A Few More Good Men
For over 40 years, Army Special Forces trainees have roamed the pine forests of central North Carolina in an elaborate and unusual military exercise known as Robin Sage. This final two-week test in a yearlong journey to receiving the trademark green beret requires the soldiers to recruit and train a guerrilla force.
In the latest version played out this spring, the trainees and their "guerrillas" descended by helicopter on the vacant Scotland County prison to free a friendly "governor" from his jail cell. Things did not go quite according to plan (they rarely do); when the guerrilla leader could not get her radio to work to call for the Black Hawks' return, the group opted to spirit the freed prisoner away in a "stolen" van. Hundreds of local residents like Henry Hicks play roles and let the Army use their property. As a boy, Hicks lit buckets of sand and gas to mark landing zones at night. Now, the retired bridge inspector plays a wily guerrilla leader with gusto. "If I can help one soldier stay alive over there," he says, "it's worth it."
Robin Sage now takes place eight times a year instead of four, as special operations forces from all the servicesArmy, Navy, Air Force, and Marineshave embarked on the most ambitious attempt ever to expand their numbers. They are in high demand not only in Iraq and Afghanistan but also for low-visibility missions in festering trouble spots around the world. They specialize in commando raids on terrorists, training foreign troops, and raising guerrilla forces. Last year, the Pentagon rolled out a plan to add a total of 13,119 military and civilian personnel to the current force of 46,223 by 2013. That's a very tall order since the great majority of those who try out fail to pass the arduous training. It is a challenging task to quickly expand the country's most elite unitswhose members are carefully chosen and groomed at great expensewithout jeopardizing the force's high mental and physical capabilities. Special operators want to avoid at all cost repeating the Vietnam-era experience in which rapid expansion led to lower standards and a crisis in morale and reputation.
Twenty years ago, when the four-star Special Operations Command was set up to look after all the services' elite units, two slogans were adopted as reminders of this painful lesson: Quality is more important than quantity, and special operators cannot be mass-produced. U.S. News gained unusual access to Robin Sage and other training and to top leaders of the special operations forces to report on the expansion and the challenges it faces.
The expansion is essential if the special operations community is to be able to maintain its current operating pace, says Lt. Gen. Robert Wagner, the head of Army special operations. About one third of his troops are deployed at any one time. "We are not growing them so they can do more but to make more reasonable what we are asking them to do," he says. "This is a marathon," he added, emphasizing that units cannot be increased significantly overnight. Along with trying to fill the ranks, Wagner is concerned about stanching the loss of experienced operators who are the backbone of the small teams that work unsupervised in distant lands. As part of the plan, the most experienced veterans have been offered six-figure re-enlistment bonuses, and new financial incentives for others are being considered. The success of the entire venture ultimately depends on whether the military's overall re-enlistment rate holds up.
Ambitious. Army units, which make up about half of the special operations force, have the most ambitious expansion plans. The largest single addition will be 3,596 Special Forces soldiers (for a total of 14,137). The largest proportionate growth is active-duty Civil Affairs, which will more than double to 884 soldiers. (Active-duty Civil Affairs units deploy with other special ops troops while their Reserve brethren typically work with conventional units.) Psychological Operations will nearly double to 1,134. The Ranger Regiment will add 933 troops, and the Special Operations Aviation Regiment will add 733.
The smaller Naval Special Warfare Command is aiming at a 30 percent increase, of which only half are seals, but its grueling selection process makes even that much a difficult task (box, Page 38). Air Force Special Operations faces serious shortages in key areas, and the Marine Corps just began building a 2,500-man special ops contingent last year.
The Army Special Forces began ramping up first. The Army Special Warfare Center and School at Fort Bragg, N.C., has nearly tripled its enlisted graduates to an average of 750 today. The initial goal was to remedy chronic shortages of the past decade. As of 2001, only 86 percent of the authorized slots were filled. So the school radically overhauled its selection and training process and opened it to civilians. After signing up, those candidates go through almost two years of training before arriving at Fort Bragg for the Special Forces tryout. Some 5,700 civilians responded over the past four years, but too many were washing out, so this year civilian recruits have been limited to 900 and the minimum age was raised to 20.Instead, Special Forces recruitment of those already enlisted in the military was increased to a target of 1,900.
In addition to putting more recruits into the funnel, the school eliminated downtime in the training process; the course now takes 49 weeks instead of 75.Important changes have also been made in the way the course is conducted. Instructors aim now to weed out unsuitable candidates early. Gone is the "redlining" practice in which the instructors could boot a trainee for failing land navigation or some other specific task. Instead, evaluators scrutinize candidates during the 24-day Phase I according to six broad criteria: intelligence, application, physical fitness, motivation, judgment, and the ability to influence others. The latter is considered a key trait, since the Green Berets mostly work with foreign forces.
