21 January 2019

A 2018 Retrospective - Special Operations Forces

Daniel Ilie

Image source: Mediafax

2018 was a year during which the statements of the political and military leaders on the importance of Special Operations Forces (SOF) in dealing with the current and future challenges of the international security environment were accompanied by actual measures of creating, upgrading, training, equipping and employing in operations such specialized capabilities.

Since the Centenary Year 2018 has become an important historical milestone in the development of the modern Romanian (ROU) SOF capabilities, I will try to make an annual, brief chronological summary, of the special operations realm, with emphasis on modernization, capabilities, training, employment in operations/ missions, and military co-operation.



On March 1, 2018, with the celebration of the ROU SOF Day and of 15 years since the establishment of the first tactical level structure, the Special Operations Battalion “Eagles" in Târgu Mureş, it was enacted the ROU Special Operations Forces Command (SOFC), the command and control structure (C2) through which the ROU Chief of Defense (CHOD) exerts the leadership of all ROU SOF. The event basically marked the first actual measure of the modernization plan for this specialized, quick-response, strategic-level component with dedicated land, naval and aerial structures, trained and equipped to conduct special recconaisance, direct actions, military assistance and unconventional warfare missions.

In April 2018, ROU SOF deployed to theater of operations (TO) Afghanistan were visited by former ROU Defense Minister Mihai Fifor.

On May 15, 2018, it had been a year since ROU SOF accession to the International Special Training Centre - ISTC, Staufer Kaserne, Pfullendorf, Germany. Since 1979, the ISTC provides advanced, specialized training for SOF and similar units in the vicinity of Pfullendorf, Germany in order to increase capability & interoperability among the nine signatory nations (BEL, DEU, ITA, GRC, NLD, NOR, TUR, USA and ROU) as well as other NATO Allies and Partners using the “Smart Defence” strategy.

On June 1, 2018, under the direct subordination of ROU SOFC, the Special Operations Forces Training School was established by implementing one project launched in 2017, as part of the ROU SOF modernization program, to plan, organize, and conduct the first US “Green Berets” like special forces qualification course, in Romania. Out of 180 candidates, only 30% graduated in July 2018, at the end of a field-based integrator exercise in Mangalia, Romania as the first graduates of the US model qualification course. On that occasion, NATO Special Operations Headquarters (NSHQ) Commander, Vice-Admiral (US) Colin Kilrain visited the ROU Ministry of National Defense expressing his appreciation for the excellent relationship between the ROU SOF, similar US structures and NSHQ.

Meanwhile, ROU SOF have continued their training and preparation activities for participating in missions and in several exercises planned, organized, and held on national territory or abroad.

At the beginning of June 2018, 14 ROU SOF troops trained alongside the Greek, Bulgarian, and Serbian SOF during the SALAMIS STORM - 2018 exercise in Greece, testing the degree of interoperability in a complex, difficult exercise during which various modern fighting capabilities have been used.

September 2018 marked a continuation of the combined training tradition with SOF from neighbouring countries during the Joint Combined Exchange Training (JCET), which took place this year in Romania, together with operators from Georgia and Moldova. The joint training modules continued in October in the Republic of Moldova.

At the end of September and the beginning of October 2018, the ROU Naval Special Operations Forces (NSOF) participated with a detachment from the 164th NSOF Unit embarked aboard the ROU frigate “Regele Ferdinand" in the anti-submarine multinational exercise Mavi Balina 18 organised by the Turkish Naval Forces in the Black Sea where they exercised opposed Visit, Board, Search and Seizure (VBSS).

In October 2018, ROU SOF participated alongside SOF Allies and Partners from the Southeast European countries, Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Greece, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Turkey in the multinational exercise Bucharest 9 Initiative (B9) B-9 CJSE "Thracian Sword 18", planned, organized, and conducted by Bulgarian SOF in Bulgaria. The exercise was supported with air assets by the US Armed Forces.

