The Special Forces rite of passage is about to begin for the next class of SF candidates. The final training in Special Forces Qualification Course (SFQC) for prospective SF soldiers is the Unconventional Warfare (UW) exercise “Robin Sage”, which we went over in detail in an earlier post, that you can read here:

The prospective Green Berets put all their training together and infiltrate into the fictional country of Pineland via an airborne operation. The SF candidates must raise and train a guerrilla force that will fight the enemy government troops and attempt to restore the friendly Pineland government.

The exercise’s notional country of Pineland encompasses Alamance, Anson, Cabarrus, Chatham, Cumberland, Davidson, Davie Guilford, Hoke, Lee, Montgomery, Moore, Randolph, Richmond, Robeson, Rowan, Scotland, Stanly, and Union counties. Throughout the exercise, Special Forces candidates and Robin Sage role-players not only conduct training missions such as controlled assaults and key-leader engagements but also live, eat and sleep in these civilian areas.

Robin Sage, derives its name from the town of Robbins, N.C., a central area of operations for the exercise, and former Army Colonel Jerry Sage, a World War II veteran and an Office of Strategic Services, or OSS officer who taught unconventional warfare tactics. Steve McQueen’s character Hilts in the film “The Great Escape” was based off Sage.

This current version of the UW exercise has been in use with only slight changes since 1974. To succeed, the prospective SF troops need to accomplish a few key tasks.

  • Build Popular Support with the Civilian Populace
  • Make Rapport with the target audience (Guerrilla Force)
  • Be an effective teacher and train the resistance force

Building Popular Support with the Civilian Populace: What makes Robin Sage so realistic? The civilian community in “Pineland” is nearly totally immersed in the operation.  Not only have the citizens of the operational area given their support for the exercise, they’ve become deeply involved.

Many of the role players have been involved with the course for several years and they pass along to their children the drive to carry on and to take over the role of underground or auxiliary in the exercise. And they have proven time and again just how important having popular support in the UW area of operations is to mission success.

These role players help to ferry supplies and equipment, move troops in covered trailers around the operational area as well as provide an early warning network for the guerrilla force. As it is with all people who live in the country, nothing happens out there without all of them knowing about it and they invariably warned the good guys.

And make no mistake, the Special Forces students are the “good guys” in this exercise. It strikes home how important having popular support is when either helping or countering a resistance movement. It is a lesson all SF troops need to learn. No one can make a move in the operational area without the civilians knowing about it. And if they are for you, they will prove invaluable. If the team loses popular support, they are likely done.

Make Rapport With the G-Force: Building rapport with the locals that the SF team will train with, by and through is, among the most important tasks they will encounter. The ability to build rapport both with their foreign partners and with their team members is essentially the difference between Special Forces and all of the others. Alone, an SF team is just 12 men, but working with their foreign partners, they become force multipliers.

SF candidates will quickly learn that learning to communicate and respect the ways of the target audience, obeying their social graces as it is imperative. That is just the first step. Learning to make rapport with the local forces isn’t easy to teach and it is even harder to learn. Some guys are naturals at it and should always be out front, especially during the early “feeling out” process.

The ability to build a solid base of trust is one of the key skills learned by Special Forces troops in complex, austere environments. It can’t be massed produced or pushed thru a shake and bake course. Having troops just show up on the doorstep in the middle of a third world country and have them fall at your feet isn’t realistic and doesn’t happen.

Rapport building begins with checking your ego at the door and operating instinctively. Many times there won’t be a right or wrong answer and frequently the SF candidates will be forced to make difficult and complex decisions. The hallmarks of a successful Special Forces soldier is a mature, versatile and flexible operator in any environment. Being able to adapt to cultures other than our own is the true mark of building trust and reliability that our by, with and through the local forces that will mark a successful operation.

The interaction with host nation troops, both soldiers and leaders require a need for tact and diplomacy. Hammering home the message to the lower rank and file of the guerrilla force is quite different than that to a Colonel or politician/tribal elder that you’ll encounter. A career diplomat once told me the art of diplomacy is the ability to tell someone to go to hell in a way that they’ll enjoy the trip.

One of the best team sergeants I ever knew and a man I consider a tremendous mentor said, the best way to make rapport sometimes is to just shut up and listen. For the SF candidates, there is a time for talking and a time for listening. And when it is time to listen, they need to do so as if their collective lives depend on it. Because they do.

Be An Effective Teacher, Training the G-Force: As we’ve said here numerous times, teaching is an art in Special Forces. Unfortunately teaching and training a guerrilla force isn’t as sexy as taking down a target on a DA (Direct Action) mission and no one wants to see that…right? People want to see a video of guys “doing operator shit” with plenty of cool toys complete with heavy metal music overdubbed while the bad guys bite the dust.

While DA missions are linear and much easier to judge the success or failure of, the true art of a Special Forces A-team lies in their ability to teach an allied soldier or guerrilla fighter to do those same Direct Action missions. Setting up intelligence early warning networks or leading a dedicated guerrilla force to succeed in the Unconventional Warfare (UW) environment isn’t as tangible, nor as sexy. But it is the difference between winning and losing in the UW environment.

We all remember our time in Robin Sage as it was the final test before joining the Regiment, where the real learning begins in earnest. And my primary instructor at Robin Sage, Paul W. not only knew his subject matter extremely well, he knew the operational area as well as the locals and we as a team soaked up his lessons like a sponge. He would always answer questions framed around a question of his own and said frequently that “this is a thinking man’s game.” At the time, we didn’t completely get it but he was right.

And everything centered around the three primary tasks listed above. They were all interdependent on one another. Of course, there are several other things that the students will have to accomplish, but these three are keys to getting a successful operation conducted in Robin Sage and walking across the stage and becoming part of the best Regiment in the military.

Photo: US Army