The primary mission of U.S. Special Forces (often referred to as Green Berets) is unconventional warfare, so when Americans think about explosive entries and clearing rooms in combat, they usually envision Rangers or SEALs conducting this type of mission. Although unconventional warfare is their primary task, one of the missions assigned to Special Forces is direct action, which can include unilateral operations without indigenous forces, although this would be an exceptional scenario. In order to support this mission and institutionalize the tactics, techniques, and procedures used for direct-action missions, Special Forces has developed a number of schools at Fort Bragg over the years.
Special Operations Training (SOT)
The first course, called Special Operations Training (SOT), started right after 5th Special Forces Group shut down Blue Light, which was an interim counterterrorism unit meant to fill the gap until Delta Force was stood up. Like Blue Light, SOT sought to retain the tactics developed by Special Forces during the Son Tay raid in Vietnam, which were then further refined by Blue Light.
SOT took place at Mott Lake, but in these early years the Army was not really thinking about counterterrorism the way they are today. SOT was a three-week (later four-week) course that consisted of advanced weapons training. Entire 12-man ODAs would attend the course. Special Forces students, along with the occasional Ranger or Marine, would spend a few days on advanced pistol marksmanship, then advanced rifle marksmanship, and so on. The team’s snipers would break away from the main element to train on long guns. Tony Cross, a former instructor out at Mott Lake, said of the room-clearing techniques taught at that time, “They were really rudimentary, brother.”
At SOT, Green Berets were learning critical skills that they would need to perform their duties. “All the specialities are just infiltration, bro!” Tony said, referring to the specialty teams in a Special Forces company such as combat diver and military free-fall teams. Special Forces men who attended SOT learned how to do their jobs once they arrived at the objective, or how to teach indigenous forces to do it for them.
Out at Mott Lake, the Special Forces soldiers fired an absurd amount of ammunition during a three-week course. They also constructed and used all sorts of obscure explosive charges. The course was “solely designed for the ODA to give them baseline training and develop their own standard operating procedures,” Joe Crane described.
Special Forces Advanced Reconnaissance, Target Analysis, and Exploitation Techniques Course (SFARTAETC)
By 1987, a new direct-action school was being created called SFARTAETC—the Special Forces Advanced Reconnaissance, Target Analysis, and Exploitation Techniques Course—which is a crazy-long acronym even for the Army. SFARTAETC began dragging resources away from SOT, and the latter course started running three times a year instead of seven or eight. It could no longer function as a course that trained entire ODAs either, but SOT was not closed down until 1993.
Special Forces instructors arrived at the new SFARTAETC course in the summer of 1987 and began preparing lesson plans, which had to be cleared and given to them by another unit. In January of 1988, the first pilot course was run. In those first two years of SFARTAETC, it was common for the instructors to put in 15-hour days running the eight-week long course one cycle right after the other.
The direct-action instruction also took place under a cloak of secrecy. In the early years, SOT served as a type of cover for SFARTAETC, as Special Forces could claim it was an advanced SOT course. Even the obtuse acronym, SFARTAETC, served to confuse what was actually going on. When students graduated the course, they didn’t even get a certificate back then because OPSEC was so tight.
It was around this time that Special Forces really began perfecting the use of door charges. SFARTAETC’s first engineer, John DuPont, had a big influence on that, as did Booger Sanders, who came to the course after him. Most of the cadre members at that time came from 7th Special Forces Group. Back in the ’80s, most of the action for Special Forces was in Central and South America. The 7th Group guys had been training Latin American counterterrorism units for years, so they had some experience in the field.
Tony Cross of 1st Special Forces Group is one of the plank owners of the SFARTAETC course. He said:
You’re there to learn how to take a mission, plan for it, practice it, and do it successfully. You had some officers doing a tactical operations center situation so they understand how the information is coming in. Snipers are out there after going through a sniper/observer course watching targets. They did a lot of things that technology can do now. Taking a guy who maybe doesn’t have the shooting skills and building him up. We want shooters who are thinkers. There was a lot of target discrimination. We want everyone on the same page, everyone knows, you can be anywhere in the stack. How to put charges on doors. Everyone had charges and flex cuffs.”
Joe Crane had served in 7th Special Forces Group and arrived at SFARTAETC to be an instructor just after the pilot course was run in 1988. “[We] had CAR-15s as primary weapons,” he said. The cadre transitioned to using the Beretta M9 just before he arrived and also began using the Remington 870 shotgun. “We had body armor and assault vests that would go over it. Everything was black kit back then; that was the cool thing. There was some gear that was new to the force, like the Eagle drop-leg holster, tac lights for pistols, and that was all relatively new at the time. However, it was a huge D-cell Maglite that was clamped onto the rifle,” Joe described. The Special Forces assaulters were also wearing plastic Pro-tec helmets.
SFARTAETC moved from Mott Lake to Range 37 in 1993. Range 37 offered far better facilities, including two flat ranges, a shotgun range, a demolition range, a repel tower, and shoot houses. It was much bigger than what they had at Mott Lake and could easily accommodate 30 or more students.
