13 January 2020

About who are the Romania Army’s Special Operations Forces and what do they do

Monitorul Apărării şi Securităţii

The Defense and Security Monitor Live: About who are the Romania Army’s Special Operations Forces and what do they do with Colonel (in reserve) Daniel Ilie, former commander of the Army’s Special Operations Component. About the most spectacular missions, training models, standards and qualities with Colonel Daniel Ilie, officer decorate with the US Army’s Bronze Star.

MODERATOR: Hello, I am Indira Crasnea, at today’s edition of MAS Talks we will talk about who are the Romanian Army’s special forces and what do they do. My interlocutor today is Reserve Colonel Daniel Ilie, former commander of the Special Forces component of the Romanian Army, officer decorated with the US Army Bronze Star by order of President Barack Obama. Welcome.

Daniel Ilie: Good day to you and all of our viewers.

MODERATORThe first question: what sets special forces apart, other than being called special?

Daniel Ilie: Indeed, it is a word which creates both surprise and frustration. Everyone asks why they would be more special than others.  It is no secret that special ops forces have the reputation of being elite structures, capable of obtaining important strategic effects with very few resources, compared with conventional forces, while obviously assuming greater risks and using unconventional tactics, techniques and procedures in fighting.

There are two approaches to special ops and they were very well observed along the years by one of the former commanders of US Special Ops Command, McRaven, who had a hand in capturing al Qaeda leader Bin Laden. He said that there are two approaches to the special ops field: a direct approach and an indirect one.

The direct approach presumes excessive use of arms and lethality, that special ops be conducted only based on information which certain and transmitted real time from the scene, on interinstitutional and intelligence cooperation and the intensive use of a secret digital network which as tactically accessible. This approach offers the degree of spectacularity and assumes extreme risk and a high precision in execution. They have immediate effect and are visible to the public after taking place, depending on the importance of its objective and target.

The second approach is an indirect one, which presumes military cooperation with local forces of a target state, helping humanitarian organizations, and especially engaging key elements of its society to build a solid partnership and relations, so you can help bring their own security and defense capabilities to a level which would ensure its security. 

These are a couple of the elements  which separate special forces from conventional forces, and I would also give here the Romanian legal definition of special ops forces, which represent the fast response specialized strategic component with naval, terrestrial and aerial structures specially organized, trained  and equipped to carry out missions of direct action, special research, military assistance, conventional and other complementary actions, independently or together with conventional forces within or outside of Romania’s territory. 

Another distinct element which separates special ops forces from conventional ones is how they are organized. We have adopted the American model, which proved to be a success, of the Green Berets. It is organized in small detachments with a reduced number of individuals, they are alpha operational detachment; their particularity is that all of the unit’s members must be certified paratroopers, divers and climbers. The detachment as a coagulated element must be capable of carrying out missions behind enemy lines, independently, with extremely reduced or even without support. They must know foreign languages – usually of the target region – and customs, and to be able to interculturally integrate into the target zone to succeed in the operation. More than that, the process of selecting and instructing them is totally different from conventional forces; it also has access to the latest equipment.

Last but not least, these special forces are tributary to five truths as they are called, the five truths of special forces: that people are more important than technology, quality is way more important than quantity, competent special forces are not Moderators products, then cannot be created immediately after a crisis to respond immediately, and lastly that they always need, in a larger context, help from conventional forces, from other state institutions to fulfill their mission.

MODERATOROur public knows from action literature about the Seals, SAS, marines, Royal Marines. You said that Romanian Special Forces are trained following the model of the Green Berets. Why wasn’t a European model chosen?

Daniel Ilie: To explain this I need to go a bit back into the recent history of modern Romanian Special Forces. Before March 1, 2003, when political deciders approved the establishment of the first special forces structure in the Romanian Army, I am convinced that Romanian Army generals with vision, of which I want to mention the departed general Ioan Sorin who at the time I think was chief of the Ground Forces, him and a team of specialists analyzed results on a global scale of similar structures and see which model we should borrow. More than that, politicians with vision also took into account Romania’s accession to NATO structures in 2004, and this was one of the reasons leading to the decision to borrow the American model.

Going further back in history, we will see way many Western European states benefited from and borrowed this model. This happened starting with 1953 through the presence of American Special Ops Forces in Western Europe, specifically in Germany, the first state to benefit from know-how imported from the Americans, and later other countries who developed their special forces capabilities on the model of the Green Berets.

