There recently was a story published that has the entire Special Forces community abuzz. The title stated that “big changes” were coming for the Special Forces Qualification Course (SFQC). And whenever change comes to a qualification course it always draws heavy scrutiny from the members, but especially the former members of the Regiment who worry about the relaxation of standards and the weakening of the force.
The worry among some of the Regiment, both active and former members about allowing substandard troops into the Regiment will weaken the overall force and make it less capable than before.
The Army and the Special Operations Command have decided that the schoolhouse where all Green Berets are trained needed a new upgrade as the shift from the counter-terrorism operations that have dominated the past two decades will need to address the new near-peer adversaries of China, Russia, as well as Iran or North Korea.
The plan is to cut some training that will be done after a soldier is Special Forces qualified and goes to his specific unit, where it will be tailored specifically towards his group’s area of operation. All Special Forces groups have areas of responsibility that they are tailored for. However, due to the extreme need of Special Forces troops in the Global War on Terror, (GWOT), all of the groups have been conducting combat deployments in the Middle East in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria.
The former commander of the Special Forces schools General Kurt Sonntag was the driving force behind the changes to the SFQC and last week he had this to say.
“Today’s qualification course is for exactly the type of Green Beret we needed for 2008. It is not what we need for 2028,” said Sonntag. “We need to reestablish our forte, which is our ability to work with partner forces, developing their capabilities to provide an advantage for them and the United States against our adversaries — North Korea, Iran, and China and Russia.”
The changes in the course that Sonntag had proposed were endorsed by the Commander of the 1st Special Forces Command, MG John Deedrick who also wanted to see much of the training conducted at the unit level.
“If you try to make them an expert in everything, you’re gonna give me a Swiss Army knife that can do a little bit of everything but isn’t real good,” he said in an interview with the media last week. “I’d prefer to have him very good at the basics and then let me tailor what he’s gonna do in the long run.”
All of this makes sense and in reality, the SFQC has evolved with the times. The first Green Berets who graduated in the early 1950s had a very different course than was taught in the mid-to-late 1960s with the American involvement in Vietnam. Changes came in the late 1970s and early 1980s as the regional threats changed.
During the late 1980s, the Special Forces Selection and Assessment Course (SFAS) was added. Originally called Special Forces Orientation and Training (SFOT), it marked a new change in how Green Berets were trained. SFAS itself was overhauled several years ago by Maj. Brian Decker and it did a better job of identifying the successful Green Berets in the course. So change is inevitable and needed.
Language training will now be conducted after graduation from the SFQC and will no longer be part of the course. And until the past few years, that was always the case. After graduation, a soldier was assigned to a specific group and then slotted for language training depending upon his group’s area of operations.
Other training, such as the counter-terrorism training will be tailored to what the specific group is conducting in their AO.
Because of the overriding need for Special Operations troops in the on-going wars, the big focus was placed on Direct Action missions, getting away from the Special Forces bread and butter, Unconventional Warfare. It was needed because of the conflict, and now the focus of the Regiment needs to refocus on what it does best and the only Special Operations unit that conducts UW.
But during the GWOT, a major piece of the Special Forces mission, the Foreign Internal Defense (FID) training conventional foreign allied military forces was taken away and given to the SFABs, the pet project of General Mark Milley. Special Forces would still conduct FID but only with host nation Special Operations Forces units.
While SF was overtasked during the wars with a back-breaking operational tempo, that is still on-going, handing over the mission to the SFABs is a double-edged sword. FID conducted with conventional units in host nation countries is among the best preparation for conducting UW operations. We’re not going to go into the discussion of whether the SFABs is a worthy endeavor, that has been done numerous times. They are here and aren’t going anywhere.
But there is the other side of the equation. Many instructors inside of the schoolhouse have decried the lowering of the standards of the SFQC that they claimed that Sonntag was behind to push the numbers of students graduating the course higher, allowing students to graduate that were unqualified and unworthy of wearing the Green Beret and the Special Forces tab. Several instructors felt Sonntag was artificially lowering the standards so that women attempting to become Special Forces qualified would graduate.
