NATO Special Operations Forces

Support SouthFront

NATO Special Operations Forces


Written by Major General V. Kruglov, Doctor of Military Sciences, Professor; Major O. Vladimirov; Originally appeared at Foreign Military Review 2020 #7, translated by AlexD exclusively for SouthFront

In the resolution of contemporary conflicts, where the use of armed forces is premature or inappropriate, the NATO leadership assign a special role to the Special Operations Forces (SOF). With a high degree of combat readiness and mobility, as well as using special methods of conducting non-traditional military operations (training of rebel forces), they constitute a component of a versatile force.

The general management of the SOF is carried out by the NATO Special Operations Headquarters (Mons, Belgium). Its main tasks are the conceptualisation of operational and combat training programmes, strategic and operational planning, as well as the organisation of cooperation between national SOFs and similar structures of allies and partners in the military block.

The core of NATO’s Special Operations Forces is composed of US formations. The SOFs of the Joint Command of the US Armed Forces in the European zone are involved in the composition of operations and tactical groups.

The SOFs of zonal joint command (except for the European zone) take part in events and activities according to their plans, as they have a zonal and regional focus.

The tasks of direct management of formations in the European zone are assigned to the Special Operations Coordination Centre with its headquarters in Casto. Much attention is paid to the organisation of cooperation in the field of security, psychological operations, as well as actions in emergency situations, providing humanitarian assistance to the population of the host country.

NATO Special Operations Forces

Click to see the full-size image

One of the priorities of the construction of the NATO SOF is the creation of an effective management system for coalition forces, that is, the creation of multinational commands in the most important regions for the alliance. Special attention is paid to the management of units and divisions, which should ensure the maximum efficiency of conducting special actions on the European continent. In the future, SOFs should become even more highly mobile, ready and have guaranteed capabilities for rapid deployment in any region of the world.

For example, in October 2019, Croatia, Hungary, Slovakia and Slovenia signed a Memorandum of Understanding on the establishment of a regional SOF command. The basis for its deployment will be the Hungarian SOF, the goal is to organise the interaction of national authorities, coordinate the planning of the use of SOFs in modern training activities; develop opportunities for other formations of the SOF coalition group in the Balkans, as well as in other regions of Europe, during a crisis period. According to Western experts, the creation of this command is an important step towards strengthening special forces in the region and expanding cooperation and interaction in the Alliance. Hungary is given the necessary powers in the deployment of this formation, operational planning and management of special operations, as well as provides the necessary infrastructure for training special forces units. At the same time, each state will have the right to use its national forces separately, but if necessary, they can act as a whole and take part in missions and exercises of the European Union, NATO and the UN.

It is planned that the regional command will start working from January 2021, and the full involvement of this structure is scheduled for the end of 2024. In accordance with the requirements of the Alliance’s leadership, national SOF management bodies should be able to provide:

  • delivery of special operations units to designated areas (withdrawal from areas) through the involvement of national land, air and sea transfer facilities;
  • reliable, stable transmission of information via closed communication systems from special operations units to NATO command posts;
  • delivery of the necessary materiel to support the actions of the special operations units in the designated area for a specified period of time;
  • interaction with formations of other nationalities.

All countries of the bloc, with the exception of Iceland and Luxembourg, have special operations units in all types of national armed forces. In the military planning process, the accounting of units and management bodies of the SOF, which are included in different types of armed forces, is conducted jointly. At the same time, among the members of the Alliance, there are significant differences in the number, combat composition and capabilities of the SOF, but their organisational structure is basically similar. As a rule, it includes a certain number of combat (reconnaissance and sabotage) units: staff, communications, logistics and medical support. In addition, the geographical features of the Alliance’s allies, namely the absence of maritime borders, make it impossible for some countries to have a maritime component in their composition.

According to Western experts, special operations can be carried out in peacetime, during a crisis period and during military operations.

