Language students discuss how to give directions during a French class. U.S. Army photo.

Lethal Weapon: DRSE builds SOF's greatest weapon - the minds of its Soldiers

By Col. Paul S. Burton, Lt. Col. James H. Nance and Lt. Col. David C. Walton
Originally published in the March-April 2011 edition of Special Warfare

As the United States and its coalition partners prosecute the current campaigns in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Horn of Africa and the Philippines, the U.S. military, along with its interagency counterparts, must also prepare for uncertain security situations beyond the present theaters of conflict. Those areas of friction and conflict exted beofre 9/11 and will continue to exist. Our adversaries will attempt to exploit the above-named campaigns all around the world, and we must fight our enemy with our minds as well as with weapons. For the operators of Army special-operations forces, or ARSOF, the most versatile and lethal weapon is their mind.

ARSOF are regionally aligned units that have a global presence. These regionally savvy Soldiers are taught to develop and sustain long-term relationships with indigenous personnel and then create a cadre of linguistically and culturally attuned Soldiers who can provide geographic combatant commanders, ambassadors and follow-on forces with critical capabilities and knowledge should contingencies develop. From their inception, ARSOF have focused on developing regional, cultural and language skills through consistent regional alignment of the components of the U.S. Army Special Operations Command, or USASOC. ARSOF's investment in Soldiers is envisioned as maturing to a career-long commitment of specifically selected members to maintaining the proficiency needed to optimally contribute to our country's foreign policy, specifically in the areas of selected partner-nation-specific and regional strategies.1

Two of the tools that enable ARSOF operators to be successful and prevail in the ambiguous environments demanded by our country are their understanding of their focus region and the ability to communicate in the native languages of these regions. These two areas can be considered the underpinnings or foundation of many of ARSOF's successes in history. Their ability to communicate effectively and assimilate into a culture to achieve common goals for both governments and people transcend historical differences. The future will be heavily influenced by global competition for declining natural resources, rapidly rising populations in underprivileged and underdeveloped areas, unstable economic markets, and the continuing resurgence of violent religious and secular ideologies challenging democracy as a credible political theory.

Additionally, today's special operator must account for the impact of rapid information transfer, porous national borders, globalization, increased migrating populations with elevated expectations and a proliferation of technologies associated with making and employing weapons of mass destruction. To prepare for future contingencies in such a world, we must build capabilities that enable forces that can rapidly adapt to crises emerging from unanticipated events. "Rapidly adapting" in this context means acquiring the ability to quickly change not only weapons and the way we supply ourselves but also the way we think and train to deal with new challenges in unfamiliar circumstances. The skill set necessary to accomplish that falls under the rubric of regional study, language instruction, culture and education. To this end, we must cultivate an environment in which we teach our Soldiers how to think and adapt, not what to think. We must instill in the Army a culture of flexibility at both the junior and senior levels. In the world battle for population influence, nothing is more important than relationships. At the JFK Special Warfare Center and School's Directorate of Regional Studies and Education, or DRSE, educating Soldiers on the development of relationships with host-nation counterparts in order to operate with socio-linguistic and cultural competency is paramount.

DRSE educates Soldiers in U.S. Army Civil Affairs, Military Information Support Operations and Special Forces throughout their careers by providing relevant instruction, professional development and a superior learning environment, in order to give them the capability to succeed in any global region. The DRSE is the newest directorate within the JFK Special Warfare Center and School, or SWCS, and is currently manned by more than 150 military personnel, Army civilians and contractors.

DRSE is task-organized into four major sections: Department of Regional Studies, Department of Language, Department of Human Dynamics and Department of Education.

Department of Regional Studies

DRS provides vision and manages ARSOF regional and cultural studies. It serves as the primary developer and manager of the following: foundational, intermediate and advanced regional and cultural studies, and any additional regional- and cultural-studies courses that may be required (such as courses needed to support the cultural-support-team initiative).

