With the international special operations forces (ISOF) community still heavily engaged with countering violent extremist organizations (VEOs) around the world, senior commanders are growing increasingly concerned with maintaining the tactical advantage over near peer and high capability adversaries across more contested areas of operation.
Nowhere is this threat more prevalent than across NATO’s eastern border with Russia, where an ISOF community remains on high alert following Russia’s 2014 incursion into Ukraine. Indeed, Russia’s ongoing employment of information warfare across this particular area of responsibility continues to drive ISOF developments regarding how best to operate in command and control denied and disrupted environments (C2D2Es).
Multiple concepts aimed at enhancing such capabilities across ISOF continue to be led by the U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) through its increasingly capable “Global SOF Network,” which includes NATO’s Baltic partners of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania as well as Poland, Georgia, and non-NATO entity Ukraine.
Concerns regarding this emerging operating environment in Eastern Europe were clearly defined by USSOCOM’s outgoing commander, Gen. Tony Thomas, as well as members of the U.S. Senate Committee on Armed Services (SCAS) during a committee hearing on Feb. 14, with officials highlighting “growing focus on competition with China and Russia – our peer competitors.”
The committee heard how Russia, as well as China, continued to create military advancements that pose “new and increasingly complex challenges” to U.S. national security, with Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict (SO/LIC) Owen West proclaiming: “This is a unique time to serve the SOF enterprise because it is an inflection point. … The National Defense Strategy has challenged all of the Department of Defense to increase focus on long-term strategic competition with Russia and China. … In November, Gen. Thomas and I issued the first-ever joint vision for the SOF enterprise, challenging professionals to innovate relentlessly in pursuit of decisive competitive advantage.”
Highlighting the importance of ongoing collaboration with the ISOF community, Thomas disclosed: “Our SOF network, integrated with interagency and international partners, is focused on producing unorthodox yet complementary capabilities and solutions in support of U.S. policies and objectives. We continue to maintain strong, enduring international partnerships while leveraging authorities and core expertise to convert indigenous mass into combat power to deter, deny, disrupt, and ultimately defeat our adversaries.
“To build a more lethal force, strengthen our alliances and partnerships, and reform for greater performance and efficiency, we are reshaping and focusing our current forces and capabilities while simultaneously developing new technological and tactical approaches to accomplish the diverse missions that SOF will face in the future,” he explained.
Much of USSOCOM’s focus – in partnership with ISOF partners – remains on its three major mission sets, which include counter-terrorism; countering weapons of mass destruction; and the most recent addition, messaging and counter-messaging designed to negate mature information operations currently being mastered by Russian armed forces and intelligence organizations.
“SOF has a long tradition of solving hard problems, adapting to changing conditions, and fielding innovative technology and tactics to give us the decisive advantage in combat,” Thomas said. “We believe that this tradition will continue to serve us well in the future. We are increasing our investments in a wide spectrum of emerging technologies to include artificial intelligence and machine learning, automated systems, advanced robotics, augmented reality, biomedical monitoring, and advanced armor and munitions development, just to name a few.
“We are in the formative stages of establishing an experimental force which will more coherently focus and integrate our future force, development in the pursuit of the required peer competitor capabilities.”
ISOF PARTNER SUPPORT
With an international presence covering more than 80 partner nations around the world, USSOCOM’s influence on the ISOF community continues to gather pace as the Global SOF Network is further extended. As West explained to the SCAS, forward deployed SOF elements represent a “vanguard force [tackling] our most pressing challenges in the most hostile environments.”
Cooperation across the global network includes close collaboration and 95 percent funding of the NATO Special Operations Headquarters (NSHQ) as well as the U.S. Special Operations Command Europe (SOCEUR) Theater Special Operations Command, which is tasked with strengthening European security collective capabilities and interoperability as well as countering transnational threats.
As an example, NSHQ and SOCEUR, as well as multiple ISOF partners including Poland’s Special Operations Component Command (POL SOCC), remain heavily involved in the shaping and development of Ukraine’s Special Operations Forces, which continue to conduct counter-insurgency operations at home as part of the joint forces operation.
On Feb. 15, Ukraine’s SOCOM convened with ISOF partners to discuss how best to counter Russian proxy forces currently operating in the country, as well as consideration of threats posed by potentially invasive Spetsnaz brigades from within Russia.
