Let us talk about standards… Oh no. Standards! Not that dirty word again.

But it is a very important one. We’ve written about the standards in the Special Forces courses, both regarding Special Forces Assessment and Selection (SFAS) and the Special Forces Qualification Course (SFQC) a couple of times. Yet now is a good time to revisit the topic.

There has been a lot of talk about Special Operations Forces lately and a lot of it is for the wrong reasons. And while the jury is still out (figuratively and literally) on many of these cases, some have stated that the problem is that the military is letting its standards slip. While we disagree with this diagnosis and think that a multitude of factors are at play, it is safe to say that standards will keep getting brought up in conversation.

In the Special Forces community, we had the now-infamous “night letter” in which several SF instructors took to the Internet to vent their frustration of what they perceived to be a severe lowering of standards with the Special Forces Qualification Course. In doing so, they reached to their fellow Green Berets for support. The letter excoriated the command of the JFK Special Warfare Center and School:

“Our Regiment has a cancer, and it is destroying the SF legacy, its capability, and its credibility.

SWCS has devolved into a cesspool of toxic, exploitive, biased and self-serving senior Officers who are bolstered by submissive, sycophantic, and just-as-culpable enlisted leaders. They have doggedly succeeded in two things; furthering their careers, and ensuring that Special Forces more prolific, but dangerously less capable than ever before. Shameless and immodest careerism has, in no uncertain terms, effectively destroyed our ability to assess, train, and prepare students, or to identify those students that pose a very real risk to Operational Detachments. I cannot stress how systematic and severe the effects on the force will be if the standards, recently implemented here in the Special Forces Qualification Course, remain in place.”

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That letter eventually made its way to the media and then there was devil to pay. The Commanding General of the JFKSWC, MG Kurt Sonntag answered that email with one of his own and tried to answer those charges and reassure the cadre of the Special Forces courses.

“Many of you have seen the anonymous letter calling into question the integrity of our training standards and the quality of the Soldiers being produced. Let me be clear. I would be proud to serve with each and every one of our Special Forces Qualification Course graduates, and I stand behind the quality of every Soldier we send to the operational force.”

The purpose here isn’t to reignite the debate, that would be an exercise in futility. We can understand both sides of the equation. The School’s commander, Sonntag is in a very tough spot: He gets guidance from above him that the operational groups need “X” number of people and those numbers just aren’t there. Between the endless wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and now Syria, the operational tempo and deployment schedule have left Special forces with a high case of operator burnout.

But the instructors have a duty to assess, select, and train the very best candidates for the force. And they know that when their tours as instructors are over, the candidates that successfully complete the course, will be their future teammates.

Regardless, the standards have to remain high and the School’s command and instructors have to be very discriminating over who can be part of it. Not everyone is cut out to be an operator in a Special Operations unit. By their very nature, the missions of SOF units are extremely challenging both physically and mentally. For the operators, the job gets tougher, not easier, after graduation when our troops find themselves in the real-world SOF environment. The different services and their individual units must identify, develop, and provide the necessary training to produce troops that can operate in their environments.

That’s why maintaining the standards is so important. All of the different services (Army Green Berets and Rangers, Navy SEALs, Air Force CCT) have their own standards as to what they are looking for in the troops that aspire to be in their units. But they all share some common attributes.

They have to be internally motivated and will strive to not only get the job done but do it beyond the scope of what is required. They have to be able to function with. but more importantly without, supervision.

Candidates have to be intelligent and able to learn other languages and cultures. The SOF units are looking for people who can think on their feet when they’re tired, hungry, and under an extreme amount of stress. Physically, they must be hard and tough enough to never quit, never give in, and always keep driving forward.

William “Wild Bill” Donovan who during WWII created OSS (Office of Strategic Services), the forerunner of both CIA and the U.S. Army Special Forces, was asked what he was looking for in OSS operators. He gave a simple yet profound answer: “PhDs who can win a bar fight.”  

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Special Forces utilizes the “Whole Man” Selection Process concept and the six main attributes that every successful Special Forces operator should possess are:

Intelligence
Trainability
Physical Fitness
Motivation
Influence
Judgment

However, those same attributes apply equally to Rangers, SEALs, or Air Force CCTs. And of course, they all share the confidence that comes from constant practice of their profession and the fact that they react to stress as motivation.

As we’ve seen in the lessons learned through the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and now Syria, the standards of the SOF need to remain high. In fact, if anything, they need to be even higher as the demand for operators increases and the number of qualified candidates dwindles. As the tools of the trade become even sharper, the standards for becoming a Special Operations trooper should never be lowered — increased demand notwithstanding.

So, even though the mission priorities are subject to change as the threat evolves, the core values of SOF never change. And the standards by which we identify, assess, and train our Special Operations Force warriors should never be lowered.