Defense Media Network

Newest Defense Media Network Promotion

International Special Operations Forces

Year in Review 2017-2018

As the international special operations forces (SOF) community gathers for its biennial meeting in Tampa, Florida, senior commanders continue to carefully analyze lessons learned from recent and ongoing operations while also keenly considering emerging requirements across an increasingly complex, contested, and congested battlespace.

Much attention has been awarded to a coalition of international Special Operations Task Groups (SOTGs) tasked with the eradication of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS), also known as Daesh, in northern Iraq and Syria. Special Operations Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, which includes force elements from Australia, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Norway, the U.K., and elsewhere, has remained heavily focused on military assistance (MA) operations in support of Iraqi and Kurdish SOF and special missions units (SMUs) tasked with conducting ground operations to retake strategic strongholds including Mosul and Raqqa.

Much attention has been awarded to a coalition of international Special Operations Task Groups (SOTGs) tasked with the eradication of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS), also known as Daesh, in northern Iraq and Syria.

The U.S.-led coalition was tasked with the training, advising, and assisting of indigenous SOF and SMUs as well as limited accompaniment on the ground. It was within this latter area that international SOF teams found themselves heavily involved during the campaign, which included the direction of coalition air strikes on IS positions as well as processing, exploitation, and dissemination (PED) of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) data across the battlespace to assist indigenous forces.

Middle East Partnering

However, with the conclusion of major combat operations against IS following the capture of Rawah from IS in November 2017, the international coalition of SOTGs remains in a state of flux as politicians consider alternative deployments.

Speaking to Special Operations Outlook for the final time before handing over command of the Danish Special Operations Command, Maj. Gen. Jørgen Høll explained how he was “assessing” the current situation of the national SOTG with regard to its deployment at Al Asad, close to the Iraq/Syria border.

Høll confirmed Danish SOF remain active in the area, although he explained how its future – with regard to any deployment extension or withdrawal – would depend upon the outcome of Danish national elections.

With the conclusion of major combat operations against IS following the capture of Rawah from IS in November 2017, the international coalition of SOTGs remains in a state of flux as politicians consider alternative deployments.

Similarly, the Canadian SOF Command (CANSOFCOM) continues to consider future options for the deployment of its SOTG to the Middle East, which has supported a train, advise, and assist mission with Kurdish Peshmerga SMUs.

On Oct. 27, 2017, CANSOFCOM postponed the SOTG’s “non-combat” MA mission in northern Iraq ahead of a political review of its role in theater. The decision was explained during a public address by Chief of the Canadian Defense Staff Gen. Jonathan Vance, in which he described how the SOTG had “paused” operations.

However, Vance explained: “We’re not contained to the base. It’s not quite as dramatic as that. But we’re not advising and assisting any forces at this juncture. That’s what the special operations forces’ principal effort was supposed to be when we deployed. It’s been done superbly well up to this point in time, and now we are evaluating the situation.”

SOJTF OIR patch international special operations

The Special Operations Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve (SOJTF-OIR) conducted a re-patching ceremony to replace the interim 1st Special Forces Group unit patch previously worn in Southwest Asia. The newly approved patch prominently features black and gold colors and a spear. Black represents activities performed under cover of darkness while gold represents excellence. The spearhead itself represents special operations forces as being “the tip of the spear.” SOJTF-OIR is the special operations command subordinate to the Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR). CJTF-OIR is the global coalition to defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria. U.S. ARMY PHOTO BY SGT. DAKOTA PRICE, SOJTF-OIR

Further light was shed on the status of the SOTG by Canadian National Defense spokesperson Dan Le Bouthillier, who explained in an official statement how future relations with “Iraqi security forces” would continue once a review process analyzing future priorities and tasks had been completed.

“In the interim, they will continue to monitor the situation and plan for the next potential phases of operational activity,” he said.

Defense sources associated with CANSOFCOM also disclosed to Special Operations Outlook how any future employment of the SOTG in the Middle East would likely feature special reconnaissance (SR) operations in support of local partner-nation forces.

An alternative course of action for the SOTG could also comprise the support of an explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) task force, first deployed to Iraq on Nov. 17, 2017, with a main effort to neutralize unexploded ordnance left by IS groups, especially in large urban sprawls including Mosul and Raqqa.

