Defense Media Network

U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Michael S. Repass Interview

Maj. Gen. Michael S. Repass, Commanding General, U.S. Army Special Forces Command (Airborne)

The Year in Special Operations: What was the state of your command the morning  of 9/11 when suddenly, you guys all knew, “This is the war we were born to fight”?

Maj. Gen. Mike Repass: Let me just talk about 9/11 itself. I was down at SOCOM working Special Activities and there was a TV over in the corner. I was sitting in my cubicle and one of the clerks says, “Oh, my God!” real loud. And then people [begin talking] … people just don’t talk loud in that office. It’s a calm office but everybody [has] their own little secrets in Special Activities and you don’t talk about what you’re doing. So, there’s somebody saying, “Oh, my God!” and it was a big story. [I think,] “Hmm, better go check on that.” So, I went out there and said, “What did you yell about?” He said, “Look at that,” and the TV was on. It was the picture taken by the helicopter as it came around and you could see the World Trade Center. Before it registered with me, I said, “What are they saying?” And they said, “A plane or something hit the World Trade Center.” I [then] saw the imprint of the puncture of the plane. It was generally dead center and it had a canted angle. And I said immediately, “That was not a mistake. It was not an accident. And that wasn’t a private plane. It was a big plane.” I knew instantly something was going on.

I went and got my boss and said, “Hey, sir, something serious is going on right now.” And he, one of the calmest people I’ve met, he absolutely rates at the top of … perhaps he doesn’t have a blood pulse at all. So, we went out there and we were talking about it. Just as we were talking about it, another plane flew into the second tower. I said, “That’s it. We’re at war.” I said, “That’s it. Something’s going on.” About five minutes after that, the phone rang and I reached over and grabbed [it]. I picked it up and it was the guys at the Pentagon. And they said, “Are you guys watching this? Planes are being forced to land, there have been a couple of hijackings. We don’t know what’s going on. One’s potentially coming after the D.C. area.”

Instantly, it was game-on.

Did you have a sense that it was going to be your war?

No, I didn’t … the magnitude of what had just happened was just beyond my ability to recognize because in your mind … my experience up to that point of 21 years in service was that [normally] there is a slow build and you can anticipate how things will unfold. And [then usually] there was a decision and you can deploy forces. Just to have it slammed in your face like that, it took me a while to get my mind around it. But I went back to my cubicle and I sat down. My overwhelming thought was that we had failed. We’d failed to keep our country safe. It pissed me off.

How fast did you and your peers begin to react?

Immediately. I would say, because of where I was at, I had access to things that people didn’t know at the time. I mean, it was within hours, we knew who and what and how. That was later made known to the American public.


What was your reaction when you realized that in a matter of days your community was going to be the tip of the spear in going to Afghanistan?

CENTCOM [U.S. Central Command] was just right down the road, and I had several friends over there. There was a guy by the name of Lt. Col. Dave Miller who was central to the planning that was going on. He was a brilliant man and really doesn’t get written about or talked about very much, but I think a lot of what ended up unfolding was directly due to his ability to pull it all together from the initial stages. Dave and I talked, and I gave him some ideas, but [what] he [really] needed [was] a sounding board and I did what I could to help him. Not that he needed much help from me. It was very clear that this was going to be special operations-led – what we [today] know about, with 5th Group and Gen. [John] Mulholland. I saw what Gen. Mulholland and his guys were doing, and the whole thing was fantastic. You can’t imagine it. You had an ultra high-tech activity going on, while at the same time, you had guys on horseback taking it to the Taliban.

I remember telling my dad at the onset of the [first] Gulf War [in 1991], “When this thing kicks off, you’re not going to believe what you see.” Precision-guided munitions and all the technology. “It’s going to be beyond anything you ever imagined.” I remember having the same feeling [in 2001]. Both of my parents had passed by the time of 9/11. I remember thinking, reliving my dad’s experience, “I can’t believe what I’m seeing.” And I knew what was going on. I knew what was going to happen. I still can’t believe it, even though I’m seeing it. It was extraordinary.

Obviously over the past 10 years, your Green Berets have been at the front end of the Global War on Terrorism. Beginning with 9/11 and going to the present day, can you please give us some context of what your Special Forces soldiers have been doing out there? How important is what they do to enabling vast armies to do what they’ve done?