Addressing the media after the event, Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine Gen. Viktor Muzhenko explained how the current security situation in the region had been discussed by senior service commanders, before adding: “The general staff analyzed the actions of the special forces of the Russian Federation, and we already prepared the plans for counteracting various scenarios of crisis situations. Our task is not to slow down the pace of introduction of new standards in training, technical equipment, and comprehensive provision of domestic special operations forces.”
The event was supported by the U.S., U.K., Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Romania, and Denmark, as well as Canada, thereby illustrating a collective ISOF resolve to enhance Ukraine’s special operations capabilities.
Concerns regarding Russia’s information warfare capabilities arise at a time when Russian SOF continue to receive significant investment from the Kremlin, including the acquisition of next-generation materiel upgrades as described on Feb. 27 by President Vladimir Putin, who announced ongoing “reinforcement and development” in Russian Spetsnaz brigades in order to ensure “security, sovereignty and national interests.”
Addressing SOF personnel in Moscow, Putin said that Spetsnaz brigades continued to demonstrate “tactical skills for special operations on the ground, in the air and at sea,” supported with technology designed by indigenous manufacturing bureaus.
Russia’s emphasis on rebuilding its own SOF capabilities has seen Spetsnaz brigades equipped with a series of next-generation technologies to support ongoing operations in Eastern Europe as well as the Middle East. Solutions include the purchase of multi-purpose all-terrain vehicles, fast attack craft, swimmer propulsion vehicles, and rotary-wing airframes.
Russian aggression in Eastern Europe has also led to a series of doctrinal shifts in the ISOF community as commanders seek to optimize their own special mission capabilities as well as interoperability with ISOF partners.
Examples include the Georgian Armed Forces (GAF), which, on Jan. 10, disclosed plans to extend the Special Operations Brigade’s (SOB’s) order of battle. According to Chief of the General Staff of the GAF Maj. Gen. Vladimer Chachibaia, the SOB will realign its strategic objectives to allow special mission units to more autonomously react to internal security breaches. In 2017, Georgian SOF were certified up to NATO standards for special operations.
Conducted under the auspices of the NSHQ, any reconfiguration is expected to include the establishment of a second, permanent operating base to augment the SOB’s current headquarters in the capital city of Tblisi.
One course of action open to the SOB will be the relocation of the SOB’s Naval Special Warfare Group to an alternative base somewhere along Georgia’s Black Sea coast, allowing for more responsive maritime
counterterrorism capabilities by fast attack craft.
Elsewhere, SOF components in Central Europe have responded to events in the contemporary operating environment with plans to pool resources in order to establish a Regional Special Operations Component Command (R-SOCC).
Officially announced by NATO on Feb.13, SOF components from Croatia, Hungary, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Austria signed a letter of intent to support the venture, which aims for the creation of a “deployable R SOCC for small joint operations.”
The move follows a similar and ongoing effort by SOF components from Belgium, Denmark, and the Netherlands to establish the Composite Special Operations Component Command (C-SOCC), which aims to support NATO operations in 2020 and beyond.
Development of the R-SOCC will be led by Hungarian SOF. A NATO statement described the concept’s aim as “dramatically [increasing] the ability of these five nations to effectively employ their special forces.”
“The non-permanent structure of the R-SOCC enables each participant to use its own contributions separately, while benefitting from the integrated R-SOCC structure once activated for a deployment. The new multinational command will be developed in line with NATO standards, leveraging the expertise of NATO’s Special Operations Headquarters in Mons, Belgium. While primarily intended for NATO and European Union [EU] operations, the command could participate in other multilateral missions, exercises or training,” NATO’s statement concluded.
The agreement was praised by NATO Deputy Secretary General Rose Gottemoeller, who described it as “a significant step forward in strengthening special operation forces capacities in the region, and towards a fully integrated multinational regional command element.”
Defense sources also explained to Special Operations Outlook that Baltic State SOF components are also considering the creation of some kind of similar R-SOCC. However, defense sources from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were unable to provide comment as Special Operations Outlook went to press.