However, any potential drawdown in the footprint of international SOF elements in the Middle East will not dramatically affect outside influence on indigenous SOF components.

Iraqi SOF brigades, for example, which were so heavily employed by Iraq’s Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) to execute combat operations against IS, continue to be heavily influenced by U.S. SOF components despite the drawdown in kinetic missions.

Discussing the future of the Iraqi SOF brigades, Brig. Gen. James Glynn of the Special Operations Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve explained in a Department of Defense (DOD) briefing on Jan. 16, 2018, how they were seeking to upgrade their counterterrorism capabilities following recent emphasis on light infantry concepts of operations (CONOPS) and tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) while encountering IS militants.

Glynn explained how Iraqi SOF commanders were in the process of generating an action plan to “refurbish” force elements in order to prepare for “any emerging threats” in the future.

“The CTS has an annual plan to keep themselves on track for what they think they need,” he said. “And, just like any of the challenges any of the coalition nations face, in terms of what their target is, their target’s driven by both what capabilities they need, how significant the threat is they face, and then, like the rest of us, what can they afford.”

However, Glynn also stated: “They’re on a very good path to maintain their capabilities, and they are, without a doubt, a force that remains focused and dedicated towards the counterterrorism mission and ensuring that things like [IS] do not return to the lands, here, of Iraq.”

Defense sources associated with Operation Inherent Resolve explained to Special Operations Outlook how Iraqi SOF were seeking to reacquaint themselves with more specialist counterterrorism capabilities that would better prepare them to contribute to the maintenance of a stable security situation in the country.

“They’re on a very good path to maintain their capabilities, and they are, without a doubt, a force that remains focused and dedicated towards the counterterrorism mission and ensuring that things like [IS] do not return to the lands, here, of Iraq.”

Sources explained how various courses of action could include further investment and development in special reconnaissance, hostage rescue, noncombatant evacuation, and close protection capabilities, although Glynn did describe how U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) would continue to support Iraqi SOF in relation to specialist skill sets including ISR as well as site sensitive exploitation (SSE) serials.

Glynn concluded: “We will, at their request, continue to support them with those kinds of technical assistance. … Where some of our advice and assistance is focused now is on, after an operation, when there is information available on documents or on technical [devices like] a laptop, for example.

“It’s much more a case of us providing some advice on how that can best be integrated into what they’re planning and the kind of assessments they’re making of what any organization [such as IS] may be trying to do,” he said.

Near-Peer Threats

Such mentoring and partnering of strategic allies remains a primary capability set for the international SOF community, particularly at a time when many global commands are concerned with countering emerging capabilities of so-called “near-peer” adversaries including China, Iran, North Korea, and Russia.

In Asia Pacific, partner-nation forces across the region continue to position themselves strategically to prepare for emerging situations with potential near-peer adversaries, including China and North Korea.

Recent moves have included increased cooperation between Australia and Japan, which was cemented on Jan. 18, 2018, with the visit of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to the home of the Japan Ground Self Defense Force’s Special Forces Group (SFG).

In Asia Pacific, partner-nation forces across the region continue to position themselves strategically to prepare for emerging situations with potential near-peer adversaries, including China and North Korea.

According to a joint statement published by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Turnbull at the event, “deeper and broader defense cooperation” would enable “exercises, operations, capacity building, navy, army and air force visits, and further cooperation on defense equipment, science and technology” between the countries in 2018 and onward. Future collaboration is understood to include the participation of the SFG, Japan Maritime Self Defense Force’s Special Boarding Unit (SBU), and force elements from the Australian Special Operations Command, which includes the Special Air Service Regiment (SASR) and 1st/2nd Commando Regiments.

Sea Breeze 17 international special operations

A U.S. Naval Special Warfare operator observes a Ukrainian SOF operator on a weapons range in Ochakiv, Ukraine, during Exercise Sea Breeze 17, July 18, 2017. Sea Breeze is a U.S. and Ukraine co-hosted multinational maritime exercise held in the Black Sea and is designed to enhance interoperability of participating nations and strengthen maritime security within the region. U.S. SPECIAL OPERATIONS COMMAND

The event came at a time when North Korea and China continued to flex their muscles across the region – a fact that was acknowledged in Japan’s defense plan for 2017, which described how SOF components must be prepared to deploy in order to counter North Korean attacks spearheaded by SOF or other guerrilla elements.

Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) interests, however, extend beyond Asia Pacific, as illustrated by media reports emerging in November 2017 that suggested SOF elements were being considered for deployment to Syria in support of President Bashar al-Assad, following ratification by the National People’s Congress. The Chinese ministry of national defense officially denied this during a late November 2017 press conference.

Any such operation could see PLA SOF teams conducting counterinsurgency and counterterrorism missions against the East Turkestan Islamic Movement in western Syria, although any troop presence has yet to be substantiated.

Farther west, the Russian Ministry of Defense (MOD) continues to extend its capabilities and influence on a global scale despite President Vladimir Putin’s pledge on Dec. 11, 2017, to withdraw the main force from operations in the Middle East, where they have been supporting al-Assad. However, Special Operations Outlook was informed that Russian “Spetsnaz” SOF elements were likely to remain in place to support the regime, which continues to be engaged in a civil war.

On its European borders, Russian SOF continue to build up capabilities threatening neighboring state actors across the High North and Arctic Circle (namely Finland, Norway, Sweden, U.K., Canada, and the United States), as well as Ukraine and the Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania), who fear aggression such as Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Danish SOF international special operations

Danish special operations forces conduct contingency training in the Arctic Circle as tensions continue to rise regarding Russian SOF movements in the region. DANISH SPECIAL OPERATIONS COMMAND PHOTO

Russian SOF now benefit from a forward operating base on Alexandra Land (bestowed a visit in March 2017 from Putin himself), designed to support cold-weather operations and training exercises. Similarly, Spetsnaz units continue to support MOD exercises along borderlines with Baltic neighbors, as they are used as a show of force to Russia’s western neighbors.

These emerging threats have forced increasing levels of cooperation between NATO partner-nation forces and the Baltic states as well as Ukraine and other Eastern European state actors, all of which continue to develop their own special operations capabilities.

On its European borders, Russian SOF continue to build up capabilities threatening neighboring state actors across the High North and Arctic Circle.

Ukraine’s special operations command, for example, continues to benefit from the stewardship of USSOCOM as well as other commands falling under the organizational umbrella of the NATO Special Operations Headquarters (NSHQ). Partners include Lithuanian Special Operations Forces (LITHSOF) and the Polish Special Operations Component Command.

Referring to the start of cooperation with NSHQ elements, Maj. Gen. Ihor Lunyov, commander of Ukraine’s special operations command, explained to Special Operations Outlook how such collaboration continued to be extended.

“Advisory support provided by NSHQ is extremely important and valuable for us. We have already conducted a great number of workshops, both in Belgium and Ukraine, and besides, we have NSHQ’s permanent adviser – a Lithuanian SOF representative – inside the [Ukrainian] SOCOM,” he said.

Polish SOF international special operations

Polish special operations forces conduct maritime counterterrorism training as commanders continue to build on relations with Eastern European neighbors. POLISH SPECIAL OPERATIONS COMPONENT COMMAND PHOTO

“Among the achievements of SOCOM and NSHQ cooperation, I would like to emphasize NSHQ’s significant support in SOF legislation development, training system enhancement, planning of comprehensive SOF support. All this comprises a time-consuming process,” he continued.

“We are open to expanding the level of our international cooperation. Our units have gained and continue gaining an important and valuable experience of participation in combat operations.

“However, we are not focused just on the experience of countering Russian aggression. The aim is to obtain the diversely trained SOF personnel. All from the listed above countries have their own experience of participation in the military operations,” Lunyov concluded.

Such interoperability remains key to the international SOF community, not only in Eastern Europe but also on a global basis. Speaking to Special Operations Outlook, a spokesperson for LITHSOF explained how it had become “closely integrated and interconnected within a large network of various national institutions, organizations, NATO allies’ and partner-nations’ SOF, who now support the LITHSOF inside and outside the country.”

“We are open to expanding the level of our international cooperation. Our units have gained and continue gaining an important and valuable experience of participation in combat operations.”

“During a number of NRF [NATO Response Force] standby rotations and tours in Afghanistan, LITHSOF gained priceless friendships, experience, knowledge, and technological improvements, which currently are being employed for national defense and NATO purposes,” the spokesperson added.

