Category Archives: SF History and Lore

We got ours for free. No wonder the factory’s on the skids.

SF Recruiting Poster pick it upIs there any headgear packed with more Francophile symbolism than the beret? The floppy wool hat was a shepherd’s cap, then the height of women’s fashion, and finally became a military “badge of courage, a mark of distinction”  (to quote John Kennedy). The beret went to war in World War II, thanks to the Resistance and the British Commandos. It was so fashionable, but even some Nazis wore them (the Panzer Corps). The French and other Continental armies adopted them later; most nations have different colors for different branches of service, but the French even have different styles of beret for many regiments (and the Foreign Legion clings to the pre-beret képi blanc). In the US Army, it was an illegal hat worn by Special Forces for nine years before being approved by Kennedy in 1961, to the everlasting vexation of the Army Institute of Heraldry. To this day, it is the only article of American military uniform ever approved directly by a president.

SF poster it says more about youAnd one time, the beret was worn only by elite forces in United States: red for paratroops, black for Rangers, and green for SF. Air Force SOF operators had blue and red ones. Even the SEALs flirted with a nonregulation ripstop camouflage one in Vietnam. The beret lost its cachet when struggling Army chief, Rick Shinseki (yes, the same bozo currently mismanaging the VA) awarded the Rangers’ black beret as a sort of social promotion to every generator mechanic and water purification specialist in the army. This drove the Rangers to a tan beret, But what it really did was make all the elite units more or less lose interest in berets entirely. Thanks to Shinseki, it was now, “a badge of mediocrity, a mark of nothing in particular.”

Meanwhile, after the Cold War ended, the conscript armies of Europe it, including France’s, converted into much smaller professional armies. The demand for berets collapsed faster than the politruk of the Third Shock Army’s hope for a retirement dacha on the Riviera. And it took a while, but France’s last beret manufacturer, a company recognized as an Enterprise du Patrimoine Vivant, or Enterprise of Living Patrimony, is on the ropes. The Chicago Trib:

PARIS — Laulhere, a 174-year-old beret- maker, is fighting to keep the quintessential French headgear French.

Laulhere became the country’s sole maker of traditional berets after it recently bought Blancq-Olibet, its only French competitor, which was almost 200 years old. Cheaper knockoffs from China, India and the Czech Republic made survival hard for local makers of berets, which have been as much a symbol of France as baguettes and Gauloises cigarettes.

Based in the foothills of the French Pyrenees, where the round and flat woolen hat was invented by shepherds to protect themselves from the Basque region’s damp, Laulhere has joined the frontlines of the battle for the “Made in France” label as foreign-made berets steal an increasing share of a shrinking market. On its website, Laulhere says: “To us ‘Made in France’ still means something.”

“There are berets and there are berets,” said Mark Saunders, the head of sales at Laulhere and an Irishman who has lived in France for over two decades. “If you don’t want to smell like a sock wearing a wet beret, only our traditional French beret doesn’t retain odors. Small details like that make a difference.”

The fight for survival by Laulhere — rescued in a purchase by French military-garment maker Cargo-Promodis with a 500,000 euro ($686,000) injection in late 2012 — tells the tale of President Francois Hollande’s competitiveness challenge. French companies struggling to compete and retain market share have contributed to the nation’s slumping economy, which barely grew after 2012 and left unemployment at a 16-year high.

via Last French beret maker fighting for survival –

Say what? Euro cradle-to-grave socialism produces a slumping economy? And France’s decades of protectionism haven’t helped? Unpossible!

Laulhere…  is banking on demand from the high end of the market to revive its fortunes after its bankruptcy in 2012.

Laulhere, which had 1.7 million euros in sales last year and didn’t make a profit, expects “to break even this year,” he said.

Ah, “break even.” Dans la belle France, they call that la victoire.

The company plans to produce 200,000 hats this year, up from 160,000 in 2013. Half of its beret production goes to armies around the world. The rest goes to the fashion industry and to traditional wearers of the headgear.

Men’s berets from Laulhere can cost anywhere from 40 euros to 75 euros, while women’s are priced between 20 euros and 95 euros. Imports can cost as little as two euros.

Get outa here. They’re having a hard time selling hundred-plus-dollar berets? When the competition sells for three bucks? How could that possibly be?

Global competition has come from berets manufacturers in China, Pakistan, India and the Czech Republic, where the company Tonak a.s. produces fashion berets for women.

Until the late 1980s, France produced several million berets each year. Sales slid for decades, with cheaper products made in Asia. The nail in the coffin came in 2001 when the French military ended conscriptions, eliminating hundreds of thousands of army orders.

The end of the draft appears to have done for their captive market. Because after all, who’s more captive than a draftee? Well, prisoners, but even in France, they don’t wear, “a mark of distinction, a badge of courage.” (By the way, where do they keep the cons, now that they tore down the Bastille and Devil’s Island is gone to weeds?)

Maybe SF needs to go to the pakol to maintain its traditions?

Maybe SF needs to go to the pakol to maintain its traditions?

It’s hard to see how Laulhere — or any other European high-cost, low-automation manufacturer — survives in a global world. The executives’ plans to take the company upmarket make as much sense as anything. Luxury goods can sell on snob appeal, and luxury sellers can successfully brand and sell handcraft work. In the luxury market, overpriced goods are valued for their sheer signaling potential. They tell people you have enough money to be careless with it. So maybe they do have a chance. It would be nice to see them succeed. But there is a faint aroma of buggy-whip about the whole thing.

Would you pay a hundred bucks for a beret? Hell, the Q course is still giving them out for “free.” That’s how we got ours. Back when it still was, “a mark of distinction, a badge of courage.”

A unit “truly without equal”

From 1956 to 1984, a secret unit of select Special Forces men existed behind de facto Russian lines in the enclave of West Berlin. The existence of the unit, called the 39th Special Forces Company, or Berlin Brigade Detachment A, is now declassified, and the men who made it up have been honored at the US Army Special Operations Memorial Plaza. The quote in the title came from USASOC CG Charles Cleveland, who said also that they “played a crucial role in vanquishing an existential threat to our country and our way of life.”

