The task of the Special Forces Assessment and Selection course is identifying the candidates who are suitable for Special Forces training. And two of the primary functions of Special Forces are UW (Unconventional Warfare) and FID (Foreign Internal Defense). It is important that the schools don’t lose sight of that fact as SOF (Special Operations Forces) has been heavy into Direct Action/CT missions for some time in the ongoing wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria among other hot spots.

The basic 10 operating activities of the Special Operations Forces are spelled out in Section 167 of Title 10 of the U.S. Code. Special Forces were created in 1952 specifically for the unconventional warfare environment after the OSS was disbanded in 1945 following World War II. The OSS’s Operational Groups and Jedburgh Teams were the forerunners of both Special Forces and the CIA.

But first, to properly prepare prospective SF operators for the UW environment, we have to know what it is. And this has been a frequent complaint from the Special Forces (SF) community that the conventional (Big Army) doesn’t understand UW and what it entails. And part of that issue resides in the SF community itself.

The SF hierarchy has been debating the definition of what UW is since 1955 when the original manual was first written, and since then has had 10 different definitions of the concept. There have been tweaks in the definition for 65 years and the current “approved” definition of UW published in 2009 is as follows:

Activities conducted to enable a resistance movement or insurgency to coerce, disrupt or overthrow a government or occupying power by operating through or with an underground, auxiliary and guerrilla force in a denied area.

Many of the activities and operations that the U.S. SOF are undertaking today could be characterized as UW. And UW and FID are now described as being the opposite of one another.

The intriguing history of the term Special Operator

Read Next: The intriguing history of the term Special Operator

UW is characterized by the use of irregular forces to coerce, disrupt, or overthrow a government or occupying power while FID is the use of a nation’s recognized security forces to protect a government.

So how do the schools prepare the future SF operators for the austere environments of the UW arena? They must identify the core attributes that the Special Forces operator must have to be successful in the realm of SF operations. They use the “Whole Man” approach and identified six attributes necessary for success.

  • Intelligence
  • Trainability
  • Physical Fitness
  • Motivation
  • Influence
  • Judgment

SF operators must have the physical, emotional, and mental stamina to succeed in the UW environment. They have to be able to conduct the missions assigned. And that doesn’t just mean physically but mentally as well. The must spend time studying all the aspects of the target area (history, politics, religious beliefs, terrain, infrastructure, and local economy, etc.). The mental aspect is just as, if not more important, than the physical.

The potential operators who have the creativity and mindset to think outside the box and do it without prompting from above must be identified. The ability to problem-solve while under tremendous stress is a key indicator of success or failure for an SF operator. To quote a line from a Clint Eastwood film: “Improvise, adapt, overcome.”

One key area for success in the UW/FID environment is the ability of the SF operator to not just give orders but to get the host nation to follow his lead. So, language training and cross-cultural communication are very important. The key to UW is to convince the target audience that the relationship between them and the U.S. SF operators is mutually beneficial. That requires a great deal of tact, diplomacy, and empathy.

And the bread and butter of SF operators in the UW environment is being a teacher and an instructor. That’s what SF has prided itself on for 65 years. So the type of individuals needed is not only the one who does his job and does it well but the one who has the ability to teach it to others, in their language. Ask any SF operator and they’ll tell you the first time you teach a course in the host nation’s language is a daunting task.

When the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School started the SFAS course back in 1988 they identified the core attributes of successful Special Forces candidates. Many years later the candidates that were passing the Selection and Assessment course were failing the SFQC (Special Forces Qualification Course) in high numbers.

So, the Training Group assigned to Brian Decker, an SF officer, to revamp the Selection Course in order to best identify those soldiers that were going to have a better chance at succeeding in the SFQC and in the operational SF Groups.