There are two thousand years of experience to tell us that the only thing harder than getting a new idea into the military mind is to get an old idea out.— B. H. Liddell Hart
The old military maxim, “train as you fight,” remains as relevant as ever. And yet, at least in one particular and important way, it is not being followed in the current US Army Special Forces Qualification Course (SFQC).
Unconventional warfare has been the foundation of the SFQC from its beginnings and although historically its curriculum has always been updated to reflect the characteristics of actual conflicts, the training requirements generated by the emergence of urban warfare as the primary way of conflict do not seem to have gained appropriate attention in the US Army’s Special Forces training. If the SF community wants to maintain its strategic relevance—specifically, its ability to enable local resistance forces—it must understand that such future resistance will increasingly be conducted in major urban centers. The US Army must acknowledge this reality, and the educational and training implications associated with it, and realign the curriculum of the SFQC toward combat skills that enable future SF operators to effectively conduct their operations in complex, built-up areas.
How the US Army Trains its Special Forces Soldiers at the SFQC
According to the academic handbook published by the JFK Special Warfare Center and School, the SFQC is designed to train US Army officers and noncommissioned officers and is sixty-seven weeks long (with an additional thirty-six weeks for medical sergeants) with six phases of training and mainly conducted at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
The first phase is six weeks long and introduces the candidates to the foundations of Special Forces history, attributes, tasks, land navigation, and unconventional warfare. During the nine-week second phase, trainees focus on small-unit tactics and skills that enable them to effectively operate as part of an ODA—the twelve-soldier Operational Detachment Alpha. The small-unit training is mostly conducted in traditional “green” areas with little focus on operations in urban settings. During the sixteen-week third phase, students undertake specialized training based on their individual SF military occupational specialties to prepare them for their future roles within an ODA. This phase also contains only limited information about the opportunities and challenges generated by built-up areas. The fourth phase of the SFQC centers on a four-week culmination exercise, called Robin Sage, where students are being both trained and evaluated in their SF skills while they are performing their duties in an unconventional warfare–based scenario. The exercise is conducted on both private and public property ranging across ten counties and covering approximately 4,500 square miles. While Robin Sage includes some direct-action tasks conducted in urban settings, the main focus of the exercise is on enabling guerrillas in remote areas. The fifth phase five is twenty-five weeks long and focuses on language and culture training. Taught skills also include rapport-building techniques, cultural mitigation strategies, and interacting through interpreters. The SFQC culminates with the five-week final phase, during which students are awarded the SF tab and green beret, and also includes military free fall parachute training.
The point of describing the entire SFQC training pipeline is to draw out an important fact: although there are some elements of urban warfare, the current curriculum clearly lacks a sufficient focus on the combat skills that will be increasingly necessary for success in future operations.
The 2017 US National Security Strategy clearly switches focus from fighting terrorism toward great power competition. Although the US military still seeks to maintain the capabilities it needs to address terrorism and other nonstate threats, it has clearly shifted its orientation toward the requirements that will enable it to fight near-peer and peer competitors such as China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea. While the specific roles and tasks of SF in this new environment are still being debated in both military circles and academia, several recent developments provide some significant clues about the likely future role of Army SF—and the terrain in which they must be prepared to fulfill it.
Although a direct confrontation between the United States and a great power competitor on within either party’s own territory might be possible in the long term, a conflict between these actors are highly likely to at least start on the soil of one or more partner or allied countries. Recently, more and more small countries aligned with the United States and NATO have begun to realize this fact. They have also acknowledged the fact that, in the event of an aggression against their territory, they cannot defend themselves conventionally and it will take some time for US help to arrive. For these reasons several potentially vulnerable countries have started to implement new strategic approaches to try to mitigate an aggressor’s conventional military capabilities. One example of such an approach in smaller states is the total defense concept, which aims to regain national sovereignty through resistance operations after an invasion and during any subsequent occupation.
Significantly, these countries have also recognized that modern resistance operations against a numerically and technologically superior conventional enemy are most viable in urban areas. A series of wargames conducted by the RAND Corporation in 2014 and 2015 produced a sobering and widely quoted conclusion: in the event of an attack against the Baltic states, Russian forces could arrive at either Estonia’s capital of Tallinn or Latvia’s capital of Riga (or both) within thirty-six to sixty hours. But that vulnerability also presents a potential opportunity for threatened states. “The Russians can get to Tallinn in two days,” Brig. Gen. Riho Uhtegi, commander of the Estonian Defence League and former commander of Estonian special operations forces, said in 2018. “But they will die in Tallinn. And they know this. . . . They will get fire from every corner, at every step.”
Uhtegi’s assessment reflects observations from recent conflicts where it has become clear that while modern conventional forces can easily advance through natural landscapes they struggle when they enter built-up areas. The characteristics of the modern cities prevent conventional forces to effectively employ their normal tactics, techniques, and procedures while also significantly reducing the capabilities of modern conventional equipment and weapon systems—and sometimes even them irrelevant. At the same time, the same characteristics act as force multipliers for the resistance force. Recent examples from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria clearly demonstrate that even in less developed urban areas a significantly inferior resistance force can make life extremely difficult for conventional militaries. The key takeaway for SF from these developments is that in future conflicts, in order to maximize their contribution by supporting and enabling a resistance force behind enemy lines, they must be prepared to operated effectively in urban settings. SF training begins with the SFQC, and it should be made to reflect these realities by realigning it to incorporate more training focused on dense urban terrain.
What to Do?
