In the age of great power competition (GPC), special operations forces (SOF) around the globe are joining forces and extending alliances in order to maximize capabilities to engage with near-peer and peer adversaries across the contemporary operating environment.
Threats associated with GPC were examined at the virtual SOF Industry Conference (SOFIC) on May 18, 2021, where commanding general of U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) Gen. Richard D. Clarke promoted the conference’s theme “Expanding the Competition Space.”
Warning how threats continue to evolve around the world, Clarke highlighted the activities of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Russian Federation before calling upon his organization to “modernize” in order to successfully respond to emerging threats.
Just months earlier, Clarke had addressed the Senate Armed Services Committee, calling upon USSOCOM’s sustained partnership with foreign forces to provide “discrete options when conventional action is impractical.”
International cooperation across the global SOF community has continued over the course of the past 12 months, although much of it has been adversely affected by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which, according to Clarke, has “challenged our readiness in unexpected ways.”
“The postponement of several major exercises and a majority of FY20 Joint Combined Exchange Training [JCET] events has been unfortunate, but barring long-term disruption, our joint interoperability and multinational partnerships remain strong,” Clarke said.
NATO LEADING THE WAY
Multilateral efforts to enhance cooperation and interoperability of SOF organizations continue to be conducted to a great degree in Europe, where the threat from an increasingly aggressive Russian Federation gathers pace.
Special operations developments are being led at national levels, particularly in countries sharing a border with Russia (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Ukraine), in addition to multilateral efforts, often led by the NATO Special Operations Headquarters (NSHQ) based at Chièvres Air Base in Belgium.
On April 27, the NSHQ conducted its first of two virtual meetings in 2021, with SOF leadership from across the NATO alliance coming together to discuss how “allied and national SOF activity” could contribute to NATO “Deterrence and Defense Objectives.”
According to NATO’s Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) public affairs office, the meeting featured the participation of SOF representatives from 32 “alliance and partner” nations with interests in the European area of responsibility.
“The aim of this conference is to act as a forum to connect Allies and Partners, [and] provide updates on NATO and national activities, and significant developments in order to strengthen the alliance,” U.K. Brigadier Rob Stephenson, acting commander of NSHQ, explained during his opening remarks at the meeting.
“Turning towards the future, we recognize the complex security environment, so SOF must continue to be innovative and ensure it is fit for purpose; flexible, tailored, and adaptable to meet any security challenges facing the alliance,” he added.
According to SHAPE, the conference saw NATO SOF leadership discussing a variety of methods to “further synchronize NATO SOF efforts” around the world.
Examples included the recent stand-up of the NSHQ Operations and Coordination Centre (NOCC), which acts as a “focal point for synchronizing activity conducted by national SOF which contributes to NATO’s deterrence objectives, enabling greater situational awareness, as well as identifying further ways to enhance partnerships and transparency across the Alliance.”
SOF leadership also discussed NATO SOF contributions to counterinsurgency and counterterrorism (CT) operations outside Europe. As an example, the meeting was the first time NATO SOF leaders had come together to discuss the projected withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan following announcements made by the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) and NATO earlier in the year.
On May 21, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg confirmed that the alliance would continue to train Afghan SOF “outside” the country following its projected troop withdrawal, which is scheduled to be completed by Sept. 11, 2021.
Specific training locations have yet to be disclosed by NATO, although defense sources suggested to Special Operations Outlook that training would most likely be dispersed across NATO SOF member organizations.
Meanwhile, the NSHQ meeting also discussed ongoing efforts in Africa and Iraq, which continue to focus heavily on SOF-specific mission sets including military assistance; special reconnaissance; and counter-violent extremist organization (C-VEO) operations.
Leadership also discussed the development of the “SOF domain plan” in support of peacetime deterrence, crisis response, and conflict. Additional subjects covered during the event included “partnership, maritime development, strategic planning, and coordination” for the remainder of 2021 and beginning of 2022.
Wrapping up the event, Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe (D-SACEUR) Gen. Tim Radford shared his thoughts on the important role NATO SOF plays in the planning for deterrence and defense across NATO’s area of responsibility.
“SOF’s emphasis on peacetime deterrence, military assistance, and strategic reconnaissance will be of increasing relevance to an alliance that’s implementing genuine, generational, strategic change,” he stated.
In Europe, NATO SOF organizations and their partners continue to ramp up partnering agreements to enhance levels of cooperation, interoperability, and ultimately, mission effectiveness, particularly when operating against near-peer/peer adversaries including the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Russian Federation.
On Dec. 7, 2020, the Composite Special Operations Component Command (C-SOCC) – which comprises a joint SOF headquarters featuring Belgian, Danish, and Dutch SOF components – announced it had achieved full operational capability (FOC). FOC follows the signature of a letter of intent to pursue the C-SOCC concept, first published in February 2017.
