U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School: A Concise History

The lineage of the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School begins on 10 April 1952, with the activation of the Psychological Warfare (Psywar) Center at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Assigned to the Third U.S. Army, the Psywar Center absorbed all psywar-related functions and personnel previously located at Fort Riley, Kansas. The Center was first commanded by Colonel Charles H. Karlstad, a combat veteran of two World Wars, and former Chief of Staff of the Infantry Center at Fort Benning, Georgia.

Early Psywar Center missions included conducting individual training and supervising unit training for Psywar and Special Forces (SF); testing and evaluating equipment; and developing doctrine, tactics, techniques, and procedures for Psywar, SF, and unconventional warfare (UW). Assigned units were the 6th Radio Broadcasting and Leaflet Group, the Psychological Warfare Board, and 10th SF Group. On 20 October 1952, the Center added the Psychological Warfare School, consisting of Psywar and SF departments. The Army approved the Center and School’s insignia design on 28 November 1952, which is still in use today. In December 1956, the Army renamed the Psywar Center and School as the Special Warfare Center and Special Warfare School, respectively.

During the early 1960s, the Special Warfare Center and School grew in response to the massive expansion of SF and increasing U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Much of this growth occurred under the leadership of Brigadier General William P. Yarborough. The Center added counterinsurgency operations courses and created an Advanced Training Committee to develop methods of infiltration and exfiltration, such as military freefall and underwater operations. In 1964, the Center was redesignated as the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center. This was to memorialize the recently slain President, who was an avid supporter of Army Special Operations Forces (ARSOF). A year later, the Center consolidated all unit-level dive training into the SF Underwater Operations course, conducted at Key West, Florida. In May 1969, the Center was renamed the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Center for Military Assistance, and the School was renamed the U.S. Army Institute for Military Assistance.

On 15 September 1971, the U.S. Army Civil Affairs (CA) School transferred from Fort Gordon, Georgia to Fort Bragg, coming under the Center, alongside SF and Psychological Operations (PSYOP). A year later, the Center was assigned to the new U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC), becoming the Army’s proponent for ARSOF. Meanwhile, SF regrouped amid post-Vietnam War force reductions, refining its mission and how it trained. One result of this was the implementation of the Robin Sage UW exercise in 1974, which replaced earlier UW exercises such as Operation Snowdrop, Cherokee Trail, and Gobbler’s Woods.

The 1980s were a period of revitalization and transformation for ARSOF, and the Center was deeply involved in this process. In 1982, it became an independent TRADOC activity, under the name U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center. Concurrently, the Army activated 1st Special Operations Command, which assumed command of operational ARSOF units, allowing the Center to focus on special operations training and doctrine.

In 1986, the Center was re-designated once more, taking its current name of U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School (USAJFKSWCS). It reorganized into six training departments: SF; Special Operations Advanced Skills; Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE); Foreign Area Officer; CA; and PSYOP. It established a Noncommissioned Officer Academy (NCOA) in 1987, later named in honor of Master Sergeant David K. Thuma. The following year, the Center initiated a three-week Special Forces Assessment and Selection (SFAS) course to test SF candidates physically and psychologically, prior to entering the SF Qualification Course. In 1989, 1st Special Warfare Training Group was activated, initially consisting of three training battalions and one support battalion.

In June 1990, USAJFKSWCS was reassigned from TRADOC to the U.S. Army Special Operations Command (USASOC), activated on 1 December 1989 to control of all components of ARSOF, less forward deployed units. During this decade, the Special Operations Academic Facility (now Bank Hall) opened, military freefall training relocated from Fort Bragg to Yuma Proving Ground, Arizona, and foreign language training was instituted as part of CA, PSYOP, and SF qualification.

In the two decades since the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States, USAJFKSWCS expanded and evolved to meet the growing demand for ARSOF, imposed by the Global War on Terrorism. Organizational changes included the activation of the Special Warfare Medical Group (SWMG); the creation of the Special Warfare Education Group and SF Warrant Officer Institute (SFWOI); and the activation of additional battalions under 1st SWTG. Additionally, CA and PSYOP instituted their own assessment and selection courses, modeled off SFAS. In 2012, the Army designated USAJFKSWCS as the U.S. Army Special Operations Center of Excellence.

Today, USAJFKSWCS consists of the Special Warfare Center, SFWOI, NCOA, and three training groups: 1st SWTG, 2nd SWTG, and SWMG. Combined, they offer over one hundred separate courses to CA, PSYOP, SF, Allied, and Sister Service students, from assessment and selection and military occupational specialty qualification, to foreign languages, advanced skills, and leader development. After seventy years, USAJFKSWCS continues to provide the Nation with highly trained, educated, disciplined, and adaptive ARSOF Soldiers, capable of operating in a complex, multi-dimensional world.

US Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School