International collaboration between special operations forces (SOF) has never been stronger as commanders seek to extend levels in interoperability and cooperation with partner-nation forces around the world as well as their own force-multiplying effects.
In the contemporary operating environment, it is not unusual to witness the conduct of joint training exercises featuring dozens of SOF components drawn from across the international SOF community. Examples include U.S. Africa Command’s annual Exercise Flintlock which, between Feb. 18 and March 1, saw a total of 18 NATO/ Non-NATO entity and North/West African SOF components coming together in Burkina Faso and Mauritania, with a focus on countering violent extremist organizations (VEOs).
Tasked with organizing similar partnerships across the Indo-Pacific Area of Responsibility (AOR) is another U.S. Theater Special Operations Command (TSOC) – Special Operations Command Pacific (SOCPAC) – whose remit is to support the Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM) across one of the most densely populated and culturally, socially, economically, and geopolitically diverse regions in the world.
As the commander of the USINDOPACOM, U.S. Navy Adm. Phil Davidson explained in a speech to the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) on March 7, 2019, in Singapore, the Geographic Combatant Command continues to employ a “whole of government” approach to address a series of challenges across the region in order to “enhance our partnerships with all countries – big and small.”
According to USINDOPACOM figures, the AOR features a total of 36 state actors that are home to more than 50 percent of the world’s total population. With some 3,000 languages spoken across the region, the Indo-Pacific is described as a “vital driver” to the global economy that is supported by major international shipping lanes and some of the largest ports in the world.
Additionally, the Indo-Pacific AOR features 14 time zones covering 12 hours of the day, as well as encompassing 53 percent of the world’s surface area, much of which is maritime. Furthermore, SOCPAC sources highlighted to Special Operations Outlook diverse challenges associated with extensive island chains. As an example, service officials described how the Philippines is home to 7,641 islands.
Highlighting more than 70 years as a “largely peaceful” region, Davidson explained to IISS how such success had been achieved by the “willingness and commitment of free nations to work together in the rules-based international order, and the credibility of the combat power of USINDOPACOM, working alongside the militaries of allies and partners.”
“We can use greater interoperability and information-sharing to ensure we collectively uphold the principles of a free and open Indo-Pacific,” he urged, before stressing how he had witnessed precisely this type of concept prior to his address to the IISS with the opening of the Information Fusion Center and Regional Humanitarian Coordination Cell in Singapore.
“There I saw the collaborative contributions of 18 countries, including the People’s Republic of China, in addressing maritime security and responding to potential humanitarian crisis response,” Davidson said.
Addressing the Senate Armed Services Committee on Feb. 12, 2019, Davidson also warned how the Indo-Pacific AOR comprises a “… heavily militarized region, with seven of the world’s ten largest standing militaries and five of the world’s declared nuclear nations.”
The Indo-Pacific features a range of challenges for U.S. force components and their partner-nation forces, including a nuclear-armed North Korea, and China – which, according to Davidson, represents the “greatest long-term strategic threat to a free and open Indo-Pacific.”
Elsewhere, Russia remains an “active presence” across the region, which also features the ongoing threat of multiple VEOs, including ISIS affiliates that captured the Philippines’ city of Marawi in 2017.
“Given these conditions, the strategic complexity facing the region is unique,” Davidson warned. “[But] with allies and partners, USINDOPACOM is committed to enhancing stability in the Asia-Pacific region by promoting security cooperation, encouraging peaceful development, responding to contingencies, deterring aggression, and, when necessary, fighting to win. This approach is based on partnership, presence, and military readiness.”
In order to “regain the advantage,” the USINDOPACOM continues to position its theater infrastructure across the wider AOR. This includes the deployment of SOCPAC force elements capable of supporting irregular and unconventional warfare.
According to SOCPAC Public Affairs Officer Maj. Kevin Boyd, the SOCPAC TSOC “ensures a free and open Indo-Pacific alongside a constellation of like-minded allies and partners, united by mutual security, interests, and values in order to deter adversary aggression, protect the homeland, and be ready to fight and win in armed conflict.”