According to NATO, the C-SOCC “combines national capabilities from the three participating nations into a deployable multinational headquarters, specifically designed for commanding several Special Operations Forces Task Groups.”
“This innovative approach provides the participating nations with a capability that exceeds the sum of their individual national contributions,” NATO officials suggested in a statement published on Dec. 7.
FOC was announced on the back of the successful conclusion of Exercise Steadfast Jupiter-Jackal 2020, which evaluated and certified all the relevant functions of the C-SOCC.
Following certification of FOC, the C-SOCC is now available to support the 2021 NATO Response Force (NRF) with the availability of a Special Operations Land Task Group; Special Operations Maritime Task Group; and Special Operations Air Task Group.
Over the course of 2021, the C-SOCC will also conduct a series of exercises as it builds up to consider support of the 2023 NRF rotation.
However, SOF leadership in Belgium and the Netherlands are moving beyond the C-SOCC to examine the potential to establish an additional Composite Special Operations Maritime Task Group by 2026.
According to officials in the Belgian parliament, the development of a maritime task group remains a “priority project,” with a series of associated “training sessions” scheduled to run in 2021 and beyond.
Similar teaming agreements have been cemented by another group of European SOF organizations in Austria, Croatia, Hungary, Slovakia, and Slovenia, who formed the Regional Special Operations Component Command (R-SOCC) in October 2019.
On May 12, 2021, the R-SOCC announced it had reached an initial operational capability (IOC) following Exercise Black Swan, which ran between April 19 and May 14. Conducted across multiple locations in Hungary, Exercise Black Swan also featured the participation of U.S. Army Special Forces and U.S. Naval Special Warfare operators.
The main effort of the exercise was designed to demonstrate “peer-to-peer deterrence and resiliency of alliances and partnerships in Europe,” according to exercise officials. SOF from Austria, Croatia, Hungary, Slovakia, Slovenia, and the United States participated in the exercise.
“I think this is the manifestation of everything that is great about NATO, several NATO allies coming together and even non- NATO partners coming together to share their tactics, techniques, procedures, and lessons learned so that we’re all better,” U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. David H. Tabor, commanding general of the U.S. Special Operations Command Europe (SOCEUR), explained in a post-exercise statement.
IOC means R-SOCC SOF units – which include Austria’s Jagdkommando; Croatia’s Special Forces Command (ZSS); Hungary’s MH 2 KRE; Slovakia’s 5th Special Forces Regiment; and Slovenia’s Special Operations Unit – are ready to offer NATO a temporary deployable command element in support of special operations.
According to a NATO spokesperson, the R-SOCC will “increase the ability of the five participating nations to effectively employ their special operations forces, and will enable each nation to use its own contributions separately, while benefitting from an integrated R-SOCC structure once activated for deployment.”
Training conducted in Szolnok, Hungary, saw R-SOCC SOF operators and U.S. Army Special Forces focused on aerial vehicle interdiction; close quarters battle (CQB); Fast Rope Insertion Extraction System (FRIES); and special reconnaissance.
Elsewhere, Hungarian SOF (HUNSOF) and U.S. Naval Special Warfare operators conducted riverine operations on the Danube in Budapest on board Special Operations Craft-Riverine (SOC-R) vessels; while in the Adriatic Sea, Croatian SOF operators also worked with HUNSOF operators and U.S. Navy SEALs to practice maritime interdiction and visit, board, search, and seizure mission sets.
“Black Swan 21 helped Austria, Croatia, Hungary, Slovakia, and Slovenia qualify for the initial air, land, [and] maritime operational capabilities required for the R-SOCC,” a NATO statement read.
“It’s important to see how NATO members can work seamlessly together, can support each other, and act well together to be a really credible deterrent to any adversaries that face us,” Stephenson added.
The R-SOCC is expected to be fully functional by December 2024 and will act as the NATO Response Force in 2025.
SPANNING THE INDO-PACIFIC
Equally critical to special operations in the age of GPC is the Indo-Pacific theater, where multilateral training programs designed to enhance the SOF capabilities of partner-nation forces in the region have been hampered by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Examples include the cancellation of the dedicated SOF element of the biennial Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise, which had been scheduled to take place over the course of June and July 2020.
The event – which is viewed as critical in enhancing cooperation and interoperability of SOF units across the Indo-Pacific – would have seen maritime SOF elements from Brazil, Chile, India, Japan, the Philippines, Peru, South Korea, and the United States attending a joint training package run out of Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Marine Corps Base, Hungry, and Bellows Air Force Station on Oahu, Hawaii.
