This month marks the start of the U.S. Army’s annual unconventional warfare exercise Robin Sage, which pits Special Forces recruits against simulated guerrillas for the fictional country Pineland. The exercise is so realistic and spans so much terrain that the U.S. Army has issued notices to local law enforcement agencies warning them not to mistake the exercise for a real insurrection, an error that has cost one soldier his life during a previous Robin Sage event.
Although it has come under fire in preceding years, it is somewhat concerning as to the activities could easily be the staging movements for martial law.
The Robin Sage test is conducted annually by the U.S. Department of Defense John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School (SWCS) at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. There will be 25 counties in North Carolina and three counties in South Carolina participating in this year’s Robin Sage from January 22 to February 4. The event was first held in 1974 and is the culmination exercise (CULEX) — the final exam for the Army’s Special Forces Qualification Course standing between candidates and their green berets. Earlier this week, an Army release told local media outlets in North and South Carolina that the exercise is supposed to simulate a “real-world environment of political instability characterized by armed conflict, forcing soldiers to solve problems to be prepared for these challenges.”
A special forces candidate is tasked with adapting a wide range of skills to unconventional warfare scenarios conducted in a highly complex environment under the guidance of Robin Sage. Unconventional warfare, or UW, is the use of military forces to disrupt a government, or overthrow an occupying power, rather than to destroy or disable enemy forces outright. Usually, this is accomplished by working in a hostile or contested region with guerrilla forces or clandestine assets.
The operational environment that the U.S. military has found itself in since 9/11 has largely been characterized by conflict between states and nonstate actors such as terrorists and paramilitary groups. In contrast to conventional warfare and large-scale conflicts between competing states, these types of conflicts don’t lend themselves to many of the tactical and strategic options available to conventional warfare. Therefore, SWCS uses Robin Sage to train Army special operators for unconventional warfare environments, where the operators are required to draw on their training in small-unit tactics, negotiations skills, key leader engagements, and guerrilla warfare.
Despite the fact that the Army does not divulge specific dates or locations for the various training events that make up Robin Sage, advance warnings were given to law enforcement agencies in order to prevent misidentification of participants in the exercise.
According to a SWCS news release distributed to local media outlets, residents may hear gunfire or see flares flying. Residents are assured that “controls have been put in place to ensure there is no risk to persons or property” and that the Army puts safety first.
This exercise simulates a guerrilla campaign against the forces of the United Provinces of Atlantica, a fictional island off America’s east coast. As candidates, they embed themselves with mock guerrillas waging war for the “Republic of Pineland,” a close ally of the United States. A fictional “history” book titled “Atlantica: A Concise History” by the members of the 1st Battalion, 1st Special Warfare Training Group provides a prelude to the exercise.
The most unique feature of Robin Sage is that civilian role-players are involved in the culmination exercise. The volunteer actors range from “salaried independent contractors” to “middle-aged school children,” according to a 2016 article in Special Warfare, a publication of the SWCS that calls these role-players the “heart of Robin Sage.” These civilian participants partake in public demonstrations, act out simulated mass casualty events, and serve as simulated guerrilla forces with their own leadership. Even some civilians allow the U.S. Armed Forces to use their private land for training exercises, which accounts for most of the exercise’s area. Even fake currency featuring a pine tree is available for purchase at the event.
As a former Special Forces operator, the volunteer has played roles where he has led bands of mock resistance fighters with whom Special Forces candidates have to negotiate or train. He spoke to North Carolina’s Our State magazine in 2013.
There is no doubt that working with a large group of civilian volunteers in a simulated war zone can be dangerous. As a result of past incidents in which law enforcement and civilians mistook Robin Sage participants for terrorists or combatants, providing advance warnings to law enforcement agencies has become increasingly crucial for ensuring safety.
A sheriff’s deputy in Robbins, North Carolina, pulled over two soldiers driving an unmarked car and dressed in civilian clothing during an exercise in 2002. The Green Beret candidates, believing the deputy was a participant in the exercise, attempted to disarm him with their weapons. One of the soldiers was killed and the other was injured by a sheriff’s deputy. A spokesman for the Army said at the time that it was “clear there was a breakdown in communications between the deputy sheriff and the soldiers.”
Since this incident led to confusion, the Army now requires both role-players and special forces candidates to wear distinctive armbands and hats at all times. The areas where exercises take place and any vehicles used by participants should also be clearly identified.
Despite the safety precautions and public messaging, there are still a lot of misconceptions and misinformation surrounding Robin Sage. A number of conspiracy theories about Robin Sage have been put forward since the exercise simulates Special Forces candidates working with a local insurgency (the invasion of the United Provinces of Atlantica) to overthrow an illegitimate government. The exercise is being criticized by critics as a violation of the Posse Comitatus Act, which prohibits federal military personnel from enforcing domestic policy within United States borders under most circumstances. Others argue that the exercise is a sign of possible government or military action, such as declaring martial law or occupying civilian areas. Similar concerns have been leveled at other exercises, such as Jade Helm 15 in 2015. In a press release, the White House reassured Americans that their rights and civil liberties were not being violated by Jade Helm 15 conspiracy theories.
In today’s political and security environment in the U.S., any conspiracy theories about Robin Sage may increase and can cause confusion among American citizens. The powers that be seem to be doing everything in their power to inform authorities, those who may stumble upon exercise participants, as well as those taking part in the exercise itself, about the risks involved.
In spite of conspiracy theories, Robin Sage remains one of the most effective military training exercises that prepare Army Special Forces units to handle some of the military’s most sensitive and challenging missions worldwide, including unconventional warfare, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and special reconnaissance. As part of their training to qualify for the Green Berets, soldiers must do an equally unconventional exercise in order to prepare them for what they’ll face on real-world missions.
General James Linder, former Chief of Staff of the United States Army Special Operations Command and Commanding General of Special Warfare Clearinghouse, said that the kinds of unconventional warfare scenarios trained for at Robin Sage require Green Beret candidates to navigate the “human domain” and remain some of the most important lessons candidates will learn. “You relive the scenarios and dilemmas in Robin Sage for as long as you wear that tab,” Linder told former participants in an undated after-action review. “It’s not always about the right and wrong answers. It’s about the consequences to the decisions you make. That’s Robin Sage.”