Det A memorial stone is unveiled by CW4 Jimmy Spoo and MG Sid Schacknow, (both ret'd). Bob Charest seated left. Charlie Cleveland, seated r.

Det A memorial stone is unveiled by CW4 Jimmy Spoo and MG Sid Schacknow, (both ret’d). Bob Charest seated left. Charlie Cleveland, seated r.

Cleveland sees Det A, as SF men have long known the unit, as not only a success on its own level, but as a model for today’s Special Forces soldiers. “[T]hough the mission is hard, carries untold risk and is fraught with uncertainty, it is one that has been done before and done well by the Special Forces professionals of Det. A,” he said. Major General Cleveland was joined by Det veterans Gene Piasecki (the last CO), Sid Schacknow, Jimmy Spoo, and Bob Charest.

Very little of Det A’s operations have been declassified, although the unit’s participation in the ill-fated Iranian hostage rescue of 1980 has been widely reported. This is largely because the clandestine tactics, techniques and procedures, and operational intelligence sources and methods, employed by the unit, are evergreen and must be preserved for the future — and, perhaps, the present. The Army press release:

Detachment A was created from carefully screened and selected members of the 10th Special Forces Group, located in Bad Toelz, Germany. In August 1956, six Operational Detachment Alpha teams and a staff element left Bad Toelz in privately owned vehicles for Berlin.

On 1 September 1956, the organization officially moved to the top floor of building 1000B at McNair Barracks, West Berlin and was designated as the Security Platoon, Regimental Headquarters, 6th Infantry Regiment, APO 742, Berlin, Germany.

It was out of Berlin, where the detachment was stationed, that Detachment A deployed from in order to conduct their highly dangerous missions deep into East Germany.

On the snow-covered USASOC memorial plaza, about 40 Detachment A members and their families made their way to their seats as the ceremony began.

After rendering Honors to the Nation, the memorial stone was unveiled by Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Sidney Shachnow, a former commander of Det. A, and Chief Warrant Officer 4 (Ret.) Jimmy Spoo, an intelligence sergeant on Team Four from 1981-1984.

Bob Charest (MSG, Ret.) speaks at the ceremony.

Bob “Snake” Charest (MSG, Ret.) speaks at the ceremony.

Master Sgt. (Ret.) Bob Charest, the senior communications sergeant on Team One Scuba Team from 1969-1972 and 1973-1978, stated: “Today is a very historic moment. It took a lot of time, a lot of effort, to get this stone and get it in the ground.”

The idea originated from Spoo, who was willing to pay for the stone himself. Charest got the members of Det. A involved. Collectively, they raised enough money to pay for the stone and $2,000 extra that they will give to the Green Beret Association.

The memorial stone is engraved with a depiction of the Berlin Wall falling with the SF distinctive unit insignia, Special Forces Tab, and a set of Master Parachutist Wings.

“For many here, the dedicating of this beautiful stone closes a circle, and for all of us it renders fitting recognition for a group of quiet professionals that is long overdue,” said Lt. Gen. Charles T. Cleveland, U.S. Army Special Operations Command commanding general.

After the stone was unveiled, the Detachment’s Colors were cased and permanently retired by Lt. Col. Eugene G. Piasecki, and Command Sgt. Maj. George Bequer, USASOC Command Sgt. Maj.

Detachment A’s Colors are special in that they are an anomaly. Det. A’s original request that it be issued organizational colors was denied due to the fact 39th Special Forces Detachment and its location in Berlin was classified. The Detachment then resubmitted the request to the Berlin Brigade and Berlin Command asking that Colors be issued to Detachment A Berlin Brigade. To the unit’s surprise, the request was approved.

via Detachment A recognized for Cold War efforts in commemorative stone laying ceremony | Article | The United States Army.

Det A instigated, underwent or hosted a number of interesting events over the years. They also had some run-ins with conventional buzz-cut Berlin Brigade bosses who didn’t like the idea that a “rabble” of SF guys with European clothing and hairstyles were operating under their noses, impersonating civilians (and foreign ones at that), and sometimes doing operations the details of which even the commander himself had no “need to know.” One of these commanders’ deputies took great measures to try to “expose” the unit, including demanding uniforms, haircuts, and formations. The deputy got the men into uniform, at least once, when the Berlin Brigade commander was out of the city, but it cost him his own hopes of promotion, and he retired as a colonel after one more assignment. (NB that we were not there for this, but it’s a legend in SF, so like most legends it might be a little off. Last we heard the SF-hating deputy was very ill with Alzheimer’s. Wouldn’t wish that on anybody, even him).  

Perhaps in fifty more years, some of the stories of Detachment A will be released.

The Berlin Brigade itself was an interesting force with an interesting war plan. A small American force, it certainly wasn’t an insuperable problem for the 22-division Group of Soviet Forces in Germany, but it was a problem nonetheless, and had the mission of delaying and disrupting a Russian attack in the event of The Big One. (There were even smaller token French and British elements in Berlin. Under the 4-Power Treaty, neither the West nor East German armies were permitted in the occupied city). But one reason the Brigade planned to sell itself dear in a lopsided Alamo-like situation was to allow American and Allied intelligence operations in the city — including the men of Det A — time to disperse, or in the case of technical collectors, to shut down and destroy classified materials and equipment. Berlin was extremely useful as an intelligence platform that was, as it happened, deep in the midst of the enemy’s forces (and his emitters). And that all came about by accident of the treaties that closed World War II and the events which transitioned a wartime alliance into a non-shooting (mostly) Cold War.

The MP5 is not dead yet

We in the combat-American minority community tend to think of the MP5 as something passé: H&K blew the chance to sell millions of the things to the US military when they resolutely refused to re-engineer it for .45. Instead — during the Because you suck, and we hate you period explained here — making a 10mm version for black-clad Federal ninjutsu teams exclusively. That was one of the more boneheaded moves in the history of firearms marketing: FBI and ATF have about 5000 Special Agents each; the Army could have bought many times that number of .45 versions. The FBI, at least, still uses the 10mm MP5 lightly. The ATF’s best day with the gun was fatally backshooting one of their own agents with it through a wall at Waco.

