Competition. It is a word that automatically resonates with virtually every member of the special operations forces (SOF) community worldwide. Just to become a member of a credible SOF unit requires a personal competition against the toughest selection, qualification, and training standards a particular country has for its professional military personnel. One only needs to listen to the stories of how Army Rangers, Special Forces (SF – the “Green Berets”), and Navy SEALs are made and trained to know that there is always competition – against oneself, standards, and each other – in the SOF world. So it makes sense that someone would eventually create a SOF competition so that the different special operations communities for a particular region or even the world could see how they measured up against the “best of the best” in their particular profession. Run by U.S. Southern Command’s (SOUTHCOM) Special Operations Command South (SOCSOUTH), that competition is Fuerzas Comando.
When Fuerzas Comando was first created and run in 2004, only 12 countries participated. However, by 2009, that number had expanded to 23 countries and had more than 400 military, police, and civilian personnel participating, with an end goal of earning the title of best SOF team in the Western Hemisphere.
Fuerzas Comando is a competition for the special warfare forces of the United States and its Western Hemisphere allies, especially in Latin America. Usually lasting just over a week, Fuerzas Comando provides a competitive venue and opportunity for international SOF units to showcase their capabilities and skills, as well as an opportunity to build relationships and share ideas. It is exactly the kind of opportunity to build international partner capability and capacity discussed by then-U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) Commander Adm. William McRaven in his “Global SOF Network” concept, and President Barack Obama in his 2014 commencement speech at West Point. By bringing together the SOF units of more than two dozen countries extending from the Great White North of Canada to Tierra del Fuego, Fuerzas Comando is helping make the SOF communities of the Western Hemisphere into an interlocking tribe of families.
Fuerzas Comando – Origins and Events
As designed, Fuerzas Comando is an eight-day event comprising two components: a military skills exercise competition, and a Countering Terrorism Fellowship Program (CTFP). It is designed to test, train, and demonstrate the skills of military and police SOF units of the Western Hemisphere, and has been closely watched by other Combatant Commands and Theater Special Operations Commands (TSOCs). SOCSOUTH, the SOUTHCOM TSOC, serves as the U.S. execution agent for the exercise.
When Fuerzas Comando was first created and run in 2004, only 12 countries participated. However, by 2009, that number had expanded to 23 countries and had more than 400 military, police, and civilian personnel participating, with an end goal of earning the title of best SOF team in the Western Hemisphere. In 2015, that number will rise to 27, and is a genuine metric of the effectiveness of both SOUTHCOM and SOCSOUTH in their engagement within the area of responsibility (AOR) over the past several decades. In the quarter century since the end of the Cold War, most of Latin America now looks at the United States as a genuine partner in the region. Furthermore, with the single exception of Venezuela, most countries view the United States as a leader to resolve conflict, as well as a key partner in responding to humanitarian crises and the results of natural disasters. Therefore, both SOUTHCOM and SOCSOUTH like to point to Fuerzas Comando as an example of positive American engagement with Latin America.
As might be imagined with a competition focused on core SOF skills, the eight days of the event comprise a series of physically and mentally grueling, intensive challenges in areas such as weapons usage, aquatic skills, and tactical capabilities. The two major competitions are the Assault Team Competition and the Sniper Team Competition, with each participating nation sending a judge, a five-person special operations assault team, and a two-man sniper team to compete. As an aside, one of the key ingredients to the success of a Fuerzas Comando competition is that the host nation has to make sure that the venue has the necessary kinds of terrain (rivers, lakes, cliff faces for rappelling, etc.) and facilities (helicopter landing zones, obstacle courses, weapons ranges).
Good planning and a proper venue make Fuerzas Comando a genuine challenge for the participants. SOF aviation units, including the resources of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR) and Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC), allow Fuerzas Comando participants to closely replicate real-world combat conditions, especially “fast roping” and rapid launch and recovery of personnel, vehicles, and rubber boats. The Assault Team Competition consists of a physical fitness test; confidence course; close quarters combat; a rucksack march; a water event; and an obstacle course. The sniper team competition, always a matter of pride with every nation, consists of a physical fitness test; marksmanship; shoot and move; range estimation; and stalk and shoot events. It often comes down to a tense final round of shooting, with only one or two shots separating the top teams. This is a serious competition, with bragging rights and reputations on the line. And while the United States won a number of the early competitions, America is by no means a “sure thing” in 2015.