Whenever one utters the word “diversity,” especially within the Special Operations Community, it elicits groans from some and often justifiably so. Why? Because serving in a Special Operations unit has always been a voluntary decision. 

There isn’t a way to just assign people to Special Forces A-Teams, Navy SEAL teams, Army Ranger battalions, MARSOC Raiders, or Air Force CCT teams. Men and women must volunteer to serve there and most importantly be able to pass the strict Selection and Assessment requirements and the various qualification courses required. Further, the SOF community, especially the Special Forces branch has traditionally made diversity its goal. The operational units didn’t and don’t care if an operator is black, brown, yellow, red, or white.

Thus, attempting to criticize the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) for not having a “diverse enough” environment, as some members of Congress do, is ludicrous. The critics will point to lower diversity numbers in SOF and try to attribute that to SOF cadres putting minority candidates at an unfair disadvantage. 

Standards

This brings up the dreaded dirty word, “standards,” which we could and have talked about ad nauseam. The bottom line is that the standards have to remain intact in order for SOF candidates to be able to accomplish their own particular missions.

What sets Special Forces apart from their other SOF brethren has been their language capability and hard-earned reputation for creating and maintaining rapport with our allies and partners. The biggest part of that is being able to communicate with our partners in their own language and understanding and respecting their culture. 

SF troops at a ceremony. Language and cultural diversity have always been hallmarks of SF.

Since its inception in 1952, Special Forces made language capability a huge part of its mission since being able to recruit, train, and lead guerrilla forces against a Soviet invasion of Western Europe was critical.

Many of SF’s first operators came from the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) or were recruited under the Lodge-Philbin Act. These were men who came from Europe, spoke the language, and knew the areas of operation where teams would be assigned. 

One of the reasons that the 7th Special Forces Group was so successful in its own area of operations was the plethora of candidates coming through the SF training pipeline who had a Latin American background. Those NCOs and officers were the moneymakers for the group on every deployment. 

This past week I spoke with Colonel (Retired) Stu Bradin, the founder and president of the Global Special Operations Foundation (GSOF). We discussed the calls for diversity in SOCOM and went through our old 7th SFG A-Team where the number of Spanish heritage, African-American, and Native Americans outnumbered the white operators.

Women and Special Forces

Some of OSS’s best operatives were women who jumped into occupied France, started intelligence networks, built guerrilla forces, and carried out combat operations against the Germans. Yet, when it comes to women, the conversation opens up another entirely different can of worms.

Many active-duty and SF veterans don’t want women on A-Teams simply because the vast majority of them wouldn’t be able to handle the extreme physical demands of the profession. Also, they fear that the standards (that dirty word again) will be lowered. But the number of women on A-Teams will never be high because of the physical rigor of the job.

Special mission units are a different conversation as there already are women assigned to them. Additionally, with the changes coming to SOCOM as it begins focusing on near-peer conflicts, those units will require SF operators to conduct missions not just in rural areas, such as Afghanistan, but in areas with higher concentrations of people. Therefore, women and native speakers in the target countries should be a recruiting target. 

Language Requirements Create Diversity in Special Forces

SF Selection candidates work to pull a jeep trailer down a road at Camp Mackall.

One of the criticisms leveled against Special Forces is that its language capabilities have eroded. While that may be true, the crushing combat operational tempo that the SF A-Teams have been dealing with during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has made maintaining language proficiency a low priority. 

SF A-Teams area-oriented toward Latin America, the Far East, Africa, and Europe found themselves constantly deployed and focusing on direct-action missions, which should only be a part of the SF mission. And then they were working with people who speak a totally different language than one they’d find in the Area of Operations (AO). 

Special Forces Have Always Looked at Diversity to Meet Their Needs

Special Forces have always adapted to the national security imperatives of a given era and will undoubtedly do so again. And they’ll look at further diversifying the force to meet its needs. 

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In speaking with Bradin, we discussed the GSOF Imperatives 2021 Report. We focused on the topic of recruitment and retention, since as the SOF truth says, “Humans are more important than hardware.” As the report says,

“Many SOF Components are struggling to recruit and retain people – SOF’s most precious asset. Moreover, SOF seeks greater diversity and people with skills from cultures that are not common in the current force. The Lodge-Philbin Act was a U.S. federal law, passed in June 1950, which allowed for the recruiting of foreign nationals into the U.S. military. If they successfully served five years with an honorable discharge, they were guaranteed U.S. citizenship. Congress should consider a modern-day Lodge-Philbin Act designed to recruit a diverse and robust number of men and women for Special Operations that are from nations that are critical to the U.S. National Security Strategy and better capable of supporting Irregular Warfare.”

In conclusion, Congress wants SOCOM to do what it has always been doing and that is to find the right person for the job and then train them to standards. Forcing SOCOM to do a “Diversity and Inclusion Strategic Plan 2021” is just an excuse to try to pigeonhole exact numbers into the equation. That won’t happen. 

SF has always done a great job at recruiting the right people. That’s not going to change. Wars change and the right people for the next one may be different than the ones who fought the last one. But as the teams evolve and get back to the core elements of SF, the language and culture capabilities will be met just like they’ve always been. And it will be plenty diverse. 

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