As I write this post, I can’t help but think about the bootleg copy of “Napoleon Dynamite” that the other Rangers and I would watch over and over again while we were deployed to Afghanistan. “Girls only like guys that have skills. You know, like bow-fighting skills, computer-hacking skills….”
We never learned any bow-fighting skills, and computer hacking falls under the domain of others, but special operations soldiers do employ an array of hard-learned and much-sought-after skills. This is why so much time is invested in training each soldier, and why they are worth so much money to various companies after they leave the military.
If a company like Bancroft is looking to hire someone who is a trained medic, sniper qualified, and has previous experience training foreign soldiers, there is really only one place for them to look: special operations veterans. By the end of their time in uniform, a lot of guys end up with some highly unique skill sets. Here, we will identify the top ten, but of course there are plenty more that could be added, including a few that are best left unsaid.
Here are the top ten special operations skills.
Combatives are conducted frequently in the special operations community, often as a form of physical training performed each morning by Rangers and Special Forces soldiers. Derived from Gracie jiu-jitsu, Army combatives aren’t just about learning hand-to-hand combat. They are about instilling warrior values in each individual soldier and giving him (or her) the self confidence to know that they are a human weapon, and never out of the fight.
2. Military free-fall
Military free-fall is an insertion technique that includes two forms of parachuting: The first is known as high-altitude low-opening (HALO), the second, high-altitude high-opening (HAHO). Both techniques involve jumping from airplanes at very high altitudes, so high that the jumper has to be on oxygen so they don’t asphyxiate due to the thin air.
In a HALO jump, parachutes are deployed around 4,000 feet above ground level (AGL). In a HAHO jump, parachutes are deployed almost immediately upon exiting the aircraft, up to 30,000 feet AGL. Today, the Military Free-Fall Advanced Tactical Infiltration Course teaches special operations soldiers how to parachute while wearing a full combat load, and to be ready to fight the second they hit the ground.
3. Combat diving
Special Forces Under Water Operations School (SFUWO) teaches Special Forces combat divers aquatic surface and subsurface infiltration. Divers can use either traditional scuba or re-breathers that do not produce a signature, such as bubbles. Combat divers are physically as well as mentally trained and conditioned for rigorous maritime special operations. They are trained in drown-proofing, night operations, navigation, infiltration, deep dives, physics, physiology, airborne, long-distance surface swims, small boat operations, and Zodiac (rigid-hulled inflatable boat) and kayak use. SFUWO training teaches students how to plan and conduct special operations missions in an aquatic environment.
While commonly seen in public demonstrations, there was a time when fast-roping was considered a classified infiltration technique. First developed by Delta Force with some help from the British Special Air Service, fast-roping involves attaching a thick, braided rope to a mount on the side of a helicopter.
Once deployed, special operations soldiers slide down the rope—a tricky proposition when loaded down with 80 pounds of combat equipment. Fast-roping is known by the acronym FRIES, which stands for Fast Roping Insertion and Extraction System. An alternate method called SPIES (Special Purpose Insertion and Extraction System) can be utilized for extracting small teams of SOF soldiers.
5. Sniper training
The Special Forces Sniper Course is an eight-week course of instruction to train special operations snipers. Despite the name of the course, Green Berets aren’t the only ones in attendance; Rangers and Delta Force operators attend as well. While ghillie-suit stalks are still graded events, much has changed from the hoary old Tom Berenger days of sniper fieldcraft. Today, students also learn to use ballistic computers, surveillance devices, and digital photography, all in addition to training to hollow out a human skull with a M110 semi-automatic sniper rifle.
6. Aerial platform support
Aerial platform support is an advanced sniper skill that involves the sniper shooting from a helicopter. Normally, the sniper is stationary and firing at a moving target downrange. By leading the target (shooting slightly in front of him) the target walks into your bullet as you have ideally accounted for the bullet’s time in flight.
When shooting from a helicopter, however, you are the moving target and what you are shooting at may or may not be stationary. As you fly by, the sniper has to utilize a reverse lead, firing behind his target! Does that make sense? No? Doesn’t to me, either. Yeah, we all want to be like Berenger and Zane, but no one is seriously coming up with ballistic solutions while looking through a 10x scope and flying around on the side of the Little Bird. For that reason, the sniper in this instance is better off removing his scope and using a red-dot sight.
You can’t do your job if you don’t have a way to get to work. Military free-fall and combat diving offer two options, but much more frequently, special operations units will simply drive to work. They won’t be driving a mom van though, more like an up-armored gun truck or a non-standard tactical vehicle that looks pretty normal from the outside, but is packed to the gills with bullets, rocket launchers, and hand grenades.
Other means of transportation utilized in Afghanistan include ATVs and dirt bikes. These can be especially useful in navigating the austere terrain found in Afghanistan. SOF soldiers today go to numerous courses that offer mobility training, such as AM General, to learn off-road driving with Humvees, or Gryphon Group, which teaches soldiers how to drive civilian vehicles while shooting through the windows at targets.
Helocasting is an SOF capability in which soldiers are flown over the water by helicopter, followed by them jumping out and swimming to shore. They can also jump with a Zodiac to increase their range and conduct “over-the-horizon” missions, meaning they can insert with greater stand-off from enemy-held areas. This technique has not been used operationally as much in recent years since we’ve been fighting in the deserts and mountains, but in places like the Philippines or Colombia, we could see this infiltration technique used with greater frequency.
9. Explosive breaching
Explosive breaching is a science taught to special operations soldiers to help them gain entry to enemy compounds quickly and efficiently. Blowing down the door not only creates an entrance, but also allows our troops to take advantage of the shock created by the blast to get the drop on the bad guys. Building the right kind of charge for the type of door or wall you need to breach is a technical skill, one that had been greatly refined in recent years. We often joke that the formula used when building a charge is to add “P for plenty,” but SOF is actually much more exacting than that when it comes to explosives.
Rapport-building is perhaps the most important SOF skill set. Putting humans over hardware and flashy infiltration techniques, developing relationships with our host-nation counterparts is a skill that is more complex and takes more time to learn than the previous nine skills put together. Building rapport is all about creating long-term relationships with an allied force and developing them into a formidable fighting force. From the Philippines to Iraq to Nepal, Special Forces soldiers engage with their counterparts in training and even integrate into their culture.
I say that you haven’t truly lived until you have sat in a small trailer converted into a barracks with a dozen chain-smoking Iraqis, watching the Hustler channel on pirated satellite television while they critique the techniques used and comment on how the girls are in it for the money. Jokes aside, hanging out with foreign troops, training them, and going out on combat operations with them is the ultimate force multiplier and pays the greatest dividends. Many of the Iraqi SWAT and special operations units that we trained are now out there fighting ISIS on a day-to-day basis.
This list of SOF skill sets is not all encompassing; for example, we haven’t even mentioned communications, K9 handlers, or intelligence gathering. But this is a thumbnail sketch of some of the capabilities that our special operations soldiers bring to the table.