First of all, Special Forces is the only component in our Defense Department that is specifically tasked to train, organize, and employ indigenous forces. The [conventional] Army acts unilaterally or in conjunction with coalitions, but only Special Forces does it with indigenous forces as a matter of charter, as a matter of mission. When you want it done fast, you’re going to get a unilateral solution. When you want to have an enduring solution, you’re going to have to have an indigenous component to operations. Some will say, “Well, that’s an economy-of-force effort.” Well, it’s also a common sense effort, because you can’t afford to use the [conventional] Army everywhere.

Furthermore, in many of the places where we go – let’s just say the Philippines or Trans-Saharan Africa, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Chad – they can’t bear the bigger footprint that the [conventional] Army brings. You have to have a discreet yet effective means of engaging those forces and enabling them to be successful on their terms. It has to be successful on their terms for it to endure. We can’t come in and impose a solution and then walk away and say, “Well, there you go.” We have to help them do it themselves.

It’s difficult. Coalition warfare for big institutions like the United States Army is difficult. Doing it with an indigenous solution, it’s going to take time. You are on their timetable, not yours. You’re on their time horizon and their cultural norms for things. It takes a lot to deliver a solution. That’s “how?” – potentially “why?” Now, “where?” I looked at a chart during my staff meeting [this morning, and we have guys in 40 different countries]. I had some folks in here from the Rand Corporation the other day and I talked them through, graphically, where we are in the world. Just imagine a map of the world, and on the left-hand side of the map, you see the West Coast of the United States. From left to right, it ends about the east coast of China. Between China and the West Coast of the United States is almost 50 percent of the Earth’s surface. The rest is the Pacific. We’re west-to-east thinkers. The center in that map is the Middle East, strangely enough. Middle. East. And we think of the problem set as emanating from the Middle East to the West, when in fact the problem set is diffused.

There’s movement in the east across the Pacific, through the Pacific, through the Philippines, into South America, and potentially North America. You have to address that problem. We are. We’re looking at that. What about the al Qaeda affiliates? Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb? Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen? Al shabaab in Somalia? The confederates of al Qaeda, to include al Qaeda in Iraq and so forth. Then you get the groups in the Philippines and in Southeast Asia. How do you approach that problem set? Well, graphically, I think you’re familiar with Tom Barnett’s The Pentagon’s New Map. So, he draws this graphic around the same map that I described to you, of the connected and disconnected world. Going to Thomas Friedman’s point of “No two countries with a McDonald’s fight each other.” So, you have the connected world with McDonald’s and the Internet, and you have the disconnected world that doesn’t really have the diffusion of information and democratization that brings. They’re somewhat isolated from the leavening effects of an advanced technology and communications in a settled democracy where discourses are settled in the open forum rather than by force of arms.

That’s a graphic to keep in mind. Then you look at the smaller set, which is the romantic notion of al Qaeda’s Greater Caliphate, which is a subset of Barnett’s world where the problem sets evolve. Then on top of that you put SFG group flashes – 1st, 3rd, 5th, 7th, 10th, 19th, and 20th. You put those group flashes on where we have our presence and where we are engaging indigenous forces, it is almost an identical overlay of Barnett’s world.

And this is in the middle of two shooting wars?

In the middle of two shooting wars, and a not-so-shooting war. I might point out that while the Philippines is not a shooting war on our behalf, the guys we train and operate with are in a shooting war. There’s a fair amount of shooting going on and in the past year, we’ve lost two guys there to an IED. It is far from a benign environment. It’s not going away. I think that, while the security situation in the Philippines in specific, while it’s improved, it’s not a benign environment.

Certainly not in the Philippines, down around Mindanao and Zamboanga?

You got it. Central Mindanao, Zamboanga. There’ve been some extraordinary successes by the armed forces of the Philippines lately. They’ve killed a lot of the leadership of Abu Sayyaf, captured some of the leaders, and taken out some of their safe havens. This all happened with a cascading effect in the past three or four months. It is really remarkable.

The longer story, the one that is even less commonly well known is the success in Colombia against the FARC [Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – People’s Army/Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – Ejército del Pueblo]. Again, not a shooting war on our behalf, but our ability to enable these guys and to take care of business down there has allowed the government to create separation from the rebels and allowed the government to take hold down there. The armed forces are now much more effective than the FARC. The FARC is absolutely on the decline. They are becoming an aging criminal organization in league with the narcotics trade down there, and have gone from an ideological to an economic movement in many ways. It’s criminally based, quite frankly, due to the success of small teams of SF enabling that country over a period of seven or eight years, to impose their authority on the criminal elements in their country. It’s easy to say that this culminated … one would say that this culminated in the SRS hostage rescue by the Colombian military. But the struggle continues, and certainly it is far from the end. That problem is not solved but it is certainly contained, and it’s on their own terms. And I’m proud to be able to say it. I really am.