On the occasion of the Romanian Army Day, during the ceremony held in Carol I Park in Bucharest on November 25, 2018, CFOS received its combat flag.

We could watch ROU SOF from the ROU CFOS parading at the National Day Parade dedicated to the Centenary of the Great Union of Romania on 1 December 2018. They marched following the personnel of the ROU Defense Staff and right in front of the ROU Intelligence Brigade.

In December 2018, for the contribution made to the modernization process of the ROU SOF, two of the highest level military decision-makers, the Chief of Defense, General Nicolae Ionel Ciucă and the head of the Military Intelligence Directorate, Major General Marian Sima, received from the US Special Operations Command Commander, General (US) Raymond Thomas, the US SOF Medal of Honor.

Throughout 2018, ROU SOF continued to participate in the specific missions in the theaters of operations Afghanistan, Iraq and Kosovo.


NATO Allied and Partner SOF

In 2018 the US Special Operations Command, deployed in Panzer Kaserne, Stuttgart, Germany since 1967, continued to support the development of SOF capabilities on the European continent, including through JCET exercises with SOF in Serbia and Slovenia (March 2018), or Croatia (July 2018). SOCEUR plays an important role in jointly training US SOF with SOF of European Allies and Partners. Since June 2014 SOCEUR has maintained an almost continuous presence in the Baltic States and Poland in order to support the SOF capabilities of these countries.

Two other important exercises planned, organized and conducted by SOCEUR with NATO SOF and partners in Europe were: Trojan Footprint 18 (annual exercise intended to exercise the "mission command" function between different echelons and to integrate SOF with conventional forces into a joint framework) held in early June 2018 in the Baltic States and Poland, as well as Jackal Stone 18 (annual SOF exercise ordered by the Head of the US Joint Staff and coordinated by SOCEUR with European multinational participation) held in early December 2018 in Greece.

The US Government's security assistance programs, together with other initiatives that already have funds planned for 2019, such as the European Disposal Initiative (European Deterrence Initiative - EDI - former European Reassurance Initiative - ERI - required funds = $ 6.5 billion), Coalition Support (required funds = $ 1.1 billion for US coalition partners), Security Co-operation, Joint / Combined Exchange Training (JCET), and others, could be opportunities to support the process of upgrading the specific SOF capabilities and helping Romania's to become a regional hub for special operations forces.

US SOF has continued their security assistance programs to support the development of SOF capabilities in Europe, including the launch of initiatives such as the "Black Sea Initiative" promoted by the US Naval Small Craft Instruction and Technical Training School (NAVSCIATTS) in 2018 to develop multi-lateral maritime domain awareness and strengthen regional cooperation by developing SOF within the region to meet NATO interoperability standards. Through this type of assistance in August 2018 Bulgarian NSOF were equipped and trained to use fast, Rigid Hull, Inflatable Boats (RHIB).

Polish SOF operates under a single command from January 1, 2018, following the signing of a document by the Polish Defense Minister, a document reforming the chain of command of these forces.

The first 2018 NATO Allied and Partner SOF Commanders Conference, organized under the aegis of NSHQ, took place in March 2018 in Lithuania. Participants discussed, among other things, the recent strategic level changes in connection with NATO's strategic directions east and south and about the counter-terrorism efforts, as well.

At the NATO Defense Ministers' meeting in June 2018, defense ministers from Belgium, Denmark and the Netherlands signed a Memorandum of Understanding to jointly create the first Composite Special Operations Component Command (C-SOCC). This composite NATO command and control capability (3 nation contribution) is planned to reach its initial operational capacity in 2019 and the full operational capacity in 2021, when it will be able to participate in the NATO Response Force (NRF), planning and conducting special operations.

At the beginning of July 2018, Belgium (BEL) announced the establishment of the Special Operations Regiment (SOR) by the transformation of the Light Infantry Brigade. BEL SOR consists of the Special Operations Group, the 2nd Comando Battalion, the 3rd Parachute Battalion, the 6th Communications and Informatics Group, and the Training Centers.