Although it is paramount that the SFQC continues to train future SF operators for the basics of special operations across all phases of the course, parts—perhaps even the majority portions—of phases two, three, and four should be redesigned and placed into an urban scenario. During the small-unit tactics phase, a balance must be struck between learning how to operate in traditional “green” environments and learning tactics, techniques and procedures that will enable them to effectively conduct small-unit operations in urban settings. That balance should tilt toward the latter. SF personnel operate among the people, and in a world that has been more urban than rural for years and is becoming more urbanized every day, SF training environments should also be more urban than rural. Learning how to navigate and survive in major cities, how to conduct infiltration and exfiltration using nonstandard platforms on the surface, in subsurface, and in the air, how to maneuver in small and large formations, and how to train indigenous forces to conduct these activities in urban terrain should be the primary focus of the second phase.
Each part of the individually focused military occupational specialty training should also be redesigned to better reflect the requirements of future urban combat. While continuing to provide comprehensive training across the full spectrum of military problems Special Forces officers’ education should emphasize the development of skills that will enable future detachment commanders to effectively lead their teams and indigenous forces in urban terrain. Besides being trained in the specific characteristics of urban operations (with special focus on urban resistance), future detachment commanders must also have a clear understanding of the functions of other 18-series specialties in urban settings.
The training undertaken by each of the noncommissioned officers should also be modified. For example, after learning the basics of direct- and indirect-fire systems and their associated procedures, weapons sergeants should be extensively trained on how to best utilize these systems in and adapt procedures to urban environments. They should also be educated about the capabilities and limitations of the future adversaries’ weapons to be able to mitigate their effects in built-up areas as well as how to operate those weapons effectively so they and the supported resistance force can make the best use of captured enemy weapons.
Engineer sergeants’ training should also be realigned toward the skills necessary for effective urban combat. All five modules of the training—construction, demolition, improvised explosive devices, reconnaissance, and field exercise—should incorporate urban-specific considerations. These SF soldiers must have a deep understanding of the characteristics of man-made urban structures and their utility in resistance operations; small- and large-scale demolitions and their consequences within, under, and between buildings; the creation, deployment, and employment of improvised explosive devices in built-up areas; and how to assess and conduct reconnaissance of enemy infrastructure. These are just some of the general skills that urban environments require and that should be included in the training of the engineer sergeants.
Turning to medical sergeants, many might argue that the individual skills of these SF team members should be the same under all conditions. However, military operations—especially resistance operations—conducted far from the support of conventional forces and in a complex urban environment generate unique requirements. Some examples might include the creation and long-term operations of field treatment facilities (probably discreet and possibly even clandestine) in built-up areas, the utilization of civilian medical centers and pharmacies without detection, long-term care for wounded team members and indigenous force members, reaction to mass-casualty events in tight physical spaces, and instructing physically separated (trapped) individuals on the application of self-aid.
Finally, the content and focus of communications sergeants’ training should also be reconsidered given the specific considerations of complex, built-up areas on communication and the opportunities presented by the presence of major information networks in modern cities. While communications sergeants must be masters of all modern communication platforms they also should have deep knowledge and skills in the application of less sophisticated methods like communication tactics, techniques and procedures used by terrorist groups and insurgents. Additionally, it is crucial that communications sergeants understand the capabilities and limitations (both outside and inside built-up areas) of the communication platforms of near-peer and peer competitors so they can both avoid detection and effectively target enemy communications.
The recommended changes in both the second (small-unit tactics) and third (specialty-specific training) phases of the SFQC naturally lead to the requirement to make significant changes in the design of the Robin Sage scenario, as well. While the fundamental idea of the US Army’s SF soldiers supporting and enabling indigenous resistance forces should remain in the framework of the exercise, it should also be updated to realistically reflect future requirements. The indigenous resistance forces in coming conflicts will fight in major cities as guerrilla warfare moves “out of the mountains,” and those forces will increasingly take on a character shaped by their urban settings—composed perhaps in part by some surviving conventional military members, but also by lawyers and bus drivers, factory workers and IT engineers. The Robin Sage exercise must be updated to match this reality in terms of its scenario, duration, setup, role players, and mission. In short, it should offer an opportunity for students to be trained and evaluated under the conditions that correspond to their most likely future operations and not their past activities.
Realigning a foundational training course is extremely difficult, but sometimes it must be done. If the US Army wants its Special Forces to remain the sharpest possible tip of the spear, optimized for the missions it is most likely to face in an era of great power competition, then now is the time for SFQC to do just that. Changes in the US National Security Strategy, the emergence of near-peer and peer competitors, the reconceptualization of US partner and allied countries’ defense strategies, and the emergence of urban environments as the battlefield of future the future must lead those responsible for the curriculum of the SFQC to implement fundamental changes across the different phases of the course. While the specific changes required need deeper investigation than this article can provide, an open and much-needed discussion should begin. The motto of US Army SF, De Oppresso Liber, will continue to be put to the test in future conflicts. Whether or not future SF soldiers will be adequately prepared to free the oppressed depends on whether the Army is ready give them the training that they need.
Sandor Fabian is a former Hungarian Special Forces lieutenant colonel with more than twenty years of military experience. He is a graduate of the Miklos Zrinyi Hungarian National Defense University, holds a master’s degree in Defense Analysis (Irregular Warfare) from the US Naval Postgraduate School, and has a graduate certificate in National Security and Intelligence Studies from the University of Central Florida. Sandor is currently a faculty member at the NATO Special Operations School and a PhD candidate in Security Studies at the University of Central Florida. His research has appeared in Defense & Security Analysis, the Special Operations Journal, Combating Terrorism Exchange, the Florida Political Chronicle, and the Hungarian Seregszemle journal.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image: Special Forces candidates assigned to the US Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School patrol through a wooded area during the final phase of field training known as Robin Sage in central North Carolina, July 9, 2019. (Credit: K. Kassens, US Army)