Instruction in regional studies and cultural competency is crucial for ARSOF operators as the battlespace evolves. In the asymmetrical-warfare environment, the threat is adept at adapting to our predictable tactics, techniques and procedures. We must ensure that our operators understand the complexity of counterinsurgency and irregular warfare and are able to counter emerging threats.

Soldiers cannot fully understand the religious and cultural aspects of a specific region, country or ethnic group without a broader awareness of the links of those aspects to larger religious and cultural expressions that transcend national boundaries. "To win good will in an unfamiliar society … requires not only a good understanding of another way of life, but a way with people."2 Researchers have shown that human-relations training is an important component of helping people to prepare for working abroad.

According to Robert R. Allardice, "As we engage in the world today, much as we have the past couple of centuries, our capacity to identify the challenges in each individual culture; to be able to interact within; and then embrace the challenges of the day to create an effect requires us to understand the culture of both the target country and our own culture so that we can better be able to accomplish what we need."3

Colonel Maxie McFarland, writing in Military Review, said, "Regional studies and cultural training should seek to build cross-cultural knowledge and skills, and the ability to understand and manage culturally based differences and similarities within and between multinational enterprises in the contemporary world. Topics of instruction should include infrastructure, information systems, culture, legal/political structures (to include the role and relationship of the military to other institutions), ethics/social responsibility, communications (verbal and nonverbal, such as greeting styles and gestures), negotiation styles and adaptive thinking and leadership.

"Regional studies should be an endeavor that is an exploration of cross-cultural issues with an emphasis on learning skills essential to successful cross-cultural operations. Our goal should be to increase our knowledge and understanding of the region or country coupled with a cultural sensitivity, awareness of the personal and professional challenges of working outside your home country, and becoming able to understand and effectively deal with people whose world view may be very different from your own."4

A systems approach to regional studies and the study of a group, nation or region allows for descriptive, explanatory, deductive and patterned analysis and aids a decision-maker with problems of identifying, influencing or controlling a system or parts of the system, while taking into account multiple objectives, constraints and resources.5 A systems approach will allow the military to define culture and analyze the operating environment using both social-science approaches and military doctrine. The PMSE-II system, which takes its name from the political, military, social, economic, information and infrastructure systems, provides a doctrinal approach to analysis that complements most cultural-analysis models.

Department of Language

The ARSOF Soldier is at work every day around the globe, typically facing complex issues and situations. Routinely, those ARSOF Soldiers interact face-to-face with indigenous populations, including the senior leaders of these populations, in order to resolve those same complex issues and situations. Often those Soldiers serve as the sole representative of U.S. foreign policy. What gives the ARSOF Soldier this capability? Additionally, what truly separates ARSOF from other organizations and even other special-mission units? The simple answer is that all ARSOF Soldiers can speak a foreign language.

The Department of Language designs, develops and implements meaningful, effective instructional curricula that will provide students with the means to develop measurable, demonstrable foreign-language proficiency that is scalable throughout their careers. Currently the DOL provides initial acquisition, or IA, language instruction to more than 2,000 students annually and provides oversight of the command language programs at the operational units of more than 8,500 Soldiers. Most recently, the DOL has implemented the Intermediate Language Course, or ILC, which is designed to raise IA graduates to the next level of proficiency. SWCS has the second largest language school within government, second only to the Defense Language Institute, or DLI, in Monterey, Calif.

Lately, DOL has departed from using the Defense Language Proficiency Test, or DLPT, as the measurement of exit proficiency for its students. While DLI and the majority of other language courses within DoD and the State Department still use the DLPT, their programs service the Military Intelligence community. But today's ARSOF Soldier has a unique mission set that requires immersion in the operational environment. That requires an in-depth understanding of the partner-nation culture, as well as the ability to communicate face-to-face. The DLPT measures the ability to read and listen (non-participatory) and is not the appropriate tool for measuring the proficiency required of ARSOF Soldiers. Therefore, WCS uses the two-skill Oral Proficiency Interview, or OPI, to measure student performance. The OPI measures participatory listening and speaking, which are used by ARSOF Soldiers in executing their missions.