It’s been a long fight in this decade for your soldiers. There are way too many names on that wall down in the square in front of Meadows’ Field. What has this conflict done to your command and your soldiers, and what kind of shape are they in today, 10 years later?

I think that first and foremost, we need to recognize, as you have, the sacrifice and the service of the 122 guys that have been killed. There are 1,000 that have been wounded in this nearly 10 years of war. That’s about 10 percent of the active force that’s either been killed or wounded. Well, it’s an extraordinary payment for what we as a nation seek to do. First, the personal tragedies that go with those numbers are pretty significant. Dealing with the families is something that is an enduring requirement and obligation that we see on our behalf.

So, what has it done? If you look at the ranks of the guys that are killed, it’s primarily senior NCOs. These guys didn’t just show up and go into combat as master sergeants. They were brought up through our ranks and they established their imprint, their effect on a broad range of people by the time they met their demise. That tears at the fabric of the organization when you lose guys. We just lost another master sergeant, a team sergeant. These guys are held in high regard by their team members and other operators in the company. It has an effect.

I would say that over time, one of the insidious effects [of casualties] is that you get guys on a team that start out as a staff sergeant and the team sergeant gets hit and then the intel sergeant gets wounded. The senior weapons sergeant gets grievously wounded. You look at that kind of business and you get resolved, you get grizzled too [and say], “Hey, we got to do better.” That’s the first thing. The second thing is you wonder if sometime down the road if it’s going to happen to me. I’m going to acknowledge that that’s in the back of the operator’s mind. That’s the first thing. The second thing is the impact on the family. They’re paying the price. It’s not unique to us, but I would say the families are definitely under duress. We [presently] have a 1-to-.68 dwell time. For every day deployed, we have .68 at home. That has got to be reversed. The long-term effects of that is that people never [fully] recover from the stress. Not only the mental and emotional effects of combat, but also the physical effects, and they don’t fully recover before they go back into action. So, that’s part of the resiliency that has now come to the forefront in the Army, and I think it’s going to have a positive effect for Special Forces. Resiliency programs, etc. We’re on the leading edge of the beginning stages of implementing resiliency programs. We’ve started the training here recently.

By the way, do you actually differentiate between time in a combat theater like Afghanistan or the Philippines or Iraq, and where they’re doing something like a Joint Cooperative Engagement and Training (JCET) mission in a fairly permissive environment? Is that considered rest time, or is that …

It’s considered non-combat time. It still demands a broad range of skills from Special Forces guys. You’re still working with indigenous troops, you’re still under the stress of a foreign environment, extreme geography in terms of desert or jungle whatever the case may be. There’s just the aspect of being deployed. It’s still stressful. It’s still quite demanding. It’s no place to relax or to think that you’re not going to be harmed by something. The potential is always there. I’d say that the immediacy of the threat is significantly different in the two environments. It’s a threat nonetheless. For an American today, it’s hard to find some place that is entirely benign. That’s really the core issue. When I say we’re in 40 countries, we’re there because there’s a problem. We’re not there because it’s a nice place to visit. And that’s why … that’s an appropriate employment of Special Forces. We go where the problem sets are, not where the beautiful places to visit are.

You’ve talked about your people. How is the command today? As opposed to 10 years ago, are you stronger, are you wiser, are you tougher? What are you now that you weren’t 10 years ago when this started?

Well, we’ll start with the operators. The operators are younger. When I was an A-Team commander, the average age was about 34. I think that number has slipped to about 30 today, and it could be lower. So, we have had an infusion of youth into the ranks. That’s not necessarily bad. People say, “Well, you know, you’re a younger force” in a derogatory tone. Wait a minute, now. These guys are more apt to adapt to change, or to anticipate and receive change positively. They have a high degree of motivation, and then you hit the essence of why they were motivated to come to us. I’d say they’re very innovative, which is what we need out there. Innovative solutions in difficult environments. That’s the first thing. They’re growing up faster as well, because after two rotations, you don’t know who’s a long-time veteran and who’s still a guy with four or five years of service. You have that dynamic going on. The senior men, the senior operators, the battalion leadership, and group leaders, all have multiple rotations. It’s not unusual for a group commander or command sergeant major or warrant officer to have five or six rotations through Iraq and Afghanistan [right now]. That long-term look at the problem set creates a reservoir of knowledge of what’s going on, which is irreplaceable in the operating environment.

