planes.
Sure, the drone operator isn’t as cool or as sexy as a fighter jock. The SFAB trainer won’t have the cool guy status of a Green Beret, but he’ll provide the Department of Defense with a 50% solution at a fraction of the cost and that is all anyone is going to care about during the upcoming Pentagon audits.
Featured image: A US Special Forces soldier shakes hands with a member of the Philippine Special Action Force police unit who was recently injured in Marawi | AP Images