12 June 2019

With whom, how and why are Former Soviet Republics’ Special Operations Forces (SOF) training

Daniel Ilie

Image source: Mediafax

“If you fail to prepare, you’re prepared to fail” (Mark Spitz, American former competitive swimmer, nine-time Olympic champion)

The common training with similar allied or partner structures, which have showed professionalism and efficiency in military operations and missions will be a key-element for a successful modernization across the reform process of defence and security capabilities of the former soviet republics. And SOF does not make an exception to this process, they are training as they are planning fight.

The successful execution of the special operations involves high training and discipline level. The repeated practice of tactics, techniques and procedures is obviously helping the SOF structures be more prepared to execute missions. Practically, the commanders, as well as the operators, are learning how to use consolidated, well-synchronized and coordinated fight structures in operations.

However, some particularities of the special missions can sometimes go over the experience even of the best planner. In this case, the systematic and repeated training before the actual execution of the mission (operators’ training) can be a great tool in planning special operations. New techniques, tactics and procedures or those that are not previously practiced can be tested through real repetitions of certain parts of the operations plan, including during its elaboration. And, often, such repetitions can reveal even the necessity of a change of plans.

The operations training and the continuous instruction are the successful key when it comes to special operations and they are aiming at preparing operators to face threats and accomplish physical and psychical challenging tasks, at the highest competence levels possible, in circumstances which are specific to battlefields. These are focusing on discipline, collective training, instruction for contingency and are also increasing militaries’ self-confidence, contributing to abilities, experience and fight efficiency’s improvement.

Mark Spitz, American former competitive swimmer, nine-times Olympic champion, highlighted extremely well the importance of training: “If you fail to prepare, you’re prepared to fail!”. I would add that, at least when it comes to the military field, the reached training level makes the difference between life and death when militaries must accomplish their fight missions.

Ukrainian SOF

A relevant case is the Ukrainian SOF, which have initially failed to cope with the actions of the separatist forces supported by the Russian Federation, across the so-called “Anti-Terrorist Operations- ATO”, launched by Ukraine’s government in East of Ukraine, in 2014. And one of reasons they have failed was exactly the training level of SOF militaries from the sub-officer’s unit which was inadequate.

Among others, there were also: the political-military policy makers’ wrong awareness of SOF’s structures place and role across the command and control architecture, in general, and across the anti-terrorist operation deployed in East of Ukraine, in particular, the inadequate equip and endowment, the lack of cooperation with the intelligence structures as well as the wrong use of these capabilities in missions, as they were mostly used for infantry missions or readiness forces. I cannot say if they have followed, or not, the doctrinaire principles available in the Ukrainian army at that time, but I can say that they have definitely ignored one of SOF’s truths, which is the second one, “Quality is more important than quantity”.

It was a tough lesson for the Ukrainian SOF, unfortunately learned through the hard way, but which has helped them to realize, eventually, the low level they were at and determine them to take the necessary professionalization measures and, at last, the real operationalization ones of the force. Among these, there are also the reconsideration and reformation of the planning and execution method of their own SOF troops’ training. In fact, after years of participating across the anti-terrorist operations against the separatist forces in East of Ukraine, Ukrainian SOF definitely have received a lot of lessons and, afterwards, learned and applied them at the operational level, currently having a large experience in fighting against the paramilitary forces often supported by Russian Federation’s troops.

When reconsidering and transforming troops’ training methods, the Ukrainian military specialists have sought out the experts support in SOF field from NATO member states and the US, Canada, Great Britain, Lithuania, Poland as well, however, lately they have focused all their attention on the expertise the Israeli special forces have offered, elite troops with a large experience and concrete and important results in security and defence, including in the fight against terrorism, organized crime, but also national security. Of course, the key partners to that end have been the NATO Special Operations Headquarters-NSHQ and the International Special Training Centre- ISTC.

So, in December 2018, the Ukrainian SOF have trained by participating, for the first time, at the multinational exercise Combined Resolve XI, held in the U.S. Army Europe’s Joint Multinational Readiness Center-JMRC from Hohenfels, Germany, together with SOF militaries from Bulgaria, North Macedonia, Romania, as well as with special forces militaries from the Group 10 of US Special Forces (Airborne).

It was for the first time the Ukrainian SOF have participated in a large joint multinational exercise across a fictive scenario whereat they had to accommodate with the NATO command and control architecture model of some joint forces, with Alliance’s SOF military standards, but also with the specific operational planning process, along with the improvement of coordination between conventional forces and FOS. Ukrainian partners have appreciated the know-how and the abilities used during the participation at the exercise and they want to continue to participate to such training/instructing levels.

Furthermore, according to Ukrainian press agency UNIAN, after the official visit in Israel, at the end of January 2019, the Ukrainian minister of defence has stated that he considers training the Ukrainian SOF in Israel, at the IMI (Israel Military Industry Ltd.) Academy for Advanced Security & Anti-Terror Training.

Founded in 1999 by Israeli security forces veterans as branch of the state company Israel Military Industries Ltd., the IMI Academy is specialized in a large security training programs sphere, like the fight against terrorism, the fight against organized crimes and national security. Its modern facilities, experienced instructors and the classes and seminaries curricula have placed the IMI Academy in the top organization in this category.