The recent change from DLPT to OPI was significant for the language program. For the first time in SWCS history, students are being taught the language skills necessary for mission success and measured by a tool that can determine the program's effectiveness. The OPI, like the DLPT, provides a score from 0 to 3, with the higher score indicating greater proficiency. In addition to language instruction, students receive blocks of region-specific instruction. Those regional blocks, along with the basic cultural lessons inculcated through the language training, provide the ARSOF Soldier with a higher level of cultural competency than their conventional counterparts. Soldiers are also provided an academic prep week, during which they are taught learning styles, English refresher, foreign-language learning strategy and test-taking skills.

It is worth noting that language is now the first major phase of training within all three qualification courses taught at SWCS (CA, MISO and SF). In other words, before Soldiers receive any MOS-specific training, they must demonstrate the ability to speak a foreign language. That change is significant: In the recent past, all language instruction was conducted at the end of the qualification courses, giving the perception that language was an afterthought or not important. Now Soldiers are taught languages before they train, and those who cannot complete language instruction are asked to leave.

The following languages are taught within the IA program: French, Spanish, Indonesian, Thai, Tagalog, Korean, Chinese Mandarin, Russian, Urdu, Pashto, Dari, Persian Farsi and Modern Standard Arabic. The Language Department is funded to expand, if necessary, to include four additional languages; however, expansion will not begin until the operational units and theater special-operations commands establish actual requirements. The length of IA courses varies from 18 to 24 weeks, depending upon the difficulty of the language. The minimum exit proficiency for all IA language programs is 1/1, with a course goal of 1+/1+.

The top 15 percent of IA graduates are groomed to attend the ILC following their qualification courses. The ILC is designed to take students with an entry-level proficiency of 1+/1+ to a 2/2. As within the IA program, commensurate cultural instruction and region-specific information are provided in concert with the language training. ILC currently offers the following languages: Urdu, Pashto, Dari, Persian Farsi, Russian, Chinese Mandarin and the Iraqi dialect of Arabic. The courses are approximately 32 weeks long, but they may be shortened or extended, as the course is currently in pilot validation. There are plans to establish an Advanced Language Course that would take Soldiers from a 2+/2+ to a 3/3, but no work will begin on that course's design and development before 2012.

To assist SWCS in its efforts, DLI has provided the program a language training detachment, or LTD. Currently consisting of 13 personnel, the LTD assists by teaching workshops and providing curriculum review and development, diagnostic assessment for students and assistance in course design, to name only a few things. Although small, the LTD provides an additional level of professionalism to the program and fosters partnership and sharing of best practices between the two schools. In addition to providing the LTD, DLI is assisting SWCS in a massive effort to revise and update our current language materials for the IA and ILC. This ongoing project is one of the largest language curriculum-development efforts ever undertaken.

In order to address low-density languages not taught at SWCS, DOL is seeking to partner with academic institutions across the country who can assist our efforts. Initial work has begun with the University of Montana and North Carolina State University.

Although DOL is only two years old, it has made significant changes during its tenure. The true measure of any program's success can be taken only by combat application of the skills learned; however, SWCS and the DRSE are proud of DOL's accomplishments. Since the inception of the new department and changes to its program, the first-time-pass rate of the IA program has risen from approximately 60 percent to 98 percent. Language in no longer an afterthought in the training of ARSOF Soldiers; it is now a preamble to all their other training.

Department of Human Dynamics

As stated earlier, the greatest weapons system in the arsenal of the ARSOF Soldier is his mind. But is it not also true that all ARSOF Soldiers strive or desire to be exceptional athletes? Until recently, no sort of ARSOF operator-specific physical-training regime was ever designed, nor was any thought given to rehabilitation at the onset of eventual injuries. Although professional athletes have known for years about the link between physical skills and mental focus, it was never addressed in SWCS training. Now that has changed.