Concepts of operation, tactics, techniques, and procedures practiced over the course of the exercise would have related to mission sets associated with countering peer threats from the PRC across the Indo-Pacific.
The exercise had been scheduled to concentrate on the “command and control of SOF forces within RIMPAC; multinational interoperability training; direct action raids; and maritime/dive operations,” exercise officials confirmed to Special Operations Outlook.
Specifically, training would have featured helicopter assault force operations; FRIES; maritime close quarter combat; submarine operations; small boat operations; military freefall; and combat diving serials.
Also affected by the pandemic was Exercise Cobra Gold – U.S. Special Operation Command Pacific’s (SOCPAC’s) annual exercise with the Royal Thai Armed Forces – which features both SOF and conventional force elements. Traditionally, Cobra Gold has focused on joint CT and counterinsurgency (COIN) mission sets, supported by the Royal Thai Army’s Special Warfare Command and Naval Special Warfare Command.
However, SOCPAC was able to successfully organize a variety of alternative training programs over the second half of 2020 and first half of 2021. Examples included an exercise with Japan’s Special Operations Group on the Kanto Plain, Japan; as well as Exercise Keen Sword, which saw the U.S. Air Force’s 353rd Special Operations Group and Japanese SOF partner practicing combat search and rescue (CSAR) missions at the Combined Arms Training Center Camp Fuji.
On April 23, SOCPAC and the Armed Forces of the Philippines Special Operations Command (AFPSOCOM) concluded the latest annual Exercise Balikatan, designed to contribute to “peace and stability” in the Indo-Pacific.
Although scaled down due to the pandemic, Exercise Balikatan featured SOF operators from both the United States and the Philippines, with heavy focus on crisis response.
Hosted at the Colonel Ernesto Ravina Airbase in Tarlac, combined SOF and air force support conducted a variety of training serials, including close air support training and humanitarian and civic assistance.
In Africa, international SOF support of indigenous special mission units was also hampered by the COVID-19 pandemic. Examples included the cancellation of the “Flintlock” exercise, conducted annually in West Africa, featuring a coalition of NATO and Non-NATO Entity SOF units tasked with training local forces to successfully execute CT and COIN missions.
In a typical year, Flintlock brings together a multinational coalition of SOF units from Austria, Belgium, Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States, tasked with training SOF personnel from African partners including Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Cabo Verde, Guinea, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria, and Senegal.
According to the U.S. State Department, Exercise Flintlock is scheduled to go ahead in the first quarter of 2022, with exercise scenario writers already planning to include COVID-19 response into the training.
“With the exercise being scaled back for 2021, Flintlock 2021 planners decided to take advantage of the extra time to plan the ideal exercise for 2022. SOCAFRICA [U.S. Special Operations Command Africa] will integrate several operational enablers into future exercises, further diversifying participating units and better preparing them for future operations,” a State Department announcement read.
“Written into future exercise scenarios are intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, including aviation assets; maritime security training; civil affairs scenarios; law enforcement engagement; and medical support to operations. Plans for Flintlock 2022 go beyond the scope of previous exercises and takeaways from the next exercise will pave the way for continued improvements in the future with assessments being an integrated, strategic element to inform planning,” the statement added.
However, the pandemic did not prevent the French-led Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force (CJSOTF) “Takuba” from initiating CT and COIN missions across West Africa in the second half of 2020.
The CJSOTF features a joint force of SOF operators from France, Estonia, Sweden, Portugal, and the Czech Republic, with additional materiel, headquarters, and political support from the likes of Belgium, Norway, Germany, Denmark, Latvia, the Netherlands, and the U.K.
One of the first public missions successfully conducted by the CJSOTF included the neutralization of a high value target (HVT) and enemy combatants in central Mali on Nov. 13. Deployed to a mountainous region near Mopti, the task force conducted a ground assault with the support of helicopters and Mirage jets.
Finally, in Latin America, international efforts to enhance levels in cooperation and interoperability have also been hampered by the pandemic, with multilateral exercises, including the annual Fuerzas Comando competition, being postponed in 2021.
However, U.S. Special Operations Command South (SOCSOUTH) continues to build relationships with Latin American partners. Examples include El Salvador, which received a visit from SOCSOUTH’s commander, Rear Adm. Keith Davids on Dec. 10-11, 2020.
Discussions addressed ongoing operations against MS-13 and 18th Street Gang violent extremist organizations by El Salvador’s Special Forces Command, which includes the Special Operations Group and Special CT Command (CEAT).
Despite the training constraints of the global pandemic, international SOF cooperation has continued to take place around the world albeit at lesser levels in comparison to previous years.
Nonetheless, the importance of SOF partnerships remains high on the agenda for special operations organizations as they seek to benefit from increased levels in cooperation and interoperability.