It is all happening meanwhile the Ukrainian positions from Donbass are, still, bombed daily with artillery strikes, four years after signing, in Minsk, 2015, the implementation measures package of the cease the fire agreements.

Some military specialists to have contacts on the Ukrainian side are tempted to believe the Ukrainian government is consolidating its partnership and training in order to organize, maybe, a contested and risky counter-offensive in Donbas. They are suggesting that the Ukrainians, as well as the separatist forces, are getting ready for a final offensive, and the rumors in the entrenchment are that separatist forces supported by the Russian Federation will force the takeover of Mariupol city, this summer, to negatively affect Ukraine’s economy and strengthen separatists position in Donbas.

I do not think that this scenario is feasible, and the recent statement of Ukraine’s minister of foreign affairs according to which: “Ukraine sees no alternative to political and diplomatic instruments for resolving the conflict in Donbas”, is somehow confirming this idea.  However, as I was mentioning, militaries, in general, must train and prepare for contingency.


Georgian SOF

The illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, the support Russia gave to separatists from East of Ukraine, as well as the Russian military intervention in Georgia (Abkhazia and South Ossetia) in 2008 were disparaged by UN, NATO and EU, and these territories are continuing to be under Russian control.

After the conflict with Russia, the operativity level of Georgia’s military capabilities has decreased, and the rehabilitation of the operational capacity has needed and still needs NATO military assistance, including as common training with allies’ similar military structures.

Given these circumstances, Georgian SOF have focused on military cooperation (common training), the participation at bilateral and multinational exercises with SOF from NATO states, especially those from East Europe (Poland, Romania, Slovenia, Turkey etc.), aiming at reaching the same interoperability level. Moreover, over the last years, US has restarted the security assistance programmes for the Georgian SOF, focusing on joint training across some bilateral exercises, and Poland has decided to play the leader role in counselling, evaluating and authorizing the Georgian SOF structures by NATO SOF.

It seems that NATO SOF efforts, materialized through professional military assistance, as well as Georgian SOF to reach NATO’s training standards, have succeeded and, starting with 2017, Georgians are authorized to participate at NATO’s effort with a SOF Task Group- SOTG, able to execute special operations. It is actually a unique capability NATO has received from a partner state.


FOS from distinct former soviet republics

Special Warfare Naval Unit and the special troops of the National Security Ministry from Azerbaijan had security assistance programmes offered by the US that helped them train including for the fight against narcotic traffic.

Uzbekistan SOF took part, starting with the end of January 2019, for the first time, in training activities on US territory across an annual joint multinational exercise planned, organized and executed by the Mississippi Air National Guard and which is providing tactical level training for the full spectrum of conflict. It emphasizes air dominance, maritime operations, maritime air support, precision engagement, close air support, command and control, personnel recovery, aero medical evacuation, and combat medical support.

In the past, the US Special Forces have conducted many training phases with SOF from Tajikistan (National Guard) and the Special Forces from Kirghizstan on the territory of these republics.

Generally, the training focused on “counterterror tactics” weapons training, communications, patrolling, night operations, (close quarters battle- CQB).

Furthermore, SOF from countries like Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine have participated at one of the most important annual SOF competition, Annual Warrior Competition, developed in one of the best training centers in the world when it comes to facilities and infrastructures, technologies and experts in terrorism combat, special operations, but also law application, King Abdullah Special Operations Training Center (KASOTC) from Jordan’s capital, Amman.


Why so many of the former soviet republics reskill to the West?

Many of the countries listed above are part of EU’s Eastern Partnership (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine) and, according to the organizers’ report of the Security Conference from München, held between 15-17th of February 2019, called “The Great Puzzle: Who will pick up the pieces?” these are the most affected and caught in the middle by the geopolitical competition between Russia and the West. For these states, a closer alignment with Russia, economically weaker than the West and politically more coercive is not an attractive option.

But, as NATO’s opened doors policy does not offer a more serious accession perspective, these states are left in an uncertain spot regarding their own security and future. An area with frozen conflicts, but with active military confrontations. It seems natural for them to look for new partnerships and try to develop cooperation, including in security field, with the countries in the West.

Given these circumstances, Ukraine, as well as Georgia, former soviet republics, want to access the North-Atlantic Alliance, and one of the accession criteria refers to armed forces’ reform from these states. Until then, like the former commander of US European Command (EUCOM) was saying, general lieutenant Ben Hodges, “NATO remains the best, most successful alliance in the history of the world.”

Some of NATO SOF programmes are trying to help the partner states to develop and integrate their military capabilities by planning and executing some exercises, dedicated to train militaries how to plan and execute special operations during time of peace, crisis and war. At the same time, strongly developed states, like the US, are offering these countries security assistance programs to consolidate some alliances and attract new partners, strategic objectives that are clearly mentioned in defence’s budget for 2019-2023.

The common training with similar allied or partner structures, who have showed professionalism and effectiveness in military operations and missions, will be a key-element for a successful modernization across the reform process of defence and security capabilities of the former soviet republics. And SOF does not make an exception to this process, they are training as they are planning to fight.