Defense Media Network

An Interview with Rear Adm. Laurent Isnard

Commander, Commandement des Opérations Spéciales (COS)

With an operational footprint stretching from the Middle East through to northern and western Africa, French special operations forces (SOF) remain highly active across a contemporary operating environment.

Most recently, French SOF have been deployed to Iraq in support of coalition operations against the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) as well as across the vast expanses of Africa, with force components strategically positioned in Mali, Ivory Coast, Chad, and Burkina Faso.

Across the Levant region, for example, the Commandement des Opérations Spéciales (Special Operations Command, or COS) “Hydra” Special Operations Task Force (SOTF) has conducted operations against IS with duties including the provision of intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance (ISTAR) support to indigenous SOF units.

Specifically, this has included operations in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, where French SOF followed up the Iraqi SOF ground offensive in 2016 with support in site sensitive exploitation, explosive ordnance disposal, and counter-improvised explosive device operations in complex urban areas.

Concurrently, French SOF continue to support both national and international operations across Africa.

With an operational footprint stretching from the Middle East through to northern and western Africa, French special operations forces (SOF) remain highly active across a contemporary operating environment.

Elsewhere in Africa, French SOF have deployed to the Ivory Coast in support of a wider military assistance (MA) strategy across the region while the COS also continues to support Operation Barkhane across the Sahel with ongoing deployments in Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Tunisia, and Niger, as well as Jordan in the Mideast.

According to Rear Adm. Laurent Isnard, the COS commander, the main effort of SOF units within his organization remains the fight against terrorism.

Rear Adm. Laurent Isnard

COS Commander Rear Adm. Laurent Isnard remains acutely aware of emerging requirements arising out of a complex and contested operating environment. PHOTO COURTESY OF COS

Describing such a variable operating environment exclusively to Special Operations Outlook, Isnard explained: “Our special forces operate in several theaters of operation permanently and occasionally in others, either by directly participating in the neutralization of terrorists, or by training or advising local partners to allow them to take into account for themselves this threat.

“This struggle is part of an ongoing process designed to protect France’s national territory by stretching as far as we can from beyond our national borders to detain those who plan, recruit, and finance abject actions against our fellow citizens and question the moral values of our society.

“The COS is mainly responsible today for the fight against terrorism outside French borders. This war is bound to last. More than 15 years after the terrible 9/11 attacks that hit the American nation hard, the Al Qaeda threat still exists. IS, even with its territory taken over by the U.S.-led coalition, is entering a new form of combat closer to the clandestine operating procedures implemented by other terrorist groups.

“Our special forces operate in several theaters of operation permanently and occasionally in others, either by directly participating in the neutralization of terrorists, or by training or advising local partners to allow them to take into account for themselves this threat.”

“Ultimately their eradication is inevitable. However, this threat should continue for several decades as whole families – men, women, and children – have been indoctrinated and fanaticized,” Isnard said.

Considering the future evolution of the COS to handle such threats, Isnard warned how the command must retain the capability to overcome an increase in threats ranging from information warfare and social destabilization through to the high-intensity conflict requiring the execution of operations in new and anti-access/area-denied (A2AD) environments at extended ranges.

French SOF helicopter assault force Rear Adm. Laurent Isnard

French special operations forces conduct a helicopter assault force (HAF) serial as they hone skill sets for counterterrorism missions. PHOTO COURTESY OF COS

“In parallel, we will see certain state actors questioning traditional diplomatic tools (essentially developed and used by Western nations during the last century) for the regulation of inter-state disagreements. Nowadays, for certain countries, armed conflict is the first and natural means to dispute arbitration or to support their territorial or economic ambitions,” Isnard explained, while describing how such a shift could lead to a future of more symmetrical commitments for governments that might not require the exclusive attention of SOF but lead to the employment of a more global maneuver force with conventional units.

Order of Battle

Today, France’s COS comprises multiple combatant commands across the Ministry of Defense’s (MOD’s) three services. Components include the Army Special Forces Brigade; Air Special Forces Bureau (BFSA); and Maritime Force of Marines and Commandos (FORFUSCO).

The Army Special Forces Brigade, which is co-located in Pau and Bayonne, comprises the 1er Régiment de Parachutistes d’Infanterie de Marine (1 RPIMa) and 13e Régiment de Dragons Parachutistes (13 RDP), which can be tasked with direct action and special reconnaissance missions respectively. Units are supported by the 4th Special Forces Helicopter Regiment, which operates a variety of rotary-wing aircraft including the Eurocopter EC725 Caracal.

Additionally, the COS retains links to the Intervention Group of the National Gendarmerie (GIGN), which supports counterterrorism tasks both at home and abroad.

All Army SOF units are supported by the Special Operations Support Group (GAOS) and the Ares Training Centre in Pau.

The BFSA features the Air Parachute Commando 10 (CPA 10) unit, which is supported with airborne assets from the 3/61 Poitou Transport Squadron and 1/67 Helicopter Unit, the latter of which was certified to support COS missions in December 2017 and onward.

