Defense Media Network

An Interview with Rear Adm. Laurent Isnard

Commander, Commandement des Opérations Spéciales (COS)

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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).

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