It was also described how LITHSOF continued to support a multinational training mission in Ukraine in order to “support the formation of a separate SOF branch fulfilling NATO requirements until 2020.”

“Also, it is a unique opportunity to gain knowledge and experience from the Ukrainian armed forces about modern unconventional warfare,” the spokesperson added.

Another example of such interoperability continues to be witnessed in the form of the annual Exercise Flaming Sword, which is organized and executed by LITHSOF with support from partner-nation forces from across Eastern Europe.

“Every year, it is planned and organized as a comprehensive, inter-institutional, and interagency field training exercise throughout the territorial land, waters, air, and electronic space of Lithuania,” one exercise official from within LITHSOF told Special Operations Outlook.

Flaming Sword 17 international special operations

A U.S. Naval Special Warfare operator conducts tactical scenario training in Lithuania during Flaming Sword 17, May 10, 2017. Flaming Sword is an annual Lithuanian-led and -hosted SOF exercise that took place May 2-19, 2017. During the exercise, SOF trained on SOF/conventional force integration to include police, border guard, and other security forces. USSOCOM PHOTO BY STAFF SGT. HENRY GUNDACKER

“The training audience of the exercise is linked with other national Lithuanian armed forces exercises, as well as other NATO and regional SOF exercises. Different national and international institutions, SOF units from various NATO allies’ and partners’ countries take part in this exercise every year,” the official concluded.

Joint Operating Environment

Finally, the international SOF community is set to benefit from increased interoperability in the joint operational environment as it seeks to overcome hurdles associated with working with outside agencies.

In Europe, a memorandum of understanding in support of the Belgian, Dutch, and Danish Composite Special Operations Component Command (C-SOCC) concept was expected to have been signed at the end of March 2018, signaling the next step in the establishment of a joint SOF headquarters capable of deploying six SOTGs and a single special operations air task group.

C-SOCC SOTGs, SOF officials associated with the concept explained to Special Operations Outlook, will comprise force elements from Belgium’s Special Forces Group, Denmark’s Jaeger Corps and naval special warfare unit, and the Netherlands’ Korps Commandotroepen (KCT) and Maritime Special Operations Forces (MARSOF).

A full operating capability is expected to be achieved by 2020, with consideration to bid for the C-SOCC to support the NRF at a later date.

The international SOF community is set to benefit from increased interoperability in the joint operational environment as it seeks to overcome hurdles associated with working with outside agencies.

Elsewhere in the world, multiple state actors have initiated processes to establish their own national special operations commands to satisfy joint operational requirements. In Europe, the Netherlands continues to work up its own plans to establish such a command, comprising a centralized command structure for KCT and NL-MARSOF component commands.

A task force was stood up in September 2017 to initiate the process, with an initial operating capability for the NL SOCOM expected to be achieved by the end of 2018, defense sources confirmed to Special Operations Outlook. The move also aims to establish a dedicated special operations air component for NL SOCOM, also capable of supporting the C-SOCC, service officials added.

Romania is also undertaking a similar effort, with a SOF headquarters established on Jan.1, 2018, designed to strengthen army and navy special operations units in conventional and unconventional warfare.

The unified headquarters will retain operational control of the army’s 6th Special Operations Brigade and Special Detachment of Protection and Intervention, as well as the Naval Group Special Operations Force. Details were disclosed by Maj. Gen. Marian Sima at the Global SOF Symposium in Bucharest on Sept. 27, 2017.

Elsewhere in the world, multiple state actors have initiated processes to establish their own national special operations commands to satisfy joint operational requirements.

Finally, the Venezuelan armed forces announced on Aug. 17, 2017, similar plans to establish a special operations command in order to maximize the operational effectiveness of joint operations with other government agencies.

With a headquarters in Maracay, Aragua State, the command will retain the operational control of the army’s 107th and 509th Special Operations Battalions; Paratrooper Brigade’s Rapid Reaction Unit; navy’s Special Operations Command; and air force’s 10th, 15th, and 17th Special Operations Air Groups.

Conclusion

The international SOF community remains in a healthy position, although unrelenting pursuits of excellence in the form of centralized command components, multinational training, and operational programs look set to increase capabilities yet further into the future.

However, as near-peer adversarial capabilities continue to emerge and mature, much will depend upon the correct blend of doctrine, concepts of operation, and technology.

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


%d bloggers like this: