March 22, 2013

The Difference Between Rangers and Special Forces

“Big dumb Ranger stomping through the woods,” a retired Sergeant Major from 5th Special Forces Group said with a smirk to me after an After Action Review in Robin Sage. Robin Sage is the culmination exercise at the end of the Special Forces Qualification Course, basically your final exam prior to donning the Green Beret.

I rolled my eyes at Kevin as I shook my head. I was pissed, but not because Kevin was breaking my balls, rather I was irritated with myself because I knew that he was right. We were instructed to conduct an ambush in the fictional nation of Pineland (actually located in North Carolina) and I was walking point. Getting angry with some of the junior guys on the team because of a land navigation error, I told them to shut up and follow me. I charged off through the woods and made enough noise that the role players guarding the road we were supposed to ambush heard us.

What happened after that was everything not described in the Ranger Handbook. Blank fire was popping off every where and I ordered Kevin, playing an Arab foreign fighter attached to our team, to fire his AT4 Anti-Tank rocket. In real life, the rocket would not have even armed because we were so close to the “enemy,” but I figured it would scare the hell out of them if nothing else.

Going from this in Ranger Battalion... (w/ Isaiah Burkhart)

Going from this in Ranger Battalion… (w/Isaiah Burkhart)

When we maneuvered up to the road, there were “bodies” laying everywhere. We were supposed to ambush an enemy supply truck at a specific time, but with our patrol compromised and the shootout that ensued, it didn’t look like we would be completing that objective anytime soon. Big facepalm moment for yours truly.

It was the youngest guy on our Robin Sage team that suggested to me that we just hide the “bodies” in the bushes and set up our own checkpoint, masquerading as the enemy when the supply truck came through. He was an 18-Xray, one of the kids who was able to come in right off the street and into the Special Forces pipeline. While I was still thinking Ranger School, this guy grasped the unconventional warfare mission faster.

Damn, that was a good idea! It worked perfectly. We stashed the “dead” role players in the bushes, set up a checkpoint, and captured the supply truck.

To this in Special Forces...

To this in Special Forces…

Kevin’s words stuck with me. Being a Special Forces soldier requires a very different mentality than being a Ranger but I still had a hard time shaking off old habits. In Ranger Battalion everything is usually dress right dress, and done to THE STANDARD. When you attempt to graft this work ethic onto the unconventional warfare mission it simply does not work. Yelling at indigenous troops and demanding that they behave like Americans will get you no where. Expecting them to perform like American Light Infantry is also ridicules.

Stomping off into the woods while on patrol isn’t a good idea regardless of what unit you are in, but being a hot head is even less effective while running Special Forces missions.

The point of this article isn’t to ask which unit is better or make some childish comparison. The Ranger Regiment and Special Forces are different, and what I hope to point out is that they have to be different. This difference stems from the fact that they have different missions that require different approaches.

More to follow on that later…

About the Author

is an eight year Army Special Operations veteran who served as a Sniper and Team Leader in 3rd Ranger Battalion and as a Senior Weapons Sergeant on a Military Free Fall team in 5th Special Forces Group. Having left the military in 2010, he is now working towards a degree in Political Science at Columbia University. Murphy is the author of Reflexive Fire, Target Deck, the PROMIS series, and numerous non-fiction articles about Weapons, Tactics, Special Operations, Terrorism, and Counter-Terrorism. He has appeared in documentaries, national television, and syndicated radio.

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  • jimmorris

    Special Operations are different from line unit operations, but they are also different from each other. Very different mindset, but both pretty damned impressive. A lot has changed since my day, but not, I hope, the mindset. When I joined SF I learned to be an entirely different guy than before. I would never have had the courage to do the things I routinely did in Vietnam before I got in SF, where the mission was our first priority and survival second. We were serious about survival, but not obsessive. Nonetheless, in two TDY tours on ODAs and one PCS tour as a staff officer, I never lost anybody on any operation that I planned and led. No Americans and no Indige. I came green from running a range at a training center. The old guys in SF set such a standard and such an example that all I wanted was to be one of them.

  • Chuck_Doofe

    endrsgm DonovanE It's not so much that the Corps wants a traditional Marine unit that is also Special Operations Capable, but they want a Special Operations unit that supports Marine operations, not off doing their own thing in, say, Pakistan. That said, you are right about the Corps being anal about little things that have for the most part gone out the window in other SOCOM units like the SEALs and SF. For example, you'll rarely see a MARSOC operator in Merrell running shoes, rocking a backwards Oakley cap, with a full beard and wielding a custom-painted SCAR. Not unless they're on a mission, at the very least.

  • SamDaBull

    Enjoyed the comparison

  • zachmorris01

    Great article, JackMurphyRGR.  It's nice to hear from someone who's served in both units.  Can't wait for your follow-up!

  • teabagshredder

    Outstanding read.. Its about time someone got it right, between the difference makers and Hollywood!