Such a strategy is centrally supported by the deployment of Pacific Augmentation Teams (PATs) across multiple U.S. embassies in the AOR, which provide SOCPAC with a capacity to immediately respond to emerging situations.
Speaking to Special Operations Outlook, Boyd explained: “These liaison teams are military personnel assigned to SOCPAC and work within regional U.S. embassies alongside the U.S. Country Team to enhance coordination with the interagency and the host nation for USINDOPACOM.
“The PATs give USINDOPACOM the ability to rapidly respond to any crisis or natural disaster by having long-standing relationships with allies and partners built over time. This ability was most recently demonstrated by SOCPAC’s ability to have an operations officer on site at Tham Luang cave in Thailand within seven hours of a request for assistance from the Royal Thai Government. [The PAT] was able to provide the U.S. SOF search and rescue (SAR) team updates while they were flying from Okinawa, Japan,” Boyd continued.
“The PAT allows SOCPAC and INDOPACOM to expedite crisis response when requested by the host government and enables short- or even no-notice response times to natural or man-made crisis or humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HA/DR) missions. This ability to rapidly provide immediate aid only comes from years of persistent partnership,” he said.
Operational Case Studies
In recent years, SOCPAC’s operational reach has spread from humanitarian aid/disaster relief (HADR) support in Sri Lanka and Nepal through to SAR tasks in Thailand and finally, support of counterterrorism missions in the Philippines.
Over the course of 2018, SOCPAC supported a total of 367 operational partnership events, including 159 civil affairs operations; six counternarcotic/terrorism (CNT) deployments; 10 key leader engagements; and 29 military information support operations.
Areas of operation included Australia, Bangladesh, Burma, Brunei, Cambodia, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Japan, Laos, Malaysia, Maldives, Micronesia, Mongolia, Nepal, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Thailand, and Vietnam.
In 2017, SOCPAC responded to severe flooding in Sri Lanka when a PAT at U.S. Embassy Colombo leveraged both a Civil Military Support Element (CMSE) and U.S. Army Special Forces Operational Detachment-Alpha (ODA) (already in country for a joint combined exchange training (JCET) event) to rapidly re-mission for an HADR operation to respond to devastating flooding.
Similar support was provided in 2015 when SOCPAC also supported an international response to the Gorka earthquake in Nepal, which similarly involved the “re-mission” of two ODAs (again in country training with the Nepalese Army Mahabir Rangers).
“The PAT and ODAs worked hand-in-hand with the U.S. Embassy Kathmandu and government of Nepal to conduct surveys to confirm access to remote areas and help focus the foreign relief effort and aid. That aid also included leading the lone civilian helicopter to Everest Base Camp to recover stranded mountaineers who were isolated after the earthquake-induced avalanche cut off ground access,” Boyd explained.
On July 10, 2018, SOCPAC also famously supported the rescue of a junior soccer team from the Tham Luang cave complex in Chiang Rai, Thailand – again exhibiting the success of ongoing investment in joint training initiatives with Indo-Pacific partner nation forces.
Personnel from AFSOC’s 353rd Special Operations Group supported the Royal Thai Army Special Forces Regiment and the Royal Thai Navy SEALs, according to Air Force Special Tactics Officer Maj. Charlie Hodges, who described how the two-week operation could easily have been inhibited by language and cultural barriers.
“We struggled at first understanding what was offensive and not offensive [to local partners]. We were very direct as far as what we felt needed to be done and how we could help the Thai SEALS. The Thai rescuemen, who had already been out there for some time, were very emotional and were working through that. We were able to come in and offer another perspective and a logically driven decision. We were also able to help make some of those hard decisions while working with the Thai SEALs. Overall, I think we benefited from working together,” Hodges asserted in a post-mission statement obtained by Special Operations Outlook.
According to Boyd, SOCPAC managed to deploy an operations officer to the scene within 7 hours of an initial notification by the PAT, with personnel rapidly assuming an advisory role in support of Thai forces.
SOCPAC then supported the multinational rescue effort, which required Thai SEAL operators and expert divers from around the world to conduct a rescue operation with self-contained underwater breathing apparatus (SCUBA) through 1.45 kilometers of submerged tunnels. At certain stages throughout the underwater complex, Thai SEALs and international partners were required to remove SCUBA equipment to pass through narrow gaps. The operation sadly resulted in the death of former Thai Navy SEAL Saman Kunan.
However, as SOCPAC officials highlighted to Special Operations Outlook, operational focus since “9/11” has also significantly shifted toward countering VEOs and combating terrorism across the Indo-Pacific AOR.
Indeed, one of the most recent examples of SOCPAC collaboration with partner-nations forces in this regard comprised the establishment of the U.S.-enabled Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines (JSOTF-P), which was created to advise and assist the government of the Philippines in counterterrorism activities between 2002-2015.
Acknowledging how SOCPAC continues to support the Philippines government in terms of ongoing counterterrorism activities, Boyd explained: “SOCPAC continues to assist the armed forces of the Philippines by providing operational advice and assistance to higher-level commands for continued counterterrorism progress, humanitarian assistance, and civil-military cooperation.”
Ongoing cooperation includes joint training initiatives to ensure interoperability in counterterrorism operations through focused training; counter-violent extremism workshops; and information-sharing and -gathering.
On May 23, 2017, the armed forces of the Philippines initiated operations to recapture the city of Marawi from VEO combatant groups loyal to ISIS. Over the course of a five-month campaign, SOCPAC supported indigenous ground and helicopter assault operations with intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR) assets.
Cooperation with U.S. SOF followed the shutdown of the Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines in 2015. But according to former commanding general of the AFP Special Operations Command, Maj. Gen. Ronnie Evangelista, the so-called “Battle of Marawi” has helped to reinstate cooperation with the international SOF community.
Today, SOCPAC continues to facilitate the support of SOF advisors to the AFPSOCOM in order to support small through to larger training exercises, as had previously been the case ahead of operations to retake Marawi.
“The DOD deploys special operations forces on a rotational basis to provide subject matter expert advice and assistance to their AFP partners. USINDOPACOM reported that advisory and assistance efforts [as of June 2018] included sharing information, enhancing surveillance capabilities and providing counterterrorism training and guidance,” an official DOD statement reads.
Supporting the whole-of-government approach across the Indo-Pacific, SOCPAC also continues to place strong emphasis on close collaboration with other U.S. government agencies in the region.
“When looking at one of SOCPAC’s missions, countering terrorism and violent extremism, special operations provides vital tools, but it requires partnership across the government and non-governmental spectrum to solve the root causes that lead to violent extremism,” Boyd said.
“Therefore, we partner with law enforcement, judicial, education, agricultural, economic, and a host of other U.S. and partner-nation agencies, NGOs [non-government organizations] and private enterprises to develop solutions to the Indo-Pacific region’s most complex problems.”
Training Case Studies
SOCPAC also continues to support an increasing number of training programs with partner forces around the Indo-Pacific AOR. In 2018 alone, SOCPAC supported a total of 27 Indo-Pacific training exercises as well as 77 Joint Combined Exchange Training (JCET) events; six multinational workshops and conferences; and 47 subject matter expert exchanges. The list includes the Pacific Area Special Operations Conference, which is aimed at encouraging growing levels of multinational engagement across the AOR.
Some of the most notable joint training exercises include the hosting of a SOF-specific training program during the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise, last conducted between June 27 and Aug. 7, 2018.
Conducted across multiple exercise areas on and off the coast of Oahu, Hawaii, RIMPAC resulted in the successful collaboration of force elements from the Indonesian Navy Special Forces (KOPASKA); Indian Navy Marine Commando forces (MARCOS); Peruvian Naval Special Forces; Republic of Korea Special Warfare Flotilla; Philippine Navy Special Operations Group (NAVSOG); and the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force Special Boarding Unit.
