Monday, October 18, 2004

What the hell is Kerry thinking?

I had resolved not to turn this into a rant-forum, but then, I've never been too good at keeping resolutions. I was discussing the upcoming election yesterday, and one of my acqaintances expressed surprise that I wasn't supporting John Kerry, since he's promised to enlarge the army and double the size of special forces.

Regardless of your political inclination, throwing out a promise to "double the size" of SF is just a dumb idea. The SF community can't fill the number of slots it has now without compromising the quality of the force. The reason that SF is able to work the way that it does, and accomplishes its mission as well as it does, is that each special forces soldier is special: specially trained and specially selected, meeting a higher standard than most people are asked to meet. Increasing the size of the force without keeping that standard will make SF less effective, not more.

There are four special operations forces truths; they're hard truths learned from many bitter experiences where the powers that be thought that they had a plan, much like Senator Kerry's plan, to short circuit the hard work that must go in to developing special forces :
  • Humans are more important than Hardware
  • Quality is better than Quantity
  • Special Operations Forces cannot be mass produced
  • Competent Special 0perations Forces cannot be created after emergencies occur

Kerry's promise flies in the face of at least two of these truths.

There are already a number of disturbing signs that the army is cutting standards to meet current needs. The GT (general technical - the army's rough measurement of "smarts") score required to join SF has been cut from 110 (where it had been for years - its the same requirement required to be an officer) to 100. The official explanation was a beautiful bit of bureaucratic misdirection, by the way - the memo announcing the change explained that research had shown that on any given test, an individual's GT score could vary by as much as 10 points, so all SF was doing was giving people who could have made a 110 on a good day a chance. The memo failed to point out that it was giving an equal chance to people who should have made a 90, but got lucky on one particular test on one particular day.

SF has also eliminated the swim test (a 50 meter swim in boots and fatigues) from its entrance requirements, with the "explanation" that soldiers can be taught to swim during SF training. Very true, but a) that training has to come from time that used to be used teaching some other skill, and b) it takes the onus off of the individual soldier to prepare on his own for training. Being self-reliant, willing to take the initiative and work towards a goal without oversight or direction is a hallmark of SF, and the swim test was as much a test of that quality as it was of physical ability.

Also, SF - which used to require a soldier to be at least a sergeant before applying - is now allowing young men to enlist directly into SF. This isn't the first time that SF has allowed men to join "right off of the block", and by itself it isn't a bad thing - as long as it isn't overused as a recruiting tool. Some of the most important qualities an SF soldier must possess are maturity and responsible judgment, and usually, those qualities require some experience in the world. Having one or two "SF babies" with no experience beyond the "Q" course (the Special Forces Qualification Course) on an A-Team isn't a bad thing; but if the time comes that one-third or one-half of the team has little or no experience, then it will fundamentally change the capabilities and possibilities of that team or of that company, or of that group, or of SF as a whole.

The most disturbing trend, though, is the "numbers focus" at Special Forces Selection ( a grueling 3 week tryout for a slot in SF) and the Q course. The party line at the general officer level is that "we're alright, jack" and everyone coming out of the course is fully qualified and deserves to be there. Talk to the sergeants running the course over a couple of beers, though, and a different story comes out. There is increasing pressure from the commanders of the Special Warfare Center (the people who run Selection and the Q course) to produce numbers, and that means letting substandard performers through the course. The good news is that the training in SF is as good or better than its ever been; the bad news is that soldiers who don't meet the standards that the training sets are being allowed to slide through.

The real danger in all this is that it accelerates the "conventionalization" of Special Forces - turning SF from a special operations force into a conventional army unit in everything but name. As individual SF soldiers who are less self-reliant, less capable of mature judgment, less capable of executing an SF mission are added to the mix, A-teams will become less capable of independent planning and action, and there will be more and more justification for running SF in a more conventional manner, with more planning, oversight and micromanagement at the staff level. That will in turn diminish the team level experience with being self reliant, and lead to yet more oversight and less special operations capability. At some point, we may as well redesignate the 82nd Airborne Division the 82nd Special Forces Division and - like magic - add another 20,000 "special forces operators" to the force. Kerry's thoughtless plan to double the size of SF will accelerate this trend unacceptably, will lead to the dilution of SF capability, and will make us less capable instead of more capable of meeting the military challenges we now face.


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