However, ISOF support in Eastern Europe is not only restricted to doctrinal developments. From Dec. 1-11, 2018, SOCEUR organized Exercise Combined Resolve XI (CbR XI) at the Joint Multinational Readiness Center, Hohenfels, Germany, to “improve readiness and interoperability amongst allies and partners” across NATO’s eastern flank.
The exercise, which involved SOF components from the U.S., Bulgaria, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (now the Rebublic of Northern Macedonia) , Romania, and for the first time, Ukraine, was designed to assist in the visualization of the command and control of joint forces in a simulated scenario.
According to a senior officer from Ukraine’s 3rd SOF Regiment, the exercise provided Ukrainian operators with the opportunity to “… learn new military standards” from ISOF and non-SOF partners.
“The main achievement for us [was] the coordination of SOF with NATO conventional forces. We were able to observe targets for the brigade Tactical Operations Center and disseminate information concerning those targets and call for fire. We also conducted special reconnaissance and direct action missions on high value targets with multinational Special Operations Task Units,” the senior officer said.
An official exercise announcement published by SOCEUR described how the training provided Ukraine SOF with the “ability to increase readiness, showcase their capabilities, and share and refine lessons learned from recent combat experience.”
“Ukraine SOF are an increasingly capable partner, who through events like CbR XI are proving their ability to work alongside U.S., allied, and NATO SOF counterparts,” the statement read.
“[Ukrainian SOF] understand the importance of special operations forces and conventional forces integration. Ukrainian SOF dedicated two of their personnel to act as liaison officers at the brigade level to facilitate communications with units on the ground. The brigade often relied on SOF to identify strategic level targets, coordinate the passage of friendly lines during limited visibility, coordinate resupply missions, and share intelligence about major enemy movements,” it continued.
The exercise also highlighted the importance of joint operations conducted by SOF in support of conventional units. As an example, exercise scenarios included coordinated resupply missions conducted by conventional units to extend the operational longevity of SOF small unit teams conducting special reconnaissance and calls for fire.
“We took part in the operation planning process, support, and command and control of operations according to NATO planning templates. Now we have advanced experience for performing tasks together with NATO units and also in joint forces operations,” the Ukrainian SOF officer said.
Another U.S. SOF participant concluded: “This exercise demonstrated to all the participating elements that we need more SOF and conventional forces integration if we want to be successful in future conflicts.”
Elsewhere, SOCEUR also supported the inaugural Advanced Combat Leaders Course (ACLC) in Lest, Slovakia, over the course of October and November, designed to provide an organic training capability for ISOF partners operating across NATO’s eastern flank.
A second iteration of the “Train the Trainer” ACLC will be outsourced to POL SOCC in 2019, which, according to defense sources associated with the course, have already started planning the training program.
“POL SOCC intends to expand the program and bring in more elements. They are definitely taking the head, as far as they are asking us what we would need to run this,” explained one anonymous U.S. SOF operator to Special Operations Outlook.
“They are the ones who are doing all the backside support for it. This was sort of their trial run for when they are leading it next year.”
The 2018 iteration of ACLC focused on similar content to U.S. Special Forces’ Advanced Urban Combat (SFAUC) Training, which retains a focus on close quarter battle and special insertion/extraction tactics, techniques, and procedures.
“The purpose of this training collaboration is to train future instructors from NATO countries, and to build and strengthen the interoperability between allied forces, develop a standard operating procedure (SOP), and enhance the expeditionary capability of all those involved,” U.S. SOF sources confirmed, before describing how POL SOCC had wanted to implement its own train-the-trainer program on an annual rotation.
“So, we reached out to [Lithuanian and Slovakian SOF] and asked them to send their best and brightest as far as who they want to be instructors within their own elements,” the 10th Special Forces Group source concluded.
As defense sources associated with Ukraine’s SOCOM described to Special Operations Outlook, SOF small unit teams also remain dedicated to enhancing technological capabilities to assist in operations across C2D2Es similar to those currently being witnessed in eastern Ukraine.
In the United States, for example, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) continues to pursue the System of Systems Enhanced Small Units (SESU) concept to support SOF teams operating in anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) environments and C2D2Es.
Having conducted an initial industry day on March 18, 2019, DARPA aims to identify equipment capable of supporting SOF small unit teams “to destroy, deceive, and/or disrupt the adversary’s anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities in order to enable joint and coalition multi-domain operations at appropriate times and locations,” as well as “destroy, degrade, and delay the adversary’s maneuver capabilities,” according to DARPA’s solicitation.
