San Diego The spirit of Special Forces remains the same and, for the most part, so does the organization. However, minor changes have had far-reaching effects and serve as brilliant examples of the Law of Unintended Consequences. As in algebra, when you change one factor in an equation, you change the entire equation.
Removing the first lieutenant as second-in-command from the A team, the Operational Detachment Alpha, and putting in a warrant officer is usually hailed as a good change. A warrant officer is a kind of officer/specialist, usually an expert in some technical field. They are not commissioned officers. They have officers' privileges, but are outside the usual lieutenant-captain-major-colonel-general officer's rank structure. The warrant officer is more seasoned than a young lieutenant and knows a hell of a lot more about Special Forces.
My concern would be that now officers enter Special Forces as captains, a higher rank than either lieutenant or warrant officer. The commander of an A team is a captain, which means that the commander of the A team is always the new guy. Sure, he's a seasoned officer, but SF is different. If he's not assertive, he runs the risk of becoming the operations sergeant's liaison with the officer's corps. If he's very assertive, he runs the risk of issuing a lot of stupid orders, which will make 11 smart guys hate his guts. If that happens he won't survive.
Relations in SF between officers and NCOs are different from the rest of the Army. For one thing, if a seasoned SF NCO isn't an officer, it's because he doesn't want to be. The NCOs are as smart as the officers and know their jobs as well or better than the officers know theirs. They've just made a decision to avoid the politics that is inherent in being an officer.
The whole time I commanded an A team I never gave an order. We just sort of discussed how we wanted things to work, over dinner, or inspecting the camp. A loose rein is best with ten prima donnas and one lieutenant. If these young commanders stay out of their teams' way, they'll do fine.
But they won't be the guiding light of the team. The team sergeant is all about the team, but the CO should be all about the mission: His analysis of the operational area, his assessment of the enemy, his concept of operations. That should be the framework.
With the captain being the new guy, and communications with the next-higher headquarters so good, the captain ceases to be an entrepreneur and becomes a manager.
My former medic, now an officer and friend, describes it thus. "The death of us has been the creation of a full-blown command, with concomitant layers of official bureaucracy, which has killed a lot of initiative. There is an overbearing burden of risk assessments and pre-approval requirements, by everyone, before anything can get done. This snuffs even the simplest of training plans before they can leave the team room. And operations? Fergitabowtit! If there's a hint of risk, the aversion is like the black plague.
"As for the warrant thing, a double-edged sword. They often compete with the captain for power, and the entire warrant program has been downgraded by the fact that a guy can now apply straight out of the 'Q' [qualification] course and get fast-tracked through courses without the benefit of commensurate experience. In other words, just like a lieutenant, who, if selected, put through the basic schools, and then through the 'Q,' brings the same as the warrant officer, with a few bennies. A major bennie is that when he does become captain/team commander, he's vetted, experienced, and clued in!
"As for NCO/officer relations -- the officers average 12-15 months on a team, before they move to staff where they spend two to three years telling team guys what/how to do things. And so, there is a big rift right now between the officers and NCOs, all easily resolved if lieutenants are let in and then groomed by the NCOs, which would endear both to each other instead of the enmity that exists now."
That's pretty much how it was when I was a team second-in-command. I was a senior lieutenant when I joined the team. It was very much an apprentice situation. By the time I got my own team, I was ready to command it. Not by giving orders, but simply by having a fully formed idea of what we wanted to accomplish in the time available and making it clear what that idea was.
I had great NCOs, and they did the rest. Other than that, I made sure their pay wasn't messed up, and, oh yeah, I led by example in the field.
The other major change will probably make no sense to a civilian. It is the creation of the Special Forces branch. When I was in SF, my branch was infantry. My records were held at the infantry branch, and I was considered for promotion against other infantry officers. Other SF officers came from different branches.
Under that system, staying too long in Special Forces was career suicide. An officer pretty much gave up any chance of retiring higher than lieutenant colonel. Many made that choice because they believed so much in Special Forces and its mission. And with little or no chance of promotion to higher rank, the commanders were willing to take huge chances and break a lot of rules to accomplish the mission.
I once said to Lieutenant Colonel "Pappy" Shelton that commanding the team that trained the Bolivian rangers who got Che Guevara must have done wonders for his career. He laughed and said, "If it hadn't been my last assignment before retirement, I would have never had the guts to do what I had to, to get the job done."
When the first Special Forces Group was formed in 1957, it was put on Okinawa, with an operational area that included the entire Far East. Its first commander, Colonel "Mad Jack" Shannon, had been with OSS Detachment 101, fighting with guerrillas in Burma, in WWII. He was used to complete autonomy and had a puckish sense of humor. He once dropped six teams into South Korea, without notifying the Koreans or the U.S. Eighth Army. The result was that the South Koreans thought his teams were North Koreans and were out hunting them with live ammunition. That was what Shannon wanted. Good training.