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Allied Special Operations Forces

International SOF Year in Review

Allied special operations forces (SOFs), principally American and British, are now experiencing their longest continuous commitment since the creation of the SOF concept during World War II. Some have been deployed in Afghanistan since October 2001, when the first units were inserted into Taliban territory to eliminate al Qaeda bases and training camps, and eight years later the conflict is as challenging as ever, but has undergone some remarkable changes.

SOFs operations conducted during 2009 were marked by the extraordinary success achieved in Iraq with the formation of the world’s largest SOF, and the continuing and growing allied SOF presence in Afghanistan. In Iraq, with an intention to withdraw half the current American strength during 2010, the plan is to leave a core of SOF troops to fill the vacuum. This strategy requires a very significant investment in personnel and equipment, especially as traditionally, SOF units are always highly dependent on conventional forces for support, including ever-important helicopter transport. Put simply, if special operations forces are to bridge the gap that will be the natural consequence of honoring the withdrawal timetable, the expansion currently under way will continue, and probably extend to the required logistical support.


In response to first the Iraqi and then the Afghan insurgencies, U.S. special operations forces now comprise some 54,000 personnel, including active duty, reserves, and support staff, spread across the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines, under the unified Special Operations Command (SOCOM) at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla. Subordinate to SOCOM is the secretive Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) at Pope Air Force Base, N.C., headed by Vice Adm. William H. McRaven, U.S. Navy, who is responsible for planning specialist counterterrorism missions for the U.S. military’s array of “Special Mission Units.”

While the scale of the change and the greater burden borne by SOF units in preference to conventional forces may not be immediately obvious, SOCOM’s budget reveals the underlying facts, with a budget request in 2009 for $8.647 billion: an annual $5.9 billion plus $2.7 billion for overseas contingencies. Included in these figures is a projected growth of 2,349 military and civilian personnel, allocated as 1,048 extra for SOCOM; 791 extra for the Air Force Special Operations Command; 157 for the Naval Special Warfare Command; 163 for Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command; an extra 62 for JSOC; and a further 139 for the various theater SOF component commands. Indeed, the House Armed Services Committee authorized a total budget of $9 billion, an increase of $308 million, to support SOCOM’s counterterrorism operations, assistance to foreign forces, such as participation in a new North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Special Operations Coordination Center, and in a planned Irregular Warfare Support Program.

Iraqi Special Operations Forces soldiers set a perimeter after fast-roping from a U.S. Navy HH-60H Seahawk helicopter at Forward Operating Base Gabe in Baquba, Iraq, April 27, 2010. U.S. special operations forces members and sailors with Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) 84 provided fast rope insertion training to the Iraqis. Iraqi SOF strength has grown to more than 4,500 troops ready to respond where force is required.U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist David Rush.

U.S. Army SOF benefited from a dramatic escalation in number, and the 95th Civil Affairs Brigade (Airborne) increasing in size from one to four battalions, reflecting the need to develop civil administration in local government within operational theaters. Similarly, the major development in 2009 for AFSOC, which includes some 13,000 active and reserve personnel equipped with more than 250 planes, helicopters, and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and is based at Hurlburt Field, Fla., was establishment of a CV-22 Osprey squadron, with six aircraft and nine crews, which replaced the MH-53 Pave Low helicopters. The plan is to acquire 50 of the innovative tilt-rotor aircraft over the next four years and phase out the obsolete AC-130U gunships by introducing a modified version of the C-130J cargo planes. However, the real expansion, based on operational experience, has been in the deployment of MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper UAVs that had proved not only effective, but absolutely essential in the field, mainly in a covert reconnaissance role.

The U.S. Navy’s SOF have also undergone a transformation, with some 5,400 active-duty personnel, including 2,450 SEALs, 600 Special Warfare Combatant-Craft Crewmen (SWCC), and a 1,200-strong Reserve component of 325 SEALs, 125 SWCC, and 775 support staff, mainly based at the Naval Special Warfare Command at the Naval Base Coronado in San Diego, Calif. The SEALs are deployed in Naval Special Warfare Groups (NSWG), of which NSWG-1, NSWG-3, and NSWG-11 are stationed permanently at Coronado and Little Creek, Va. Also in recent years, the U.S. Marine Corps has developed its own SOF capability, Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command (MARSOC) at Camp Lejeune, N.C., and at Camp Pendleton, Calif. The MARSOC headquarters also accommodates the Marine Special Operations School.