H&K's most common MP5 variant, the MP5A3.

H&K’s historically common MP5 variant in SOF world, the MP5A3.

Meanwhile, SOF discovered the limitations of the MP5, with which they’d been deeply in love. The weapon did not have the simplicity and durability of a STEN gun or M3 grease gun. But the principal problem was the limitation of the MP five to a pistol cartridge. It didn’t matter what pistol cartridge were talking about: it was a short range proposition, great for door kicking, but when the occasional longer shot came up the MP5, like any submachinegun, couldn’t deliver the goods. The parabolic trajectory of the 9 mm around, let alone something like the .45 that we wanted but they never built, meant that you were out of business at 200 yards. The high quality and accuracy of the MP5 with its locked breech was the only reason you were still in business at 200 yards.

This all came to ahead in Grenada in 1983. It was a win for the USA, but it was an ugly win. Navy A6 aircraft bombed an 82nd Airborne Division position. The Rangers transported hundreds of tons of ammunition to the island, including every single 90 mm round in the inventory, which the Air Force then would not let them re-embark on the aircraft: so it wound up being blown in place. reporters, steeped in the anti-military ethos of the 1960s, were running all over the island looking for American atrocities that didn’t happen. So they latched onto the fact that some paratroopers “liberated” the Cuban Ambassador’s Mercedes for local transportation, and demanded those guys be prosecuted for a “war crime.” And the SEALs, and their MP5s, had a bunch of problems.

The SEALs’ problems are recounted generally online by the SEAL/UDT museum. One SEAL element and their rubber boats never assembled with their teammates, and those four SEALs remain missing to this day. But while the operation was still on, our friends in ARSOF HQ at Fort Bragg were already hearing complaints from frogmen whose MP5s had been outranged in the fight. Apart from the four men of ST6 lost at sea, none of the engaged SEALs died (a number were wounded, and decorated for valor). They were around, they were vocal, and everyone in the community heard the bark of these SEALs.

By the invasion of Panama in 1989, while there were still MP5s in the arms rooms, the hot ticket for all-round use was a short rifle that Colt called the M16 Carbine. The first ones were M16A1s with the sliding stock and short gas system of the old XM177 series, and a 14.5″ barrel. (The longer barrel, same as the rifle from the gas port forward, gave the short gun a similar pressure curve to the rifle, and increased reliability and durability over the Vietnam era CAR-15, at the cost of not looking quite as cool). The Navy, in fact, wound up leading the charge to replace both long rifles and short SMGs with an intermediate-sized, more capable carbine.

When the Oberndorf metalsmiths came out with a new submachine gun, the largely polymer UMP, the reaction in American special operations circles was a shrug: that ship had sailed. This time, they even made it in .45, but it was too late. 20 years earlier, they could have sold 300,000 .45 MP5s to the US Army. We’d be surprised if they sold 300 UMPs to the SOF world.

So we always assumed that the MP5 had gone out of production along with the rest of the roller-locked generation of H&K weapons. Imagine our surprise when we learnt it not only hasn’t, but has recently been upgraded.

MP5MLI- HK official

The gun was of course subject to many improvements in its life cycle. (Digging in some old boxes that hadn’t been cracked since the 1980s, we found evidence of that: straight and curved MP5 magazines in an old Rhodesian-style pouch). But HK is calling the new version the “Mid Life  Improvement,” which may not be entirely honest (isn’t it more of a “last gasp?”) but works as a portmanteau for holding all the current improvements:

  • Pickatinny rail on the receiver. The rail is proprietary, quick-detachable, and is claimed to return to zero. This is officially called the QRTR: Quick Release Top Rail.
  • More rails, left right and underneath the modular slimline forearm. These rails are detachable with a tool.
  • The stock is now a three-position one. The old stocks were either in or out and so not ideal for use with body armor. A small change (and one some units had made with a file!) but a welcome one.
  • Polymer parts in a new brownish color, including the trigger housing, the butt, and even the cocking handle knob.
  • A new finish which is claimed to provide better durability, and infrared-observation protection, compared to previous finishes. It has a distinctive color, RAL 8000 (RAL is a European color-matching firm like Pantone in the USA). The Germans call in a brown/green (braungrün) and in some photos, it does look like sort of a brown/green — almost like a World War II Olive drab, maybe a little more brown than that. But in HK’s official images, like the one leading this article, it’s much lighter, like a mustard brown. Better yet — the tank modelers say RAL 8000 is the color used by the Deutsche Afrika Corps in 1942. The guys who have test driven the gun call it “babyshit brown.” (Hey, we report, you decide). Anodizing, powder coating, and ceracote-type finishes being what they are, MP5 MLIs and G28 DMR rifles (also being shipped in RAL 8000) often are color-mismatched from part to part.

HK MP5 MLIThe HK system, of course, was always designed to be modular in the first place. Because of its compactness and caliber the MP5 offered less interchange with the full-size rifles and MGs than they had with each other, but people forget how radical the idea of knocking out two pins and going from a sliding, compact stock to a full-size stock with a good cheek weld was, back in the 1970s. You could honestly say that these guns were modular before modular was cool. 

It’s a pity that HK can’t export the HK 94 to the USA, but as a German company they’re in a hell of a jam between restrictive American import laws, and restrictive German export laws, and the two sets of laws are restrictive in different ways.

Hat tip: Bag Full of Guns, which probably got it from somewhere else, but that photo site is where we found it.

Assignment Iran

SF1CRESTThe Big Picture was a TV series produced on 16mm film by the Army Pictorial Center in New York from approximately 1951 to 1971. This episode is believed to be from 1961 and is called Assignment: Iran. It tells the story of 1LT, later CPT, Paul Wineman and his training as a Special Forces officer and then as a Military Assistance Advisory Group member, and his deployment to Iran to serve as an advisor to the Iranian Special Forces Group.

