Special Forces human resources

Managing soldiers in Australia’s Special Forces presents a unique number of HR-related challenges. Craig Donaldson speaks with Major General Duncan Lewis about how recruitment, training, teamwork and leadership work within the military’s elite

Managing soldiers in Australias Special Forces presents a unique number of HR-related challenges. Craig Donaldson speaks with Major General Duncan Lewis about how recruitment, training, teamwork and leadership work within the militarys elite

There are three major regiments within Australia’s Special Forces: the Special Air Service (SAS), Commandos and the Incident Response Regiment. The SAS traditionally work in small teams of four to six soldiers, who typically engage in long-range reconnaissance and surveillance in isolated and potentially quite vulnerable conditions. Commandos operate in companies of more than 100 soldiers, and their purpose is to act as a ‘military muscle group’ and engage in specialised combat such as evacuation operations, domestic counter terrorism, strike operations and combat search and rescue. The Incident Response Regiment is a unit of Royal Australian Engineers, who are trained to identify, track and neutralise chemical, biological, radiological and large scale explosive threats, such as potential weapons of mass destruction.

Special Forces recruitment

Members of the Australian Special Forces are a different breed of solider. Traditionally drawn from the ranks of the Australian Army, they require a unique set of skills that are both innate and learned through an extensive and gruelling training regime. The innate competencies are identified through a rigorous recruitment process that was recently expanded to take in recruits from the general community, according to Major General Duncan Lewis, former commander of the SAS and current commander of Australia’s Special Forces.

Approximately 120 applicants will be accepted through the ‘Special Forces Direct Recruitment Scheme’ in 2004. Standards are high, and out of about 800 young men who applied in the first round of the scheme, only 48 were sworn in last January.

“There are only so many people in the community that are and will be suitable for Special Operation service. It’s not something for everyone,” Lewis says. “You cannot mass produce special operations soldiers. It takes a long time to produce our most competent and most highly trained people – you can’t produce a special operations soldier over night.”

Lewis doesn’t make any bones about the considerable hurdles that applicants must clear in order to make it into the Special Forces. “Quality and standards are not negotiable. We have established a standard and we will not negotiate or compromise on that standard. To do so would be to sow the seeds of our own destruction and our own undoing,” he asserts.

Special Forces competencies

Successful applicants are expected to meet a number of stringent requirements before being accepted for training in the Special Forces. Lewis says that soldiers must demonstrate qualities such as applied intelligence (the ability to apply intellect to a problem), a tough mind and body that can withstand stresses and strains for long periods of isolation and deprivation. They must also possess a relentless drive to pursue excellence.

“If an individual is hard pressed during an operation in the field, we want someone who is not only not going to fold, but who is going to perform at an even higher standard than they would perhaps normally,” Lewis says. “They’re not happy just with competence. In some ways this might be described by others, I suppose, as professional mastery. So we’re looking for professional masters who are innovative, and lateral thinkers who can apply that to achieve a desired outcome.”

Another trait that special operations soldiers must exhibit is that of being a quiet achiever. “This is not an organisation where Rambos prosper,” Lewis asserts. “If a person has all of those qualities I’ve listed, they may well be a loud, bumptious sort of individual. That is precisely not the individual that we’re looking for. We want the self-contained quiet achiever who is able to achieve extraordinary results, but still maintain a sense of balance in his life.”

Last but certainly not least, Special Forces soldiers must be motivated and committed. While motivation is difficult to measure, Lewis says soldiers who apply for the Special Forces must be dedicated to pursuing it as a career, and the individual commitment to stay on and become consummate professionals is the “absolute lifeblood” of the Special Forces.

Special Forces teamwork

Teamwork is an essential part of the Special Forces, and Lewis says this is one competency that is critical in would-be soldiers. While much of the selection process focuses on individual qualities, it also employs a number of medians that require high levels of demonstrated teamwork. “There are lots of people in the community that can operate alone, and there are lots of people who can operate as team players. But we’re looking for the kind of individual who can do both well,” he says.

This is a dynamic process in Special Forces teams, wherein members may act in a subordinate role, but also step up to the plate to lead when required. “If an individual’s competencies determine that others should defer to him in certain situations, we expect that individual to take the lead for that moment in time. Yes, there is only one leader in a small team, but we don’t expect the members of the team just to follow along blindly. They must not only be active participants, but willing to step into the role of leader if and when required.”

Lewis says that while teamwork is common in many organisations, teamwork within the Special Forces is marked by its intensity. “The stakes are a lot higher obviously for the individuals in the team. Special Forces soldiers are engaged in potentially dangerous scenarios, whether it be parachuting, diving, moving around by night in a four-wheel-drive vehicle or combat operations. They’re all potentially hazardous and you’re dependent on the other members of your team to make sure that both you and they survive the ordeal and prevail.”

Special Forces training

Once a select few applicants make it through the rigorous selection process, they face another perhaps more challenging task: Special Forces training. For recruits who have been sourced directly from the public, they are required to undergo standard initial employment training before taking up specialised training for the Special Forces. Overall training for recruits sourced from the direct recruitment scheme takes about 12 months to complete.