Just as American SOF units have undergone a necessary expansion, much the same has happened with the United Kingdom special operations, albeit proportionately on a much smaller scale. 2009 saw the Special Air Service Regiment (SAS) and the Special Boat Squadron (SBS) withdrawn entirely from Iraq and now heavily deployed into Afghanistan. These two elite units have been supported by the new Special Reconnaissance Regiment (SRR), a “Tier-2” SOF unit trained at the SAS’s Credenhill, which supplies surveillance expertise, including the country’s only SOF female personnel. Unlike the SAS, which rotates self-contained sabre squadrons in and out of theaters, the SRR consists of specialist subsections, which are attached to individual Task Forces to perform specialist functions. This is a departure from conventional SAS deployments, but the need to detach liaison personnel has reduced the size of SAS squadrons, which consequently have been reinforced by temporary placements, usually from the SBS.

Another entirely new organization is the Special Forces Support Group (SFSG), which has drawn volunteers from the 1st Battalion Parachute (Para) Regiment, the Royal Marine (RM) Commandos, and the Royal Air Force (RAF) Regiment. The SFSG, now based at St. Athan in South Wales, fulfills much the same role, offering perimeter security for deployed SAS/SBS units, and working alongside them in larger operations, just as 1 Para did traditionally. However, the establishment of SFSG has greatly expanded Britain’s SOF capabilities. In 2000, it was 1 Para that made the diversionary attack on a rebel encampment in Sierra Leone during Operation Barras, including the rescue by the SAS of a captured British patrol. The SFSG’s structure mirrors that of the SAS, with four strike companies of 120 men each, one headquarters company, and one support company equipped with mortars and Javelin antitank missiles. In addition, the SFSG has received specialist elements from the Royal Corps of Signals and the RAF.

As well as attaching a company to both the SAS and the SBS, the SFSG provides cover for domestic counterterrorism, duties usually undertaken on rotation by an SAS sabre squadron, and thereby frees up hard-pressed SAS personnel for other contingencies. The SFSG has slightly lowered entry criteria, requiring Paras to have served only two, not three, years in their regular battalions. SFSG has also shouldered responsibility for liaison with the civil authorities over the training-intensive but more remote contingency planning for domestic terrorist attacks using chemical, biological, nuclear, and radiological weapons. By taking on this function, more SAS troops are now available for deployed operations in Afghanistan.

Similarly, the RM Commando component on attachment to the SFSG has reduced the Royal Navy’s fleet protection and the strength devoted to maritime counterterrorism in the North Sea. With the British withdrawal from Basra, Iraq, and a greater concentration on operations in land-locked Afghanistan, the pressure on the Navy has been reduced, thereby allowing the commandos to contribute more to the SFSG. The RAF’s participation consists of some light infantry and forward air controllers to supply tactical air support, along with combat search and rescue functions using Merlin helicopters of E Flight, 28 (AC) Squadron.


One of the keys to the coalition’s strategy of withdrawal, at least from Iraq’s urban centers, is the retention of quick-response U.S. SOF ready to assist the Baghdad government in the event of a major insurrection or disorder. However, in any circumstances requiring force, the primary kinetic reaction will come from the nine battalions of Iraqi SOF (ISOF), with the  strength of some 4,564 operating from four regional commando bases. Training initially in Jordan before the 2003 invasion, ISOF has grown rapidly and is intended to double in size again within two years, producing an elite force with neither sectarian nor tribal loyalties and answerable to neither the army nor the police, but to a Counter Terrorism Bureau under the prime minister’s direct control. Although nominally independent, ISOF is widely regarded as a branch of U.S. SOF-trained, directed, and equipped by American personnel drawn from Task Force 17. Composed of Green Beret “A-Teams” (also known as Operational Detachments-Alpha), the U.S. SF mentors worked closely with the Iraqi National Intelligence Service SF unit and Ministry of Interior commandos. These also act as advisors, who plan operations, select tactics, and liaise with the various coalition forces. According to Gen. Simeon Trombitas, commander of the Iraq National Counter-Terror Force Transition Team, U.S. SOF will “… have advisors at every level of the chain of command …” long after ISOF has been handed over to Baghdad’s control.