It may surprise people to know that the USA and Iran were once allies, but we were; and the alliance was based upon mutually compatible national interests, during the Cold War.  The Iranian forces had to fight, from time to time, infiltrators from the USSR (often Baluch separatists), as well as separatist Kurds. In the Kurds’ singleminded pursuit of a homeland, they played Iran, Iraq, and Turkey against each other, sometimes with support from other nations including Britain, the USA, the USSR, and Israel; none of those nations’ support could be depended upon, because a diplomatic volte-face would inevitably lead to the sponsoring nation pulling the plug on the sponsored guerillas.

On to the movie. A few details to watch for: in 1961, the standard rifle in both the US and Imperial Iranian armies was the M1 Garand. But what’s the submachine gun the Iranian officers sometimes carry? (Hint: Iranian king Reza Shah was neutral, but favored the Axis in WWII). Reza Shah is an interesting character; he abdicated when the Allies — UK and USSR — invaded his country. Afterwards, his son Mohammed Reza Shah invited American advice and assistance.

Also, the classrooms and language lab in Monterey, CA, were little changed in 1979 from the way they’re shown here.

via Big Picture: Assignment Iran : National Archives and Records Administration : Free Download & Streaming : Internet Archive.

Finally, notice that the officer students in the film wear the green beret. This is not done any more: only graduated, qualified Special Forces wear the green beret (nowadays, support personnel in an SF unit wear the SF unit’s flash on the airborne-forces maroon beret). But for many years, non-qualified personnel, including SF candidates in SF school, wore the green beret, but were distinguished from fully qualified SF by their lack of a beret “flash,” the inverted tombstone an SF soldier wears on his beret behind the regimental distinctive unit insignia (crest) or, in the case of officers, rank.

Wineman and his training cohort are wearing green berets, but with the “unit recognition bar” or candy-stripe of their upcoming units. This was fairly standard; at least, until the creation of the Special Forces Tab provided an at-a-glance way to tell the qualified from the “un-”.

Later, at language school, he does not wear the beret, the SF patch, or the SF distinctive unit insignia (crest). That’s because the year-long Farsi school was a permanent change of station, requiring SF students along with everyone else (most of the students at language school are intelligence soldiers) to wear the school’s parents’ insignia.

The Iranian Army Special Forces were subjected to an extreme purge after 1979. Commamders and officers were sentenced to death in secret trials, conducted by unlettered mullahs with no defense attorney (or defendant) present; NCOs were sentenced to death or indeterminate periods of imprisonment. Some survivors were involved with the ill-fated resistance group, Iran Azad; some who had been imprisoned were allowed to die for Iran in the Iran-Iraq war in Soviet-style penal units. Others escaped into exile. The death sentences are still carried out, worldwide, whenever the mullahs and their flunkies can find any loyalist of the ancien régime.

We grew curious about Paul Wineman and wonder what became of him. We do not believe that he served in Vietnam.  We believe he is the author of several books on negotiating and co-author of a novel available on Amazon, based on the biography of that author, “Paul R. Wineman”.

Hundreds of these Big Picture shows were made, and they were shown on broadcast TV, at one time on dozens of stations, as “public service” programming. There are quite a few of them that have a Special Forces nexus. Many of the shows have not survived in public or private archives; now, they’re history, but then, they were ephemera. The SF-themed shows were a little more likely to have been ratholed by someone on videotape.

The First 3 Days in the Guard SF Pipeline

SF1CRESTThe Special Forces pipeline is simple and complicated. It’s simple, because all the potential SF trooper has to do is get himself to the starting point with his paperwork in order, do what he’s told, never quit, and go on to the next phase.

It’s complicated because the Army can’t resist applying Good Idea Fairy techniques to the order, structure, and number of the phases; and being the Army it has more ways to botch the paperwork that Uday Hussein had of killing people. But in the end, we gets our candidates into the top of the hopper, and we manage to shake a few of them out the bottom as qualified, tabbed, ready-to-join-a-team-and-learn SF soldiers.

For the workaday Active-Duty Army, a turn onto the road less traveled by, that is to say, to SF, begins with a personnel action request, which in our day was a paper form called a DA 4187. Assuming the candidate gets the prerequisites and paperwork (including a medical exam) all correct, it’s off to Camp Mackall outside Fort Bragg, where Special Forces Assessment & Selection takes place.

The Guard uses the same pipeline as active duty these days, but its soldiers enter it slightly differently. Most units now conduct a one-drill-weekend preselection to identify candidates that are suitable to send to SFAS. The candidates come from elsewhere in the Guard and Reserve, and even from other services’ reserve components. (Yes, some SF soldiers started in the Navy or Marines, and a few weren’t in the service at all, just the Air Force).

The first unit to do this preselection systematically, to the best of our knowledge, was C 1/20 SF; they called their program the SF Orientation Program, SFOP, and it was led by many good NCOs but the one who stamped his character on it was MSG Conrad Hansen, who had the unusual distinction of serving in both Marine and Army elite recon units in Vietnam (Force Recon, and Charlie Rangers).

C 1/20 soon was getting higher pass rates than the other Guard units, thanks to preselecting a higher quality of candidate; and to the best of our knowledge, all Guard units do something similar now. The NC and TX elements have their own spin on it and get similarly excellent results. This is an official Army video that, in a minute and a half, tries to communicate something of Guard SF preselection, as run by B 1/20 in North Carolina.

Note that weapons don’t loom large in preselection, and there’s no shooting. Plenty of time for that once the men are selected — primarily, it turns out, for character.

Units have different names for the exercise, but it has many things in common. It begins Friday night with inprocessing, minimal paperwork, and a PT Test to Army standards (of course, while only failing the standard gets one rejected at this point, we expect the candidates to be highly competitive with one another. It continues through to Sunday — for those candidates who do not quit — with lots of PT, including swimming; teamwork exercises; leadership evaluations and very little food or rest. Among other things, it’s a gut check, and some of the candidates probably get through it thinking that that was all it was. The candidates are always supervised and observed; the cadre, and any other available tabbed SF guys, are always taking notes. The purpose of a particular evolution may not be what the candidates are told it is.

