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”.

We’re reviewing a book about the Army’s Special Forces School [Dick Couch’s excellent Chosen Soldier –Ed.) and that, and the discussions here, reminded us of talk about the school’s capacity in the months after 9/11, and especially after the initial defeat of the Taliban. Everybody wanted more SF suddenly, but there are constraints. We key on these SOF (Special Operations Forces, a term which includes SF and many other elements) Truths:

1. Humans are more important than hardware.

2. Quality is more important than quantity.

3. SOF cannot be mass-produced.

4. Competent SOF cannot be created after the emergency arises.

(Personally, we believe history makes a colorable argument against #4. Weren’t the LRDG, the Alamo Scouts, and the Jedburghs all “competent SOF”? But the other three hold). (Since then, a fifth Truth has been added, that most SOF missions require conventional forces support. It doesn’t impact on this argument -Ed.). 

The Secretary of Defense, a strong-willed man, did not want to believe that buckets of money would not help, but ultimately even he was convinced. We know instinctively and also empirically (from experience) that we’re better off with seven trusted individuals than we are having a full team with five question marks. (We were thinking of something COL Charlie Beckwith used to say all the time: I’d rather go down the river with seven studs than with one hundred shitheads.” But the genteel audience for the original document was not ready for unfiltered Beckwith). But since then, a very great deal of work has been done to try to streamline the process without screwing up the product. We can’t go into great depth on this, but the upshot is that the pipeline has been accelerated — a little.

Some requirements that were obsolete have been dropped. For instance, volunteers with poor vision are now accepted and given corrective surgery instead of being dismissed out of hand. The requirement that volunteers already be in the Army was dropped, and a system was devised to get someone from the street to ultimate assignment, knowing enough to be immediately useful. (This is the 18X program. The Guard had something similar in the Rep 63 program which wouldn’t have scaled; it was sublimated into the 18X pipeline). This “volunteer from inside the army” restraint was a real capacity problem because (1) the Army is much smaller than in previous decades, so there are fewer applicants in the pool, and (2) only about 5% of the population meets the other requirements. Eliminating it means you now can recuit 5% of a much larger population.

Some pointless hazing was dropped (replaced by what we can only describe as mission-oriented hazing).

Opportunities for the unmotivated to self-select out were increased and frontloaded in the application process as much as possible. (This has been ongoing since then-COL Dick Potter [now BG, Ret; Beckwith’s Deputy CO at SFOD-D) instituted the SF Assessment & Selection course to formalize and frontload attrition that was formerly spread throughout the first phase of the SF Q-Course –Ed.). 

Some preparatory courses were added to allow the in-army recruiters to cast a wider net than previously, and to allow those they recruited a fair chance at success. (These courses are called SOPC, Special Operations Preparatory Course, and they’ve been rolled into the permanent pipeline for all, after just being used for non-infantry soldiers when ethey were new — Ed.). In the bad old days, a cook or clerk would volunteer, but then fail when he was expected to know and do things only a combat arms soldier would be familiar with. Now the cook gets spun up on what he needs to know before anybody asks him (this is a bit like preprocess quality inspection and adjustment in a manufacturing environment).

In the most controversial move, the Assessment and Selection phase was shortened from 28 to 15 days. The reason? The experienced sergeants running the course were proven to have a 100% record in predicting at the 15-day point who would be selected and nonselected. The community who experienced the old 28-day course griped, but none of the statistics that would indicate deficiencies in selection (for example, soldiers dismissed from a Special Forces Group after passing the course) have shown any uptick. (After a long period of observation of the 15-day SFAS, a longer SFAS has come back. At the moment, it is 24 days long. The cadre can still call 98% of graduates at the 15-day point. National Geographic program Two Weeks In Hell shows aspects of the short-lived 15-day SFAS). 

This is still a process with a lot of scrap; about two-thirds of the carefully-screened volunteers in the intake of the pipeline don’t come out the end. (A number of them come back to try again; the others return to their former units or go to a conventional army unit). That is actually a much more efficient process than the one we went through in the early 1980s. The output quality seems to us and to other old-timers to be, actually, higher than in our day. (We do reserve the right of all old coots, to gripe about “these damn kids.” But they come out of the course keen and strong -Ed.).