Colombian Army Special Forces insert into Tolemaida Air Base, Colombia during a technical demonstration for Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates and Colombian Minister of Defense Dr. Juan Manuel Santos during Gate’s trip to Latin America, Oct. 3, 2007. After their successes against FARC in Colombia, they are now gaining a formidable reputation in Afghanistan. DOD photo by Tech Sgt. Jerry Morrison.

At the heart of the withdrawal from Iraq has been Operation Crichton, spearheaded by an SAS squadron based in Baghdad, originally known as Task Force Black. The last elements of this group, which rarely exceeded 150 personnel, left Baghdad on May 30, 2009, having killed around 350 to 400 insurgents and captured a further 3,200. This was an extraordinary record, considering JSOC’s estimate of a total for their U.S. counterparts of 11,000 to 12,000 suspects neutralized, of whom around 3,000 may have been killed. When the history of the Iraqi conflict is finally written some decades from now, the contribution of U.S. and U.K. SOF forces will finally be understood, appreciated, and valued for its critical place in the allied strategy.


The narrowing focus of worldwide SOF operations during 2009 has been in Afghanistan, with a concentration on the identification and elimination of al Qaeda and the Taliban through the deployment of Task Force 88 (TF-88), the renamed TF-145. The present commander of NATO forces, who has been in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McCrystal, U.S. Army, was formerly in command of JSOC forces in Iraq and widely credited with having decapitated and broken al Qaeda in that country. McCrystal has a clear understanding about how SOF should be utilized in the disputed regions of Southwest Asia, and is especially enthusiastic about the contributions made by the SAS and SBS thus far. In the first week of October 2009, he attended a church service at Hereford Cathedral with the SAS, and then spoke at a formal dinner attended by 360 senior officers and non-commissioned officers held in the sergeants’ mess at Credenhill. His audience included the commander of a U.S. Army SMU, and several other American SOF commands, in addition to his British hosts. McCrystal recalled that when A Squadron undertook a six-month tour in 2007 as Task Force Knight, it was engaged in 175 individual operations in 180 days. This is an amazing operations tempo, which may never be exceeded in future SAS operations, although only time and history will tell.

TF-88, the U.S.-led inter-allied SOF Group, includes one SAS Sabre Squadron and one SFSG company, along with additional elements from the SRR. As such, it acts on intelligence and either mounts large-scale raids, backed by a quick reaction force to prevent ambushes and counter-attacks, or inserts sniper teams to eliminate designated targets that cannot be reached quickly by other preferred methods of intervention, such as UAV strikes. By February 2009, the combined U.S. and U.K. special operations forces were achieving impressive results, albeit at a cost of civilian collateral damage that led to JSOC imposing a brief pause in activity, lasting two weeks, in response to political concerns expressed by the Kabul government and an independent report on an apparent rise in civilian deaths. These anxieties led to a tightening of the rules of engagement, the details of which remain classified, at the end of December 2008.

The increase in Afghan civilian casualties was the not entirely avoidable consequence firstly of the characteristically aggressive SOF tactics, then the surge of additional troops sent to the theater in June 2009. This included the unleashing of Colombian SOF units on the Taliban. Trained for more than a decade by U.S. Green Berets and a British SAS cadre, Colombian SOF acquired a ruthless reputation as soldiers who took on the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) drug-financed warlords and recovered almost all of the territory formerly under rebel control. As a model of nation-building, Colombia is a success story, and at the heart of what has been accomplished is its elite SOF units, credited by the United Nations with having cut the country’s cocaine production by 28 percent last year alone. While the Taliban have come to respect and fear coalition SOF units, the arrival of the Colombians in their first overseas commitment has had a profound impact on the insurgents.

However, balanced against these controversies were some significant gains and kinetic attacks launched from the British Camp Bastion and the U.S. Marine Camp Leatherneck during a campaign intended to decapitate the Taliban in Marjah, an opium and bomb-making center considered the last town in Helmand province to be wholly under the enemy’s control. Code-named Operation Moshtarak (“Together”), the objective was to clear enemy forces from the province and then hold the captured ground, creating an environment safe for civil reconstruction and central government administration. This second-phase activity, which includes building schools, manning clinics, and constructing bridges, is perceived as a vital element in developing local confidence and offering the opportunity to exercise security through helicopter-vehicle interdictions. These include mounting temporary, intelligence-led roadside checkpoints to search for suspects while they are on the move. These tactics remove the predictability of patroling from static bases, and are intended to reduce the vulnerability of coalition personnel to the roadside improvised explosive devices that have proved so deadly in recent years.

