Special Forces, Then and Now

Awhile back, a friend asked me what the differences are between the Special Forces of my day and this generation of Green Berets. After careful thought I have decided that the spirit is identical, the mission and organization are basically the same, and everything else is a lot different. The spirit of Special Forces, when I joined it, was 40 percent Knights of the Round Table, and maybe 60 percent Robin Hood's Merry Men. I'm pretty sure that's what it is today.

The attitude is businesslike but with gusto. The 12-man A team, the Operational Detachment Alpha, is still the heart of the group: two officers -- a captain, and a warrant officer, formerly a first lieutenant -- two operations and intelligence NCOs, two weapons men, two commo (communications) guys, two medics, and two engineers. All of these specialists is more trained than their counterparts in conventional units. The medics train for a year.

The engineers know all kinds of improvised demolition techniques that most demolitionists don't know. They can design and build field fortifications, dig a well, or build a school. The weapons men can do repairs on all kinds of U.S. and foreign weapons, and at a level that a conventional unit can only get from an ordnance depot. In my day, the commo guys sent coded messages 1500 miles with an old radio we were still using from the OSS in World War II. It consisted of two boxes about the size of cigar boxes, some cable, a code key, and an antenna made of wire strung in the trees.

A former team sergeant (experienced on the old radios and the new ones) writes, "Commo today is terrific. The team is in constant contact with their area specialist at group headquarters, who transmits directives from the commanding officer and operations officer. The satellite bouncers can make the worldwide trip in six seconds via the MILSTAR high-flyer.

"The AN/GRC 112 is a search-and-rescue radio, with each ODA member carrying one. It has an automatic GPS locator built into the radio, which is activated as soon as the set is switched to the 'On' position."

However, a young Special Forces officer, former enlisted medic, who recently returned from Afghanistan has some qualms about the new radios. "On the commo -- they use the latest technology from satellite real (now, this second) time communications, including tracking every maneuver element on the field like a video game, on the computers back at headquarters. How it works, and what it's called is classified.

"But they have stopped teaching Morse code, which is the only thing that works in an atmosphere recently charged by, say, a nuclear explosion. By the way, satcom is the first thing knocked out by a nuke."

Special Forces still has the same (always sought but seldom achieved) goal of having every man highly trained in his own specialty and cross-trained in two others.

It's been a brilliant organizational scheme since it originated in the '50s. With everybody double-slotted, the team can be split in two. With good cross-training it can be split into three or four locations and still function efficiently.

They also aspire to be fluent in one language from their operational area and able to limp along in two others. My old team sergeant friend assures me that today's SF is much more serious about the language requirement than we were able to be, when all we did was go to Vietnam and back, over and over.

We used to figure that it took about five years before a Special Forces man was fully qualified. Some very good SF guys never reach that goal. The mission is much the same. SF was formed to organize, train, and lead guerrilla forces, much as the OSS did in World War II, in which they trained and directed guerrillas in France, Belgium, Holland, Norway, Burma, and China. (Irony of ironies: OSS helped Ho Chi Minh get started in Vietnam.)

When the OSS became the CIA, they lost their military arm. Special Forces was designed to replace it. Since their activation in '52, the organization formed to lead guerrillas has worked with counterguerrillas and trained conventional armies. Their first shot at working with actual guerrillas came in Afghanistan.

The major difference today, one that is also a huge improvement, is that Special Forces is now part of the U.S. Special Operations Command, which also includes the Rangers, the Navy SEALs, and the really beautiful part, the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, the Nightstalkers -- who specialize in flying choppers into places where no one else can fly, in weather nobody else can fly in, at night -- and the Air Force's first Special Operations Wing, which has its own inventory of helicopters. But their mainstay is the C-130.

One seasoned SF NCO writes, "1st SOW assets include both MC and AC-130, specialized aircraft that provide both transport and close air support to Special Operations Forces. The AC-130H model Spectre gunship offers two 20mm Gatling guns that fire a 1565-gram projectile at 3300 feet per second, at 2500 rounds per minute, with pinpoint accuracy. There is also a 40mm Bofors trainable cannon available for those really special hostile targets, and a mighty 105mm howitzer firing a 33-pound projectile at 1620 feet per second for the learning-impaired bad guy who just didn't get it the first time around. Both in Afghanistan and most recently Operation Iraqi Freedom, the Spectre gunship played key roles in decimating enemy forces to include light and medium armor."

First SOW has the MC-130, which is their troop-carrier aircraft and which also has the capability to pluck a single individual out of an open field without landing, using a device called the Fulton Recovery System, a.k.a. the Skyhook.

This gizmo has been around for years. In fact, James Bond used it at the end of Thunderball. For a number of years it was out of service in Special Forces, because Brigadier General Joe Stillwell, the younger son of the famed WWII general, decided to test it personally. The pilot was understandably nervous about picking up a general. The skyhook is a leather suit with a long nylon rope attached to a balloon. The specially equipped C-130 making the pickup has what is essentially a big set of tongs in front that catches the rope. The rope has about a 25 percent stretch factor, but it's still a hell of a jolt to be sitting still and be picked up by an aircraft going about 130 mph. So, General Stillwell's pilot came in rrrreeeeaaaallll slow. The general went up in the air and slammed into the ground, then he went up again and slammed into the ground again -- and again. Broke every bone in his body. He decided the FRS wasn't really a good idea and grounded them. But now they're back in service, and the pilots know not to go too slow.

The AC-130H Spectre gunship is a flying-weapons platform loaded to the gills with machine guns, grenade launchers, Bofers guns, and a 105mm cannon. To direct these it has every kind of target-acquisition device known to man; television, night-vision, infra-red, thermal imaging, everything.

The original Spectre gunship was designed to bust trucks on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Henry Zeybel, a retired Air Force navigator who was the TV guy on a Spectre in Vietnam, wrote the book Gunship. The targets were acquired by the crew, but the pilot fired all the guns. Zeybel described the best pilot he ever flew with this way. "He was firing the guns like he was keeping time to an album titled Jimi Hendrix Goes Completely Nuts." Zeybel swears that once when they were getting heavy anti-aircraft, this guy rolled a Spectre. Anybody will tell you that's impossible, with a four-engine cargo aircraft, but Zeybel swears it happened.

One thing those ships have now that they didn't have then was women in the crew. In Afghanistan there was a young Spectre weapons service officer, a Captain Allison, nicknamed "Ally, the Angel of Death."

She would get on the radio to SF guys working with the Northern Alliance. Their general, Dostum, would then contact the al-Qaeda formations they were fighting and patch Ally through. A New Yorker, still seething over 9/11, she would purr, "I understand you guys don't treat your women very well. You really should change that." She would then rain 105mm howitzer shells and 40mm grenades down on them, in a feminist statement that made her point with great conviction. (That story comes from Robin Moore's new book about Special Forces in Afghanistan, The Hunt for Bin Laden. For a good, close look at today's Special Forces in operation, I highly recommend it.)

The U.S. Special Operations Command was formed as a remedy for the ill-fated attempt to rescue the hostages held in the Iranian embassy in 1976. The failure was directly attributable to the ad hoc nature of the air support, Air Force C130s, and Marine helicopter that had no time to train properly to work together.

Credit must be given here to retired Major General Jack Singlaub. As colonel, he had commanded the studies and observation group in Vietnam, the top-secret organization that supervised commando recons and raids into Laos, Cambodia, and North Vietnam. When the Reagan administration went looking for a solution to the problems of the ill-fated raid, Singlaub had it. He'd been putting the concept together on his own for years.

(To be continued...)

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