The money, which the Secretary still wanted to spend, was mostly returned, but some has been spent improving facilities and hiring more role-players, and some has been spent increasing the instructor staffing and running classes more closely together.

The instructors are a sort of human-capital seed corn. We like to use World War II as an example. In the War, the US started to plow promising flight students back into the training mix as initial assignment flight instructors. The instructors don’t like this much — they want to go operational, naturally — but this let us ramp up aviator production as rapidly as the factories were making airplanes. The US still does this (and in SF we emulate this aviation-derived practice and always have). Conversely, the Japanese expected a short war; they suspended their long and extremely intensive flight training schools and sent their instructors to the front.

They ate their seed corn.

In 1943 the Japanese Air Staff figured out that the war wasn’t ending soon and they frantically tried to stand up training schools. The pilots produced by the schools were a far cry from the Spartan aces of 1941, and they couldn’t compete with their American opponents any more (this was one cause of the Japanese adoption of the ill-advised Kamikaze tactic). Germany didn’t go as far as the Japanese did, but they did suspend flight training briefly and never took it seriously until it was too late. By then, they didn’t have the resources (fortunately, considering whom they were fighting for).

In business it is very hard sometimes to make the case for putting resources into training and other nonoperational overhead. But in business, too, humans are more important than hardware, and quality is more important than quantity. The businesses that remember this can dominate their operational area just as infiltrated SF teams can dominate an operational area.

8 thoughts on “Special Forces and End-Strength Growth

  1. Isegoria

    I suppose we should step back and ask, what kind of special forces do we want or need in larger numbers? Because door-kickers, light infantry, and advisors are all special in their own special ways.

    1. Hognose Post author

      In 2002-05 the focus was on increasing both the usually off-the-books doorkickers, and also Army Special Forces, who work “by, with and through” host nation or irregular third-party forces. The initial conquest of Afghanistan by SF-enabled Afghans was as impressive as the subsequent loss of it, by the conventional Army and Marines and by the nation-builders among the civilians.

      “It is important that they do it themselves, however imperfectly, rather than you do it for them.” – TE Lawrence.

  2. Woodsman

    With an idea taken from the business world, can you leverage the talent of experienced guys who have retired (or who need to be close to home, etc) as mentors to up and comers? I would think that could be used as a time to assess those who might “fit in” while providing an opportunity to pass along lessons learned as coaching sessions. Secondly, it would seem this would not water down any efforts or interfere, if done prior to SFAS.

    On a related topic how might further improvements be gained by a form of vertical integration? Lets use the following for comparison: A department has their own shipping, receiving, and purchasing dept.’s who specifically deal with that departments specific needs. Rather than the usual form of horizontal flow with central purchasing, receiving, and shipping areas. Instead of a one-size-fits-all approach are there other areas that can be fine tuned so that the overall entire approach is leveraged for maximum benefit?

    Just some observations that came to mind while reading.

  3. GBS

    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.”

    Twenty years later…future military action will only involve counter-terrorism, COIN, or cyber-warfare, so the tank is obsolete, and there is little foreseeable use for conventional land-warfare formations. BTW…drones will replace manned aircraft, so we don’t have to risk the lives of pilots. That’s not a direct quote, but a paraphrase of the types of things I hear coming from some in the defense establishment.

    1. Hognose Post author

      And these guys say the generals and admirals are “focused on fighting the last war.” You need general-purpose forces. I’m still trying to figure out how the Obama Admin expects to “pivot to the Pacific Rim” while cutting surface combatants, carrier groups, and subs. Not to mention aircraft: CV, VP and Air Force. The folks at DC desks (who have never been anywhere but maybe Davos) don’t seem to get that there’s an awful lot of degrees and minutes between one place and another in that part of the world.

  4. Jim

    Hows about just press ganging all the big (and little) city swat teams? They can bring their tacti-cool ski masks and .50 caliber rifles along with them. They can teach the SF guys how to shoot with backward mounted optics.

  5. Aesop

    One suspects that these ideas are the brighter older brothers of career bureaucrats at the Dept. of Agriculture who think you can increase crop yiled by pulling on the carrots to make them grow faster.

    Les Aspin – faster SecDef retirement ever, after the masterful decision that assigning AC-130s in support of the Ranger/Delta task force in Mogadischu in 1993 might upset the locals.

    May he R.I.H.

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