After the fall of the Iron Curtain, a lot of countries from the former communist bloc started benefitting from security assistance on part of the American Government, with 10th Special Ops Group of the US being the structure which carries out military partnership activities in support of many countries, not only Romania, and is still present in Germany. Like that, countries such as Poland, the Baltic states, Romania, Slovakia benefit and borrow the know how of the Green Berets.

These processes of selecting, recruiting and training after the American model are complex and long-term. I will give you an example of what it means to instruct a special forces operator. He needs to pass a special forces qualifications course, Q-course, which takes between 56 and 96 weeks depending on your objectives, if you wish to use that operator in the direct or more conventional approach. According to this he must be trained in certain modules. There are six phases between spanning 56 and 95 weeks, which already follow two modules for the candidate to accede to the system and the assessment and selection module. Not everyone start this course, only those who pass the first two modules.

After that they enter the first phase, where they it psychological tests, physical tests, resistance tests, a lot of tests which if you do not pass you cannot go further, with many giving up during each phase, because it tests your psychical and physical limits to the edge and it’s normal to try simulating conditions close to those on the battlefield. Of course you can never replicate them, it’s a totally different thing and I’m going to explain later, but as close as you can.

What are these phases comprised of? The first phase is a history course and career orientation. They learn here for the first time about airborne missions, they learn what special ops are, they do a regional analysis, they learn to plan operations and many other things. In the second phase they study foreign languages and the regional culture of the countries from the interest area. The third phase is comprised of learning small-unit tactics, means of survival, evasion, resistance and extraction. The fourth phase is instruction on military specialization, and here the operators who manage to pass the previous phases become specialized: some on operations, others on information, others on radio communications, other on weaponry, but at the same time they all need to be paratroopers, divers and climbers. They also need to coagulate a very small detachment of people who trusts one another and who will go to no ends to accomplish the mission in good conditions.

Then comes the fifth phase, which is a final drill, in American terms CULEX, meaning culmination exercise, were custom scenarios are created and their limits are tested to see if they are capable, performance–wise, to carry out a certain specific mission. Scenarios here usually are based a lot on non-conventional fighting, on combatting hybrid threats and others.

The courses aren’t easy, and to demonstrate that the success rate is very low, there is this ballad of the Green Berets which you can see on YouTube and social media, and some of its lyrics are very eloquent. In English it goes like this: a hundred men we test today, only three will win the Green Beret. In Romania, the percentage of those passing all the courses is between 8 and 25%.

MODERATOR: Which were the Romanian Army’s Special Ops forces most spectacular missions, which can be disclosed?

Daniel Ilie:  It’s a tough question. You say spectacular, and this adjective makes me think of the direct, kinetic approach. I wouldn’t have discussed it this much, but if you ask me what spectacular means, I kind of have to refer to this. It implies the use of lethal weaponry and unconventional tactics, while also assuming very high risks. I can only tell you my experience from a war theaters and from the experience I gathered coordinating the deployment and monitoring activities of our forces during missions in Afghanistan.

I would require you to try and imagine what the fighting environment is over there, what it means for the operational tempo, what the lack of sleep, proper eating and extreme temperatures could mean in the context of that environment and tempo. What it also means to face fears of contracting different diseases, to fear death, incertitude. You don’t know how the opponent thinks, what his strategies are, even if you try to get to know him better, to estimate, you don’t even know how friendly the friendly forces are at one point.

And all of this in the context of conditions needed to carry out a special operation. This means, usually, infiltration by air, only during night time, if possible during unfavorable weather. You take into account even the phases of the moon, how much light is provided by the moon – the lesser, the better – and you are left somewhere about three kilometers from the objective, which is also behind a hill or mountain.

You need to climb that mountain, and then be able to execute the mission precisely in a very short time, and then return back unscathed. This is what I consider spectacular, whoever can best this can say they have lived through something spectacular.

MODERATORThis means that any mission of this kind can be considered spectacular, in Afghanistan or wherever.

Daniel Ilie: Yes, this is my opinion also. I cannot disclose detailed elements, but I can give you three examples which also appeared in the media some time back of an elite special forces unit. I want to remind about some operations which took place in 1976, Operation Thunderbolt, which was carried out by Israeli commando troops, Sayeret Matkal as they are called, which led a counterterrorist and hostage rescue operation on the Ugandan main airport in Entebbe. Some members of the Palestinian National Liberation Movement hijacked a RyanAir France flight which flew from Tel Aviv towards Paris and took 106 hostages. It was a very complex operation, but it was a model for perfect planning and execution with high risks involved, leading to an exceptional strategic effect for the Israeli, who recovered 102 of the 106 hostages through the professionalism of those commando troops.

