There is only one unit called Special Forces: the men who make up the Special Forces Regiment consisting of 1st Special Forces Group, 3rd Special Forces Group, 5th Special Forces Group, 7th Special Forces Group, 10th Special Forces Group, and the two National Guard components, 19th and 20th Groups. Nicknamed the “Green Berets,” these soldiers specialize in unconventional warfare (UW) which emphasizes working though, with, and by host-nation partner forces or irregular guerrilla forces. Rangers, SEALs, MARSOC, and JSOC counterterrorism units are not Special Forces, they are special operations forces. The Green Berets are the only ones organized and trained to fight unconventional warfare and counterinsurgency campaigns.
During the Global War on Terror, there has been a shift in missions, however. Although Rangers and SEALs are designed to conduct direct action (DA) missions, Special Forces have also gravitated toward DA, leaving behind much of their roots in unconventional warfare. Colonel (ret.) Mark Boyatt is the former commander of 3rd Special Forces Group, and has written a book about taking Special Forces back to their core mission in “Special Forces: A Unique National Asset.”
Special Forces: Direct action versus unconventional warfare
“There is always a 50-50 battle between those more in line with ‘through, with, and by’ and those more in line with the unilateral direct-action mission,” Mark told SOFREP during an interview at Chapter 18 of the Special Forces Association in Fayetteville, North Carolina. “I don’t think the force fully understands ‘through, with, and by’ and unconventional warfare. UW is such a complicated aspect from every angle, especially the political aspect. It is almost impossible for people to come to grips with a multi-generational campaign.”
Every Special Forces student going through the qualification course at the JFK Special Warfare Center learns the phrase “through, with, and by,” a term that Mark coined in his master’s degree thesis paper. In his book, Mark defines each word as it applies to the Special Forces mission as follows:
Through: Implies that U.S. Special Forces work through a third party as a cut-out to support an indigenous force. Special Forces would supply equipment, training, logistics, fire support, etc. to a surrogate, who in turns provides this support to the indigenous forces while the American forces remain entirely behind the scenes.
With: Means that U.S. Special Forces work directly alongside indigenous forces as combat advisors and trainers, working alongside the locals throughout their military campaign.
By: Working by local forces means that U.S. Special Forces provide training, equipment, fire support, etc. from a distance without any active participation in the actual fighting.
Today, 12-man Special Forces teams, known as ODAs, are often deployed in episodic and ad hoc manners. A team could be deployed to Iraq and then, after rotating back home for a while, be redeployed to a completely different area of operations, losing all of the situational awareness and relationships they had built with the local population.
Mark disagrees with this approach to Special Forces missions, arguing that being in SF means “staying in forward areas, staying focused, not just popping in. No one should have been in Afghanistan and Iraq except 5th Group. You don’t change everyone out of their areas to put them there. We don’t have a clue what is going on in the rest of the world. The possibilities that are there for constant engagement by the same A-team in the same rotation and keeping the footprint is out there. You never lose the engagement with the locals and you gain their trust. Today, they pull the teams out and deploy them to another area. What kind of insanity is that?”
Mark also points out that Special Forces teams should not be deployed as nothing more than high-speed infantry squads. ODAs were designed for split teams operations (two teams of six), but they can be even more effective when split up further into their own individual tasking. Medics would go off to establish field hospitals, weapons sergeants would be teaching tactics, and the officer and warrant officer on the team would be training the staff headquarters of their partner force.
“If we don’t commit to a multi-year, multi-generational campaign, including the security blanket around the country after the war is over, they will never have success because inside or outside forces will come in,” Mark says, pointing out that Special Forces and overall American strategy needs to follow through over a long period of time to ensure political stability and consolidate military victories.
“We haven’t been in South Korea for 60 years,” the Special Forces colonel explained. “We’ve been there for one year, sixty times.” The various bureaucracies within the United States need to come up with a holistic plan that detachment commanders can plug into, focusing on fixed goals during their deployments, which are small stepping stones toward a much larger strategic victory. Instead, every officer lands in country thinking he is there to win the war—an impossible goal.
“It all comes down to instant gratification. Americans are so used to it that we have no patience. We’ve lost the long thoughtfulness. You certainly can’t hold a politician’s attention with UW, since they are on a 2-4 year election cycle,” Mark commented, explaining why it is easier to focus on unilateral direct-action missions. DA missions are easier to measure, for one thing. In Vietnam, commanders wanted their body counts. Today, commanders want to know how many high-value targets (HVTs) have been killed or captured during a deployment. This is the metric used to measure success. By comparison, a multi-generational unconventional warfare campaign is very hard to measure over short spans of time.