Because candidates do their best to “G-2 the course,” the sequence and weight of different parts of preselection are subject to change. But certain things will always happen: there will be a lot of PT; there will be teamwork, leadership and memory tasks; there will be a chance to sink or swim (literally); there will be some navigation exercises; and there will be a long overland movement against a timed standard — with the students not knowing what the standard is, only that there is one.

At any point, a candidate can quit. Most will, even though this weekend is trivial compared to what they would experience at SFAS and SFQC.

Sunday, there’s en exit PT test for the remaining players, again, to Army standards. Only now it’s testing exhausted, sleep-deprived, and usually angry young men.

Sunday afternoon, candidates usually face a board of tabbed SF officers and/or NCOs. Unlike every other board in the Army, the board members need not outrank the candidates — they’re already ahead on the one qualification that counts here. The board will have previously discussed the remaining candidates. The fates of some are obvious: some soldiers are clearly cut out for this, some are just as clearly not. The tabbed men usually have little trouble reaching consensus on the majority of any given class. Some candidates are on the bubble: they could go either way. Some of these produce passionate discussions. The fates of the candidates are not yet graven in stone.

They are brought in one at a time for a brutally frank debrief on their performance over the weekend. This is a candidate’s last opportunity to make a good (or bad) impression; weakness is something everyone has, but unawareness of one’s weaknesses is not a good portent for SF service.

After the discussion, the board votes on the candidate (usually with him outside the room) and then brings him back in to hear the verdict. There are three possible outcomes:

  1. Admission to the program. This is what all the candidates wanted, and most still want. The candidate can then either go to SFAS or undergo some preparation under the mentorship of a training NCO. We’ve learned from experience that too long on the “training team” seems to reduce a candidate’s odds at SFAS and SFQC, so the objective is to get the candidate prepared and shipped ASAP. The limiting factor is often the troop’s civilian life: SFAS/SFQC is a commitment to a minimum of a year away from home, and often more nearly two years. It’s a strain on jobs, schools, and relationships just at the point in a young man’s life where all of these are usually pretty demanding.
  2. Rejection. In this case the board advises the candidate that they don’t consider him a likely SF trooper, and tells him why. The candidate may not return for another shot at SF. (After enough of an interval, he may be able to appeal his way out of the hole, particularly if he can demonstrate correction of deficiencies, but this is usually the end of the line).
  3. Rejection with conditional readmittance. In this case, the candidate is not ready to go to SFAS now, and needs to overcome some deficiency. Sometimes the prescription is a particular form of exercise or other personal development; sometimes it’s to gain some maturity and military experience elsewhere in the Guard. A very high ratio of those readmitted succeeds on a second (or subsequent) shot.

There have been preselections that have yielded only one candidate, and some that have yielded none. Humans are more important than hardware; SF can play shorthanded and win, if we hold the line on quality.

Foreign & Obsolete Weapons Training

SF NCOs conduct mechanical training on AK rifles for troops of the Malian Army.

SF NCOs conduct mechanical training on AK rifles for troops of the Malian Army.

When we attended what was then Light Weapons School (then Phase II of a Weapons Man’s SFQC), the stress was on mastering the mechanical operation and employment of foreign and obsolete small arms. Given the environmental changes of the last thirty years, the current course has lots more shooting and teaching-of-shooting (big improvement), lots more base defense and tactics, includes heavy weapons training including weapons that were then-novel and not included in a Heavy Weapons NCO’s training (like ATGMs and MANPADs) and is nearly twice as long. (In 2014, it becomes fully twice as long).

One of the things that’s been cut to make room for the course improvements, is a lot of the foreign and obsolete weapons training. We understand why, but believe that foreign and obsolete weapons training is good for not only SF but also for other members of combat units.

In World War II, paratroopers were taught to manipulate the enemy’s small arms, and that seems like a no-brainer. For SF, who are likely to operate with irregulars armed in part via battlefield recovery, this is obviously important, too.

Foreign weapons mechanical training has the following benefits:

  1. It builds confidence in US weapons, which are equal to or better than their world competitors at this time.
  2. It enables troops to use Allied and enemy weapons should they be required to in combat.
  3. It gives troops a chance to see foreign weapons at all ranges, including up close, and at all angles, increasing their ability to identify foreign equipment from photographic or personal reconnaissance.
  4. It demystifies foreign, especially enemy, forces to see and handle their weaponry.
  5. It is mentally engaging and physically confidence-inspiring.

Mechanical training is good, but to take it to the next level, the combat unit should consider foreign weapons firing training. This requires more instructors, armorer-certified weapons, ranges, and ammunition.

Foreign weapons range firing does all the same things that mechanical training does, and adds benefits to each. For example, attempting to zero and fire an AK for record makes one truly appreciative of the sights and inherent accuracy in the M16 and M4 series of weapons.

Live fire training does additional things besides.

  1. Accustoms the students to the sound of enemy weapons. Most enemy weapons have distinct reports that experienced combat troops learn to recognize. Firing foreign weapons on the range accelerates this learning so that it need not be done under fire and at great risk. Along with the individual sound of gunshots, most auto weapons have distinct rates of fire. This benefit is amplified if the troops can hear the weapon from distinct angles safely, particularly from downrange (i.e., in a target-butt trench).
  2. Accustoms the students to the sight of enemy weapons. (Dust, muzzle flash by day and night, distinct tracer appearance, etc).
  3. Prepares the students much better to fire a battlefield-recovered weapon, should that be necessary.

Obsolete Weapons training has fewer distinct benefits, but is still helpful.