On its Twitter page, the NATO Special Operations Command, NSHQ, deployed in Mons, Belgium, announces that starting August 2018, it establishes an organizational structural element called Innovation Cell. From the short message posted by NSHQ, it is not clear what the main tasks of such a structure might be, but if we were to make an assumption, that would be that they would like to adopt business practices similar to those of civilian companies, perhaps high-tech ones, when it comes to boosting research and development (R & D) activities in the realm of SOF capabilities, at NATO level.

In August 2018, military leaders, US international partners, defense industry experts and academics took part in the Modern Warfare Symposium & Expo sessions co-hosted by the U.S. Army Special Operations Command (USASOC) and Global SOF Foundation, a nonprofit organization to support SOF. Although the US will continue its campaign against global terrorism (the defense budget provisions 2019 confirm this), with the publication of the new US National Defense Strategy, it appears that the focus will change on the competition with major powers, near-peer opponents, China, Russia, North Korea, or Iran.

The US SOF trained during September 2018 at the US Grafenwoehr and Hohenfels training centers in Germany along with the Lithuanian Volunteer National Defense Forces (KASP) in planning and executing unconventional warfare operations in the enemy-held territory to establish the optimal conditions for achieving success by conventional forces in the battlefield.

Four countries in our proximity (Bulgaria, Croatia, Slovenia, and Hungary) signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on the Establishment of a Multinational Special Aviation Program in the margins of the NATO Defense Ministers meeting hosted by the Warsaw capital city of Poland in early October 2018. According to the MoU a new training center  with the exclusive task to train air crews that will perform insertion and extraction of SOF during specific missions will be established in Zadar, Croatia.

As the Deputy Secretary General of NATO Rose Gottemoeller emphasised, “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 [Multinational Special Aviation Program] is emblematic of the innovative approach NATO Allies and partners are taking as we enhance our collective defence capabilities.”

In the second half of October 2018, the Hungarian Special Operations Command hosted the 2nd NATO Allied and Partner Commanders Conference in Budapest, Hungary, organized under the aegis of the NSHQ, on the topic "Interagency Cooperation through the Lens of Counter Terrorism." .

The Netherlands announced in early December 2018 the establishment of the Dutch Special Operations Command. With the establishment of this command structure, the planning and execution of special operations will be considerably improved and this structure will contribute to the development of policies, plans and acquisitions processes, ensure the quality of training and contribute to the development of innovation. The ceremony was also attended by the NSHQ Commander.


Instead of a conclusion

The year 2018 was one when NATO leaders recognized the changing challenges to the security of the Alliance states, especially hybrid threats, and said, following the NATO Summit in July 2018, that in the event of a hybrid conflict, the NATO Council may even decide to invoke Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, as in the case of an armed conflict. On this occasion, they announced the launch of Counter Hybrid Support teams designed to assist Allies when they are targeted by hybrid activities.

Admitting a comprehensive and inter-agency approach to developing strategies to combat threats and hybrid operations, the Supreme Allied Command Europe (SACEUR), General (US) Curtis Scaparrotti said, during the NATO Military Committee Conference held in Warsaw, Poland, at the end of September 2018, that “We have special operations forces, and this is their business. They understand it. To the extent that they can identify hybrid activity, they can help our nations build their ability to identify and counter it.”

Madeleine Moon (the current chairman of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly) wrote in the draft report "NATO Special Operations Force in Modern Security Environment", subject to the approval of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly's Defense and Security Committee in October 2018, that competent SOF are essential in dealing with the current and future challenges of the international security environment.

Such statements, which during the year 2018 were accompanied by actual actions to build capabilities, or to modernize existing ones, to train them during the planned specialized exercises, and, in particular, the effective employment of SOF in missions in the theaters of operations in Afghanistan, the Western Balkans, Iraq, Syria, or other conflict areas on the Continent of Africa, are the evidence that NATO-level political decision-makers have understood the role, the place and the importance of SOF capabilities in the allied security and defense capabilities architecture.