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Practical Martial Arts For Special Forces
by William Beaver

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How kajukenbo was adapted for use by American and Kuwait Special Forces


     When I was editor of Karate/Kung Fu Illustrated, I informally conducted a survey, asking people around the United States to send me advertisements from the yellow pages, or any other source, where someone claimed to be an instructor for the Special Forces, the Rangers, the Seals, or other elite military/law enforcement units. I was completely shocked by the response, receiving countless letters containing ads where people claimed they had taught the U.S. Special Forces in Vietnam or some other remote place. Many more instructors advertised that they had secretly taught (pick any three letters) the CIA, FBI, DEA, or the DIA.

Research for my magazine, and my own personal military experience and contacts revealed that the vast majority of these claims were of course false. The slightest contact with someone from any of these units, such as a single former SEAL joining someone's school, qualified him as a "SEAL instructor."

In 1992, the year after the liberation of the Kuwait from the Iraqi's, the entire Kuwaiti military was being rebuilt. Through a chance introduction, I met the commander of the Kuwait Special Forces, after my marriage to the daughter of a Kuwaiti ambassador brought me to Kuwait that same year. He was interested in finding a martial arts instructor for his newly reformed unit, but he wanted to avoid the tae kwon do and shotokan instructors in Kuwait. He felt that they concentrated too much on sports and competition, and more importantly, he didn't feel that the techniques worked well for the Special Forces soldier.

A fourth-degree black belt in kajukenbo at the time, I had just opened the first full-time martial arts school in Kuwait. I had also met members of the American 5th Special Forces Group, who were in country training the Kuwait Special Forces. The Americans asked me to teach them privately, which I did, and have periodically continued to do. Having served a very short time in the 11th Special Forces Group myself, I was at least knowledgable enough about the Special Operations community to adapt my street- oriented kajukenbo techniques to their particular needs.

The commander of the Kuwait Special Forces, after seeing a demonstration of my training methods and techniques, offered me a contract to teach his soldiers on a full-time basis. The concept was simple. I could train as many men as I wanted, by any means that I wanted, but I would have to get results.

I have trained in martial arts since 1978, and as a result of my tenure at Rainbow Publications, I have also learned a great deal from some of the best in the world. But the last few years have been specifically spent trying to refine and develop a means of teaching martial arts to the special forces soldier--elite troops with unique missions. This book, Practical Martial Arts For Special Forces, is the result of that experience.

What Do Special Forces Need?

The contemporary image of the Special Forces soldier is a gross misconception born mostly on film. As George Leonard pointed out in his excellent article The Warrior (Esquire, July 1986): "America has discovered a new hero...he is an elite forces man with the body of a Western bodybuilder and the mindset of an Eastern martial artist. He is Chuck Norris in Missing in Action and The Delta Force, Arnold Schwarzenegger in Commando, and Fred Ward in Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins. Above all, he is Sylvester Stallone in Rambo: First Blood, Part II."

Although the name "Special Forces" is found in the Army, there are also elite units in most other military branches and even some federal agencies. In 1987, Congress formally authorized the formation of the United States Special Operations Command. The term "Special Forces" now carries considerable baggage, usually meaning a soldier or perhaps Federal agent, whose mission and training are elite and highly specialized. Generally speaking, the media has added the larger, more mysterious cloak and dagger elements to the Special Forces myth.

As Leonard made clear in his article, and as any person who has worked with authentic Special Forces knows, these elite soldiers are above all else, expert learners. They know what specific skills their mission requires them to master. This self- knowledge is where the foremost problem with teaching martial arts to Special Forces begins.

The majority of people trying to instruct elite troops in martial arts usually don't have an appreciation for their true needs. What normally happens is that someone is given the chance to teach the members of an elite unit, but fails to adapt the training to their particular mission, mainly because he doesn't know what their mission is. Instead he draws the soldiers into his world of martial arts, utilizing some section of his skills which he thinks might work for them.

Although a martial arts instructor may be an excellent teacher, his training will entirely miss the point unless it specifically addresses the elite unit mission. For the past several years, I have been living and working in Kuwait, which has included teaching techniques from the kajukenbo system to the Kuwait Special Forces. The soldiers trained have also periodically been A-team members from the American 5th Special Forces Group, assigned to Kuwait. Through this experience, I was forced to radically alter my view of what works for Special Forces.

What then are the needs of the Special Forces soldier?

One of the first commando instructors to address this specific question was William Ewart Fairbairn, an British army officer who invented the Fairbairn-Sykes double-edged fighting knife with his partner, Major William Sykes. Both had served for many years on the Shanghai Police before being recruited to train members of the Royal Commandos, as well as agents from the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and Special Operations Executive (SOE) during World War Two.

Fairbairn's training was remembered by U.S. Army major general John K. Singlaub, in his memoirs, Hazardous Duty (Summit Books, 1991):

"The Major's [Fairbairn's] fighting credo was simple: A well-trained man had nothing to fear from close combat. Rather, if this man was properly armed, all nearby adversaries had everything to fear. We would become so proficient with a variety of Allied and enemy weapons over the coming months, he promised, that using them would become instinctive."

Although in this case Fairbairn was talking about learning to use weapons, including his fighting knife, he also demanded proficiency in unarmed fighting skills. Why did Fairbairn consider martial arts training be so important for Special Forces?

Another of Fairbairn's students, George Langelaan, provides the answer in his classic book, now long out of print, about the Special Operations Executive, No Colours Or Crest, (Panther, 1961):

"[Fairbairn] gave us more and more self-confidence which gradually grew into a sense of physical power and superiority that few men ever acquire. By the time we finished our training, I would have willingly enough tackled any man, whatever his strength, size, or ability. He taught us to face the possibility of a fight without the slightest tremor of apprehension, a state of mind, which very few professional boxers ever enjoy and which so often means more than half the battle. Strange as this may seem, it is understandable when a man knows for certain that he can hurt, maul, injure, or even kill with the greatest of ease, and that during every split second of a fight, he has not one but a dozen different openings, different possibilities to choose from."