Sadly, the 2009 level of casualties suffered by U.K. SOF units is unsustainable and continues to escalate because of the nature of their assignment. Countermeasures such as the EBEX and the Vallon VMH3CS mine detectors have been introduced, but in insufficient quantities to offer comprehensive protection for the unarmored vehicles upon which many soldiers rely for transportation and logistics support. Lacking confidence in conventional transport, greater demands have fallen on the helicopters, some of which, such the U.S. A/MH-6 Little Bird, are proving as vulnerable as the U.K. Pumas.

Afghan National Security and International Security Assistance Forces rest during an early morning dismounted patrol supporting Operation Moshtarak in Badula Qulp, Helmand province, Afghanistan, Feb. 19, 2010. The operation’s “clear and hold” objectives are a step forward in strategy in Afghanistan. U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Efren Lopez.

The disadvantage of this shift in strategy is the obvious additional demand for helicopter lift that has been under severe pressure since the British government backed off funding Operation Emperor, a counter-narcotics mentoring operation designed to enhance Afghan efforts to crack down on drug smuggling. Backed by the SBS, the operation was dependent on four former Soviet MiL-8 Hip gunships flown by the RAF 7 Squadron Special Duties aircrew. However, to save just £2 million, the British Foreign Office ceased funding for a project in Afghanistan that in June 2009 seized a record 262 tons of cannabis in Kandahar province alone.

With the shift from Iraq to Afghanistan, renewed political support for the conflict from the White House, and the mentoring program enhancing Baghdad’s own internal forces, the fulcrum has become Taliban-held territory outside Kabul. Operations such as Moshtarak and Emperor are intended to seize and hold ground previously regarded as home turf by the Taliban, but whether they will amount to a sufficiently decisive offensive to justify using “the V-word” (Victory!) remains in the balance. But by challenging the Taliban that remain as a military force, 2009 will be remembered as a year in which there was more than just a token handover of their country to the Iraqis, an achievement accomplished in large measure by special operations forces. 2009 was dynamic and kinetic, and must be seen as the beginning of the end of the present series of wars that began in 2001.

This level of activity remained standard last year, with TF-88 operating from the tactical headquarters in Kandahar and commanded by an SBS officer. But these operations have generated an inevitable rate of attrition that is impossible to sustain over the long term. Through the end of 2009, British SOF units had suffered a total of 12 dead and 70 seriously wounded in Afghanistan. This bleak “butcher’s bill” has included three from the SBS, an SAS officer, three 23 SAS reservists killed by a roadside bomb in June 2008 while in an uprotected “Snatch” Land Rover, one member of the SRR, and four members of the SFSG. When added to the previous toll from Iraq, where seven members of the SAS and one from SBS were killed, along with more than 30 members of the SAS suffering crippling injuries, these grim statistics amount to a sixth of the SAS’ total strength. This is the price of putting the finest onto the front lines of the War on Terrorism and leaving them for most of the last decade.


While the attention of much of the world’s SOF units has been focused onto Southwest Asia, there were many other incidents of note in 2009. Along with the spectacular rescue of Capt. Richard Phillips of the Maersk Alabama from Somali pirates in April 2009, maritime SOF units have been quietly fighting piracy throughout the waters around the Horn of Africa. This has included arrests and seziures of afloat pirates and their vessels, although domestic political restrictions have limited the ability of SOF units to raid the bases and ports they call home.

Out in the Philippines, the multinational effort to suppress the Islamic insurgency in the southern end of the islands also continued to find success in 2009. One key area where SOF units provided unexpected support was across the range of disaster and humanitarian relief. In places like Haiti, Chile, and again in the Phillipines, SOF units were frequently the first responders and organizers when putting together relief efforts in the wake of earthquakes, floods, and mudslides. In short, it was a busy year for SOF worldwide in 2009.

This article was first published in The Year in Special Operations: 2010-2011 Edition.


Nigel West is considered the dean of intelligence writers. He often speaks at intelligence seminars...