In the face of ongoing financial constraints, special operations commands across Europe are pooling resources in order to remain best prepared to engage across both contemporary and future operating environments.
Such a focus includes focused preparations to engage with so-called near-peer and high-capability adversaries from China, Iran, Russia, and North Korea in the great power competition (GPC).
However, efforts now stretch far beyond multilateral training and operational opportunities currently being witnessed in the Middle East, where European, NATO, and non-NATO entity special operations task groups (SOTGs) cooperate under Special Operations Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve (SOJTF-OIR) to enhance the capabilities of special mission units from Iraq and Syria.
In Europe, special operations entities continue to establish joint operational commands and training facilities to optimize levels in interoperability and collaboration with partner-nation forces both at home and abroad.
These concepts were first illustrated in February 2017, when defense ministers from Belgium, Denmark, and the Netherlands signed a letter of intent to create the Composite Special Operations Component Command (C-SOCC) – a tri-national special operations command that would, according to NATO, “participate in the NATO Response Force and support NATO operations as well as other multinational missions.”
Following the signing of a memorandum of understanding signed the following year, the C-SOCC continues to be developed as it builds up to reaching a full operational capability (FOC) in 2021.
According to NATO’s former Deputy Secretary General Rose Gottemoeller (who left the post in October 2019), the move served as an “important reminder that special operations forces today increasingly operate in a multinational context.”
C-SOCC force components include Belgium’s Special Operations Regiment (SOR) which includes the Special Forces Group (SFG); Denmark’s Jaeger and Frogman Corps; and the Netherlands’s Maritime SOF (NL-MARSOF) and Korps Commandotroepen (KCT) regiment.
On Feb. 13, 2019, another four nations in Europe signed their own letter of intent to establish the similar Regional Special Operations Component Command (R-SOCC), capable of combining existing force elements into a deployable component to conduct “small joint operations.”
SOF components from Croatia, Hungary, Slovakia, and Slovenia agreed to contribute force elements to the R-SOCC, with Austria expected to support the concept in the future. Led by Hungarian SOF (HUNSOF), development of the R-SOCC will “dramatically increase the ability of [the] five nations to effectively employ their special operations forces [through] the non-permanent structure of the R-SOCC [which] enables each participant to use its own contributions separately, while benefitting from the integrated R-SOCC structure once activated for a deployment,” an official statement published by NATO reads.
According to Gottemoeller, the establishment of the R-SOCC also represented “a significant step forward in strengthening special operation forces capacities in the region, and towards a fully integrated multinational regional command element.”
Similar to the C-SOCC, the R-SOCC will be developed “in line” with NATO standards and in particular, the NATO Special Operations Headquarters (NSHQ) in Mons, Belgium, with a view to supporting NATO and European Union operations as well as other multilateral missions, exercises, and training opportunities.
SOF components to be associated with the R-SOCC concept include Croatia’s Special Forces Command (ZSS), which includes a pair of Special Forces Groups; HUNSOF’s 2nd “Vitez Bertalan Arpad”Special Forces Regiment (MH 2 KRE) and 88th Special Operations Helicopter Force (SOHF) Slovakia’s 5th Special Forces Regiment (SFR); Slovenia’s Special Operations Unit (SOU); and finally, Austria’s Jagdkommando regiment.
On Oct. 25, 2019, defense ministers from the four countries (excluding Austria) signed a memorandum of understanding to create the R-SOCC, ahead of a planned initial operating capability in January 2021 and full operating capability by the end of 2024.
At the signing NATO’s new Deputy Secretary General Mircea Geoana highlighted its potential role in engaging with near-peer adversaries across the GPC, particularly in Europe.
“As special operational forces constitute a highly versatile tool in modern conflict, this signing ceremony takes an important step towards strengthening special forces in the region and increasing cooperation and interoperability within the Alliance,” he explained.
Elsewhere, SOF commands across the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania also continue to consider the establishment of a joint organization similar to the R-SOCC, particularly as these countries share a border with an increasingly aggressive Russian Federation.