  1. It helps them position current US weapons longitudinally in weapons and technological history.
  2. If enough versions of weapons are available, it can prepare students for an encounter with novel weapons, by giving them a wide range of operating principles and maintenance procedures to consider.
  3. It does help in those environments where obsolete weapons are likely to turn up — a set which includes many war zones. For example, Czech ZB-26 light machine guns, Egyptian “Port Said” copies of the Carl Gustav M45B submachine gun, and long-obsolete Russian DP-series machine guns were widely encountered in the early days in Afghanistan. Long-outdated M1 Carbines still turn up worldwide, as do STEN guns; Syrian rebels found a cache of German MP-44s.
Marine fires a PKM light machine gun in training provided by International Police Supply, a contractor.

Marine fires a PKM light machine gun in training provided by International Police Supply, a contractor.

While the US Army once had the capability to conduct this type of training, it destroyed its in-house capability with multiplying and metastasizing bureaucratic regulations. At one time, to fire a foreign weapon, it needed to be “certified” by a specific office at Aberdeen Proving Ground. The office granted a one-year certification that took over a year for them to issue, so that you needed to have three of any given weapon in order to have one available to shoot regularly. In practice, any gunsmith or armorer with his ordinary tools and a set of headspace gages should be able to pass judgment on the safety of a foreign or obsolete gun.

As a result of the Army’s mismanaging its own capability to provide this sort of instruction, a niche has opened up for contract providers. The problem is, of course, that armed forces units seldom have the budget to engage such a contract provider.

SF and the Insider Threat — summer ’67

Screenshot 2013-12-01 10.12.46There is much discussion nowadays about the Insider Threat. While the IED threat is at practically unimaginable levels today, the biggest single killer of USSF and other elements that work closely with Afghan National Army or other security forces is “bad seeds” in those forces. The suits-and-stars levels of the defense establishment have been trying their best to pretend this hasn’t happened, so they can focus on their prime objectives, like beancount “diversity” and social-engineering games. To the extent that the rampant insider threat is acknowledged, it is treated as if it were an entirely new thing. This is the best you can expect from an Army with a weak institutional memory, ADHD-like assignment policy, and resolute fixation upon the present.  Welcome to Baby Duck World, where all things are novel and unprecedented.

Wayne and TakeiExcept, of course, they’re not, really. In Vietnam the Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG) or Strike Force program was plagued with insider threats. You may remember the 1968 John Wayne movie The Green Berets (we reviewed it here almost two years ago), the one so much hated by Hollywood critics and cognoscenti, and still entertaining the rest of America despite its lapses? In it, George Takei as the South Vietnamese Luc Luong Dac Biet (LLDB; VNSF) officer darkly warns: “I got VC in my own strike force.” The warning foreshadows insider counteraction during the battle for the camp. But that, like many of the details taken from Robin Moore’s novel, was quite accurate. The year before the movie premiered, a quarterly report from the 5th Special Forces Group, titled Operaticnal Report for Quarterly Period Ending 31 July 1967 and dated 15 August 1967.

Screenshot 2013-12-01 12.07.14This wasn’t John Wayne stuff. It was stone serious lessons learned in the crucile of combat, far from support, in small, isolated camps deep within the turf of a wily, tough, and courageous enemy. The report was originally classified SECRET but after three years downgraded to CONFIDENTIAL, and after three more completely unclassified. Now, it resides on the Web via the Defense Technical Information Center.

Gentlemen, WeaponsMan gives you The Insider Threat, Summer of Love Edition.Lessons Learned at the time were reported in an Item, Discussion, Observation(s) format:

a. ITEM: Viet Cong Emphasis on Infiltration of USASF Installations and Security Elements. (Source Co C)


(1) On 4 May 1967, the USASF at Lang Vei came under VC attack with the result that the USASF team leader and Executive Officer were among those killed and the majority of the above-ground structures destroyed. Subsequent investigation and interrogations revealed that CIDG personnel inside the camp assisted in the attack by the outside force. One subject named Nhom was contacted by the VC prior to the attack and was directed to join the CIDG at Lang Vei, in order to obtain information on the camp. After joining the CIDG, subject recruited four other CIDG to assist him in reporting information concerning the camp to the VC. One man was to determine the locations of all the guard positions and how well the posts were manned, the third was to make a sketch of the camp, and the fourth was to report on supplies brought into the camp from Khe Sanh. The VC contacted Nhon on four separate occasions prior to the 4 May attack to obtain the information that had been collected. On the fourth occasion, the five VC within the camp were told about the impending attack and were given instructions as to what to do during the attack. They were told to leave their shirts off in order for the VC to recognize them durxng the attack. On the night of the attack, subject Nhon and another CIDG killed two of the camp guards and led the VC force through the wire and mine field defenses into the camp perimeter.

(2) In addition, a JTAD agent report, dated 18 July 1967, disclosed a VC propaganda meeting held on 17 July, 1967 in Quang Tri Province. At this meeting the district cadre of Ba Long and Huong Districts reportedly praised an individual who worked at the Lang Vei Special Forces camp, for being instrumntal in the 4 May attack on the camp and a subsequent mortar attack a few weeks later. At this same meeting,, priority of effort was reportedly directed toward infiltration of CIDG units and the security elements of Special Forces and othur installations.

OBSERVATION: Infiltration by the VC of CIDG units and indigenous elemrnts providing security for installations is unquestionably an effective method of reducing the defensive capability of friendly units. It is logical to assume that the VC will continue to place great emphasis on this tactic. It isessential that Special Forces detachments enact the necessary counterintelligence measures, to include the establishment of an effective informant net within the installation, to detect VC infiltration.

b. ITEM: Screening of CIDG Personnel. (Source Gp S2)

DISCUSSION: Since the CIDG prrsonnel are recruited from among those indigenous to specific localities with, according to US standards, insufficient background investigation, there is no positive means of insuring that VC are not inadvertently recruited. Clearance performed amounts to local agency hecks conducted by the LLDB and MSS, in conjunction with local officials. Sources testifying to the reliability of CIDG are themselves of unknown reliability. It is known that the VC are capable of applying presaure and persuasion in special localities, sufficient to cause concealment of VC association of members of the CIDG. Once recruited into the C iDG, the member has basement and access to further VC intentions concerning espionage, sabotage and subversion.

OBSERVATIONS: To counter this potential, counterintelligence measures being taken are:

(1) Increased emphasis on making the clearance program more adequate.

(2) Establishment of CI informant nets within the ranks of the CIDG, to identify, neutralize and exploit VC in the ranks.

(3) Development of usable infrastructure information to identify VC sympathizers, to ensure reliability of subjects and sources.

(4) Development of Blacklists.

(5) Planned use of the polygraph in a personnel reliability program to check interpreter/translators, sources and principal agents in nets, as well as to verify information proffered by interrogees,

(6) Interrogation of prisoners and detainees for information of CI interest as well as OB information. Predetermined questions will be given to RVN interrogators.

c. ITEM: Installations are Vulnerable to Sabotage. Stolen supplies are channeled to the VC. (Source Gp S2)

DISCUSSION: Insufficieut physical security allows access or potential access to the VC. Such access increases the possibility of successful sabotage. The VC are known to be targeted against US installations. The ethics of the Vietnamese are such that theft is not considered to be morally or legally wrong. The VN loses “face” not by stealing, but rather by being stupid enough to be caught stealing or not having taken sufficient precautions to secure his own property.

OBSERVATION: The following counterintelligence measures should be taken:

(1) Surveys and inspections should be conducted with a view toward identifying weaknesses and making recommendations concerning their correction. Particular emphasis is placed on fencing, lightIng, guard and reaction worse systems, visitor contrel, pass procedure, security of critical and restricted areas, and proper logistic procedures.

2) Investigation of thefts should be conducted to determine identity of cuIprits and Ultimate disposition of stolen material. Emphasis is placed on whether or not theft is for profit or resupply of VC.

There’s more than that in the whole AAR of course — a lot more. But those sensible and practical anti-Insider Threat measures were workable in 1967, and they’re going to be workable in 2013. One wonders if anyone assigned to deal with or study the Insider Threat in Afghanistan has read this document, or studied any of the CI measures used in the Vietnam War, or by the OSS, SOE and SIS in World War II for that matter.

This lack of historical orientation in the Army’s and the nation’s premier unconventional warfare organization, whose very existence is dedicated to the potential of working by, with and through natives of our operational areas, is embarrassing. Nobody should get out of the SF Detachment Officers Qualification Course or the SF Intelligence NCO Course without being advised of the existence and application of these historical resources.

The CIDG program, in the end, beat its insider threat and survived to be handed over to the RVN (who squandered that asset, but that’s another story). Right now, political forces are working to commit SF to another decade of thankless service in Afghanistan. It would be nice to get a handle on the insider threat there. With the level of trained counterintelligence agents available to a Special Forces Group, let alone a CJSOTF or a battalion deployed as an FOB, SF leaders can’t rely on the “pros” to do it for them.

SF Patch


The Economics of Combat on the Ho Chi Minh Trail

Night over Laos, circa 1966. From a “Nimrod” (A-26K night interdiction aircraft) navigator’s recollections:

Back at altitude, I reflected on our situation. So far, we had made two passes, had maybe 40 to 50 rounds of 37mm, 23mm ZPU and who knows what else fired at us and had only dropped two bombs?!! Considering the fuel and ordnance load we carried, expending at this rate would have us work (and being shot at) for at least 10 passes, maybe many more if we fired the .50-caliber machine guns.

And so it was to be! This squadron’s credo was to be persistent and take the time to inflict the greatest damage on the enemy. That took patience and perseverance-and meant dodging considerable hostile fire.

Having expended all the .50-caliber ammunition, we headed home. On the way back, our FAC reported that we had destroyed several trucks and a couple of AAA positions and that we received an estimated 800 rounds of antiaircraft fire!

On the way back, an absurd conversation from the night before ran through my mind. We were marveling that our government paid us $65 a month combat pay. Now, if we flew a mission like this 25 times a month, that meant we would earn $2.60 per mission. If each mission had 10 passes over the target, that meant we would get 26 cents per pass. If on each pass they shot 50 rounds at us, that meant we would get a half cent for each shot fired at us.

Of course, the pay was even worse on Nguyen’s side of the exchange.

And combat pay is higher now. There is that.

Sometimes Nimrod was just busting trucks, economically a fool’s game. The entire COSVN (Central Office of South Vietnam) ran on some six tons of supplies a day, meaning anything more than a couple of trucks that got through was gravy. It was like dealing with a carpenter ant infestation by stepping on individual ants — the house will fall down on your ears before the bugs feel the pressure. But the ant nests were off limits until Linebacker, which was many years, and 50,000 American deaths, in the future as Nimrod worked the Trail.

Sometimes Nimrod was working in support of the SF guys who were not in Laos, officially speaking. Unofficially, or really, covertly, they were leading Lao guard forces around critical sites related to navigation, precision bombing, and signals intelligence; conducting small and stealthy (they hoped!) reconnaissance patrols and occasional Hatchet Force combat patrols under the aegis of SOG; and, sheep-dipped into the CIA, advising Vang Pao’s clandestine Meo army. SF and the Air Commandos, later renamed, as the Invader nav, Nolan Schmidt, wryly notes, because someone in the Air Force thought the name “too warlike.”

At the end of the James S. Michener novel (from the period in which he could write a prizewinning novel of reasonable length, even) The Bridges at Toko-ri, and repeated in the movie of the same title, an admiral, reflecting on the heroic deeds of a Naval Aviator and a Chief Aviation Pilot, stares into the wake of USS Boat and asks a rhetorical question: “Where do we get such men?”

To which WeaponsMan, who has never been in danger of flag rank, would add, “and why do we squander their valor so?”

But if you Read The Whole Thing™, old Invader nav Schmidt doesn’t think, and when we think about it, we don’t think, that it was all done for nothing or even for the silly geopolitical games the gormless Georgetown grads play in the NSC. It was done for the guys, whether it was the guy on your team, the guy in the other seat of the plane, or the guy who was just a sound on the radio, speaking a little more rapidly and at a higher fundamental pitch than his conversational voice.