Today, France’s COS comprises multiple combatant commands across the Ministry of Defense’s (MOD’s) three services.

Finally, FORFUSCO is subdivided into multiple Marine Fusilier Companies and Marine Commando units, which can be tasked with the execution of the full spectrum of surface and sub-surface special operations.

Marine Fusilier Companies, which are equipped to undertake direct action, special reconnaissance, and force protection missions, are supported by the Marine Fusilier Training School.

French SOF free fall Rear Adm. Laurent Isnard

Military freefall remains a critical insertion technique for French special operations forces, allowing aircraft to avoid air defense systems and allow small unit teams to accurately and covertly insert into target areas. PHOTO COURTESY OF COS

Marine Commando units, which are headquartered in Lorient but spread geographically across France, provide multiple capabilities to the COS. Jaubert and Trepel Commando Units, for example, specialize in counterterrorism and hostage rescue operations while Penfentenyo and Montfort Commando Units specialize in direct action and special reconnaissance. Finally, the Commando Hubert Unit specializes in sub-surface operations.

Commando units are supported by the Kieffer Commando Unit, which is responsible for the operation of unmanned aerial systems for intelligence-gathering missions in the maritime environment.

Evolution of the Force

According to Isnard, the capability of the COS to adapt and overcome challenges across the battlespace will be achieved through a careful blend of personnel, partnerships, and technology.

Discussing requirements expected of the modern and future SOF operator, Isnard described how physical and moral qualities would remain unchanged. However, he identified to Special Operations Outlook how the range of specialist skill sets held across the COS would need to be increased to include specific technological developments such as the widespread implementation of tactical unmanned aerial systems (UAS), as well as new areas of confrontation associated with the actions of cyber warfare.

“This diversification of skills cannot be solved solely by increasing the strength of our organization, but probably by reviewing the priorities between the number of commandos to retain more traditional SOF duties and the numbers to be devoted to these new jobs. The challenge will be to maintain the special forces spirit and its model in terms of responsiveness, adaptability, and low logistic footprint while resolutely turning to the future,” Isnard said.

4th Special Forces Helicopter Regiment Rear Adm. Laurent Isnard

French special operations forces are supported by a variety of air components, including the 4th Special Forces Helicopter Regiment, which operates the Eurocopter EC725 Caracal. PHOTO COURTESY OF COS

As an example, he highlighted the role of officers serving across the headquarters, calling for an increase in their ability to work in “ad-hoc coalitions” of SOF and conventional forces in order to integrate and coordinate commitments across a diverse mission set.

“The flexibility of the command structures and the adaptability in the organization of the staff will represent significant challenges. In the future, the ever-evolving operating environment will create situations where strategic surprise will deny us any break or time in our reflection process,” he continued.

According to Isnard, the capability of the COS to adapt and overcome challenges across the battlespace will be achieved through a careful blend of personnel, partnerships, and technology.

With all these operational and training requirements in mind, the COS continues to evolve as a force in terms of both character and composition.

On Jan. 11, 2018, French MOD officials described how the air force’s SOF Commando component – CPA 10 – would now accept the direct entry of civilian recruits into combat roles in order to optimize specialist skill sets from across the private sector including information technology, for example.

But, as Isnard explained, the COS does not need to retain ownership of all its capabilities. Instead, he highlighted how the COS must rely more upon its “unique ability to integrate the actors and means necessary for operations as much as necessary, without necessarily being the owner.”

“Developments in the operational environment require special forces to master more and more skills and know-how. The challenge will be to strike a balance between the acquisition and maintenance of our own skills and the possibility of using additional means from conventional armies or specialized organizations of French and foreign origin,” he explained.

International SOF

Meanwhile, Isnard described to Special Operations Outlook how the individual capabilities of the SOF operator must also be augmented with increasing levels in cooperation of both national and international partners. Such cooperation, he proclaimed, could take the form of exchanges in intelligence, joint operational commitments, or capacity building missions, as has been most recently demonstrated across the Middle East.

FORFUSCO ECUME Rear Adm. Laurent Isnard

FORFUSCO teams rely upon the ECUME rigid hull inflatable boat to conduct maritime counterterrorism exercises with support from larger vessels from across the French navy. PHOTO COURTESY OF COS

“With the U.S. special forces, we approach all these areas with a level of trust in trade and sometimes integration in the field, which has become remarkable over time. We share a common culture of SOF employment patterns and this bilateral cooperation is by no means exclusive. We maintain, on a case-by-case basis, many bilateral cooperations, especially with our Western counterparts,” Isnard acknowledged.

“Even if each of our countries needs to retain the capability to conduct operations in a discreet and unilateral way, we nevertheless retain the need to be able to share the financial and political cost of certain operational commitments. Cooperation cannot be decreed; it is cultivated over time,” he continued, while promoting the strategic importance of the NATO Special Operations Headquarters (NSHQ).

Isnard described to Special Operations Outlook how the individual capabilities of the SOF operator must also be augmented with increasing levels in cooperation of both national and international partners.