The C-SOCC and R-SOCC are also likely to support multilateral exercises across Europe, with examples including Exercise Saber Junction, organized by the U.S. Special Operations Command Europe (SOCEUR) and featuring SOF partner forces from 15 nations including Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Georgia, Italy, Kosovo, Lithuanian, the Republic of Northern Macedonia, Moldova, Poland, Romania, Turkey, Ukraine, and the U.S.
Conducted between Sept. 3-30, 2019, the exercise partnered about 100 multinational SOF from Bulgaria and the U.S, and conventional armed forces including the Lithuanian National Defense Volunteer Force (KASP). Designed to imitate operations associated with the GPC, namely resistance operations following annexation by an overpowering enemy force, the exercise featured the U.S. Army’s 10th Special Forces Group and focused on SOF capabilities to support “larger combined maneuver” operations.
SOTGs supported joint forcible entries; multinational airborne operations to seize critical terrain; and operations “in enemy-occupied territory to enable the multinational conventional joint force,” exercise officials explained.
Similarly, both the C-SOCC and R-SOCC are likely to support multinational operations around the world. Examples could include the contribution of SOTGs to a European Union Battlegroup, similar to one that remains on standby to support EU and United Nations operations throughout 2020 and beyond.
The current battlegroup includes force components from Czech, Irish, Croatian, German, and Dutch SOF units as well as conventional units, with potential areas of operation including the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA).
Operational duties could include long-range patrols to find and fix high-value targets and enemy combatants of violent extremist organizations (VEOs), as well as military assistance (MA) operations designed to enhance small unit tactics, techniques, and procedures of indigenous special mission units.
Similar MA operations were supported by European SOF during the most recent “Flintlock” exercise, which featured directing staff from SOF partners in Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, and the United Kingdom.
This coalition of European and international SOF are tasked with training special mission units from across West Africa, including Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Cabo Verde, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal and Togo.
The ability to conduct airborne special operations across the contemporary operating environment (COE) and GPC also continues to emerge as a critical requirement for European SOF components.
On Oct. 4, 2018, Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary, and Slovenia signed a memorandum of understanding to create the Multinational Special Aviation Program (MSAP), including a “new training center … established in Zadar, Croatia, dedicated exclusively to training air crews, who will conduct the insertion and extraction of special operations forces,” according to NATO.
Highlighting the role of the MSAP in assisting the development of less capable SOF units in light of the emerging GPC, NATO officials explained: “As the world changes, NATO must continue to adapt to meet evolving security threats. And special forces have proven to be a highly valuable and versatile tool for effectively responding to these challenges.”
“This cooperative arrangement is emblematic of the innovative approach NATO Allies and partners are taking as we enhance our collective defense capabilities,” according to NATO. “This new aviation program will be established in a gradual, step-by-step manner, expanding the training opportunities offered over time. In the process, it will create an important and unique new asset within NATO,” Alliance officials added.
The MSAP training center was officially opened on Dec. 11, 2019, by Croatia’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defence Damir Krstičević, with NATO officials confirming theoretical training would be conducted in 2020 ahead of physical flight tests beginning in 2021.
Also supported by the NSHQ, the MSAP will support the training of special operations aviation crews across “various geographic settings – including in the mountains, at sea and on islands,” NATO sources added, while disclosing how additional countries could join the MSAP in the future.
The center will be used by SOF units from the four participating nations, including Bulgaria’s 68th Special Forces Brigade; Croatian SFGs; Hungary’s MH 2 KRE; and Slovenia’s SOU.
Speaking to Special Operations Outlook, Director of the MSAP training center Lt. Col. Tomislav Pušnik explained how the program will provide the relevant training capacities required to create and sustain special operations air task units (SOATUs) in efficient ways and to increase interoperability among participants.
“Helicopters are one of the most useful assets to support special operations,” Pušnik stated, before confirming each participating nation will provide its own “nationally declared helicopters” to the SOATU.