Training varies from regiment to regiment. Fourth Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (4 RAR) commandos joining from the regular army, for example, are first required to complete the Special Forces Entry Test, which tests for basic fitness levels and soldier skills to a high degree of proficiency. The test takes around a day and a half to complete, and if successful, applicants then undergo the Commando Training Course.

This course runs for about four and a half weeks, and covers training in areas such as fuel craft, navigation and weapons handling. This training is designed to take individuals from “being a very good soldier to being a very basic Commando”, Lewis says. Following completion of the Commando Training Course, soldiers are required to undertake a number of specialist courses, such as parachuting, urban operations and amphibious operations. This training takes soldiers through from basic through to more complex and complicated training.

“The individual must pick up mandated competencies all the way through these training courses,” says Lewis. It takes an average of around five months for soldiers to complete basic training, from the entry course level through to becoming suitable for employment in a commando company. But it doesn’t stop there, with a requirement for further training mainly in the area of leadership and training others.

When a Special Forces soldier enters active service, this presents an unusual challenge of keeping skills sharp across the board. This is something that Lewis has found “quite taxing” in recent times, given the dual challenge of conducting operations in Afghanistan and Iraq and trying to boost numbers in the Special Operations Command back home.

“It’s one of the ironies of miliary life that while a succession of operations do give soldiers wonderful experience, they actually deaden some of their training skills,” he says. “Because operations might necessarily only focus on a particular circumstance, other training skills you might keep for a rainy day are not being attended to at all. So there is this balance between managing operational tempo and trying to keep the skill base of the forces alive.”

At the present moment, most of Australia’s Special Forces are disengaged from live operations and returning to an intense training regime, Lewis says.

Special Forces leadership

Leadership plays a vital role in the Special Forces. As soldier’s lives very often depend on the quality of their leaders, the Australian Defence Force (ADF) has developed a “very fine system of training its leaders”, according to Lewis. “We give an enormous amount of time and energy to this business, and in the Special Operations world we reap the dividend that the wider Defence Force invests in training its leaders because all of our people must go through that system.”

The ADF has experimented with a number of leadership models over the years, and Lewis has found it to be an evolutionary process in defining what is both required from leaders and what is needed to prepare them for leadership.

“It doesn’t matter whether you’re in Special Operations or the business of growing roses – the qualities of leadership are enduring in any pursuit,” Lewis believes. “They enable individuals to inspire, encourage, direct, cajole and persuade other individuals to take a certain path of action. One of the things we press very hard within the Special Operations Command is when in charge; take charge. In other words don’t shirk any of your leadership responsibilities. When there is a requirement for you to step up to the plate, step up to the plate.

“The second thing we stress is to make sure that you give your subordinates enough guidance to do the job, but not so much supervision that it becomes stifling. In other words, tell people what to do, not how to do it. Give a sense of intent. There is an expression in the military called ‘Commander’s intent’, and we place great importance on that. This means that a leader should express their intent and then allow subordinates to craft the plan that will make that intent a reality.

“We use another expression called ‘directive control’, which is a similar sentiment. In directive control you give an individual a mission. You say, ‘Right, this is what I want done,’ then provide them with the resources to do it, and then step back. You monitor, of course, while the task is being done, but you’re not continuously interfering in the delivery of that outcome. We place a lot of emphasis on that as an Army-wide method by which we command,” Lewis explains.

The challenge of managing families

As soldiers in the Special Forces can be engaged in overseas operations at length, one of the very real challenges for the ADF is managing their families back home. Many soldiers have families who are impacted directly by military service, and Lewis says this is an ongoing challenge.

“We have an adage in this organisation where we recruit the soldier, but we retain the family. It’s easy enough to recruit a soldier, but it’s altogether a different thing to retain their family and have them continue to provide support during what I could describe as the most challenging of circumstances,” Lewis says.

“When an individual is away on operations for months potentially in harm’s way, there is a great sense of isolation for their family. I’ve often heard it said that it’s the families that are the real troopers; these are the people that are carrying much of the weight while the individual is away. It’s a great challenge, and mechanisms that support families are an enormously important part of the leadership function within the Australian Defence Force.”

In operations conducted over the past couple of years, for example, the ADF established a support network within each regiment to facilitate communication between families and soldiers in active service. The force also ran a series of evening briefings to ensure that families were generally aware of what the operation entailed, how long it would take and when they could expect loved ones home.

The ADF also runs a defence community organisation which is staffed with qualified social workers, educational advisors (to assist with children’s education) and removalists to assist in moving families with different postings.

The Special Forces core: people

Managing family commitments in the Special Forces is just one example of the demanding role soldiers are tasked with, and Lewis’ experience is that there are a couple of enduring facts about people in Australia’s Special Forces.

“The first thing is that people are more important than machines. Despite all of the technology and military wizardry that’s now available, people are more important than the machines. That’s one of the fundamentals that underpins our approach to managing people,” he says.

“Finally, human beings remain at the very core of what we do. They are more important in this business than anything else that we have that goes to make up the Special Operations Command.”

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