Monday, October 24, 2016

What does "Special Forces" really mean?

Over the weekend - I watched may YouTube videos (it is very easy to OD on these) and I came across fine examples of what-is and what-is-NOT special forces in my humble opinion.

The term "Special Force" is used quite generally to refer to a variety of roles. The word is often used interchangeably with the word "Commando". I am not going to bother with the lexical issues and stick to simple ways in which you can distinguish between the various groups of people with the "Special Forces" or "Commando" tag.

For starters - what-is-NOT a "Special Force" - Here is a prime example - Shifuji's Commando Course. This is just an average Indian Army obstacle course. The men taking it having difficulty with it because they are doing it in wet conditions with fully loaded backpacks and rifles. Watching Shifuji come up a hill with an AK pointed near the feet of the people ahead of him, makes me uncomfortable. I hope for the sake of the safety of those men that weapon is not loaded. Thankfully at 2.30 we can see a safety that ON, but this is pure theater - there is very little that can be termed "Commando" training here.

At a most basic level what one is looking for in a "Commando" is the ability to think and act in ways that the enemy does not expect. This requires a significantly higher level of physical, technical and psychological skills.

In terms of physical skill the most sought after thing is endurance. The simplest endurance cut-off that really "Special Forces" use is an ultramarathon. If the candidate can complete an ultramarathon (usually performed with a 20kg kit, over adverse terrain and in a reasonable time) - then they make the cut. Another skill that the Special Forces look for is ability to cope with the agony of running out of air. This is commonly explored through simulated drowning. If the candidate can live handle several hours of repeated near drowning without hypoxia or brain damage - they make the cut. Another common test is a three day continuous stress test. There is a version of this in every real special forces organization.

The typical suite of technical skills for this role is familiarity with various weapons, marksmanship, CQB techniques, use of specialized equipment (such imaging devices), Map reading/Navigation, secure communications (RT sets), paramedical skills, rappelling and linguistics. Typically this skill set is spread out across an entire platoon, and in a "Commando" you try to get a lot of this packed into one individual.

The main psychological skill they are looking for is the ability to resist demoralization. A common framework used is stressful exertion followed by demands to perform complex organizational or technical tasks while being subject to intense distraction. Another common tool is simulated capture and interrogation. The objective here is to test the candidates memory, their mental acuity under stress and most importantly their ability to  remain focused on the mission.

For a SWAT type force - a fraction of physical skills and technical skills are tested for. Emphasis is usually laid on marksmenship, the ability to familiarize oneself with weapons and low light vision devices, limited formation movement, and some endurance. This is why all SWAT teams kind of look alike and make the same sorts of videos. [Sindh Police SSU, Khyber Pakhtunwa Police SCU, Bombay Police Force One , Brazilian PMERJ BOPE etc...]

For a federal police unit - some of the physical skills, a larger fraction of the technical skills and some of the psychological are tested. The emphasis is on urban environment. This is why most federal conflict resolution teams look similar perform HRT type roles (MHA-NSG, FBI-HRT , FSB-Vympel)

A higher level conflict resolution team (a "really special forces" - DEVGRU, Para-SF, SSG etc..) tests all the things listed above. This effort is very expensive. It is expensive because a very small fraction of people make it through the testing. The usual number quoted for the pass rate is about 1%. Putting these extremely high capability individuals in harms way can lead to a significant loss of capability. The usual rule is don't put them at risk unless you absolutely have to.

The extremely high level conflict resolution teams are also expensive because when someone passes through all that training, they only remain effective for a few years.

The published service spans of special forces operators in the US are about 7 years, Navy seals are often told that more than half of each passing batch will not make it past their 30th birthday. So in order for a special force to exist for long periods of time, you have to invest in a great deal of recruitment and training.

That part is difficult for most governments. No one wants to invest in capabilities that aren't tied to direct threats. This makes securing funding for anything long term very challenging. One typical scheme (used in many countries) is to setup a "special operations" incubator. And then this "incubator" spawns a variety of units. The units are special task forces that are gradually regularized into full establishments of their own. The regularized establishments then set up training wings of their own and spread their knowledge to other related or affiliated groups.


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