Headquartered in Mons, Belgium, NSHQ feeds the international SOF community with a baseline in doctrine and the employment of materiel across a diverse operating environment, with multinational interoperability of forces a major focus area.

“The NSHQ plays a vital role as a platform on which Western cooperation is built on a daily basis. This is why France will continue to get involved and support its projects,” Isnard added.

Technology

However, no matter how capable the manpower and wider collaboration of the COS, force components continue to rely heavily upon legacy and next-generation technology types capable of providing personnel with the ability to retain tactical overmatch over near-peer adversaries.

FORFUSCO Jaubert Commando Rear Adm. Laurent Isnard

FORFUSCO’s Jaubert Commando unit conducts special insertion/extraction drills as part of a maritime CT exercise. PHOTO COURTESY OF COS

Addressing delegates at the Special Operations Forces Innovation Network Seminar (SOFINS) at Camp Souge, France on March 28, 2017, Isnard underlined the importance of access to intelligence across the battlespace, urging, “We are witnessing easier access to information and knowledge is being shared extremely fast. If we are late, it’s already being used by the enemy and we have to find a way to counter it.

“This technology is here and being mastered by some people. We have to take advantage of that and gain some seconds on the enemy. We need some early warning to deal with them before they deal with us.”

On Dec. 19, 2017, Isnard unveiled the COS procurement strategy to the government, which outlined some of the key technology enablers being pursued by the command.

Demanding additional investment of €250 million through to 2025, the draft document called for the modernization of all mobility and insertion assets on the ground, on or under the sea, and in the air, including the upgrade of NH90 rotary-wing airframes to replace legacy Caracal helicopters; and PSM3G swimmer delivery vehicles to support the Commando Hubert Unit in sub-surface operations launched from the Barracuda submarine, which is expected to be accepted into service in 2019.

“This technology is here and being mastered by some people. We have to take advantage of that and gain some seconds on the enemy. We need some early warning to deal with them before they deal with us.”

It also demanded the need for a modernized large, wheeled tactical ground vehicle dedicated to SOF, a long-range reconnaissance patrol vehicle, and quads and buggies as well as armored vehicles for hard missions, particularly in urban special operations.

Elsewhere, the document called for a medium-altitude, medium-endurance (MAME) UAS to support ISTAR missions, with Isnard describing how the selected airframe must have a minimum operating range of 100 kilometers and mission endurance of six hours or more. The decision to procure a dedicated MAME UAS to support the COS follows COS reliance on MQ-9 Reapers, which Isnard hailed a “game changer” across the current operating environment.

Finally, the COS is demanding the procurement of a high frequency (HF) communications system to enable connectivity at reach, especially when operating in denied and infrastructure-less environments, as well as related C4ISTAR technologies to support operations in the urban and subterranean environment.

Isnard explained, “Our operators are more and more involved in electronic warfare. It is already integrated on board our aircraft and speedboats. But we need to identify tunnels and understand what’s happening behind the wall. This gives us the edge today, but we need to go further.

Commando Hubert Rear Adm. Laurent Isnard

Commando Hubert operators are set to receive upgrades in swimmer delivery vehicle technology to further enhance capabilities in special reconnaissance and underwater demolition missions. PHOTO COURTESY OF COS

“We also need to develop connectivity, which is key. We are never alone on the battlefield, and we have to reconfigure fast, abandon heavy structures, and become plug-and-play like Apple computers. We have to connect our operator in the middle of desert with a transport plan, UASs, boats, and other Commando teams,” he explained.

Speaking to Special Operations Outlook, he continued, “Of all the applications that the new technologies offer us, two of them hold our particular attention: the use of artificial intelligence for the implementation and the exploitation of swarms of drones or sensors and the treatment of mega-data.

“It will be necessary to know how to make the best use of these new capacities and to prepare as soon as possible an environment for them to operate in,” he added, while referring to requirement for legal frameworks for employment across the battlespace.

“We need both to maintain the technological advantage over terrorist groups which are becoming more technology savvy and we must remember that the real strength of our Commando operators is the hardiness, responsiveness, and adaptability,” Isnard stated.

Future

Looking to the future and citing the motto of the COS – “Faire Autrement,” or “Do Otherwise” – Isnard called for his successor to devote time to understanding the “objectives and spirit of an operation.”

“We need both to maintain the technological advantage over terrorist groups which are becoming more technology savvy and we must remember that the real strength of our Commando operators is the hardiness, responsiveness, and adaptability.”

“My advice to my successor would be to devote time to gain an in-depth understanding of the objectives and the context in which an operation fits. The COS motto means to act outside the box with audacity. This is not for sake of originality, but the need to provide ‘tailored’ solutions for difficult problems. It is therefore necessary to focus on the objective and shed the usual habits, concepts, and logic of a capability owner.

“The mission is special not because it uses specialized forces but because it requires thinking, planning, and structures capable of imagination which are also adept in integrating various expertise. These skills are critical for complex operations while maintaining a strict level of confidentiality,” Isnard concluded.

This article was originally published in the 2018-2019 edition of Special Operations Outlook.