While the arguing of lowering the standards in the SFQC is nothing new and has been going on for most of the 60+ years of the unit, social media brought this latest flap to the forefront. Sonntag was accused of running a toxic command climate and sought revenge against several NCOs who wrote the infamous “night letter” that originally came to light when SOFREP posted it in late 2017.
An Army board of inquiry cleared Sonntag of any wrongdoing but then he was not given a follow-on assignment. After his tour at the Special Warfare Center was over. And he then retired. There are still hard feelings on both sides of this issue and at least one general officer has sided with the NCOs.
BG (ret) Donald Bolduc said that “the danger of one unqualified officer making it through to command a Special Forces team is a balance that requires difficult choices.” He added further that he believes that NCOs that were concerned with the standards have his support. “If they are concerned, I am concerned,” he said.
While changes are always inevitable and needed, these latest changes have seemingly left the Regiment split on whether they are legitimate or not, the proof will eventually be in the pudding. Like everything else today, no one is going to change their opinions.
Sure, there has always been and always will be the decrying for the lowering of standards. I’m sure, the Commander of the 10th Legion X Frentensis, Lucius Flavius Silva during the revolt in Judea, along with the camp prefect (Praefectus Castorum) in charge of all of the Legion’s training no doubt heard from the cohorts that the standards were being lowered. It has gone on before and will go on long after we are gone. “I went through the last hard class” sound familiar?
But in this case, careers were ended over this, so how will it turn out? We’ll have to watch and see. The senior NCOs, the backbone of the Regiment will be looked to, to carry on with the mission as it will no doubt adjust in the near future. With that in mind, it should be noted the following of our own “SOF Truths.”
Special Operations Forces Can’t Be Mass Produced”
I respect what the General Officers have to do and are tasked to do, and that is keeping the force manned for the next conflict and having enough trained people to take care of any mission or contingency that comes along. But if in fact if they are lowering the standards to inflate the numbers, then you get what you pay for. And while I get that cutting some parts of the school out to “shorten the pipeline”, are they really doing so? Because an SF Group may have 40-50 new Green Berets from the next class but they won’t be language trained or up to snuff on the CT training that the group requires.
In discussing this piece with some of my own brethren, they suggested I add what I thought were good suggestions to offer up instead of …you know, just bitching as us old guys do. So, also like old guys, I’ll offer my own unsolicited, and no doubt unwanted or unneeded two cents on things. I’m sure the command is already doing these.
The command needs to go all out across the Army and beat the bushes of every base to recruit/steal the best NCOs from these bases. If they’re having trouble meeting goals for new troops, then recruit, and then recruit some more.
And the main focus has to be retention for the Groups. It is hard with the burnout factor the groups are facing with the crazy OPTEMPO they’re forced to conduct and short of ending the wars (which the schoolhouse can’t do), I don’t know what else they can do to entice guys to stay. Perhaps it is time to subcontract out to some civilian firms to help them out with both of these issues, to find out if they’re missing something.
Return to Phase I, II, III:
It seems, that it would be easier from the instructor’s perspective to return to what worked for so many years. Not in the curriculum per se, but in the way the course is divided. It seems that for every different phase that they enter now, the chances of the courses being delayed presents itself. Perhaps not.
Phase I is your basic skills phase, land navigation, SUTs etc with SERE at the end. Phase II remains the MOS phase, and don’t cut anything away from the SF medic course. While Phase III remains UW culmination with Robin Sage.
Near Peer Prep:
I’m sure this part is being done, but in the UW phase, look at how our potential next adversaries are conducting their own proxy wars. Russia, China, North Korea, and don’t forget ISIS and the Taliban. How are they operating, and how can our guys best defeat them? This is part of the continually changing SFQC.
Ask the Group’s Senior NCOs For Input:
This should also be done all the time, get input from the operational Group’s team sergeants about the guys coming out of the course, what their strengths and weaknesses are and most importantly, how can they be improved. This should be a constant evaluation to make the product even better.
I have faith that the school’s NCOs will do, what they’ve always done, and that is to produce the best soldiers on earth. I’m just glad that I went through the first easy class.