Over the years, many have lamented the end of Special Forces, foreseeing the destruction of the Green Berets, a slipping of training and selection standards, and plenty of general navel-gazing about how it “use to be.”  Hell, I remember buying a copy of Soldier of Fortune magazine in the PX at Fort Bragg over a decade ago with a cover story on this topic.  When MARSOC (Marine Raiders) first hit the scene and declared that their main mission would be unconventional warfare, there were many in the Special Forces community who perceived them as edging in on their mission, and ultimately preparing to take it from them.  This turned out to not be the case, mostly because MARSOC wasn’t up to stripping that mission away (as good as those guys are) and a number of other institutional issues that I’m not going to outline further at the moment.

As it turns out, the real threat to the Green Berets may actually be the brain child of a former Special Forces officer named General Milley who currently serves as the Army Chief of Staff.  The new unit is called the Security Forces Assistance Brigades (SFAB).  On paper, the SFAB is designed to conduct Foreign Internal Defense (FID), which is the training and advising of foreign militaries.  Until now, this has been a doctrinal Special Forces mission.  General Milley insists that the SFAB will only be training conventional forces, while Special Forces will train foreign commando units which is what they have always done.  This was an especially odd justification coming from General Milley who is a former Special Forces officer.  Green Berets have trained conventional forces from the Philippines to Colombia.

Beyond that, a number ill-conceived ideas related to the unit’s insignia and name resulted in some early PR nightmares for the SFAB.  First, the acronym for SFAB shortened to SF is that same as Special Forces.  Second, SFAB members will wear a green beret, the traditional headgear worn by Special Forces (hence, the Green Berets) which was first authorized by President Kennedy.  The Army insists that the these berets are Army green rather than the rifle green color that Special Forces wears, but they look identical.  Finally, the nickname for the SFAB was to be “The Legion.”  This has been the nick name of 5th Special Forces Group for decades, something else that General Milley would know since he served in that unit previously.  What in the world were they thinking in making these decisions?  These moves served to anger the Special Forces community while doing nothing to help SFAB or its cause.

Now let’s get into the nuts and bolts.

The first SFAB brigade is currently being stood up with five more to follow, for a total of six brigades with about 800 officers and sergeants in each.  The Army says that these soldiers will, “receive special training through the Military Advisor Training Academy to include language, foreign weapons and the Joint Fires Observer course.”  By comparison, lets look at U.S. Special Forces.  A recent GAO report shows that there are over 22,000 soldiers under Special Forces Command and an additional 1,891 at the schoolhouse, the Special Warfare Center.  Additionally, Special Forces soldiers are required to maintain an array of special qualifications such as military free fall, combat diver, language capabilities and advanced intelligence gathering skills.  These skills are mostly important for conducting another of SF’s doctrinal missions, unconventional warfare.

The problem is, Special Forces hardly ever conducts unconventional warfare.  There was one shining moment for 5th Special Forces Group after 9/11 but otherwise their mission has been largely focused on Direct Action, FID or combat FID which combines the two.  Lately, this is codified as triple A: Advise, Assist, Accompany as seen in action in places like Niger and Syria.  However, when it comes to unconventional warfare, the Green Berets have been sorely lacking, despite making well intended efforts to re-capture this capability.  When was the last time a Special Forces team did a military free fall infiltration?  A sub-surface infiltration?  Waged an unconventional war?  The answers are not lately, if ever.  When it comes to free fall and SCUBA operations, they max our risk assessments so hand wringing Army officers will never approve them.  Why maintain these expensive capabilities if we don’t use them and never will?

The point here is that Special Forces are expensive to train, keep qualified and maintain.  If you are a bean counter in the Pentagon you will quickly see that SFAB gives you 90% of the capabilities of Special Forces at a fraction of the cost.  Sure, you can say that Special Forces is highly qualified, that they bring a lot more to the table than SFAB ever will.  I would agree with that, but it is also irrelevant.  In the thinking of the Department of Defense, they are unconcerned with the quality of the job done.  Their focus is on accomplishing the half-measured solution, especially if it shaves off some funding costs.  In short, the Army concerns itself with warm bodies, not hyper-competent innovative soldiers who can think on their feet.

Furthermore, when unconventional warfare missions do need to be conducted, recent history shows that the Special Operations community would rather throw JSOC at the problem.  Libya was an unconventional warfare mission but Delta Force was the weapon of choice.  Syria was an unconventional warfare mission but Delta Force was the unit tapped to go.  Yemen was another unconventional warfare mission, but SEAL Team Six did the real work on the ground.  Yes, Special Forces was also deployed to these countries but their mission was to conduct FID, the types of missions that SFAB will do.  Special Forces will no longer be bringing anything unique to the table.