Part of me dies inside when I hear people talk about “tier one” or white “vanilla” special operations in relation to so-called black special operations. The public throws these words around, but realistically, they only do it because of the the number of active duty and retired special operations soldiers who use these words without having a clue what they are talking about. There it is, I said it. A lot of active duty SOF soldiers and veterans are completely ignorant about the task organization of their units.
Then video game developers took the ignorant opinions of former SOF soldiers turned consultants to heart and incorporated “tier one” as a marketing gimmick. The implication of course is that tier one is our black ops ninjas that rappel through sky lights wearing balaclavas and shooting the latest gas-piston boom stick being advertised in Guns & Ammo magazine.
The tier levels within the Department of Defense organize different military units and determine how they are funded, trained, and equipped. Your tier level has nothing to do with how much of a badass you are. There are fat civilians who are technically Tier One but the comic book store guy from the Simpsons isn’t going to lock out of subs or do a military free fall jump behind enemy lines. The fact that so many soldiers misunderstand the tier system is partly a function of the details of that system being classified. Part of it is also due to institutional inbreeding and a high school culture masquerading as a professional one.
The same goes for those who like to talk about so-called white SOF and black SOF. Yeah, I get it. White SOF does operations which are visible and black SOF does operations that are low-visibility. Of course, reality is far more complicated. If you look at what units are brought in to work with black SOF, you quickly see that the distinction between white and black is completely blurred. The higher the tier you are, the less likely it is that you are doing anything without help from the other tiers. Just don’t tell the kids on Instagram that I said that because some o-rings will get blown out.
Anyone who tells you that their military unit does deniable operations is full of shit. US military soldiers killed in action cannot be denied, nor can those held captive without being acknowledged by our government. Especially not in this day and age. There are US military units that participate in covert operations, but this is done exclusively under the auspices of the CIA. The US military does not have “covert” units although we like to tout our “black side” units. SOF does low visibility, clandestine, and operational preparation of the environment, much of which looks a hell of a lot like the kind of espionage done by the CIA. But it isn’t the same. Why? Because loopholes in our legal system say so.
The reality is that “white” SOF has worked covert activities with the CIA going back half a century at this point for those of you who may recall a unit in Vietnam called MACV-SOG. These types of arrangements go on to this day. So why is this distinction between white and black SOF so important to so many guys? Ego.
My point isn’t to take anything away from “tier one” or “black SOF.” Those Delta guys were better trained and equipped than I was. They were tougher and more professional than I was. I don’t dispute this. They also didn’t strut around talking about their tier level like some insecure staff rat back at the headquarters would.
Many of the nuances I’m referring to are opaque and this is intentional. Our government doesn’t want the distinctions between covert and clandestine to be too clear. Our policy makers, intelligence professionals, and military commanders enjoy these loopholes. The problem is that somewhere along the way, we started drinking our own Kool Aid. We played the same video games as the kids on the internet, and actually bought into our own bullshit.