Another operation like this which warrants being mentioned is the operation to liberate the Iranian Embassy in London in 1980, planned and carried out by the British SAS troops, Special Air Service, which during the night, following five days of siege, managed to neutralize terrorists who were members of an Iranian-Arab group and rescue five out of six hostages.

And one of the most famous, because I have a special affinity for Admiral McRaven, who I met during my stint in Afghanistan, an extraordinary individual, is Operation Neptune Spear, to capture or neutralize the Al-Qaeda leader, the most wanted man on the planet at the time, in 2011. The operation started in Afghanistan and it surprised all Pakistani authorities due to the secrecy I was talking about, that needs to be maintained to ensure the success of your operation.

This would be the spectacular stuff. As for our men, so that the public will also know, their mission in Afghanistan is codenamed Resolute Support, which hasn’t been a combat mission starting with January 1, 2005. It was switched from combat ISAF mission to a non-combat one, more based on counselling, assistance and instruction. But even in these types of missions you are required at one point to accompany those who you instruct, to see how they act and even help them.

MODERATORCan we say that the level of training of Romanian Special Ops Forces is at the high international standard set for this category of troops?

Daniel Ilie: You’re asking me, who comes from within them. (laughs)

To make this assessment, we need to see what parameters we need – quality-wise, quantity-wise. During planning and execution of the operation we used the so-called performance measurement, a quantitative parameter, and the efficiency measurement, a quality parameter. This is what we used to assess the level at which we are prepared. If you look in the media, in common activities at NATO level in Romania, all of our partners especially appreciate the contribution of Romanian Special Ops Forces in the Afghanistan operations theatres and in other areas.

I can tell you that yearly, during every conference to plan forces for certain operation theatres, the NATO Special Ops Command, situated in Mons, Belgium, insists that Romanian Special Ops Forces contribute at least slightly to certain missions. This tells me that we are at least at a very good level of professionalism.

More than that, during missions I had the chance, which is also a recognition, the American partner was open to under the command and coordination of Romanian special forces structures an American special forces structure, and for the guys in the field this was an extraordinary honor. Many times, thanks to our performance there, we were very close from accessing the Five Eyes intelligence community. This is comprised at a global level by the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Great Britain. This means that people with a wealth of experience in handling special operations are very close to trusting their Romanian partner and consider that it is at the same level. Which is the most select and useful community.

MODERATORBut because of these reasons, because of the appraisal, would you consider that it would be an opportune moment to raise the number of Romanian Special Ops Forces from the current level?

Daniel Ilie: Right now, Romania has what it can afford, that would be the answer. We have ground special ops forces, we have naval special ops forces, we have aerial special ops forces. Recently, as of March this year, there was also a special ops command established, which is a command and control structure through which the Joint Chiefs of Staff exert their command over all of these forces.

What is missing is a dedicated school or instruction center and dedicated air support, which are very important. If we are to consider the needs of the mission, decision-makers need to grant special attention towards creating these structures. If at one point it will be necessary to raise or diminish the number of troops, it is isn’t very important, what is more important is to have all of the necessary capabilities.

If I were to make an analysis with data I found on the Open Source portal. Published by the US Department of Defense at the beginning of this year, you can see comparatively what the American Special Ops Forces mean to the US army, what their budgets are, their proportions. The total of US Army Forces active soldiers is somewhere around 1,290,000 men. US Special Forces have around 71,000, which means somewhere around 5.5% of the total US forces. As for the budget, the US Army budget is huge, more than three times larger than Romania’s GDP, it’s somewhere around $660 billion for 2018. The US Special Forces Budget is $14 billion for this year, which means only 2% of the total budget of American defense forces. Comparing such numbers statistically, probably these proportions would also be representative for Romanian Special Ops forces compared to the conventional ones.

If you ask me, the decision-maker must place importance on them and must ensure that these special forces have everything they need capability-wise, which is more important than their number. And these needs which aren’t very high must always be accorded with resources, and from here there is a competition between different force structures of the same ministry which need to share the same pie., with everyone chasing the biggest slice.

MODERATOR: So logically I have to ask you if the current needs of special ops forces are in line with the times, to use a more literary expression, or if we make do with what we have.

Daniel Ilie: You know very well that a special ops operator must prove his creativity, and passion for creative solutions to complex problems resolves also other problems related to what is lacking.

If I were a soldier from conventional forces looking to the special forces of the Romanian Army, I would be envious of them. Why? Because I would see that they have the latest NATO standard issue infantry equipment, they have nearly the latest protection equipment, they have access frequency-jumping secret communication means.

