I’ve probably been asked to weigh in on the decision to disband the Special Forces CIF companies about ten times today. Apparently, the final decision is awaiting SECDEF approval at the moment. I wasn’t going to wade into this one but since I’ve been asked, I’ll offer a few thoughts.
I’m going to caveat this upfront by stating that I never served in the CIF. I also have not been in Special Forces for ten years, although I somewhat keep up to speed with what is going on, take all of that into account with my opinions.
Let’s start at the beginning.
What is the CIF and why does it exist? Within each active duty Special Forces Group (10th, 7th, 3rd, 1st, and 5th) one company in the unit is designated as the Commander’s In-extremis Force (CIF) which specializes as a direct action quick reaction unit that supposedly can respond to crisis around the world. Because this is the Army we’re talking about, the CIF acronym has changed a bunch of times (CCIF, CRF) but I’m just going to roll with this one for the sake of sanity.
Special Forces History
We have to start at the dawn of counter-terrorism to really grasp all of this.
Back in the 1970’s Special Forces Detachment A in Berlin had a clandestine urban guerrilla mission but as airplane hijackings spread like a virus all over the world, the United States government came to have fears that communist terrorists in Berlin would attempt to hijack a Pan Am airplane. Det A was given an additional counter-terrorism mission and told to be on standby to deploy if such a situation arose.
In the late 1970’s Charlie Beckwith got the green light to stand up a full time dedicated unit that could tackle the counter-terrorism mission: Delta Force. As his unit was validated in final exercises and activated, other counter-terrorism endeavors such as those in Det A and Blue Light were stood down.
However, one of the findings from DOD commission done to review the 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut concluded that European Command (EUCOM) needed some sort of reaction force to deal with terrorist threats. Lebanon fell under EUCOM back in those days, I believe because the Pentagon didn’t want the same commands/soldiers dealing with both Israel and Arab states for political reasons. The EUCOM commander told Delta Force that he wanted one of their squadrons dedicated to European focused counter-terrorism ops.
Delta said not only no, but hell no. At the time they only had two squadrons and they cannot both be on alert for no-notice deployments at the same time because the men would never be able to go on training exercises, take leave, or attend professional development courses. So EUCOM insists they need their own counter-terrorism quick reaction force. Thus, 10th Special Forces Group, with a battalion forward deployed to Germany, creates the first CIF team in Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 10th Special Forces Group.
Over the years each of the other Special Forces Groups created a CIF company. 1st Group had one in Okinawa, Japan, 7th Group’s CIF was forward deployed to Panama (then Puerto Rico for a hot minute) then back stateside, and 3rd Group’s was at Ft. Bragg.
Now the idea of the CIF is that it is IN-EXTREMIS, that these guys are standing by, forward deployed, and can jump into the action faster than other counter-terrorism elements. One of the big ideas behind the CIF was that they could be deployed faster than Delta Force in the event of, say one of our embassies abroad was overrun and American citizens were taken hostage. The CIF would rapidly deploy, surround the embassy, begin gathering intelligence, and be there to walk Delta operators into the target once they arrived.
This idea was basically still born because the CIF companies never had any dedicated air assets. Delta always has a squadron on standby for rapid deployment, and the Ranger Regiment has one of their battalions on RF1 for rapid deployment as well. When they are on this cycle, there are dedicated aircraft and pilots also standing by to fly these soldiers anywhere in the world in order the meet the demands of their mission. Without dedicated aircraft, the CIF was never going anywhere fast.
A few years ago I was having a pint with a former Delta Force squadron commander. He told me how back in the day they had something pop off in Thailand. The CIF and his Delta squadron both got the call to rapidly deploy. His squadron arrived in Thailand from Ft. Bragg, North Carolina faster than the 1st Group CIF company arrived there from Okinawa, Japan.
Just a couple pints.