It was never for nothing. 

Special Forces and End-Strength Growth

Wayne as Col. KirbyMany people wonder why, since SF are usually pretty good at what they do, we don’t just create more. The answer is, absent a WWII-level mobilization, we probably can’t. When we joined SF in 1980 there were seven Special Forces Groups: 3 Active, 2 Guard and 2 Reserve. When we retired in 2010 there were seven SF Groups, although there were now 5 Active (the 1st and 3rd Groups were reactivated) and 2 Guard (the 2 Reserve Groups were disbanded by Clinton SecDef Les Aspin, who wanted to disband two Active groups “because there’ll never be an insurgency, and those guys will just get us into a war.” Aspin was one of those guys who was so bright, he was stupid. They’re legion in DC). The latest initiative was to expand all the groups, the Active groups first, by a fourth operational battalion, which would have created, in theory, 72 ODA plus a few other teams (ODBs and SOT-As) that could be deployed behind enemy by each group, in theory. In practice, just as all ODAs are not at full 12-man strength all of the time, adding 18 more teams didn’t automatically increase the group’s ability to deploy and support teams. That depends, in part, on Group level assets and on higher level and cooperative conventional-forces and joint-forces assets. So we would not be shocked to see a climbdown from the four-battalion standard (even though there’s certainly enough JCETs, combat deployments, and other work out there for the ODAs).

The irreducible problem is this:

  1. It takes time to create a usable Special Forces team member, and that includes time on the team on top of his one to three years in the training pipeline.
  2. Not everybody can do it. There are physical and fitness standards only a minority of the Army can meet. There are mental and intellectual standards only a very small minority (<5%) can meet. History tells us that we tamper with these standards at our own risk.
  3. Not everybody who can do it wants to do it. And that includes some of the guys who have already been doing it a while and want to keep their marriages or see their kids grow up. In a lot of team rooms there are rueful team sergeants who will tell you their kids (from a couple failed marriages) admire and respect them, but barely know them. A young sergeant or captain with, perhaps, a first child on the way can’t help but take this message on board.

As it happens, we wrote about this years ago in the context of then-SecDef Don Rumsfeld’s 2001 desire to grow SF rapidly for what was then called the Global War on Terrorism. We thought the lessons of this effort were applicable to industry in general. This was in a closed forum, for people who were not SF insiders, at the time; we’re making it available in edited format now, here. 2013 edits to this mid-2000s document will be in italic type – other than that, it’s only been edited for style, English and clarity, and it and any comments you care to make are available after the “more”.

Continue reading

The Gabriel Demo Team, circa 1983-84

This is what Special Forces looked like in the mid-1980s, or what the command wanted people to think it looked like.

This is a film of the abbreviated introduction to a Gabriel Demonstration. From very early on, Special Forces had a demonstration area on Fort Bragg where a model A-Team displayed their skills to VIPs, the press, and interested members of the public. It was named, later, after James A. Gabriel, the first SF soldier killed in Vietnam. A 1960s-vintage Gabriel Demonstration is well depicted in the John Wayne movie The Green Berets. 

The “…working command of English” gag was a very longstanding Gabriel quip. There was usually one or more guys on that team (and on any SF team) who fit the bill.

While this film contains no dates, it’s possible to narrow it down based on what the guys are wearing. They’re in the ERDL camouflage uniform with straight pockets, which replaced an earlier slant-pocket uniform. It can be distinguished from the lightweight BDU in several ways: it has smaller camouflage blotches (the BDU is a simplified version of the same pattern, 1.6x larger); it was available in two color schemes, a tan-based one (more common) and a green-based one, which we sometimes called “winter” and “summer” camo; it has much smaller lapels and collar than the first-generation BDU; and it generally looked, fit, and wore better. That tells us this film was made before 1 Oct 86, the wear-out date of ERDL camo. (Many guys then expended theirs in the field. Nobody cared, for example, what you wore rucking or on a swim test). On the other hand, many of the men wear the SF Tab, which dates the film to no earlier than 17 Jun 83 when the tab was authorized. (Note, some soldiers are wearing the Ranger tab. We remember well having the Ranger tab on some uniforms and the SF tab on others during this period, as you were not allowed to wear both.

We can close the second date in a little bit more: On 16 Jan 85, the 5th Special Forces Group (this Gabe team was from 3/5) exchanged the flash it had proudly worn for two decades with the colors of the ill-omened Republic of Vietnam, for its pre-Vietnam solid black flash with a white border. So we can definitely date this film to the 18-month period between 17 Jun 83 and 16 Jan 85.

Most of the men in this film were career soldiers and would stay in the Army (and mostly in SF) for many years. Then-CPT Coffman was a DSC recipient for Operation Iraqi Freedom 20 years after making this video!

Obligatory weapons content: some of you guys didn’t believe us when we said the standard weapon in SF at the time was a beat-up old M16A1, but look over these guys’ right shoulders (except for CPT Coffman, who’s carrying a pistol. In the field he’d have an M16 like everyone else, and they’d all have pistols, too). Look how many have the three-prong flash suppressor rather than the birdcage that’s commonly associated with the post-Vietnam M16A1. This dates the rifles to production before September 1966, when what the Army and Colt officially called the “closed-end flash suppressor” was approved “to respond to military request for closed end suppressor to prevent the suppressor’s being caught on brush.” (Report of the M16 Review Panel, Appendix II M16 Product Improvement Modifications, Page 11-23). By the 1980s, the early suppressors were being changed out any time the M16A1s went to depot maintenance. Some weapons men preferred the pronged suppressor, “open-end” in Army parlance, because it was a more effective flash hider. They tended to rathole a few extra three-prongs and birdcages alike, and made sure a rifle never went back to depot with a three-prong on it.

Administrative note: sorry for not leading with gun tech today. We’re still putting together the XM249 post. In the intervening 35 years, a lot of once-common prototype pictures, etc. are damned hard to find.