MODERATOR: What do they not have which isn’t top of the line?

Daniel Ilie: There are many aspects to discuss here. It’s very hard to keep in line with technological advancements. Equipment in the Romanian Special Forces Ops become physically used very fast, because of two reasons: many of them are used in operations theatres and many are also used during instruction, which is entirely different and has different consumption ratios compared to conventional forces.

More than that, this is where Romania is at the moment. When the Romanian economy will perform better, surely there will be a larger quantity of resources available in these fields. What is certain is that until now we made do with what we had, but there are also areas where there is urgently need of attention through adequate equipment programs.

What am I referring to: in Afghanistan for example, we do not have a dedicated mobile platform to deploy at the objective. We are lucky that through the strategic partnership with the United States we borrow adequate armored tech which meets the specific operational requirements of that theatre, where insurgents place all kinds of mines, IEDs on roads and you need to have some platforms to protect the force. It also offers mobility on the land and reliability.

We make use of MRAPs, mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles. If we consider the fact that we will also act in the future in such theatres of operations, you also need a similar program for the naval special ops forces, and I think that at this moment there are some ongoing equipment programs to help them achieve mobility on water, by acquiring the so-called RHIBs – rigid-hulled inflatable boats – special fast boats which can be used for infiltration on water. They also need modern means of underwater infiltration, mini-submarines and others.

If you ask me, there should also be funds invested into R&D if we want to keep in line with modern technologies. We are getting closer to artificial intelligence, and at this point they need to be accessed. It is true though that there is this fight for limited resources when the needs are very high, but at the moment they make use of what they have.

MODERATOR: What are the qualities of a competitive special ops operative? To put it more bluntly, do brains or brawn matter?

Daniel Ilie: There is this false projection that a special ops operative is kind of a Rambo. He isn’t really like that, they are people like us, who have better physical conditioning, but also some qualities which not many people have, proved by the fact that not too many pass that selection process. 

The qualities of such fighters are courage, intelligence, the capacity to continuously learn, creativity, because they need to constantly be able to use the latest technologies to find unconventional solutions to hard problems of any type. They also have determination, strength of character and other qualities of this sort. They also need to have abilities for intercultural communication, to know how to approach people, to avoid conflicts if possible and if nothing can be done then he can react with one of the two methods.

MODERATOROutside of the Green Berets, which do you consider are the most efficient special ops force structures in the world at the moment?

Daniel Ilie: It’s hard to answer and I wouldn’t make a classification. In a top three, but not necessarily in this order, I would include the following: the US Special Ops Forces made out of the Green Berets, Delta Force, Navy Seals, with the proof of capturing Bin Laden, in 2012 they rescued two citizens from Libya and many other such missions; the British SAS forces which I talked about; and the Russian Spetsnaz forces. But this is just a subjective classification, and the Israeli commando troops shouldn’t be excluded from here either.

There a lot, most Western states and not only have established professional special ops forces. I can tell you that there is a competition at NATO level which I saw. The commander of Croatian forces told me, at a conference we were taking part in during which I was mandated to state our contributions for the next year, he told me that he didn’t think we, as a nation, could make available to NATO such professional capabilities, compared with Croatia which finds it very hard to reach your level.

These are things which once again prove that we are at a professional level and I would complete the list with Romania’s special ops forces in Afghanistan, because there we could measure the level of performance. Personally, I was also impressed by the Polish GROM, by Lithuanian special forces, those of New Zealand, and there are many I’ve probably missed right now and deserve to be mentioned.

MODERATOROne last question – could special ops operatives be a life model even for Romanian youths?

Daniel Ilie: They surely can be. And I refer here to those youths who accept challenges, who accept being taken out of their comfort zones, the courageous ones who know how to take assumed risks. They are a model for those who want to test their limits, both psychical and physical. They are a model for those who prize values such as loyalty, duty, respect, altruism, honor. They are a model through everything they did, including through their supreme sacrifice they made for a better world.

In the Afghanistan theatre of operations, if we talk about spectacular but also the sacrifices made to obtain the desired effects, five of our best operators made the supreme sacrifice from 2006 to 2015: post-mortem Major Tiberiu Marcel Petre and post-mortem second lieutenants Adrian Postelnicu, Vasile Popa, Iulian Dumitrescu and Adrian Vizireanu. We owe them at least from time to time to remember them, and to wish them to rest in peace wherever they are now. This is what the Romanian Special Forces means and this the war, after all.

MODERATOR: Colonel, thank you for attending, we expect you again in the future.

Daniel Ilie: Thank you, as well.