In peacetime, such operations are aimed at identifying the sources of crisis situations and their localisation at an early stage, as well as countering terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, maritime piracy, cyber attacks, attempts to exert economic pressure and destabilise the political situation. In addition, SOF units can be used to release hostages outside national territories, conduct rescue operations, and provide military assistance to NATO-friendly states.

In the event of a crisis and the threat of its escalation into an armed conflict, the SOF units support the Alliance’s political efforts to resolve the crisis, participate in the overthrow of undesirable regimes and bringing to power loyal ones to the West, conduct reconnaissance of areas of possible deployment of the bloc’s Armed Forces, and also participate in the implementation of NATO’s plans for conflict prevention using force methods.

In wartime, the SOFs largely determine the course and outcome of operations. Their use creates conditions that are important both at the beginning of operations conducted in the theater of operations, and in the future – with significant support for general forces during combat operations.

In general, SOFs are focused on actions on the territory of foreign states on different terrain and in different climatic conditions. At the same time, in all cases, their activities are mainly aimed at conducting special intelligence, carrying out reconnaissance and sabotage activities and providing military assistance to allied countries.

The purpose of special intelligence is to clarify and supplement information received from all types of intelligence, especially if the possibilities of other sources are limited by the physical, geographical and climatic features of the area of operation.

Reconnaissance and sabotage actions are carried out in the interests of solving certain tasks of a strategic or operational scale. They are usually short-term and provide for the immediate withdrawal from the area of operation of the SOF units involved in their conduct after their completion.

Given that during combat operations, special operations forces are expected to be mobilised primarily to capture or disable critical facilities, the effect of using small-sized SOF units in certain conditions can be much greater than the use of large groups of troops.

The main form of use of force is a special operation. It is a set of actions carried out by units and divisions of special operations forces that use tactical techniques and methods of warfare that are not typical for the classical types of the armed forces.

Special operations are planned and conducted to carry out individual actions to protect the interests on NATO, conduct special events in the interests of ensuring the success of military actions (operations) in general, as well as ensuring the safety of facilities and citizens.

The military leadership of the alliance believes that in certain countries and regions of the world, the SOFs are capable of causing significant damage to a potential and real enemy, as well as in a short time to undermine the political regime, economic and moral and psychological potentials. In addition, these formations during special operations can conduct raids, attacks, ambushes, place mines, land mines and other explosive devices on particularly important objects and ways of approach (entrance) to them, deliver pinpoint strikes on the enemy and carry out the guidance of high-precision weapons on selected targets. The success of special operations is facilitated by their detailed planning and comprehensive support at all stages of training and application of such units.

Special operations forces are considered to have significant capabilities and are able to operate autonomously for a short period of time, while complementing the efforts of NATO’s interspecific forces. The most numerous and prepared formations of the Alliance’s SOFs, designed to solve strategic tasks, are considered to be the formations of the US Armed Forces in the European Zone, Great Britain, Germany, France, Poland and Turkey. In other countries of the bloc, they are mainly intended for solving operational and tactical tasks. The change in the nature of armed conflicts with an obvious emphasis on “asymmetric actions” imposes qualitatively new requirements for the mobility, stealth, equipment and professionalism of the SOF combat units.

Important attention is paid to the training of the personnel in a wide range of disciplines, among which are mountain, parachute and sniper training. During the training, the skills of conducting reconnaissance, raids into the rear of a simulated enemy, capturing and holding individual objects and freeing hostages are practices. Joint exercises are conducted using advanced technologies in the field of communication, aimed at achieving coordinated actions of the alliance’s SOF units and divisions.

Special operations forces are equipped with modern means of armed struggle. They have small arms, artillery, engineering and missile weapons, mortars, space communication equipment, small and ultra-small submarines, jet skis, airplanes, helicopters and other means for solving reconnaissance and sabotage tasks in the deep rear or the enemy.

Thus, the NATO leadership considers special operations forces as an important tool for the implementation of the Alliance’s goals, since small-sized SOF units in a certain situation can give a more significant result than the use of a large group of troops. It assigns them an important role in solving the tasks of protecting the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the member states of the bloc within the framework of the collective security system of the Alliance.


Support SouthFront