Exercises were overseen by a combat dive and direct action ODA team from the U.S. Army’s 1st Special Forces Group, with a focus on the development of concepts of operation (CONOPS), tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) to support maritime counterterrorism, airborne insertion, ground assault, small boat, and submarine operations.
As the commander of the ODA (who remains anonymous due to security concerns) explained during the exercise, the SOF element of RIMPAC had allowed SOCPAC to encourage interoperability as well as multi-national partnerships under the theme of the exercise – “Capable, Adaptive, Partners.”
The exercise also provided Indo-Pacific partner-nation forces with access to scarce naval resources, including the Virginia-class submarine USS Hawaii (SSN 776). The submarine was used to launch small boat operations in blue water conditions.
Most recently, SOCPAC also supported the 38th iteration of the annual “Cobra Gold” exercise over the course of February. Hosted by Thailand, the exercise comprised the “Laydown” of Joint SOF components from the U.S. and Thailand as well as South Korea, Malaysia, Japan, Indonesia, and Singapore – many of which were observing the exercise.
Participating force components comprised 454-strong U.S. SOF and 369-strong Thai SOF task forces, operating across air, ground, and maritime domains with support from MC-130J, CV-22, and HH-60H aircraft as well as Combatant Craft Assault and Combat Craft Medium surface vessels, according to SOCPAC exercise documentation.
Conducted across five exercise areas spanning the northern half of Thailand, exercise serials focused on force integration training and mission planning; special reconnaissance; unconventional warfare; foreign internal defense; counter-IED; over-the-beach; joint visit, board, search, and seizures; direct-action raids; military operations in urban terrain; close air support; and airborne operations (both static line and military freefall).
Exercise serials were supported by a variety of specialist capabilities, including containerized delivery systems; special insertion techniques; tilt-rotor air-to-air refueling; forward air refueling points; personnel recovery; and human network analysis.
Finally, SOCPAC continues to explore new opportunities across the AOR as the SOF capabilities of partner nations continue to evolve and increase themselves.
As an example, SOCPAC is seeking to enhance levels in SOF cooperation with India – a country that remains in the final stages of establishing its own tri-service special operations division and command in order to encourage greater levels of interoperability between its various air, land and maritime SOF components.
According to Boyd, Indian SOF and SOCPAC continue to explore potential for an inaugural tri-service training event, expected to take place in 2020. According to SOCPAC, the exercise would represent the first time force elements from Para SF, MARCOS, and Garud will train together and exclusively with U.S. SOF partners. However, SOCPAC confirmed planning processes had yet to commence.
This evolution in the relationship between SOCPAC and Indian SOF follows the latest iteration of Exercise Vajra Prahar, conducted in Jaipur, Rajasthan. The 12-day exercise focused on counterterrorism capabilities and included small unit tactics, techniques, and procedures associated with ground and helicopter assault force operations.
Evolution and Expansion
As Boyd described to Special Operations Oulook, SOCPAC continues to explore methods to “expand the network of compatible and interoperable allies and partners” across the Indo-Pacific AOR. This includes cooperation with U.S. partner TSOCs around the world, particularly relating to the threat of trans-regional crime and terrorism.
“SOCPAC is working trans-regionally with the other TSOCs who are also very engaged with their partner nations. SOCPAC supports the sovereignty of a constellation of likeminded allies and partners who are willing to support the rules-based international order,” Boyd explained.
However, he also warned: “This is something that is universal across all TSOCs. Long-term partnerships yield lasting military-to-military bonds. This enables shared understanding, mutual respect, and resilience against short-term change. They also enable other state-to-state linkages.
“Being able to partner means that SOCPAC needs to maintain a very close relationship with the other Unified Combatant Commands to utilize their transportation assets,” Boyd concluded.
SOCPAC looks forward to continuing to evolve its capabilities in line with partner-nation forces across the Indo-Pacific as international SOF components become increasingly interlinked in line with requirements arising out of a rapidly evolving contemporary operating environment.