Is it fair to say that you’ve got company commanders who were group commanders on 9/11 that are group commanders now?

No, they weren’t company commanders on 9/11. I hadn’t thought about that, but yeah, we’re getting there. The first majors that were promoted into double-below-the-zone have come in after 9/11. So, we’re now starting to see these first field-grade officers as post-9/11 guys. Now you’re starting to see field-grade officers that know nothing but combat. That’s across the Army. We’re close to it. Another two years, we’ll be there. The [SF] Regiment is extremely experienced across the board. It goes for whatever group you go to. Their experiences are different. We have a wide array of very deep skill sets. If you’re looking at the Philippines or Africa, Iraq or Afghanistan, they’re all completely different problems sets. You go down to 7th Group in South America, they can do the business in South America through, by, and with indigenous forces, and then go over to Africa or Afghanistan, you’ll fight completely outnumbered, three-day-long running engagements. These are fantastic organizations that we have out there made up of men that are highly skilled, highly experienced, that are capable of assuming a high risk, and persevering in places where other people may not do as well.

Can you explain quickly how much recent changes in SF selection, qualification, and training have changed how your command approaches new personnel coming in? What is it like every month to see a full plate of new SF soldiers coming out of the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School (JFKSWCS)?

In a word, it’s encouraging. It is completely encouraging because we’re still the same type of organization that attracts and retains high-quality operators. So, to see 130 people standing in formation that have donned their Green Berets for the first time, an old guy thinks, “That’s outstanding.” What the JFKSWCS is turning out is absolutely incredible. I’m not going to speak on behalf of Tom Csrnko and others over there, but I’m very satisfied. Look, we’re joined at the hip with those guys. If they’re not giving us what we want it’s because I haven’t communicated it [to them]. We have communicated widely and persistently with each other, and they’re giving us what we need.

We believe that in another year or two, we’ll see declining budgets, and things that we do with contractors, as far as training and all that other activity on high-end skill sets we [will] need to migrate that into the institutional training base. It needs to be resourced as such, and we’ve made a commitment to do that. Some of the high-end skills that they’re being trained on out there, we’re now putting into the Special Warfare Center. We [currently] send the graduates of the Q-Course to Advanced Language and Culture Training, and also to special technical training on low-visibility equipment and sensitive site exploitation. All of that is being worked into the Special Warfare Center as advanced skills [training]. The advanced skills sets that SWC teaches, everything from combat diver qualification courses at Key West to the HALO [high altitude, low opening] course, all this has been modified to reflect the battlefield realities that we have today and to make it more relevant to where we’re going in the future. So, that’s an extraordinary story. The JFKSWCS has started this evolution and it continues with input from the Special Forces on where we need to go. We have jointly run critical-task selection boards and all the review in conjunction with SWC.

We’re very satisfied with the products that they are turning out as basic journeymen operators, but more important are the advanced skill opportunities that they are providing. Now, that’s the first part of this. The second part is what are we doing as unit-training managers and leaders? On the unit training side, we have evolved, and rewritten our 350-1 [training regulation], which is our training document, to reflect current and future realities out there. We had a lot of Cold War-isms … it needed updating badly. The next thing that we’ve done in regard to unit training is we have created a pre-mission training site and were starting to develop that at Fort Bliss, Texas. When I say, “Develop it,” it has coalesced capabilities that [already] exist down there with minor investment – vehicles we already own and that which SOCOM is giving us. This is the same [kind of] program that Jim Guest set up in the mid-’80s [out at 5th SFG], but it’s that program on steroids.

Immersion training in desert warfare skills?

Well, it’s very interesting that you ask. The first two iterations [are] ongoing as we speak. We have superior training ranges in desert environments down there. Those are the first two things. The other thing is [that] we bring in culture contractors. They are actually Pashto tribesmen, coming in working with our guys 24/7 for a period of days. It’s interesting. We had some Afghan officers visit and we went down to Fort Bliss. They said, “You flew us all the way around the world and you brought us to Fort Bliss. … and it looks exactly like home.” That’s the idea. Creating the right venue and resourcing it takes a lot of the responsibility for that kind of business for pre-mission training off the shoulders of the units that are rotating through there.

