03 July 2018

The 5 truths of Special Operation Forces (SOF)

Daniel Ilie

At the end of the most recent presentation about the issues of the Special Operation Forces (SOF), at one of the post-academic courses for the development on the military career, one of my students asked me how the psycho-pshycal-intellectual profile of a military operator (SOF) should be, suggesting, somehow, that this one should actually have more muscles and pshycal force (like Rambo, the Hollywood cliché), to be OK regarding his psycho statement, and to have less high cognitive abilities. My answer to that question was a link to the 5 truths of the SOF, actually a fundamental guide of the good practice and also the lessons learned from the special operations area and useful for a large public, despite the difference between these military abilities and the conventional forces.

Image source: Daniel Ilie

[ Romanian Version HERE ]


A short history about how the 5 truths of SOF appeared

For the first time, these 5 truths were mentioned by John Collins, a US colonel on reserve, its purpose being to reveal the essence of the SOF, in the report called „The Unites States of America and the Soviet Special Operations„, exposed to the American Congress, in 1987. Later, the centre and school commander of U.S. John F. Kennedy Special Warfare School and Center, the US military rank David Baratto, developed 5 of these truths in a fundamental guide of SOF, and in 2009, the US admiral, Eric Olsen, at that time being the commander of USSOCOM (United States Special Operations Command), added the fifth truth, omitted in 1988, as a reconnaissance of the need of support that the SOF have coming from the conventional forces. These truths are already adopted on a high scale, in the SOF communities by the member states of NATO and its partners.


The definition of the forces for Special Operations/ SOF


To a better understanding of the concept of the 5 truths of SOF, we obviously have to define first the notion of SOF. Thanks to the secret nature of these military capabilities, the mystery that is around the way that these are hired in different missions, the wrong perception that behind the secret there are actually illegitimate actions, or actually illegal, it is hard to offer a clear definition and accepted by everyone, globally.

For NATO, according to the Doctrine made for special operations, the forces for special operations represent those Special Forces dedicated, organized, trained, equipped and having special individuals hired to plan and execute special operations (military activities), using unconventional hiring methods and techniques. These special operations can be made throughout the whole military actions, independently or along with the conventional forces, with the purpose of having the wished final, at a strategic or operative level, or can be executed when there are important politic risks. At some point, the military-politic interests may need the execution of some undercover actions, or clandestine, with the acceptance of some un-associated risks of the operations made by the conventional military forces.

Even though the importance of the SOF on the actual defence structure is generally known, for NATO and the partner countries there are still some debates regarding the place and the role of these capabilities, including the freedom of action and its flexibility. As a consequence of the transforming initiative implemented for the SOF, accepted between the measures fixed with the occasion of the NATO summit, from Riga, in 2006, on the same year it was adopted the NATO centre of coordination of SOF-NSCC (NATO Special Operations Forces Coordination Center) that later, in 2011,  changed in NSHQ- NATO Special Operations Headquarters. This structure works on a memorandum base and its main mission is „assuring the NATO`s strategic counselling of the SOF, the coordination of the capability development of SOF and the assuring of its operable character for the alliances and the partner countries’’. For the alliances, in the strategic planning processes and the operational planning in a multinational, inter-institutional and inter-agencies format, the structure follows „the proper use of the most adequate SOF integrated capabilities in fights„. The purpose is the assuring of the SOF contribution in obtaining the strategic impact that the strategic level decisive individuals of NATO want.

For Romania, the national legislation defines SOF as being „the specialized component of quick reaction, strategic level, with terrestrial, navy and airy structures dedicated, trained and equipped for the execution of the special development missions, direct actions, military and unconventional assistance as well as its complementary missions on the territory of the Romanian state or abroad, with the law conditions, independently or along with the special forces of the coalitions and the alliances that Romania is part of„. 


The SOF missions - Romanian military from the SOF structures during their activities regarding the execution of the missions

The special research- represents the total activities that the SOF uses to offer the „eyes and ears„ from the field, in politically, hostile or forbidden sensitive territories (in the enemy territory), sensors capable to offer in real time the important strategically information needed for the decisive element. Actually, the human element from the SOF is responsible for collecting the informations, the report, discovery, identification and evaluation of the target, as well as the execution of the research and evaluation after the attack has been made.

Direct actions- represent those surgical attacks, limited as time and size (because of the small dimension of the imprint that the SOF agents have) against those highly important strategically and operative targets, usually sensitive regarding the time allocated to planning. These are actually sorties, ambushes, assaults and identifications of the targets for the precise execution of the fire and airy support, recuperation of the individuals and the sensitive materials, the evacuation of the citizens from the sensitive areas, sabotages, the destroying of the high importance strategically and operatives targets, the approach of the hostile navies, research, discovery and neutralization of the opportunity targets, etc.                                                           

Military assistance- consists in all the measures taken to support the partner forces during peace, crisis, and war time, for the development of the defence capabilities from offering military training of low level and even technology, to the actual use of these in fights.