Airframes include Croatian Mi-171Sh and UH-60M helicopters and Slovenian and Bulgarian Eurocopter AS532AL Cougars declared by each nation to SOATU. Hungarian trainees will start flight training on Eurocopter H145M and Airbus H225M helicopters.
“Depending on national decisions, the equipment on the helicopters will be different, but all in accordance with NATO standards and adapted for the implementation and support [of] special operations. All helicopters will be armed and equipped with active and passive self-defense systems,” Pušnik said.
“With the continuous technological improvements, the usage of more sophisticated assets and systems with characteristics of precision, speed, and proper command and control procedures will be certainly seen as an advantage in highly demanding and contested environments.”
Academic courses open to special operations aviation crews in 2020 include the MSAP Special Operations Aviation Planning Course (MSAP SOAPC), which will be followed by the MSAP Crew Resource Management Course (MSAP CRMC) and MSAP Operational Risk Management Course (MSAP ORMC). All these courses will be organized twice a year, Pušnik confirmed to Special Operations Outlook.
“Airmen who finish all the courses [as well as] additional courses (NATO SOF Air Mission Commanders Course and NATO SOF Air Mission Challenge Course), which will be organized by NSHQ in Belgium, will meet the prerequisites to start with flight training.
“The flight training will be organized in two phases. Both phases consist of several modules that allow reaching the required flight skills to conduct missions in different environmental and different weather conditions. Upon completion of Phase 1, trainees will receive ‘Basic Mission Qualification’ and upon completion of Phase 2, ‘Full Mission Qualification.’ All trainees who successfully pass all the courses and flight training will be ready for national evaluation, which will be the last step in the training process to achieve SOATU capabilities,” Pušnik added.
Looking to the future, Pušnik described the MSAP training center’s intention to launch additional SOF-specific courses including personnel recovery; special operations air land integration (SOALI); and SOF orientation; as well as multiple “other courses dependent upon the demand signals of participating nations.”
“We plan to work in close relationship with NSHQ, SOCEUR and other countries which achieved special operations air task units capabilities in the past,” Pušnik said.
Despite being focused on the establishment of SOATUs in support of Bulgarian, Croatian, Hungarian, and Slovenian SOF units, the MSAP training center will also be open to accommodating thirdparty nations.
“The primary mission for MSAP is to provide training capacities required to create and sustain special aviation units, to deliver those training capacities in the most efficient and cost-effective way, and at the same time to increase interoperability amongst these four MSAP nations.
“Once we achieve full operational capability (FOC), MSAP will be open for all NATO nations who want to join as full members or on a temporary basis for some training solutions or exercises. Our long term ambition in the future is to become [the] NATO center of excellence for special air operations,” Pušnik stated.
“At this moment, several countries show interest to join MSAP as full members. I’m talking about countries who achieved SOATU capabilities in the past. If these countries do join us this year, it will be beneficial for MSAP. In that case, we would get additional transfer of knowledge, which will be very helpful for creating flight training programs, flight documentation, standard operating procedures, and other publications and manuals which are essential for conducting flight training in accordance with NATO standards and for daily work,” he added.
Pušnik also highlighted MSAP nations’ interest in acquiring the expertise to operate not only rotary-wing assets but also tilt-rotor aircraft by the start of 2025, particularly in terms of supporting a personnel recovery capability.
“The MSAP training center is the means to help them on their way to achieve that goal,” Pušnik suggested. “But for the time being we are focused on providing training solutions for rotary-wing only.”
The importance of conducting tilt-rotor training in support of special operations was highlighted by Estonian SOF (ESTSOF) between Sept. 3-9, 2019, during joint training with the U.S. Air Force’s 352nd Special Operations Wing in Tallinn, focused on the conduct of “a multitude of air operations” with U.S. and Estonian SOF and CV-22 Osprey tilt-rotors.
The exercise focused on infiltration, exfiltration, and resupply of special operations forces “throughout the European theater” using CV-22s, which the Air Force described as a “premier SOF vertical lift assault platform.”
“U.S. and Estonian partners spent the week focused on three mission objectives that could be applied to any part of the world, any time, any place: Fast Rope Insertion and Extraction System [FRIES] familiarization, casualty evacuation, and rapidly loading and off-loading a tactical vehicle onto the aircraft,” according to a 352nd SOW news release.
“During the FRIES training, U.S. and Estonian service members practiced fast-roping from the Osprey from twilight and into the night. This added capability allows forces to be inserted into small or condensed areas where landings are impractical,” according to the release.
“Ideally, with any platform you want to do an air-land, it’s the safest and quickest way to get troops off the aircraft for infiltration. If the target area is too small or it’s a rooftop, then you have to kick out a rope and then do FRIES,” said U.S. Air Force Col. Clay Freeman, the 352nd SOW mission commander.
The program also provided ESTSOF with the opportunity to load up CV-22s with all-terrain vehicles, including Polaris Government and Defense MRZRs, used to support “fly and drive” operations.
“If the ‘infil’ is to an offset, the troops can utilize the Osprey cabin space to load ATV’s, MRZR’s and dirt bikes to then get to the objective area quickly, rather than having to hike,” Freeman added.
Considering the wider mix of airborne solutions (rotary- and fixedwing as well as tilt-rotor) demanded across airborne operations, MSAP’s Pušnik added: “When we talk about special air operations, we should consider complex military operation, and it is hard to imagine that only rotary-wing assets would be involved in the operation.
“Our training will be focused on realistic combat-focused training, which means that the units will be trained in the same way and under the same or similar conditions (when we talk about adversary, environment, and weather conditions) in which they would fight and conduct real special air operations,” Pušnik said.
“Therefore, during conducting advanced phase of flight training and/or complex military exercises at MSAP training center, and in order to enable realistic and combat-focused training, we intend to use conventional fixed-wing units to support us, which is the practice in NATO in cases of smaller special air units with a rotarywing component only.”
Pušnik was unable to confirm which airframes would be utilized to support such a requirement, although defense sources associated with the program suggested it could include a spread of special operations aircraft, including C-130 Hercules, A400M, and C295 platforms.
“By achieving full independence in conducting the whole training process (theoretical and flight training) in the organization and implementation of MSAP training center, conditions to achieve FOC will be met. The deadline for achieving that capability is the end of 2021, and after that, MSAP training center will conduct all training on its own,” Pušnik confirmed.
“I would like to use this opportunity to emphasize that in this whole process of achieving IOC, we have had huge support from NSHQ, SOCEUR, U.S. Army, Poland, and Italy in providing the necessary support to establish the intended high-quality training and exercises program. And we hope to have the same support in the future too, on our way to achieve FOC.
“When talking about MSAP, I can say with certainty that this is the example of the unique organization within the NATO Alliance focused on preparation, organization, and implementation of the training for conducting special air operations. The aim of the training within MSAP is to provide training solutions required to create and sustain special aviation units; to optimize the cost of training for helicopter aircrews of the four NATO countries; and to unify their preparation according to NATO standards.
“Through this program, we are building new capabilities which are important for MSAP countries and NATO, and at the same time we are building our future together with the partners and allies. Establishment of the MSAP and its further development set the cornerstone for strengthening international military cooperation in special air operations at the regional level within the NATO Alliance, which creates the preconditions for establishing, organizing, and implementing regional military cooperation in other military areas too.
“MSAP TC [training center] is an excellent example which shows that nations are capable to achieve more together than each nation ever could individually, through a multinational approach,” Pušnik concluded.
As the contemporary operating environment continues to evolve, particularly in response to emerging demand signals from across the GPC, European SOF’s ability to collaborate with partner forces across NATO and in particular USSOCOM will remain a critical component to the planning, preparation, and execution of contingency operations around the world.
This article originally appears in the following edition of Special Operations Outlook: