Research Brief

Special Operations Forces (SOF) represent some of the nation's most elite forces, including Army Special Forces (Green Berets) and Rangers, Navy SEALs, and Air Force Combat Control Teams (CCTs) and Pararescue Jumpers (PJs). Members of these highly trained units give the nation an important military capability, particularly in the post-Cold War era when the services must carry out a host of nontraditional missions. SOF perform a wide range of activities in diverse settings. On any given day, they are operating in 50 countries. Thus, it was a matter of concern in Congress to note a "significant underrepresentation" of minorities in these important units. A group of researchers from RAND's National Defense Research Institute led by Margaret C. Harrell and Sheila Nataraj Kirby assessed the minority representation in these five types of units with an eye to answering two questions: Are minorities underrepresented and, if so, are there barriers that hinder them from joining SOF? They discovered that

  • Minorities are indeed underrepresented, even in comparison with the more restricted populations that SOF recruit from,
  • Barriers such as swimming requirements, test scores, and an absence of role models make it difficult for SOF units to attract minorities, and
  • The Army and Navy have programs to remove these barriers.

Are Minorities Underrepresented?

The central question in gauging underrepresentation is always what the basis of comparison should be. A simple comparison between SOF and the services is apt to mislead, because SOF do not draw recruits from all parts of the services. For example, they typically fill their ranks with those holding combat rather than administrative skills. To gain a more meaningful insight into minority representation, Harrell and Kirby compared SOF minority representation with their source populations, that is, the populations from which SOF units recruit. They constructed the source population by applying a variety of criteria, including age, grade, and test cutoff scores to the male service populations.[1]

Furthermore, because SOF impose some stringent selection criteria such as swimming 500 yards in less than 13 minutes, the researchers created a third comparison group—the eligible population—by adjusting the same population for the proportion of nonswimmers and those lacking clean discipline records.

Figure 1. SOF Officer Representation Compared with Source Population

Their analysis shows that minority officers are underrepresented when compared with either the source or eligible population. Figure 1 compares the SOF organizations with their source populations in the three services, typically officers in grades O1 to O3. Army Rangers are compared with combat arms (CA) officers, reflecting the high proportion of combat arms billets in these units. Across the board, minority officers are underrepresented. Making the comparison with the eligible populations improves things only somewhat.

Figure 2. SOF Enlisted Population Compared with Source and Eligible Populations

The picture becomes more complex when considering the enlisted force. As Figure 2 shows, blacks are underrepresented when compared with either source or eligible populations. However, Hispanics and other races are well represented in some instances. For example, they have larger representation in Army Special Forces than they do in the eligible population. Other minorities have higher representation in Army Special Forces than in either the source or eligible populations.

What Barriers Exist?

Given that minorities are underrepresented, what causes it? Harrell and Kirby identified two types of barriers to SOF entry for minorities: structural and perceptual. Structural barriers are erected by such things as entry prerequisites (e.g., test score cutoffs) and training and assessment requirements. Perceptual barriers include perceptions, attitudes, or beliefs that lead minorities to conclude that they cannot or should not join SOF. The researchers identified the perceptual barriers through extensive interviews with focus groups containing representatives from all relevant groups (officer, enlisted; SOF, non-SOF).

Structural barriers that are more likely to eliminate minorities than white recruits include test cutoff scores, requirements for clean discipline records, swimming requirements, and the land navigation component of training. These barriers manifest themselves in lower graduation rates. For example, enlisted blacks and Hispanics graduate from Army Special Forces classes at a rate that is 6-10 percent lower than that of whites. Black and Hispanic officers and enlisted also graduate from Army Ranger training at lower rates than whites (almost 10 percent lower for black officer and enlisted, and somewhat smaller but still significantly lower percentages for Hispanics).

Perceptual barriers include a lack of individual knowledge about and community support for SOF careers among minority groups, a lack of identification with SOF caused by a sense of racial isolation, perceived racism in selected SOF units, and a lack of interest in SOF caused by a preference for occupations with a greater degree of civilian job transferability. Because minority groups may not have a tradition of serving in SOF, potential recruits are unlikely to know as much about SOF or to have role models or relatives who encourage them in SOF careers. Also, lack of minorities tends to be self-perpetuating: minorities do not join because they do not want to be the only minority in the unit. Furthermore, some SOF organizations are perceived to have racist tendencies. In part, these perceptions stem from well-publicized incidents that simply occurred in the same geographical area where these units are stationed. And, finally, many minorities join the military to gain a skill that will translate well into the civilian workforce. SOF assignments, with their heavy emphasis on combat skills, are less likely to do that.

What Can the Services Do and How Well Are They Doing It?

Some of these barriers, particularly the perceptual ones, are difficult to break down. However, the services can do a number of things to mitigate if not eliminate them. Indeed, the Army and Navy have a variety of programs under way to increase the numbers of minorities among their SOF. The services can have the greatest effect on the institutional barriers, since these result from service practices or policies. As a first step, they can ensure that the prerequisites and training requirements are valid in light of the missions. Some of the service differences in entry requirements—swimming for instance—suggest that the requirements may be more stringent than they need to be and thus may be inadvertently screening out minorities. However, Harrell and Kirby report near unanimous opinion that valid requirements, even if demanding, should be retained. The researchers also recommend that the services support youth organizations such as swimming and water polo teams, particularly in minority communities—a step that will have the benefits of providing better prepared candidates and of increasing the awareness of SOF. The services should also review their entry requirements. For example, they currently use the score on the General Technical portion of the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test as one screening criterion; other components may predict performance equally well but include more minorities. The Air Force, which does not keep graduation data by race or ethnicity, should begin collecting such data to ensure it does not have a representation problem.

Removing perceptual barriers is more challenging and takes longer. However, Harrell and Kirby offer several suggestions, many of which pertain to the recruiting effort. Recruiters could do with more education about SOF requirements and missions. This information should also be made available to recruits early in their enlistment, even Army recruits who will not become eligible to join SOF for several years. Career decisions, once made, are difficult to reverse. Promotional efforts such as the Navy's shipboard visits and high-profile parachute teams can be effective. The latter should be targeted toward minority communities. The services should consider depicting minority members in the SOF recruiting material, and recruiter teams, staffed by minority representatives, should visit minority high schools. The Army and Navy have a number of programs (e.g., swimming assistance) that yield relatively modest results in terms of minorities recruited to SOF; however, these have value beyond the numbers recruited and should be continued because the addition of even a few minorities can go a long way toward altering perceptions. Finally, the services should determine whether a basis for the perceived racism of SOF units exists, looking across diverse locations and at behavior in both the workplace and in social situations.

Given the importance of SOF units to the nation's post-Cold War national security strategy and that these units are operating and will continue to operate among diverse cultures around the world, racial/ethnic diversity and the language skills and cultural awareness it brings with it will be important to accomplishing SOF missions.


  • [1] The combat exclusion rule precludes females from joining SOF.

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