Unconventional actions- this is the support methods of the resistance movements organized on the temporary territory occupied by the enemy, to affirm the legitimacy of its occupation, to delay the execution of its operations and to minimize its fight potential and the capacity to react.

In Romania, according to the law, the leader of the Major State of Defence is the one that leads the SOF through the Commander of the Special Operation Forces (CSOF). In the case of a participation to missions and operations aside the Romanian territory state, the SOF leading it is made according to the technical agreements made with the foreign partners, regarding the trades that Romania is a part of.

The missions previously mentioned, can be made only by the elements well fixed, that consists in multidisciplinary trained military, so being in the same time, parachutists, divers, alpinists, that know the main foreign languages, and have the capacity to execute, independently all kind of different actions that can be undercover infiltrated through air (for example, through procedures of parasailing at high altitudes, with immediate opening, or low opening, like HAHO/HALO - High Altitude High Opening/ High Altitude Low Opening), terrestial way (includes using animals as transport), or the navy way (above or inside the water), and moreover, that have the capacity of auto-support.  


The 5 truths of the SOF

- Individuals are more important than the equipment (technology)- not even the best technology that exists in the world, including artificial intelligence, cannot replace a high qualified team of SOF, with a full training, correctly equipped and strong (with  fixed spiritual links between the members of the team, even during the training, before the execution of the mission). The computers will only assure the complementarity (the so-called portable robots „soft exosuits„ or „exosckeletons, trained to improve the mobility and the operators force, measuring through sensors the kinematic and the metabolism of the human body). Individuals, on the other hand, have the intentionality (something oriented to the immediate future of the actions), following a purpose and taking decisions for this, even being irrational in some contexts, something that the artificial intelligence cannot understand yet. The SOF operators are first of all humans and they are trained to find creative solutions to complicated problems, quickly, using their imagination at a high level. This send us, deductively, to the second truth of the SOF.

- Quality is way important than quantity- a small number of operators, carefully selected, well trained and well leaded to fight are preferred against a big number of military men, that’s because some of them would not be able to accomplish the missions. The carefully and without compromises process or recruitment of the SOF operators is looking for individuals with a unconventional way of thinking, permanently concentrating on accomplishing the mission, being part of the creation of fight structure of small dimensions, but of high quality. This process is completed with educational and training processes deployed during a few years, and that each operator must develop its needed abilities and to maintain its qualifications.

- SOF cannot be made en masse- Approaching a professional level needed for the accomplishment in good terms of the difficult missions that the special operations are about, needs several years for the training of the actionable detachments. The challenge is that through intense training, in application schools, training centres, as well as in unities, each certificated operator (SOF) must be integrated in the operational detachments that is a part of. This kind of process can be accelerated, but with giving up the standards, and implicitly reaching complete operational capability, or the accomplishment of this, but in the same time limited. The training, the minimum operational equipment needed, the assuring of the logistic and the support needed in maintaining an operational state, assuring the capacity of training in the responsible areas and the support during the execution of the missions needs the identification and the investments of some important human, material, financial, informational and timing resources. These military capabilities are not cheap and cannot be produced en masse.

- The competent SOF cannot be produced after the crisis already took place- the needed competence of a SOF operator and the reaching of full operational capability of the actionable detachments at the asked standards, cannot be obtained overnight. The immediate use in specific missions during the crisis time of the operational detachments of the SOF it is possible only if such operational structures (well trained, fully equipped and qualified) and permanently ready to fight, already exists, during peace time.   

- The majority of the special operations needs the support of conventional forces, other than SOF. The effectiveness use in specific missions, on the Romanian territory or abroad, of the SOF structure is substantially improved with the support of the informational specialized structures, navy structures and other structures form the national system of defence, public order and national security, allied or as a partner. The diplomacy, civil society and non-governmental organizations are, at least, as important in assuring the support of the SOF.

Having success in special operations needs important and long term investments in training people and in planning things. The 5 truths of SOF confirm it and, moreover, can be applied with success in everyday life.

The selection and training processes of the SOF follow the creation of these kinds of fighters, characters for which courage, intelligence, learning capacity and creativity must be found among the priority qualities. All of these are completed with qualities like a strong character, empathy and common-sense. The SOF operators must be capable of using ultimate technology and to acquire intercultural communication abilities to contribute at solving the conflicts that nowadays have an important intercultural significance. As these learn faster to act efficiently in different cultures, it is higher the probability to have great strategic results.

The military from the SOF structures are trained to exploit, first of all, the advantages of the human aspects of the conflict, so that they can have success in special operations, and, if possible, to avoid conflict, but to win the battle. In these days, there is no longer enough to only open the door with your foot, throw things in the air, or to eliminate the enemy. So, without individuals with high cognitive abilities you cannot reach such imperatives.

Summarizing the response to the question made in the beginning of this article: even if the muscles are necessary (you can see the case of the Britannic soldier, that recently appeared in the media, who killed three Talibans with a hammer in a camp of caves linked through a small dimension cables, in an area controlled by the insurgents of North Afghanistan, in January this year, after his GLOCK gun got blocked, previously used to shoot three other enemies) now, intelligence is essential!