DHD synchronizes physical preparedness, the behavioral sciences, and meta-cognitive skills to educate special operators and equip them with the tools and understanding they will need to move confidently through ambiguous environments and accomplish the mission. DHD uses the latest in psychological assessment and feedback tools to raise students' self-awareness as a prerequisite for training, and it reinforces the process of psychological assessment and feedback with a behavior-based exercise in a field environment. All the while, DHD ensures that Soldiers understand the concepts of lifelong physical training, nutrition and sustainment of physical and mental capability. DHL's subordinate elements are: Adaptive Thinking and Leadership, or ATL; the Special Operations Center for Enhanced Performance, or SOCEP; and Tactical Human Optimization, Rapid Rehabilitation and Reconditioning, or THOR3.

ATL provides education in adaptive thinking to enable Soldiers to think outside the box. Adaptability represents an individual's ability, skills, disposition, willingness and motivation to proactively change or reactively fit different tasks and social or environmental factors toward an effective outcome. ATL training includes interpersonal adaptability, which itself includes self-awareness, awareness of others and system awareness. ATL also provides instruction in negotiation techniques, including the cultural aspects of negotiation.

SOCEP adopts the principles of sports and performance psychology to provide mental-skills training to Soldiers, family members and Army civilian employees. The traditional approach to building mental and emotional strength emphasized tough and realistic training, with the implicit expectation that mental and emotional strength would emerge as a valued byproduct. SOCEP accelerates the development of mental and emotional strength through an explicit education and training program designed to teach those underlying skills more directly.

The THOR3 program is designed to educate and train ARSOF personnel in effective techniques for improving and enhancing functional capacity, strength, agility and flexibility; for decreasing or preventing injuries of ARSOF personnel; for reducing time lost to injury by enhancing the rehabilitative process; and for accelerating rehabilitation and returning Soldiers to duty through a structured program focused on optimizing technology. THOR3 increases performance and rehabilitation in strength and conditioning, physical therapy and nutrition for the enhancement of ARSOF Soldiers, combining the expertise of sports medicine, occupational therapy, orthopedic medicine and psychiatric medicine and applying it to the well-being and fitness of the whole Soldier. The THOR3 section assists in the design of training concepts and ensures successful vertical and horizontal integration of the THOR3 program. To ensure compliance with the program throughout all elements of SWCS, the THOR3 section provides measurable benchmarks, oversight and inspections.

Although DHD is in its infancy, its impact on the ARSOF community has already been tremendous. Today, the knowledge of DHD is being written formally into all three qualification courses as well as the Senior Leaders Course and the Instructor Training Course. Operational units are asking for and being provided performance-enhancement workshops and seminars. As with other ongoing initiatives at SWCS, DHD will not realize its full potential for years to come. However, today's special operators are being equipped with a new and more powerful weapon system. The new mind-and-body weapon system will undoubtedly give the ARSOF Soldier the ability to move confidently through ambiguous environments and accomplish the mission.

Department of Education

DOE's charter is to establish a systematic process that clearly articulates the appropriate ratio of education, training and experience that will provide our force with the requisite expertise to function as master practitioners in special operations. That process should instill a sense of desire in the ARSOF Soldier to develop a life-long learning plan. It should allow ARSOF Soldiers to be professionals who are language and regional experts, show a commitment to continued education and self-improvement, and produce an ethos of always operating through or with our indigenous partners in a culturally attuned manner.

ARSOF's remarkably trained and experienced force is nevertheless undereducated. Although the operational force consists of a generation of hardened, combat-proven, officers warrant officers and NCOs, we have failed to provide them a comprehensive, holistic opportunity to harness and nurture their intellectual curiosity. In almost every case, the last SOF-specific training that our officers receive throughout their entire careers is the training they receive in the qualification course as captains. Our ARSOF courses in the NCO Education System — the Warrior Leaders Course, Advanced Leaders Course and the Senior Leaders Course — teach minimal SOF-specific tasks. We need to professionalize the force. DOE directs and manages the integration of civilian education for ARSOF students, including degree-producing programs, noncredit education programs and integrated curriculum management of existing SWCS training.