There are the reasons, simple and easy to understand. A special forces trooper faces personal combat with the clearest of alternatives: either he dies or I do.

Special Forces Requirement One

One of the primary reasons, then, for training elite troops in martial arts, is to give them a decided mental and physical edge. The actual techniques themselves will most likely not even be used. The modern elite soldier is heavily armed with a vast array of weapons, specific to his mission. Sometimes he will engage the enemy only as a last alternative, especially if his mission is to gather intelligence without leaving any trace of him having been there.

The SF soldier will use martial arts only as a last resort, when all his other weapons fail, or when he has no other weapons, for example, during an escape and evasion attempt.

If martial arts are his weapon to be used in a situation like trying to escape and evade, then the techniques taught to him must take into account his probable physical condition: hungry and nearing exhaustion. He cannot rely on techniques which require considerable strenuous activity. They must be quick, easy, and efficient.

Special Forces Requirement Two

Martial arts training for elite soldiers must be mission- specific, which generally means causing disabilitating injury or death. The soldier who will use martial arts in an escape and evasion situation, or whose other weapons have failed, will have no need of restraining techniques. If he must fight, he will not capture the enemy, he will kill him. Fairbairn addressed this issue in his excellent book Get Tough: How To Win In Hand-To-Hand Fighting (Paladin Press, 1979):

"There are some who will be shocked by the methods advocated here. To them I say 'In war you cannot afford the luxury of squeamishness. Either you kill or capture, or you will be captured or killed. We've got to be tough to win, and we've got to be ruthless--tougher and more ruthless than our enemies'."

The Special Forces soldier will have no problem learning to kill because they've already mastered the most important aspect of combat: they do not personalize the enemy. They do not see faces. What they see, and what you must teach them to observe, is a target, or in the case of hand-to-hand combat, a collection of vital target points.

Special Forces Requirement Three

The training mostly likely will be given in a very short period, often six weeks or less, therefore the techniques must be limited and flexible. Once the instructor understands the mission of the soldier he is training, the techniques chosen can be tailored for maximum adaptability.

One example of how to limit techniques can be found in the physical appearance of the men I train daily. Without exception, they all wear very short hair, so we waste no time on techniques where the soldier's hair is grabbed.

I also choose techniques which can be used against more than one kind of attack (more fully discussed in Section One). For example, the techniques for countering a common barroom round punch can also be used against someone using the same motion while swinging a club or pipe. The soldier doesn't memorize specific techniques, but instead learns to react to general motions: the rounded motion, an overhead strike, and so on.

Special Forces Requirement Four

The martial arts techniques chosen should require no changes to the body, such as significantly improved flexibility. You must start where the soldier already is. If you have only six weeks to train a group of soldiers, then certain physical skills like rolling and falling will improve. But altering the body should not be a prerequisite for the skills to be learned. This means that techniques like high tae kwon do kicks are inappropriate for the Special Forces soldier. Please note that I said "high" kicks, not tae kwon do kicks in general.

Although other instructors might say that improved flexibility will happen as a result of the training, maintaining skills with the techniques should not require maintaining the flexibility. The physical training demands placed on the Special Forces soldier may indeed include some flexibility work, but often do not, therefore his technique arsenal should not require it for effectiveness.

Special Forces Requirement Five

Martial arts techniques must be maintainable with a minimum of effort and time. The typical special forces soldier spends the majority of his time either keeping his own skills polished, or teaching his skills to others. Consider the list of skills needed by Special Forces soldiers who were taught aikido by George Leonard (The Warrior, Esquire, 1986):

"They were Green Berets, members of the U.S. Army Special Forces, who had volunteered for an experimental six-month course in advanced mind-body training run by a Seattle-based organization called Sportsmind. Most of them had gone through Army Ranger training. All were skilled in hand-to-hand combat and the use of various weapons, parachuting, scuba diving, rock climbing, skiing, escape and evasion, and other specialized military skills, some of them classified. The experimental training program, designed to add a psychophysical component to an already rigorous schedule of military training, included daily aikido training aimed at integrating the physical and mental."

Even though the U.S. Army had provided the men for the Sportsmind program, their military skills, as the priority, still had to be kept fresh. Most Special Forces programs will be the same, with martial arts training being only one small course in a buffet of skills. The techniques chosen must be ones which can be maintained without taking considerable amounts of time, and are ideal if they can be included as part of the unit's regular physical training program.

This book covers the general areas of training through which I take the Special Forces soldier during a six-week training course, lasting two hours each day. The soldier learns techniques in empty-hand fighting, groundfighting, grabs, gun and knife techniques, and improvised weapons. For a Special Forces soldier to learn these skills in such a short period of time, I also include considerable numbers of drills for training in each area.

This book is not intended as a complete manual of martial arts techniques for special forces soldiers, but rather a means of classification, a way to help them learn and to aid the instructor of elite troops in choosing the most crucial techniques from any particular style. Given the general guidelines and strategies in this book, it follows that almost any martial arts style could, in theory, be adopted for special forces use.

In a streetfight situation, protecting yourself requires a certain degree of attention to the law, since going too far can turn you into the defendant instead of the defender. Special Forces generally do not concern themselves with such complexities. For them, the rules of war never change. Either the enemy dies or they do, and their best chance of staying alive begins with their training.


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Copyright 1997
MidAmerica-Gulf Publishing Company
Kuwait City, Kuwait