There is a “self-imposed pulling between direct action and unconventional warfare [in Special Forces],” Mark says. Direct action “is much more sexy, easy to train for, easy to evaluate, is low cost in resources. Everything about direct action, training, planning, and prepping is easy and is very easy to measure and understand. Unconventional warfare is totally different. Everything there is very hard, especially for senior leaders competing for resources to explain UW, but it was easy to explain DA.” This in turn led to Special Forces largely abandoning the UW mission during the War on Terror to focus on direct action, sometimes glamorized as “combat foreign internal Defense.”
“In DA, everyone is working with common standard operating procedures, and common languages, not through interpreters or in a foreign language. It is so much easier to do a U.S.-led unilateral DA mission. It is the action-figure mentality,” Mark told SOFREP. “You can’t sell Special Forces with unconventional warfare.” This explains why all of the recruitment videos for Special Forces show unilateral combat training footage.
When it comes to women entering special operations forces, Mark is supportive of the idea, but does not think the Army is going about it the right way. “Women are not going to be kicking down doors and in hard combat, or dragging the guy who weighs 280 pounds with all his gear,” he explained. “But you can find the one who can carry her gun and ruck and work with the indig. You have to figure out how to get women on the ODAs because UW is about every man, woman, and child fighting. Women don’t do DA well, but it opens a window for you, giving you access.”
Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory
The former Special Forces colonel wrote this book not as a personal memoir, but as a textbook to educate American taxpayers, Congress, and other policy-makers about what Special Forces is and what they bring to the table. Coming off the tail end of two failed wars, this is a book that the U.S. government desperately needs. “We don’t know how to win peace,” Mark said. “We can destroy the bad guys, but then we lose. The only ones who can secure the peace are the politicians and the indig themselves. If they are not perceived as being legitimate and part of the solution, then they are not going to win the peace either.”
“Look at what happened in Yugoslavia when you took the cap off of that. People who were neighbors for 500 years slit each other’s throats,” Mark said, snapping his finger. “It was only in existence because of the dictator running it. Same thing in Libya, and guess what? We get surprised every time it happens!”
Part of the problem is that Americans just refuse to accept reality. “Number one, Afghanistan and Iraq are not countries, anyway. So you accept that and work to create three different countries or five or however many it takes. You have to recognize that Sunnis and Shias are going to fight each other. The Kurds deserve their country, too.”
“We have this stupid vision that they are like us and they’re not. That doesn’t make them bad, but they are not like us. Democracy isn’t for everyone, at least early in their political development. You might be talking 5-6 generations with the proper security that allows them to grow until they have a large, tax-paying middle class. Without that, you don’t have a democracy.”
Fixing the system
“The real thing to fix it is to get Special Forces out of the Department of Defense and make another OSS,” Mark recommended, referencing the World War II Office of Strategic Services, a precursor to both the CIA and Special Forces. “You need a cabinet independent from the State Department and DOD, right under the president like the OSS.” In this type of structure, the CIA and Special Forces could be blended into one organization, or remain separate but work closely together.
When asked about the secrecy surrounding Special Forces as we move into the future, he said, “The more open you are, the more you scare the crap out of the enemy.” He believes around 90 percent of what Special Forces does should be public knowledge. SOFREP has previously reported about how the proliferation of technology is making covert operations nearly impossible, but Mark has a fix for that as well.
“To actually run a covert unconventional warfare event, given DNA and other analysis, how do you have someone with a separate identity? You can’t. You have to use indig. You can’t hide who you are with a little cover story unless you have cover story from birth. It can’t be done without massive effort.” Acknowledging that America’s enemies will have UAVs in the future, if they don’t already, Mark proposes the use of indigenous forces to blend into the operational environment.
“If we don’t get the political will to see UW through multiple administrations, then don’t do it—it isn’t morally right. The Kachin in Burma are an example. We abandoned the Kurds three times. If we can’t get the politicians to understand the moral aspects….” Mark paused, “we have to be better than that. If we are not, then just go and kill the enemy and leave. Don’t act like you are doing it to help someone. To me, that is the biggest thing about UW. If we can’t get the political will for multi-generational commitment, then just don’t do it.”
Mark remains very positive about the Special Forces Regiment despite the numerous areas that could use improvement. “The greatest thing about SF soldiers is their initiative and innovation. I call it unconventionalism.” Mark smiled as he said, “The ODA must be the deadliest element in that area, from knife fighting to hand-to-hand combat to shooting, because that is how you get respect from the locals.”
“Special Forces: A Unique National Asset” is available now on Amazon.