Since the Vietnam War, the United States government has experimented with embedding development workers within military and intelligence teams to advance its work in counterinsurgency (COIN) missions with programs such as Civil Operations and Rural Development Support (CORDS) and Phoenix. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has always led the charge in providing civilian personnel in non-permissive environments (NPEs).

USAID workers embedded with Seal Team 6?
John Paul Vann (white shirt) and his CORDS staff at their Pleiku headquarters in 1968. (Public domain)

However, events such as Benghazi have kept civilian personnel away from NPEs, which have made COIN operations a mostly military and intelligence affair. To answer this need, the USAID’s Global Development Lab came up with the Rapid Expeditionary Development (RED) team concept. RED teams would be deployed with special operations forces or intelligence officers to hostile environments such as front lines in Afghanistan, Somalia and Syria.

To find out the opinions of “critical stakeholders,” USAID has involved Frontier Design Group, a Washington-based strategy organization. Frontier produced a report where it involved stakeholders from the special operations forces (SOF), intelligence community (IC), and law enforcement. The results were overwhelmingly in favor of the RED team concept.

The Frontier report explains RED teams as:

Unlike existing USAID officers working in permissive and semi-permissive environments, RED team members would be specifically recruited and trained to deliver novel techniques, practices, and tools optimized to secure communities vulnerable to violent extremist radicalization and exploitation. RED team development officers would be deployed as two-person teams and placed with ‘non-traditional’ USAID partners executing a mix of offensive, defensive, and stability operations in extreme conditions.”

To be able to perform in these hostile environments and alongside some of the best-trained men and women in the world, RED teams must undergo a different type of training than current USAID workers. Frontier, with the help of members of the IC, SOF and USAID, proposed training to be conducted by retired SOF and IC members. That’s because it would offer credibility as well as potential access to training courses offered by the Special Warfare Center and School or an Armed Forces Experimental Training Activity.

Essential skills as suggested by Frontier would be:

  • Emergency First Aid
  • Weapons Handling and Use
  • Small Team Organization and Tactics
  • SERE (or some functionally appropriate version)
  • Personnel Recovery
  • Communication
  • Off-road/Unimproved Road Drivers Training

The physical requirements necessary would be:

  1. Walk three miles with a 50-pound pack in 45 minutes or less
  2. Drag a 180-pound dummy 20 yards in 20 seconds or less
  3. Lift a 60-pound dead weight bag from the floor and place on a wall at a height of five feet, repeating four times in one minute or less
  4. Complete all the above tasks within a 1.5-hour test period

Individuals from the from Naval Special Warfare Development Group (DEVGRU), more commonly known as Seal Team 6, stated their need for RED teams as:

Facilitate a paradigm shift wherein RED teams: 1) support local leaders allowing SOF operators to target networks, money flows, and community structures and knowledge; 2) provide data sets, not just text-heavy reports, to feed into SOF databases and augment modelling in exchange for info that can be mined by USAID using novel social science methods to aid strategic planning processes; and 3) utilize unique civilian authorities to leverage cutting edge technologies (listening devices, drones, etc.) in ways SOF cannot to change the dynamic of security and terrorism in a society and advance the USG’s toolkit in NPEs.”

USAID workers embedded with Seal Team 6?
(U.S. Navy photo)

Even with an overwhelming interest, there were also voices who did not think the RED concept was a good idea. For example, one Joint Special Operations Command officer commented that “this entity was not the right partner for RED teams and that ‘tier one’ operators, in general, should not be USAID’s audience given their overwhelming kinetic focus.”

Inside USAID, there were also some skeptics who didn’t see the benefit of placing RED teams within military teams, since it would conflict with the impartial character of aid work. One former State and USAID official told Frontier, “the last thing we need is to be seen as an embed with the military.”

The NGO Twitter community reactions have also been particularly harsh, with some calling RED teams “wannabe seals” and “incredibly unwise” and even trending the meme below.

The concerns are valid but there is the need to understand that the U.S. government cannot keep sending its military and overextending the SOF community to conduct tasks which aid workers are far more suited to perform. So, there must be a balance. While the RED concept is a step in the right direction, it warrants further assessment and not just a knee-jerk reaction based on titles of articles.

Many interviewees did suggest that the name “RED team” should be changed as:

“This would avoid any confusion with longstanding military and intelligence practices of referring to threats as “red” or emulating adversaries to improve effectiveness, a practice known as “red teaming.” The CIA also has a “Red Cell,” dedicated to alternative analysis and asking hard, what if? future-oriented questions.