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Author:White, Andrew

The contemporary military environment continues to broaden with the proliferation in hybrid warfare encompassing a mix of conventional threats including regular forces using established tactics, to unconventional threats, such as insurgents employing asymmetric tactics, worldwide.

For international Special Operations Forces (SOF), typically called upon first to respond to such threats, this has resulted in the requirement for an ever-expanding inventory of skills capable of executing a wide range of missions in order to combat state and non-state actors. Current operations in eastern Europe (Ukraine), Africa (Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger), the Asia-Pacific (the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir in northern South Asia, and ongoing operations in Afghanistan) and the Middle East (Libya, Syria and Iraq) clearly illustrate current demands being placed on SOF units, with an increasing number of nations now recognising them as force multiplying assets capable of conducting tasks including Counter-Insurgency (COIN), Direct Action (DA), Special Reconnaissance (SR) and Military Assistance (MA). However, these traditional SOF capabilities are now expanded with an increasing emphasis on Information Operations including psychological and cyber warfare.

According to a spokesperson from the United States Special Operations Command's Joint Special Operations University (JSOU) in Tampa, Florida, SOF have become one of the "primary military capabilities" for governments around the world as nations employ them in an "uncertain environment." The spokesperson continued that "this reflects a shift from the use of conventional forces to a heavy reliance on SOF. How should SOF be best employed to achieve national security objectives? What is the effectiveness of SOF: their role, their use as a strategic tool of warfare and their ability to meet the security needs of the international community?"

Looking ahead to 2016, the JSOU has outlined a list of requirements which will need continued investment and research and development, in order for SOF to maintain overmatch regarding their adversaries. These requirements include the breadth of technology and equipment required by SOF with JSOU study topics for the coming year including robotics, autonomy, miniaturisation, three-dimensional printing and the swarming of unmanned platforms. To this end, the JSOU is placing a particular emphasis on the application of Commercial-Off-The-Shelf (COTS) technology to these topics. "Innovation is not constrained to the defence industry, and (governments) may have to look to the commercial market for breakthrough technologies (to assist the adoption of this technology by SOF)" the spokesperson continued.

Beyond such technological challenges, fulfilling ongoing capability and skills gaps will be critically important for SOF organisations, with the future operating environment characterised by the increasing effects exacted on and off the battlefield by non-state actors. "SOF preparing to operate within this environment are bound by fiscal constraint, decreasing resources and manpower limitations (contrasting with) an era of expanding SOF requirements. While the characteristics of warfare within this environment will continue to evolve, what are the skills not yet currently present within the special operations community that are assessed as necessary for success?" the JSOU spokesperson asked.

It is not just the type and frequency of SOF commitments which have increased in recent years. SOF units across the world are witnessing growing requirements to operate in multiple environments across a very broad spectrum of enemy combatants. For example, the past decade of US-and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO)-led operations in Afghanistan and Iraq have seen NATO and its non-NATO coalition partners heavily engaged in COIN against relatively ill-equipped yet highly motivated and improvising adversaries who were able to significantly harass much larger forces.

This trend continues today but has morphed into an even more potent threat with the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) employing enhanced armour and manoeuvre tactics, almost akin to an established army, across northern Iraq and eastern Syria, utilising some very mature equipment captured from opposing indigenous forces, such as the Force Protection Industries Cougar Mine Resistant/Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles and Textron Ml 117 Guardian four-wheel drive internal security vehicles, both of which have been captured by ISIS from Iraqi Army stocks. ISIS' employment of conventional manoeuvre tactics on the battlefield has seen insurgent tactics writ large evolve significantly from those employed by Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan against NATO-led forces where vehicle-borne bombs would penetrate a target building before dismounted soldiers armed with explosive suicide vests and 7.62mm assault rifles would exploit the breech to dominate the building or target.

Geography also continues to play an integral role in the demands placed on SOF with forces being deployed to areas of operation with extreme weather ranging from the Arctic Circle to desert and bush Areas of Operation (AOs) in sub-Saharan Africa. Additionally, SOF involvement in the Asia-Pacific and the Middle East has seen a significant trend towards operations in maritime environments as well as Military Operations in Urban Terrain (MOUT), both of which continue to place very specialist demands on SOF.

As a consequence of the challenges discussed above, governments around the world are now investing more than ever in their SOF capabilities with a view to deploying small teams globally focused on training and equipping indigenous forces while providing organic force-multiplying capabilities downrange.

Speaking to multiple SOF cadres Armada was told how the current operating environment was continuing to stretch units to their absolute limit, particularly with ever-increasing and complex security threats required to be countered by COIN teams as part of wider internal security and homeland security operations. An example of this phenomena was witnessed in France when commandos from the Armee de Terre (French Army) Brigade des Forces Speciales Terre (Army Special Forces Brigade) were deployed to assist their counterparts in the French police and Gendarmerie during the siege and hostage crisis which developed in the town of Dammartin-enGoele, north of Paris following attacks by Islamist cadres on the offices of the satirical Paris-based magazine Charlie Hebdo on 7 Jaunary, which resulted in the death of the two perpetrators Cherif and Said Kouachi, when the industrial building in which they had taken refuge was stormed by French police two days' later. In addition to such homeland security requirements, SOF are increasingly required to deploy so-called Short Term Training Teams (STTTs), advisors and mentors to partnering nations across the globe. Such initiatives are ongoing in northern Iraq where Kurdish Peshmerga guerrillas attempting to roll back ISIS' territorial gains in the country are receiving training and assistance from SOF units deployed by the United States and allied nations. Thus it is clear to see just exactly how important the correct equipment and systems are in assisting these forces to successfully execute their tasks.


Speaking to active SOF members from around the world, it is apparent to Armada that the largest proportion of special operations troops fall under the 'airborne' banner with the remaining units generally focused on maritime operations. One of the most traditional and useful insertion techniques employed by such SOF is focused on parachute technology, and this is one particular area which is seeing significant improvements as teams seek to infiltrate AOs as quickly and as stealthily as possible.

High-Altitude/High-Opening (HALO) and High-Altitude/Low-Opening (HALO) where troops jump from altitudes of between 15000 feet/ft to 25000ft (4600 metres/m to 7620m) and Medium-Altitude/High-Opening (MAHO) operations (performed between 12500ft/3810m and 15000ft) remain the sole preserve of SOF although Low-Level Parachute (LLP) technology (for jumps below 12500ft) continues to be used particularly in relation to maritime insertion operations.

Despite a relative dearth in the utilisation of parachute insertion during US-led operations in Afghanistan and Iraq over the past decade, the most successful SOF units across the globe insist on maintaining these skilful techniques which can provide longrange and stealthy insertion onto a target. Industry is keeping apace with the demands of airborne troops with companies such as the Anglo-American outfit, Airborne Systems providing cutting-edge capabilities to assist in the execution of such operations.

According to Gary McHugh, customer business manager at Airborne Systems North America, high-altitude airborne insertions provide the most efficient use of parachute systems as well as a safe "offset" for aircraft, to remain out-of-reach of short-range air defence systems such as the KBM 9K32 Strela-2 Man-Portable Air Defence System, which typically have a maximum altitude of approximately 12000ft (3657.6m). "Parachute insertion continues to represent the most efficient way of sending a small team of special forces from friendly airspace into enemy airspace," Mr. McHugh explained to Armada.


Airborne Systems is in the midst of delivering 7000 of its latest Ram-Air 1 (RA-1) parachutes to the US Army and US Air Force Special Operations Commands (USASOC and USAFSOC) with additional special operations customers in Europe and the Asia-Pacific. Further details remained undisclosed due to operational sensitivities, Mr. McHugh explained. The RA-1 is a 'square' parachute capable of inserting a soldier over the equivalent of approximately 32km (17.3 miles) across the ground if exiting an aircraft from the...

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