While the training is physically demanding, the premium is on finding recruits with the right combination of mental and personality traits. Selection chief Maj. Ed Flick said a battery of psychological tests is administered, and the officers go through additional role-playing exercises to test recruits' reactions in different settings. On a crisp morning, for instance, trainees awoke from a late-night march and four hours' sleep to be sent to the log pit, where they worked in teams to balance and maneuver telephone poles on command until they were exhausted. Instructors yelled at the laggards, the only time in the entire month when they receive such hectoring. "Most often we want to see how they do with no feedback," Flick said, "because we are looking for people who can operate without constant guidance in uncertain environments."
Once selected, the soldiers are trained in special operations techniques. A course in survival, evasion, resistance, and escape is now mandatory for all trainees, instead of for just officers. The training includes prisoner and hostage situations. Since secrets about the course have leaked out, the detention phase can now last longer than the once standard three days. In April, a group of soldiers set off on the course in knit caps and light packs, while others hooked into helicopter harnesses for airborne infiltrations. For days they would live off the land, fashion their own tools, and seek to evade capture, but eventually all would be caught. Then ensues what most call a life-altering experience of simulated capture. A staff psychologist and instructors help them before, during, and after the traumatic parts, which include being confined in tiny cells.
The next phase of the training is in individual specialties. While the school has been successful in boosting overall graduation numbers, shortages remain in critical areas. The number of officers has fallen short in the past three years. The number of applicants will be raised to 388 this year in hopes of graduating 155 captains. More critical are the shortages of combat medics and the chief warrant officers who serve on each 12-man team. The medics receive the most extensive training in the military and are qualified to do field surgery. Only 47 percent of medics used to graduate from the yearlong course. Now, after being provided more coaches and more intensive training in advanced trauma, 80 percent are graduating.
In the all-important foreign language training, students must now meet a higher level of proficiency. They study throughout the year, but the intensive language block was shortened to nine to 15 weeks. (The standard military school for difficult languages such as Arabic lasts a year.) In response to complaints, 12 days have been added to the language block this year. On a recent day, students in a class spoke only Arabic while their Middle Eastern teacher occasionally corrected grammar. They also spend hours in a language lab outfitted with learning software and satellite feeds of foreign television broadcasts.
Retraining. The Army Special Forces' growing pains pale in comparison with the hurdles facing the new 95th Civil Affairs Brigade, activated at Fort Bragg in March. This active-duty unit is slated to double in size. It once filled its ranks with Special Forces sergeants, but now they must be recruited from all over the service. That means training soldiers who used to do jobs like drive trucks in an entirely new specialty. A longer, nine-week course has been developed to train them, and officers now make civil affairs a permanent career. Both of these changes will pay off, says the brigade commander, Col. Ferd Irizarry, but getting there requires lots of mentoring and on-the-job training. "In-service recruiting has been excellent, but maturing our force will be a generational project," he says.
Irizarry praises the new training course but adds that intensive courses in negotiation, language, and cultures are vital since his troops interact with local populations more than any other unit. To simulate that experience, the Army has established a distinctive training complex at Camp MacKall, west of Fort Bragg. In a village of buildings set in the woods, hired Iraqis and Djiboutians role-play some of the most sensitive situations faced by a civil affairs or psyop soldier.
In one scenario, a young girl has been run over by a humvee and killed. A veiled woman named Hannah wails and screams at the four soldiers who come to pay a death benefit. When one of them speaks to her without asking her husband's permission, the male of the house rebukes him. In another room, soldiers witness the torture of a prisoner in a police station. Next, they must deal with the same "foreigners" in a village setting where ethnic tensions are exploding. Lt. Col. Ed Mundell, the chief trainer, noted that in one case, a suicide-bomber scenario proved too intense (he was attacked by a trainee) and was subsequently toned down.
Seasoning. Many technological innovations help turn out more elite units faster. But it is inevitable that expansion, in the short run, will produce a force that is younger and less experienced in special ops. Time will season them, assuming they re-enlist. For now, the average age in Special Forces has declined from 34.8 to 31.2. Experience and maturity are particularly vital to Special Forces and other units that operate without higher commands nearby. Their structure reflects the degree of responsibility entrusted to them: While only eight members of a conventional infantry company are senior sergeants or above, by contrast 83 members of an sf company are senior sergeants or higher.
Today's youthful force does have one compensating benefit: Most already know what a battlefield looks like. When U.S. News asked a classroom of officer trainees how many had served a combat tour, every man raised his hand.
The deputy commander of all Army SOF training at Fort Bragg, Lt. Col. Paul Burton, served tours in Djibouti, Afghanistan, and Latin America and is ready to put the new guys up against the old-timers. "Honestly, I believe the training is far better than when I went through," says the 22-year veteran. Of the most recent class, only 27 percent of those who entered made it through. To those who believe it's easier now than before, he invites them to come try.