What quality training looks like: A lesson from the Special Forces Urban Combat Course

Up until the last 4 years of my stint in the Army, every school I attended was either planning oriented or some form of infiltration to the battlefield, which always revolved around some form of student attrition. I constantly found myself in courses where the instructors were particularly prideful in their ability to weed out individuals. Keep in mind, I’m not disagreeing with some form of hazing and or selection process. Hazing is what made me the man I am today. In fact, hazing to an extent is necessary, it helps us identify who has the intestinal fortitude to press on towards the mission at any cost. But that is not the point of this article. Until my transition to Special Operations, I had no idea what quality training looked like, or what I wanted it to be. But I was finally here a cherry qualified Special Operations Terminal Attack Controller (SOTACC) eager to make a positive impact to the organization. In order to allow me to better support the A-Teams in a direct capacity, my boss sent me to the basic SF Close Quarters Battle (CQB) School called the Special Forces Advanced Urban Combat Course (SFAUCC).

SFAUCC’s origins go back to the Special Operations Training (SOT) Course (closed in the early 90s), which was stood up right after 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne) shut down Blue Light (An interim counter-terrorism unit before Delta Force). Learning lessons from the famed events during Operation Gothic Serpent (depicted in the film “Blackhawk Down” ), and understanding that future conflicts would involve the need to conduct direct action operations in an urban environment, led to the birth of SFAUCC in 2000. The course is a month-long school (run at the Group level) geared toward providing the Special Forces Operational Detachment Alpha (SFODA) and individuals, a baseline of training in conducting advanced urban direction action. By 2009 it was officially recognized by Army Human Resources Command as an accredited course (Mil Education Code: VAB, if you’re a Green Beret and didn’t know that… you’re welcome).

Being a product of all military courses I was deeply concerned I did not have the requisite background to be successful. To be frank, it had been over a year since I fired a handgun and the course was one week away. Panicked, I called the instructors to share my concerns, and inquire about what I should do to get ready. They simply replied, “Good, you won’t have any bad habits. You won’t believe how hard it is to break those with Team guys. Just show up with an open mind, and do everything we tell you.” I was immediately surprised. If this were any other conventional Army course I’m certain you would have heard a different and indifferent response from the instructors. However, I was not disappointed; this course was geared toward the warfighter.  The break-down of the course is rather simple: week 1 is flat range week, weeks 2 and 3 are live fire CQB and breaching, and week 4 is force on force training. Upon starting the first day the instructors had us confirm zero on our rifles and covered the fundamentals of combat marksmanship. They touched upon safety (loading-unloading procedures), touch-points (your grip from holster), to different pistol positions, and trigger prep, and your second sight picture. They stressed all the fundamentals at nauseam. Every morning began with a cold-start graded shoot. The belief behind this practice is that you will never be warmed up for your best run when a fight presents itself, so you must be tested at your worst. Throughout the week the instructors were true coaches unless there was an unsafe act, there was no screaming and or physical punishment. When I didn’t know my touch points from the holster and a proper thumbs forward grip, they showed me by placing the weapon in my hands and made the instruction relatable. The team cared so much about proper instruction they had a sports psychologist on staff to help the students. This concept was completely foreign to me. They cared deeply about their students….and it showed. Week 1 ended with a series of stress shoots designed by the staff to push you to the limits of your training. I was thoroughly surprised when the staff posted the range week scores and realized I had shot my way into the top third of the class.

Weeks 2 and 3 were live fire CQB and breaching, it began with a classroom instruction block by powerpoint and a dry run. Any students that didn’t meet the minimum flat range requirements would receive a blue barrel (simunitions ammo), and would continue on, but not receive a graduation certificate. The instructors then transported us to the shoothouse, where they demonstrated techniques for different types of rooms we would encounter. We then individually entered the room to live fire alone, purely as the number one man and received critique, then as the number two man, and so on, until we demonstrated a firm understanding. As training progressed, the staff incorporated the rest of the stack (or cell) into the equation allows us to complete the live fire collectively. It was clear the training was always building towards an endstate, a functional team with the confidence and competence to execute an urban raid. We continued on with different structures, hallways, stairwells, and breaching techniques as the instructors gradually added new variables forcing us to always think before we commit to a target. By the end of week 3 most of us were able to flow through any structure with confidence.

Week 4 was force on force utilizing simunitions. After all, how do you know your techniques are effective if they are untested? Force on force training teaches you a continued lesson…. the opposing force has a vote, it preaches performance on demand. Throughout this last week the course becomes married with the Sniper Locker students to bring all elements into play. We executed multiple raids, both day and night, under white light or night vision. Some missions were successful, and others not; but every engagement was followed with an After Action Review (AAR), and another raid. We conducted our last complex night raid graduating at the stroke of midnight. Tired and muddy, we received our graduation certificates or some…certificates of training if you did not meet course standards.

By course end, students were trained in advanced combat rifle and pistol marksmanship, as well as urban movement, mechanical and ballistic breaching, rappelling, FAST-roping, and to successfully take down single and multi-entry point, single and multi-story objectives. The course establishes a baseline of skill for its students, but also acknowledges that trained once does not mean trained forever. Operational teams must not only graduate this course the first time, but must either go back through periodically or conduct an SFAUC focused training event at the team level to ensure currency. This practice ensures everyone maintains the standard. The month-long school taught me so much, but also taught me that I had so much more to learn. So in essence, the big question is “Why is this important to me?…. a regular shooter.” I challenge you to seek out trainers who foster your growth as a shooter, regardless of skill level. The best instructors out there are able to establish a baseline of class talent, and apply their structured learning objectives to the class in front of them. They must be coaches and mentors above all else. If you ever find yourself in a class where the instructor is demeaning without cause in order to grow their ego… it’s time to pack your gear and leave.

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Jonathan Fietkau is a former SOTACC from 1st Battalion, 5th Special Forces Group, and a graduate of the Special Forces Advanced Urban Combat Course (SFAUCC). He is a combat veteran of Iraq, and other theaters of operation, with previous service in the 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions.