Kicking down a door, a Romanian special operator recovers a hostage from an enemy fighter that just collapsed under the fire of incoming boats. He races back to his Danish and Norwegian companions and out across the water to Blackhawk helicopters waiting to fly them to safety.
This show of force was a demonstration of multinational Special Operations Forces (SOF) capabilities at an international conference in Tampa, Florida, in May. This could have been the beginning of an action movie, or media coverage of an incident that fits the perceptions the public often has of special forces. However, experts at the event wanted to emphasize that Special Operations Forces are more than door-kickers.
A mix of brute force and patient teaching
“I would say less than ten per cent of our operations are kinetic and that’s a good thing, but you don’t hear about that. What you hear about always is the ones that do go high-end and high-order,” says Stu Bradin, the CEO of non-profit organization Global Special Operations Forces Foundation, which aims to promote greater understanding of the work of Special Operations Forces.
While the world’s media focuses on operations like the mission to capture Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan, a large proportion of Special Operations Forces prioritize training missions in Allied and partner countries. Living and working alongside local forces, small teams of highly-trained soldiers, who often speak local languages fluently, are deployed by several countries to help improve host nations’ militaries and police. They teach medical skills, intelligence analysis and humanitarian response alongside the combat skills they are most famous for.
Over a decade of counter-insurgency operations in Afghanistan and Iraq have given Special Operations Forces from Allied countries extensive experience in working with partners, according to the Commander of NATO Special Operations Headquarters Vice Admiral Sean Pybus.
“The ability to inter-operate with partners has been a key lesson that we will carry forward into the future and that’s common language, common tactics, techniques and procedures and an understanding of common effort and strategy,” he explains.
Adapted to new threats
Interoperability is a buzzword, but its significance is greater than mere jargon. Today’s global security threats, including a dispersed al-Qaida network over multiple continents, require a different model to the large, long-term deployment of troops. Special Operations Forces provide an answer to fighting these threats, even in the face of budget cuts, according to Stu Bradin.
“Every nation can afford to have 500 to whatever well-trained, well-equipped, mature forces that have the capabilities they need to move quickly, and I mean we’re talking hours, not days or weeks or months, that they can operate in an uncertain and often hostile environment,” he says.
Whether that is in Africa, Asia or even Europe, a small force is not just cheaper, but can have a lighter footprint and be perceived as less intrusive to host nations.
“These efforts are really in modern day about the human domain and I think we continue to learn that in Afghanistan and we’re watching that in Ukraine as one example. I think this is a role for NATO special operations as a collective that we can provide and be successful in,” Vice Admiral Pybus adds.
The decision-makers at this conference, entitled “Strengthening the Global SOF Network”, say that returning Special Operations Forces to a pre-9/11 role, under-manned and reactive to crisis, instead of being pro-active, is unthinkable. But it will take long-term and resolute global partnership to maintain the high-level skills of these operators.