Is the training at Fort Bliss primarily skills-oriented, or is there a force-on-force engagement component?

It’s skills-oriented at the small unit level. It’s difficult to get a force-on-force type of operation going out there. And the training apparatus that the Army is building, the infrastructure that they built at Fort Bliss is very good in that they have shoot houses and live-fire ranges that replicate many of the scenarios that we run into. The modern Army training program and the modern Army range programs have been outstanding and are getting us out of the “flat-range” era that we all grew up with.

As you look over this decade-long process of updating your training system, how do you feel it has gone in terms of updating that pipeline? Is that pipeline today relevant to what your needs are?

It’s increasingly relevant. We just had a Commanders Readiness Conference where we discussed that [point] … we’ve created a mechanism whereby changes we see or anticipate in the field, primarily in battle, are rolled into the formal process that goes back to JFKSWCS. [So when] we say, “Hey, this is evolving. This is what’s going on. It has implications either on doctrine or training and we need to take a look at it,” [something useful happens]. We talked about training changes in terms of intelligence, logistics, communications, and operator leaders. Those are the areas that we see as most critical in the future that need some advanced training and more focused leader development, and we’re working with JFKSWCS to improve those.

How good are the new SF soldiers coming out of JFKSWCS, especially when compared to what you were dealing with when you came out?

I would say that they are certainly better than when I came out, because there’s more rigor in the selection, assessment, and training processes. In that regard, they’re more technically competent, [and] they’re more rigorously assessed, selected, and trained. For those who say they’re no better or worse than previous generations, I have to respectfully disagree. They’re better than my generation. And that’s really the charter for us, to make it better for the next guys. If we fail to do that, then shame on us. How good are they? When you go out there and you visit these guys, the first thing that jumps out at you is how physically fit they are. You look at them, [and] they exude fitness. Some of these guys are world-class athletes. It’s astounding. When they do things intuitively in regard to marksmanship, weapons handling, and other tactical skills, it’s astounding and they’re casual about it. You have to extract the extraordinary accomplishments of these men out of them because they’re “casual heroes” and it’s normal to them. They don’t know anything different. When you step back and tell them, “I’ve been doing this for 28 years and that’s extraordinary. You don’t understand how special you are and how significant it is looking at it from afar,” they don’t know how good they are. We could pick any ODA’s [Operational Detachment – Alpha or “A-Team”] number out of a hat and go talk to them. You’ll come out of that discussion going, “Wow!” Those guys are something else. Every one of them has a compelling story.

At the operator level, they’re very good. I would also say that we have extraordinary teams of people, and that’s not only at the detachment level but also goes up to the Group level. That experience base has matriculated up and created high-performing units with very little manpower. It’s still the basic group formation that we had at 9/11. It’s evolved somewhat, but it’s still the basic formation that we had before 9/11. There were explicit statements that “Group headquarters will not be a JSOTF or a CJSOTF.” When 9/11 happened, there was no alternative. They’ve done it and we’re still doing it. We haven’t necessarily evolved that headquarters and enabled them to do it well on an enduring basis. However, we’re going through that evolutionary process now.

Imagine where we’re at right now. You have generals like Lt. Gen. John Mulholland and Maj. Gen. Charlie Cleveland along with an entirely new generation of leadership coming up. You’ve got a generation of guys that they’ve led in combat, with that experience, and they’re pulling them up behind them. Where are we going to be in a few years? Adm. Olson talks about the 3-D warrior: diplomacy, defense, and development. We’ve got the defense piece down fairly well. We do need to work on the diplomacy – that’s language and culture and so forth. [On the] development [front], we need to be able to leverage inter-agency [resources and capabilities] for a broader involvement, for a broader approach to security operations. Building 3-D warriors is where we’re headed. The guys [will] have the basis to be able to do a broader range of very difficult tasks under extraordinary circumstances. It comes down to “Where do we get such men?”

James A. Michener asking the question?

That’s right. The Bridges of Toko-Ri.

One piece of this pipeline thing that doesn’t get talked about much now, because of course you’ve already done this, how did the remedial refresher training on your older SF soldiers who came in before the courseware change in the mid-part of the decade just past do? How did they accept the new techniques that were being used?

It’s pretty much done now. You take an operator who’s just come out of combat for six months, give him a chance to shake it off, and then you send him to Advanced Freefall School to give him a freefall infiltration technique. He starts seeding that capability out there, and sooner or later you get to have that capability that you’re going to employ with success in combat. Or advanced marksmanship using new technology. It’s amazing.

It’s extraordinary what these guys do. They’re innovative and change-oriented. Nobody’s told them they can’t. The ability of the SF guy to take a common piece of equipment and change it around – “Let’s modify it this way, let’s change it around” – and the innovation that it brings I think is one of the core activities or core characteristics of our force. It also benefits our Army brothers.

As part of the present expansion roadmap for SOCOM, there was a plan to give a fourth battalion of Special Forces troops to each of the five active-duty SFGs. Can you please talk a little about the changes you’ve made to this plan, and what will the end result be in 2013 when this program is finished?

First off, QDR 2006 [the Quadrennial Defense Review of 2006] said, add another battalion to each of the SFGs. This is QDR-mandated growth. But going back to SOF truths, “You can’t mass-produce SOF in a crisis,” it’s taken awhile to get there. That process will take us through 2013. We’re going to build the fourth battalions, and [they will] be employed in combat. That’ll take us out to 2013. [Then in] 2013, we’re going to transform the fourth battalions. I’ve heard people say, “Oh, we’re just [making them] a support battalion for [the other three in each group].” That’s not what they are [going to be]. They [will be] a collection of high-end skills, a grouping of high-end skills of which we already possess, and others we’re going to grow. [That way,] we have those skill sets resident and formalized in our force structure.

If you don’t do this, we will continue to waste training opportunities and not invest in the long-term deepening of skills in the SF Groups. Many desirable skills are individual skills that are not  resident for long periods on the teams. So, what happens when [one team member] becomes a field-grade officer and [another] becomes a senior warrant officer, and I become a senior NCO, and there’s no room for us on a team? I don’t [presently] have any [personnel] slots for field-grade officers with those skills sets on an ODA. You still have that skill set and have broad experience using those skills, so you’re still valuable to the force, but you have to have some place to go. Otherwise, you just attrite out and we never fully employ or build upon these skills that your guys possess. They’re not resident in the [present SFG] force structure.

We have to create a place for these highly skilled operators and units so that when they come up through the ranks, they have to have some place to go. Otherwise, we lose that skill set and experience. Also, since you’re now a field-grade officer or you’re a senior warrant officer and I’m a master sergeant, there’s only one [of each of those] on an ODA. We want to assign them to a unit where they are going to work on those skill sets to enhance them. We will assign these uniquely skilled soldiers to the 4th Battalion [when they can no longer stay on the ODAs]. It will be the 4th Battalion of a particular SFG.

This new battalion after 2013 won’t be, for example, three companies with five or six ODAs per?

No, it will not. [Until the reorganization in 2013] it will be a fourth battalion with three companies of six ODAs [each]. Until 2013, they will go to combat, and come back. As a matter of fact, in some of these battalions, 5th Group’s [4th Battalion] as an example, will be in combat twice before they reorganize. [Then in 2013] it’ll come back and reorganize into a [battalion with] an information dominance company, a regional support detachment, a technical support company, and [other capabilities]. Now, in the information dominance company, imagine this: the public affairs [PAO] section is going to work for a field-grade officer who also has the civil affairs section, the information operations section, and the psy-op section. They are all in the same company now and there’s a field-grade officer requiring them to coordinate and deconflict.

This sounds like where you’re going to drawing the personnel to build your JSOTFs from, to some degree?

Yes, of course. Absolutely. But you’re creating these groupings of high-end skills sets that are low-density, but you have to group them in some sort of way that makes sense. When I talk about that information dominance company … We will have the regional support detachments where we have high-end language and culture-enabled guys. They’ll be able to work together. The guys with the technical skills will be in a technical support company. So, these skills will be resident, long-term, in the [4th Battalion of the] Group. The most experienced men won’t be frittered out among the unit staffs.

Now, he’ll have current, relevant, up-to-date skills?

Absolutely. So, that’s the fourth battalion. Also, the second piece of this is the CSS side – Combat Service Support. When you reorganize a fourth battalion, what happens is the line companies of that fourth battalion go to 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Battalions. So, 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Battalions become a four-company set, as opposed to a three-company set.

So they will actually have a support company along with the three line companies?

That’s the other part of this. We will align an additional SF company with those battalions. The group support battalion receives the support troops that were in that 4th Battalion originally to support it organically for deployed operations. They will then create three forward support companies that provide the CSS functions and capabilities that we need for these guys to act independently as SOTFs [Special Operations Task Forces] when deployed. This way, you’ve got the 4th Battalion that provides general support to the Group in high-end skill sets, you get the GSB that now has three forward support companies, and each of the line battalions has four companies [of ODAs].

And the objective line company will have how many ODAs now?

Six. This whole transformation process, because of the weird way it went down, it’s a process-oriented problem. We go from 76 ODAs in a SFG to 75. It’s odd. We still have 75 ODAs, we still have the same number of ODBs [Company Headquarters Teams]. We lose one ODA and we lose a SOTF-level headquarters, but we increase the support capacity within the groups and develop a resident higher technical skill capacity.

So ultimately, to your customer – be it the secretary of state, secretary of defense, or some other individual – you’re still going to be able to deliver more ODAs where they need than where we would have 10 years ago?


Again, the ultimate goal was, as I recall, that everybody wanted more Green Berets and deployable ODAs when this all started?

Just one point perhaps on the fine details here. The QDRs [of the past decade] grew the fourth battalions. We are going to do that. We’re going to grow the fourth battalion and employ it in combat. So, we don’t have guys who have been to combat and guys who haven’t. There’s not going to be the haves and have-nots.

So, during the growth to 2013, there will be a fourth line battalion added to each SFG?

There will be a fourth line battalion. When they’re back, they get reorganized in 2013.

I will not lie to you, this was a really big mystery to people out there who were trying to scratch their heads and say, “Okay, what are they really doing?”

Well, yeah. Of course. They’re fair questions because you get the old guys saying, “Oh, well, oh my God. You’re giving away a battalion of SF.” No, I still have a [fourth] battalion of SF [soldiers in each SFG], they’re just distributed differently.

The people leading your groups, battalions today, were themselves younger officers in lower ranks. They stepped into their jobs extraordinarily well. I can’t help but remember Chris Conner as a young battalion commander going into Afghanistan and of course, now he’s gone through as a group commander with 5th SFG. How deep is your leadership “bench” now, and how good is your leadership looking 10 years down the line right now?

I will tell you … I’m going to give you some statistics. When I saw that question, I said, “I’m going to research that a little bit.” I realized that the SFC structure is designed to man SF groups. In addition to the SF groups, we’ve got three enduring CJSOTF [Combined Joint Special Operations Task Forces], and additional warfighting requirements. By that I mean joint requirements in Afghanistan, in Iraq and in the Philippines that we have to man. We’re also paying Army manpower bills, so to speak. We’re contributing to the Army warfighting [effort] in other ways. So, [with] the enduring requirements that we have, CJSOTFs [and such], we have a requirement for over 600 people at any given time. If your demand downrange in three CJSOTFs is about 600 headquarters      people, that means you have to have 1,200 on the bench. You have to have access to 1,200 at the headquarters level.

That’s a sizable number.

That’s a sizable number. Realize, active duty we have a little over 10,000 [SF solders]. Roll in the two National Guard groups, you get 14,000. Your bench at the headquarters level, standing requirements of about 600, plus you have to have something backing that up. At the other headquarters element, there’s about 1,200 required. On top of it, you’ve got additional Army joint requirements. That’s almost 100 people at any given time. So, that takes me up to 1,200 plus 100 – I’m just going to do the math and then I’ll come back to it – 1,200 plus 100 equals 1,300. Then we do Army business in the form of transition teams. I’ve got 25 people commanding transition teams right now and I’m going to get levied for another 23. That’s 48, and these are lieutenant colonels and colonels. Where’s my experience [base] going? It’s going to the big Army in addition to trying to man these CJSOTFs, so that’s a hell of a challenge.

You throw on top of that that we still man garrison and recruiting commands. That’s my lieutenant colonel population as well. We are supporting the big Army at the same time we’re trying to fight the war that is SOF-centric, a fair piece of it is SF-centric. At the senior level, we have a fairly decent bench, but it’s dispersed and not focused, and that’s a major challenge right now. We have to figure out how we work with the Army more effectively to focus the narrow pool of Special Forces talent into the Special Forces requirements. Right now, the requirements in the aggregate of the Joint, the Army, and the SOF worlds exceed the capacity to man that with qualified senior people. That’s where we’re stretched.

You’re getting ready to hand SFC off, go over to EUCOM and do other things. What do you see ahead for you and the SOF units that you’re going to have assigned to you over in Europe in the future?

Well, the strategic alliance NATO, which of course includes the United States and most of Europe, that relationship needs to endure. What we’re finding is that there’s expansion of relationships on the NATO SOF side as indicated when two years ago they set up the NATO SOF coordination center. It was a field of dreams type entity – “Build it and they will come.” The nations sent their top operators to this thing. It’s an extraordinary development. While they may cut their conventional military capabilities, they are not cutting their SOF capabilities. Nobody is saying, “We need a lot less SOF out there.” No nation has said that. They value their SOF. Where do we get the Italians and the French and the U.S. to all come together and be to work together? We started it with the NATO SOF Coordination Center. It was an idea started by Thom Csrnko, built upon by then-Rear Adm. and now-Vice Adm. McRaven, [it] culminated under his tenure. That sense evolved into a consensus among the nations that it needs to be a component command. It will [soon] be expanded to a NATO SOF component command of three-star standing – a component three-star command. If you’re Army-Navy-Air Force and then NATO says you have regional commands, now you have a NATO SOF component commander that will report to SACEUR for the first time. That will happen sometime this summer.

So, Adm. James Stavridis will soon have a three-star SOF component that covers all of the NATO nations.

NATO SOF. It’s an extraordinary development.

That’s going to be an interesting assignment, too.

The discussion there is NATO SOF interoperability. It’s not only practices, but it’s common language – as in tactical language, command and control processes, and technology. We all think of the old NATO STANAGs [Standard NATO Agreements] and common process, and a lot of things we have are because of the NATO commonality, like the 7.62 mm round, the 5.56 mm rounds. It’s all standard within NATO. Communications devices and protocols, a lot of that is standardized within NATO. Refueling – something as simple as that.

Not all that simple is it?

Not that simple. You would think that a fueling nozzle is fairly simple for aircraft, but every nation builds its own aircraft and they have different [ideas.] So, now you have this on the SOF side. There’s huge energy and emphasis on getting the NATO SOF piece correct. I’ll contribute to that. I’m not going to be the three-star, obviously, but I will be contributing to that discussion. That’s the first thing on the friendly side.

NATO still has challenges out there. The discussion about NATO expansion spilled over into the Ukraine and Georgia. Georgia wants NATO membership as a means of security against Russia. They have huge issues. That is a microcosm of some of the other things that are going on in Europe. These problems are not going away. The collateral effects on the rest of Europe are pretty significant. Let’s take Georgia as an example. It has a declining population. It has a negative growth rate, birth rate. As a result, they’re kind of wondering, “How are we going to remain viable as a nation?” particularly when you have encroachment from Russia into Abkhazia and North Ossetia. You get Russia essentially annexing parts of Georgia under nationalist tendencies there, and then just across the border in Russia, you’re going to have the Winter Olympics over there. So, how’s that going to work out down the road?

Now, you also have an element of the global terrorist infrastructure that are living below the radar screen. Let’s digress for a moment. The purpose of this discussion is not to give you a history lesson, but it’s just to paint a larger picture of what’s going on in Europe. The Madrid train bombers financed that operation with petty crime – black-market operations, petty crimes, and theft. There are a lot of bad actors living in plain sight underneath the legal radar screen. There’s not an international legal structure that allows us to do things pre-emptively to these bad people who are living in the liberal democracies, of which the United States is one. They’re living openly and ostensibly abiding by the law. As a result, the European nations say, “We understand that the United States wants us to go after this guy, but we have no legal standing to do so.” There are huge challenges out there in the security sector on how we deal with these people who are living below the radar screen yet are either directly engaged in or supporting terrorist activities. The challenges are pretty significant, and it’s not just the SACEUR [who faces them]. It’s the departments of the Treasury and Justice that are working through the legal means with the European nations. You’ve got a patchwork of authorities out there among the members of NATO.

You also have a Big Brother relationship with an emerging regional command for Africa, too, of which your command will be providing a lot of support as they stand up.

SOC Africa is our brother. Brig. Gen. Chris Haas is a very good friend of mine. I was there at the beginning, and I will endeavor to do whatever I can to help Chris out. He and I have talked about this.

This article first appeared in The Year in special Operations: 2010-2011 Edition, and is also cross-posted on the publication’s  web site at


John D. Gresham lives in Fairfax, Va. He is an author, researcher, game designer, photographer,...