03 May 2019

Romanian Special Operations Forces after 15 years of Romania NATO membership

Daniel Ilie

Image source: Mediafax

15 years after Romania's accession to NATO, the ROU SOF continue to transform themselves so that they will eventually become that ROU Armed Forces’ specialized component of a quick reaction and strategic level importance with dedicated land, naval and air units, organized, trained and equipped for the execution of specific missions, which will play a decisive role in counteracting the risks and threats against the Romania's security and defense, regardless of how classical, conventional, asymmetrical, or hybrid those might be.

When it comes to the modern history of the Romanian (ROU) Special Operations Forces (SOF), we have to keep in mind that the first specialized structure of such kind has been operational since 2003, when the 1st Special Forces Battalion ”Eagles”, under the ROU Land Forces administrative control (ADMINCON), had been created in Târgu Mureş garrison.

The establishment and operationalization of such a structure on the territory of Romania, following the American ”green berets” model, in the context of the changes that had occurred in the global security environment right after 9/11 terrorist attacks, have been visionary decisions of some political-military leaders from that time.

The captivating, and yet short, shoulder to the shoulder trip with similar NATO structures starts in 2004. It was the year wherein, to support of the Greek government, several European SOF troops provided contingency plans to guarantee the security of the Athens Summer Olympics, Greece. Such an initiative proved to be a catalyst for what later became the concept of "Global Special Operations Forces", the global SOF network based on a common interoperability framework.

With the accession of Romania to the North Atlantic Alliance, at the end of March 2004, the profound ROU Armed Forces transformation/ modernization processes and the adaptation of the force to the new interoperability requirements continued. ROU SOF started an important stage of conducting numerous training activities alongside similar structures from other NATO member countries, both in the country and abroad.

In May 2005, it was created a specific SOF training and certification structure, meant to supply the new ROU elite force with qualified operators. It was the Special Operations Forces School “Major General Grigore Baştan" in Buzău, currently the ISR, Parachutists, Special Operations, and JTAC Training Center “Major General Grigore Baştan”.

In April 2006, under the 39th Diving Center subordinated to the ROU Naval Forces, the Naval Special Operations Forces Group (GNFOS, the Romanian equivalent of US Navy SEAL) was established in Constanta. During the same year, Romania decides to support the international stabilization and reconstruction efforts for Afghanistan with ROU SOF detachments deployed to conduct combat and train, advice, and assist missions with the Afghan National Defense Special Security Forces, specifically with the Afghan Police Special Units (similar to Police SWAT - Special Weapons and Tacics). Initially, they started under the Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) umbrella, later on shifting to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and Resolute Support Mission authorities.

2006 was also the year when, at the NATO Summit in Riga, Latvia, the Heads of State and Government approved the NATO SOF Transformation Initiative (NSTI). Consequently, the Alliance has established the NATO SOF Coordination Center (NSCC) with the United States of America (USA) as a framework nation. It was not a coincidence that the first NSCC commander was Admiral (now in reserve) Willian H. McRaven, the man who coordinated the raid executed by US Navy SEAL Team Six, when capturing the most wanted terrorist on earth, Osama Bin Laden.

Since 2007, this command type structure, set up and operating on a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between contributing nations (including Romania), has been deployed at SHAPE Headquarters at Mons, Belgium, with the mission to ease the standardization, improvement of the equipment, the training, the operation, and, broadly, the interoperability of the SOF of the allies. Within this headquarters, the ROU SOF took up a position as a staff officer who also served as the ROU Special Operations Liaison Officer (SOLO). During that first ROU SOLO tenure Romania also signed the MoU.

In the same year, NATO had certified the first ROU SOF operational detachment at the Alliance’s disposal.

A year later, following the 2008 NATO Summit in Bucharest, Romania, Heads of State and Government agreed in the joint statement that “We will continue to enhance the capability and interoperability of our special operations forces. Supported by the defence planning processes, we will enhance our efforts to develop and field the right capabilities and forces, with the greatest practicable interoperability and standardization. “

The development of capabilities continued with the establishment, in 2008, in Bucharest garrison, of the Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) Detachment under the ROU Air Forces ADMINCON, and, as a natural consequence of the evolution towards a joint structure with land, sea, and air special operations forces, with the establishment of the Special Operations Component Command of the ROU General Staff. Both a strategic and operational levels command and control structure designed to exercise the operational command (OPCOM) of all ROU SOF. During that time, ROU SOF conducting missions in theater of operations (TO) Afghanistan had passed under the authorities of the NATO-led ISAF mission, with ISAF SOF.

In 2009, the North Atlantic Council authorized the reorganization of the NATO SOF Coordination Center into a NATO SOF Headquarters (NSHQ) capable of covering a wider range of missions, including the provision of a Special Operations Component Command (SOCC) - Core in support of a deployed NATO command. Meanwhile, ROU SOF began the operationalization process of the 1st Special Operations Regiment (SOR) by subordinating and further transforming the 1st Special Operations Battalion “Eagles", the 60th Paratroopers Battalion ”Băneasa-Otopeni” Buzău, and 498th Paratroopers Battalion ”Smaranda Brăescu” Bacău. Shortly after, many of the SOR’s operators deployed to their first mission in TO Kosovo.

In 2010, the transition to the NATO NSHQ takes place and, in 2011, the 6th Special Operations Brigade (SOB) “Mihai Viteazul" is established by transforming the 1st SOR “Mihai Viteazul”.

The year 2012 comes with a number of new initiatives, through the decision of participation of ROU Naval Special Operations Forces Group troops to specific missions in the Western Indian Ocean, under the authorities of the European Union Naval Force Operation Atalanta to combat Somali piracy, boarded on the ROU Navy’s “King Ferdinand” Frigate, as well as increasing the ROU SOF contribution to the ISAF mission in Afghanistan up to one Special Operations Task Group (SOTG). In the same year, U.S. Special Operations Command Europe (SOCEUR), a US Special Operations Command deployed since 1967 in Panzer Kaserne, Stuttgart, Germany, has established a permanent SOF representative to Romania.

Early 2015 marks the transfer from the ISAF Mission to the NATO-led Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan and the consequential modification of ROU SOF contribution to a Special Operations Advisory Group (SOAG). In the same year, Romania established a permanent Special Forces liaison officer at the US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) in Tampa, Florida, USA.

In 2016, due to significant changes in the security environment in Romania’s area of ​​interest, the military decision-makers initiate the process of planning the modernization and adaptation of the force to the new challenges and, from 2017, the transformation of ROU SOF begins.

In the same year, staff officers from the ROU Naval Special Operations Forces Group begin train, advice, and assist missions with SOF from countries of NATO's Mediterranean Dialogue partnership, embedded into an NSHQ command element, a stakeholder in the NATO Operation Sea Guardian in the Mediterranean Sea. Also, in May 2017, Romania joined the International Special Training Center (ISTC), located at the Staufer Kaserne, Pfullendorf, Germany, through a ROU SOF representative as permanent instructor.

2018 basically brought the first concrete ROU SOF modernization actions as implemented measures of the so-called "Program for the transformation, development and equipping of the ROU Armed Forces until 2026 and in the future”, through the establishment in March, in Târgu Mureş garrison, of the ROU Special Operations Forces Command (SOFC), the command and control structure, by which the ROU Chief of Defense exerts the command of all ROU SOF, which subordinates, since June 2018, the newly established ROU SOF School in Vlădeni, Braşov. Thus, the implementation of a project to organize and conduct a Special Forces qualification course, on the Romanian territory, similar to the initial training required for the access to the US "green berets" was started.

The recruiting for the qualification and then the access in the SOF from RA structures continues, as the SOF Application School is, according to the announcement made on their Facebook page, in a recruiting process for 2019-2020, to fill the personnel gaps in force’s modernization and adaptation process to the new security and defence structures.

The force as a whole has been transformed and reorganized, some units and subunits have ceased their function, others have been re-configured and renamed, and all have been re-subordinated to the ROU SOFC. Hence, in addition to the dedicated command and control headquarters, ROU SOF have today compiled combat (special operations and commando battalions), combat support, logistic support, and education and training structures. The participation of operators from all ROU SOF units in missions in theaters of operations, including TO Iraq, has continued.  

In the interoperability provision process with similar structures from NATO, ROU SOF have adapted their conception of  organization, instruction, equipment and use in fight, have adopted new standards, have commonly trained with similar structures of the alliance or partner countries members, have gained experience in real missions executed in operations theatres, have adapted the planning, execution and evaluation method of the special operations, techniques, tactics and procedures, have improved their endowment level with equipment, weapons, last generation technologies, have successfully completed their assigned tasks, have come forward across the Alliance, but, more importantly, are continuing to improve their human resource given the quick changes of the security environment and the current society. Not bad!

The level the ROU SOF have reached today needed vision, determination, important investments and all kind of resources, but most of all, all kinds of sacrifices. The current NSHQ commander, vice-admiral (US) Colin Kilrain, has actually talked about the level reached by the SOF from RA, during his visit in Romania, 2018, showing his appreciation for the great cooperation relations between them and similar structures from NATO and US.

The renown the ROU SOF enjoys today in the global SOF system was gained with lots of sacrifices and huge forfeitures. And because, unfortunately, there are only some days left until accomplishing 10 years since ROU SOF was paying the first sacrifice on foreign territory, in the OT from Afghanistan, I will only remember you about 31.03.2019, the Sunday of the Holy Cross, to salute and honor the memory of the five SOF heroes from Romania’s Army who were killed under the colors of the national flag: Mr. (PM) Petre Tiberius Marcel, Slt. (PM) Vasile Claudiu Popa, Slt. (PM) Adrian Postelnicu, Slt. (PM) Iulian Dumitrescu şi Slt. (PM) Adrian Vizireanu.

Besides them, as the training and instruction process for the ulterior participation in mission, operations and fight is a tough and challenging process, which asks for major physical and psychical risks for the operators that chose to serve their country across the ROU elite structures, other 10 brave young militaries have died during the instruction activities on national territory.

15 years after Romania's accession to NATO, the ROU SOF continue to transform themselves so that they will eventually become that ROU Armed Forces’ specialized component of a quick reaction and strategic level importance with dedicated land, naval and air units, organized, trained and equipped for the execution of specific missions, which will play a decisive role in counteracting the risks and threats against Romania's security and defense, regardless of how classical, conventional, asymmetrical, or hybrid those might be.