In the early days, everything was live fire. However, the shoot house did not have bulletproof walls, so soldiers had to move through the structure in phase lines to prevent fratricide. Later, they got into shooting Simunitions, which fire paint pellets. The ratio of their training was 95 percent live fire and five percent sim rounds for when they were off-post using blanks.
During the War on Terror years, the course evolved dramatically, but was not without hiccups. There was a period of time in which the standards were so strict, the instructors would not even be able to pass. Special Forces students were not graduating the course and were being thrown out for the most minor infractions. Eventually, a sergeant major came to inspect the school house, and it was revealed that some instructors were acting as “tab protectors” as they are often called in the special operations community. That issue has since been corrected, however.
The purpose of SFARTAETC “was to bring Special Forces guys up to a standard where they could conduct counterterrorism and hostage rescue,” Joe Crane said.
“We used to do a really good bus takedown. It was pretty dynamic,” Joe said, recalling one humorous experience. “We had all the task force birds and a lot of assets to do that. These guys were prepping, they launched the assault force to the assault point, had sniper observers along the route. Bottom line, they hit the wrong bus—they were reserve military police. They had charges along the road so when everything went off, the bus driver slammed on the brakes. The assault force came in with ladders, breaking windows, and they took down the bus the way they were supposed to.” The guys who hit the bus were actually Tony’s teammates from his ODA in Okinawa, Japan.
However, SFARTAETC was highly specialized training, and ODAs did not attend this course. With SOT now defunct, there was not a course for Special Forces ODAs to learn direct-action tactics. This part of the Special Forces mission was falling by the wayside. “In 1999, 7th Group sergeant major at the time came up with the concept of bringing SOT back, but having it run at the group level because the Special Warfare Center did not have the resources.”
General Jerry Boykin, who was the Special Forces commander at that time, loved the idea. “He was all about bringing the groups back up to where they needed to be,” Joe said. The 7th Group sergeant major put Joe in charge of standing up what would become known as SFAUC (Special Forces Advanced Urban Combat) which would train ODAs intact in direct-action operations.
Special Forces Advanced Urban Combat (SFAUC)
As a master sergeant, Joe was allowed to cherry pick his first instructors from 7th Group and begin developing the program of instruction. At first, they didn’t even have a place to work out of on Fort Bragg, so they worked out of Joe’s house in Fayetteville. In January of 2000, they ran the first SFAUC course, which ran four weeks. The sergeant major gave the SFAUC committee 18 months to cycle the entire Special Forces group through the course, which was quite exhausting for the instructors.
SFAUC did not train Special Forces ODAs to conduct hostage rescues—that was never the intent—but they “did a lot of marksmanship, explosive and mechanical breaching. Then we did convoy operations. People could not see down the road why they needed to learn that until after 9/11. Breaking contact, disabled-vehicle drills, and live-tissue training” were all covered at SFAUC.
Joe and the other instructors also learned how to file the paperwork to conduct realistic urban training (RUT), and ran real-life scenarios that Green Berets had encountered overseas. In one instance, they rented a hotel on Bragg Boulevard in Fayetteville in which Special Forces students had to defend themselves from an opposing force. This situation played out for real in El Salvador in the 1980s.
SFAUC also did this type of training in Wilmington and Charlotte. “The Army has a system if you put in the proper paperwork,” Joe explained. “We had little birds landing in the streets and rooftops downtown.” The instructors would integrate local, state, and federal law enforcement, who would cordon off the area and also act as OPFOR for the students. Snipers would then shoot simulated targets, assaulters would fast-rope in at night, explosively breach doors, and then clear the structure with Simunitions. “The FTX [Final Training Exercise] was pretty demanding. Most of the guys going through said it was great,” Joe recalled.
SFAUC had been a success, but now the mission was to stand up this training at the group level—not just at 7th Group, but in 5th, 10th, 1st, and 3rd Groups as well. “General Boykin had me send MTTs (mobile training teams) to the rest of the groups to help them establish their SFAUC program. We also helped SEAL Team Four and Eight start a similar program, and the same for the Air Force TACPs,” he said.
A decision was also made to create SFAUC 2, which would train Special Forces ODAs to come together and conduct combined operations as a company, meaning six ODAs working together. There was a lot of push-back to this idea because this is really a Ranger mission. Special Forces are designed to function as 12-man ODAs. The course did pay dividends, though, after 9/11.
“One of the calls I got was from a 3rd Group battalion command sergeant major in Afghanistan,” Joe remembered. He said, “I know I fought you on this, but I’ll tell you we are doing company-level operations every night.”
In many ways, SFAUC continued the legacy left by SOT, training intact ODAs in direct-action missions, allowing them to refine and develop their teams’ own internal standard operating procedures. “To me, the biggest reward was that, after 9/11, guys were calling me thanking me for the training because it kept them alive or allowed them to take out the bad guys,” Joe said.
In 2016, the Range 37 cadre hosted the first annual Urban Assaulter Challenge. Six Army Special Operations teams competed against each other as they carried out a number of combat focused events. A team from 1st Special Forces Group won this year, and since this was really the pilot course for the challenge, Range 37 plans to invite more units next year. Meanwhile, both SFARTAETC and SFAUC continue to train Special Forces soldiers how to fight in urban environments, preparing them for future operations.