The CIF never made much sense as a in-extremis force. In the 1990’s, 5th Special Forces Group stood up their CIF company…at Ft. Campbell, Kentucky. Where are they rapidly deploying to from the middle of the continental United States?
However, JSOC wanted to keep the CIF around for one reason: to train foreign counter-terrorism units. This made a lot of sense as the CIF was specially trained for direct action missions and they were also Green Berets, the Army’s trainers and teachers who show our allies all over the world how to fight. It was also a mission set that Delta Force didn’t really want unless they were particularly bored.
Now, there were some more rational ideas about how to employ 5th Group’s CIF team down the line. There came to be a mission called the CRE or the GCC mission during the war on terror years in which the CIF was forward deployed to the Middle East, but to my knowledge they never executed a rapid deployment mission. Likewise, 10th Special Forces Group stood up a second CIF at one point that was to be oriented towards North Africa.
It must also be mentioned that during the war on terror, the CIF companies were deployed to Iraq and became a part of the Special Operations Task Force. Along with JSOC and Rangers, the CIF assaulters ran High Value Target capture/kill missions and made an important contribution to the task force.
With this background in mind, what do I think about the CIF being disbanded?
Days of the future past
I think it is a good thing, provided this signals a genuine and renewed focus on Special Forces’ real mission: unconventional warfare. The last thing the Army needs is another direct action unit. Privates in Ranger battalion do the same direct action mission that senior NCOs were billeted for in the CIF. Delta can do direct action better than both units. But even the conventional Army and Marines can do direct action. Only one unit is trained, equipped, and organized for unconventional warfare: Special Forces.
There were and are some great guys on the CIF and they made important contributions to the war effort but it is difficult to see where the value added is for the Army in having yet another direct action element. The CIF was originally designed for counter-terrorism missions, specifically hostage rescue missions. However, the vast majority of CIF missions have been direct action and only in rare circumstances have they rescued hostages or supported such missions carried out by foreign nationals. The Army will retain the hostage rescue capability with JSOC, but Green Berets will lose this capability with the disbanding of the CIF.
The value added that the Army desperately needs is a robust unconventional warfare capability. That is the capability that will finally end the war on terror or at least degrade the enemy to the point that we don’t have to have combat troops deployed all over the world. It is also the capability that will help us undermine the authoritarian influence of countries like China and Russia.
With the CIF disbanded, those resources and personnel can, and should, be reallocated to unconventional warfare. Over the last twenty years Special Forces has been obsessed with direct action while the unconventional warfare mission atrophied. Commanders prioritized enemies captured and killed above all else, that was the metric that was measured and what success was based on, not just for the CIF but for the ODAs as well.
This has resulted in an entire generation of Green Berets not really wanting to do the Special Forces mission. Many just want to go to the CIF, put in their packet for Delta selection, or leave the military entirely because who wants to be on a ODA that doesn’t do unconventional warfare but rather is utilized as an expensive infantry squad?
I’m certainly glossing over some further history here, and I freely admit that there are other details that I am unaware of. Some CIF company plank owner out there should really write a book about his unit’s history I think. If you had boots on the ground and have further observations, addendums, or criticisms of this opinion piece please feel free to write in and I’d be happy to abridge this article or make updates to it.
For various reasons, emotions tend to run high within the Special Forces community whenever the CIF is mentioned. Some of it I never quite understood and at times it seemed like a lot of ego was caught up in these subjects. But that’s Special Forces. We bring a lot to the table but as my friend Jim Morris said, being a SF Team Leader is about managing 12 prima donnas. The disbanding of the CIF is sure to be a heartbreaker for some. No one wants to do all that hard work just to be told in effect, “go away, we don’t need you anymore.”
However, if this really does signal that Special Forces is (finally) going to double down on unconventional warfare and start taking it seriously, then this is a positive move for the future of the Green Berets.
Update: clarified that the CIF was intended and capable of hostage rescue missions, rather than just direct action missions that others such as Rangers, Marines, and others carry out.