23 March 2020

The Special Operations Forces in the Western Balkans

Daniel Ilie

I was writing in an article published a while ago on the Defence and Security Monitor website, called “The Special Operations Forces in modern warfare” about what modern warfare means in the 21st century. Far from me the thought of having issued then definitions or postulates in the field of security and defense, but we have all been, more or less, witnesses of what the new type of threats and conflicts means in this age.

Image source: Mediafax

I accepted back then that a potential “ modern warfare” will be less a direct, conventional confrontation between the armed forces of some state actors, but rather it will consist of operations for crisis management and conflicts’ resolution which will most likely involve the use of asymmetrical capabilities for conducting hybrid actions, grouping and re-grouping the world into alliances, coalitions and partnerships, as well as intensely using the concept of military assistance and / or performing unconventional actions.

The current conflicts seem to be conflicts of interest in the competition for power, influence, resources, markets, some of them are regional, some are civil, others are hybrid, involve expeditionary operations, military assistance missions, counter-terrorism, or confrontations between military support factions by certain state, or non-state actors.

In the prevention, deterrence and defense against such security threats, the Special Operations Forces (SOF) have their role and place quite well defined. For instance, from the operational point of view, SOF are considered to be adequate military capabilities for conducting counter-insurgency (COIN) missions, countering transregional terrorism, or providing the military response to hybrid threats posed to the nations’ security and defense.

Obviously, the range of missions and tasks that can be accomplished by these military capabilities is much wider. They are organized, trained and equipped to perform both kinetic and non-kinetic military actions.

SOF are known for being elite structures suitable, not only for the physical exercise of power, but also capable of operating in the spectrum between diplomacy (as a tool for enforcing the state’s foreign policy) and the use of conventional military power. In addition, due to the secret nature of the missions, SOF contribute, to some extent, to the public perception of the increased efficiency of special operations, in contrast to other large-scale actions and increased visibility undertaken by conventional forces or other state institutions.

Such beliefs have led to an increased development and presence of SOF capabilities, regionally and globally, and such a phenomenon could not go around the Western Balkans area where, according to experts, the ethnic-religious factor was essential for the evolution of the regional security environment.

In such a context, most of the states that gained independence from the former Yugoslavia had to deal with a series of important challenges in creating or transforming their own defense and security forces, within the internal reform processes.

The armed forces and intelligence services had to be disbanded, and the leadership of these structures removed or reshuffled. The systems and organizations had to be redesigned, transformed or even built from scratch, thousands of members of the defense and security forces were redeployed to their home states, and each newly formed republic appointed new leaders of these defense and security structures while maintaining the already existent military infrastructure and instalations on the national territory. The new independent states had to start new partnerships and alliances and gradually join, as the case may be, regional, transatlantic or global organizations such as the European Union, NATO, the United Nations, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, etc. And these internal reform efforts had to continue in order to ensure effective democratic dialogue, freedom of expression of the press, judicial independence and the development of fully functional multi-ethnic societies.

In the reform process, countries in the Western Balkans area such as Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia, Montenegro or Serbia, continued to invest in the capacity building, development, and modernization of their own SOF, realizing the importance of these capabilities in transforming their national military into more flexible and mobile ones. They increased their defense expenditures, and some have built in parallel an efficient defense industry. Thus, in most of the states in the area more or less secretive SOF or special forces  structures have been set up and then operationalized, both within the Armed Forces, as well as the Police or the Gendarmerie, as the case may be. Even Kosovo, which decided in the Parliament in Pristina, in December 2018, to set up its own army, despite opposition from Serbia or NATO critics, has been investing for some time in the operationalization of special police structures.

Examples such as the Commando Regiment and the Special Operations Battalion of the Albanian Army, the Bosnia-Herzegovina Federal Police Anti-Terrorist Unit, the Army Special Operations Regiment (with Special Forces battalion - "Wolves" and Rangers), but also the Northern Macedonia Police Anti-Terrorist Unit, the newly established and mysterious Army Special Forces Detachment, as well as the Special Anti-Terrorist Unit of the Montenegrin Police Department and, last but not least, the Special Brigade (to be reformed by the decision of the re-establishment of the 72nd Special Operations Brigade and 63rd Paratroopers Brigade, taken by the Ministry of Defense in December 2019) and the Special Operations Battalion of the Military Police "Cobras" of the Serbian Army are all the proof that all these smaller or larger nations are investing important resources in operationalizing elite structures able to provide the appropriate response to new security challenges, risks and threats. All of these capabilities have been designed with a simplified command-control architecture and are capable of an improved quick reaction.

Some details on Western BalkansSOF recruitment and selection processes, the way units are organized, their command and control architecture, the types of military equipment and armament provided, the level of training and even the employment and way of action in different types of missions are one click away when googling. At least from the outside, these capabilities appear to be professional and performing.

The most of these structures were trained following a certain model and with the help of "green berets" SOF instructors from countries like USA, France or Turkey, but not only. Many of them gained operational experience by participating in peacekeeping missions in theaters of operations such as Afghanistan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Lebanon or Iraq. Moreover, they regularly train together and exchange expertise when participating in bilateral or multinational exercises. Their operators go through intensive and physically demanding training and qualification programs that include special tactics and counter-terrorism, small unit tactics, special precision shooting training, communications procedures, patrols, night operations and procedures. close quarter battle (CQB), special reconnaissance, diving, parachuting, helicopter and fast boat jumping, specific procedures with real explosives, marches, survival, mountain instruction, fast rope insertion procedures and more.

If necessary, SOF will be used to carry out missions such as: special reconnaissance or even military assistance in support of early warning; direct actions to disrupt and neutralize non-state actors in the fight against terrorism or for the recovery of personnel and sensitive materials, the evacuation of citizens from sensitive areas, as well as the execution of complementary hostage rescue operations; military assistance in the potential support of some partner forces in their attempt to build special defense and security capabilities that will contribute to stabilizing the security situation; unconventional actions in support of the resistance movement eventually organized in the temporarily occupied territory by a potential enemy; support of national authorities in ensuring the protection of critical infrastructures, as well as other tasks.

However, such military capabilities are relatively expensive to set up (significant costs with investments in military infrastructure and the acquisition of state-of-the-art military equipment and technologies), develop, certify and subsequently maintain to the required operational performance standards (significant personnel costs, but also for the operation and maintenance of military infrastructure, equipment and technology).

Regardless, it seems that the military-political decision-makers in the Western Balkans area have understood the strategic utility and relevance of the SOF and, probably, that is why they have decided to continue investing in such capabilities, proving, once again, the wisdom of the Latin saying "Si vis pacem, para bellum" which in an approximate translation would mean "If you want peace, prepare yourself for war.”

Although, often, the relevance of the SOF is maintained in the shadow of that of the conventional forces, they are considered to be part of the range of key instruments of state power that can be used to ensure defense and security and promote national interest, through the use of military force, directly or by providing assistance, as the case may be, to regional or international partners, allies, coalitions or organizations.