DOE's subordinate elements are the learning resource centers, or LRCs (which consist of the Marquat Memorial Library and the Special Warfare Medical Group Library), and the academic advisement section. The LRCs support SWCS in training and educating Soldiers in CA, MISO and SF by providing access to and training on relevant electronic, print and other media. The LRCs also provide informational resources for doctrine developers, researchers and others who need information on ARSOF. The major functions of the LRCs include providing support to the professional-information requirements of students, cadre and staff in SWCS and USASOC; inculcating a lifelong-learning mentality into each ARSOF Soldier and faculty member; conducting an acquisitions program for selecting and acquiring the best available electronic and nonelectronic information assets to support ARSOF training and informational requirements; providing bibliographic instruction to classes, groups or individuals; staying abreast of developments in information technology, distance learning and library operations and implementing the best of the new developments; and establishing and maintaining contact with the archival activities of other academic libraries within USASOC, the Army and other U.S. government agencies.

The academic advisement section provides full-time Army-accredited education counselors to provide program advisement to SWCS leaders and personalized education counseling for ARSOF Soldiers. It also provides strategic planning and project management for advanced education initiatives, including associates, bachelors, masters and terminal-degree programs. The section also manages the SWCS permanent professorship program.

DRSE's vision is to produce an agile, adaptive, reflective Soldier. It will develop innovative education programs, partnerships, collaboration and a data repository while providing an educated force with the intuitive abilities to work through and with our indigenous partners. We will provide the operational force and staff with the most relevant education and skills necessary as the premier SOF institution of learning.

Colonel Paul S. Burton is the director of the Directorate of Regional Studies and Education at the JFK Special Warfare Center and School. Burton's career has primarily been with the 7th Special Forces Group, where has served as operations officer, executive officer, battalion commander and deputy commander. Other positions include deputy command and command of the JSOFT Horn of Africa; commandant of the Counterinsurgency and Stability Operations Center in Iraq and deputy commander of the 1st Special Warfare Training Group. He holds a bachelor's in history and a master's from the U.S. Army War College.

Lieutenant Colonel James "Rusty" Nance is currently the chief of the Department of Language and Human Dynamics, SWCS. His past assignments include more than eight years assigned to the 7th SF Group, where he participated in three combat rotations to Afghanistan and numerous counter-narcoterrorism deployments to the U.S. Southern Command's area of responsibility.

Lieutenant Colonel David Walton has served as the department chair for regional studies and education at SWCS since June 2010. He enlisted in the Army in 1991 and was commissioned in 1993 as an Armor officer. His military education is consistent with that of a career Special Forces officer and includes a master's in security management; he begins his doctoral studies in the spring. Lieutenant Colonel Walton has served in operational and staff special-operations forces assignments at the detachment, battalion, group and task-force level. He has completed tours in Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom, as well as multiple deployments in Central and South America.


1. ARSOF CAPSTONE Concept 2010. 9 Dec 2009.
2. Anita Terauds, et al., Influence in Intercultural Interaction (Washington, D.C.: The American University, 1966), 11.
3. Robert R. Allardice, "Comments at DEOMI Culture Symposium," retrieved at
4. Colonel Maxie McFarland, "Military Cultural Education," Military Review, March-April 2005, 62-69.American Heritage Dictionary.
5. Doug McAdam, John McCarthy and Mayer Zald, eds., "Introduction: Opportunities, Mobilizing Structures and Framing Processes – Toward a Synthetic, Comparative Perspective on Social Movements," in Comparative Perspectives on Social Movements, Political Opportunities, Mobilizing Structures and Cultural Framings (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 1-20.

This issue

March-April 2011
Volume 24 | Issue 2

Special Warfare, March-April 2011

Special Warfare

Special Warfare is an authorized, official bimonthly publication of the United States Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School, Fort Bragg, N.C. Its mission is to promote the professional development of special-operations forces by providing a forum for the examination of established doctrine and new ideas.

Views expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect official Army position. This publication does not supersede any information presented in other official Army publications.