According to documentation obtained from DARPA’s Strategic Technology Office, SESU’s main effort falls into the organization’s vision of “Mosaic Warfare,” which aims to provide SOF and conventional forces with “new asymmetric weapons via rapidly composable networks of low-cost sensors, multi-domain command and control nodes and cooperative manned and unmanned systems.”
This ability to operate outside the effects of Russian information operations represents a significant hurdle currently being considered by the ISOF community with a series of assured communications solutions, ranging from the re-emergence of high frequency (HF) communications sets through to low probability of detection (LPI) and low probability of intercept (LPI) waveforms, and finally through the exploitation of commercial satellite communications (SATCOM) channels, allowing units to “hide in the noise.”
Disclosing recent communications evaluation and procurement activities in Eastern Europe, defense sources described to Special Operations Outlook how SATCOM continues to be rapidly and routinely disrupted by Russian forces (whether proxy or not). Such interference has led to an increase in demand for HF solutions such as Harris Corporation’s AN/PRC-160(V), which has already been delivered to multiple undisclosed SOF components in the AoR.
Speaking to Special Operations Outlook, a senior official at NSHQ discussed the importance of “primary, alternative, contingency, and emergency” communications capabilities in order to provide SOF small unit teams with multiple levels in connectivity redundancy when working in C2D2Es.
“We are getting back to HF skills we lost because we were so network-centric. This is going to be a drive behind our next NSHQ J6 Symposium in May. We can help deliver that capability [to ISOF partners],” the source emphasized.
Alternative technology solutions to assure communications in C2D2Es includes LPD/LPI waveforms that can be integrated into the latest software defined radios (SDRs). Development work in this field continues to be led by the U.S. Army’s Special Contested Environment Waveform Working Group and follows calls by USSOCOM’s Program Manager, Program Executive Office C4 Deb Woods, who describes this capability as a “major trend” moving forward.
Addressing delegates at the Special Operations Forces Industry Conference (SOFIC) in Tampa, Florida, last year, Woods described how both HF and LPD/LPI-enabled SDRs could be used to satisfy “emerging demand from the special operations community” seeking to overcome operational constraints associated with C2D2Es.
Finally, multiple ISOF components continue to employ Spectra Group’s SlingShot applique antenna, which can convert VHF, UHF handheld, and manpack SDRs into “SATCOM On the Move” platforms to ensure connectivity in disrupted environments.
Speaking to Special Operations Outlook, Spectra Group Business Development Manager Billy Bingham highlighted how SlingShot’s electronic signature can be reduced through its reliance on commercial satellite constellations as opposed to dedicated military channels.
“Indeed, there is an electronic signature that would be seen by electronic warfare assets. However, it is a commercial signature of which there are many throughout the globe and It is therefore highly unlikely to be attributed to deployed SOF,” Bingham explained.
Similar concerns were expressed to Special Operations Outlook by Capt. Jan Weuts from Belgium’s Special Forces Group, who warned that SOF operators must remain aware of “near peer jamming capabilities” across increasingly “gray zone” operating environments.
Weuts called for SOF operators to become less reliant upon high technology solutions, particularly relating to C4ISTAR. Describing how SOF operators must remain “masters of no or low technology,” he warned: “Humans are more important than hardware. But the future SOF operator must be seen as a system for strategic effect towards man/machine-enabled strategic and tactical cognition, decision-making, and action.”
Such a concept, he explained, could be achieved through a fully integrated C2ISR architecture, providing SOF small unit teams with reach-back to “tailored” open source intelligence analysis as well as collaborative mixed reality to support tactical decision-making. However, Weuts did warn that only relevant information must be selected and pushed down to SOF operators already immersed in high amounts of intelligence.
“SOF operators will continue to remain the main system to influence a given conflict’s ecosystem, although artificial intelligence-enabled robots can have a supporting role. One can train for special reconnaissance and direct action, but one needs to educate SOF for military assistance and special warfare in the human domain,” Weuts concluded.
In line with emerging operational requirements, the ISOF community looks set to continue expanding its global network – a move that will see increasing collaboration leading to solutions to overcome even the most restrictive constraints associated with the modern battlefield.