Special Operations: Special Forces Goes Coed


July 3, 2011: Earlier this year, the U.S. Army Special Forces began recruiting women for the first time. The women were needed for "Cultural Support Teams" (CST) for use in Afghanistan. There, it has been found that, if you send in female troops to an area, you are much more likely to get useful information from Afghan women. This was a technique that was developed, and worked, in Iraq. The U.S. Marine Corps pioneered the use of these all-woman CSTs.

The Special Forces does it differently, by using the same selection and training routines (in abbreviated format) for the women as they do for the men. Thus the Special Forces Assessment for CST volunteers is nine days, rather than 24 for the men. About half the volunteers do not pass this, a bit higher than the third of male volunteers who don't make it. That's probably because Special Forces recruits mostly infantry and other troops in combat jobs (where there is constant training to prepare you for the stress and physical demands of combat). The year-long Special Forces basic training has been cut to six weeks for CST members. That's because the women are not expected to do a lot of the training and combat operations the male operators must be prepared for. For the women, selection is mainly concerned with intelligence and adaptability. The CSTs, after all, specialize in intelligence work and forming relationships with Afghan women. But the women do get a lot of weapons and special skill (like roping down from a helicopter) training during those six weeks.

So far this year, 30 CST operators have been sent to Afghanistan and their performance has been outstanding. Special Forces commanders want more CST troops, and want them fast. As word gets around about the success of the program, more women will volunteer. The actual work of each team (of 3-6 women, attached to a twelve man ODA or "A Team") is providing health care to women and children, collecting intelligence and participating in raids (where they can more easily search women for weapons and other contraband).

Meanwhile, the traditional Special Forces training has gone through a lot of changes since September 11, 2001. These new developments have mostly occurred in the basic training, which is called the SFQC (Special Forces Qualification Course). This is the year long process by which highly qualified infantrymen are turned into Special Forces operators. The major changes are that the trainees go through as part of a detachment (an "A Team"), and get much more realistic training for the specific part of the world they are going to (usually Iraq or Afghanistan). Trainees now get their first language training in the SFQC. Previously, you went to language school after SFQC. Many still do, but they already have some working knowledge of the language. The CST women also get language training, and are encouraged to improve their Pustun and Dari (the two major languages in Afghanistan) when they get to their assignments. Not much encouragement is needed, as better language skills is a key to success for these operators.

Meanwhile, the standard Special Forces tactical training has become much more realistic, and loud, in the last decade. Before 2005, trainees fired only about a hundred rounds of live ammo during SFQC, now they fire nearly 4,000 rounds. There's much more tactical training. Much greater use is made of computer simulators and wargames. Most of this stuff didn't exist before 2001. The sims provide more training, more realistically, and in less time. There's more training on cultures, and how to play cultural quirks. The CST trainees benefit from all these changes.

Currently there are five active duty Special Forces Groups. Each special forces group has a small headquarters unit and three Special Forces battalions. Each Special Forces battalion has a small headquarters (known as a C detachment), three operational companies and one support company. Each operational company has six "A Teams" (officially known as ODAs, or Operational Detachment Alpha) of twelve men. Total strength of a Special Forces company is 83 men. The company headquarters is called a B Team. Total strength of a Special Forces Group is about 1200 troops, when at full strength. An additional five battalions are being added to the current force of fifteen battalions.

There have long been rumors of some women being assigned to some SOCOM (Special Operations Command) units, like Delta Force. In the last century, hundreds of women were trained and deployed for espionage assignments in enemy territory. Most of this was during World War II. The female operators were a big success. Some countries continued this practice after World War II, usually in secret. Since most people expect all commandos to be male, having a female operator or two available can be a big advantage. The CST program is out in the open, and may lead to permanent jobs for women in Special Forces field operations.



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