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SOFIC 2017: International Special Operations Forces Programmes Update

Equipment plays a critical role in enhancing  force-multiplying effects of SOF teams

In order to maintain currency across a rapidly evolving operating environment, the international SOF community continues to devise inventive concepts of operation (CONOPS) and Tactics, Techniques and Procedures (TTPs) in order to continue the overmatch of adversaries across a congested and sometimes contested battlespace. However, such superiority also requires a strong emphasis on technology, although SOF commanders will always assert the self-reliance and ingenuity of the operator as the prime influencer on the battlefield ahead of materiel.

As sources from the NATO Special Operations Headquarters (NSHQ) in Mons, Belgium highlighted to MONS, equipment plays a critical role in enhancing the force-multiplying effects of SOF teams, sometimes operating at reach in unsupported roles. The Contemporary Operating Environment (COE), sources added, also continues to see an extension in operational capabilities of SOF teams, particularly with regard to reliance on EW and airborne ISTAR assets to positively identify targets, provide overwatch and provide ‘talk on’ target indication for assault forces.

According to undisclosed military sources, the most advanced SOF units now routinely rely on teams of operators deploying on specialist missions with external subject matter experts such as EOD; EW; C4ISTAR; Linguist; and Intelligence operatives attached to ground assault forces, for example. However, the most prevalent technology programmes in the SOF domain continue to be focused on insertion/extraction capabilities and the provision of timely and accurate C4ISTAR intelligence across the battlespace.


The Airborne Environment 

In the air, commands around the world continue to work up plans to enhance the airborne support of their SOF elements.

In Norway, an MoD White Long Term Plan published in December 2016 calls for Norwegian Special Operations Command to consider the establishment of a dedicated and organic Special Operations Air Component. According to the paper, Norwegian SOF’s FSK and MJK components are set to benefit from, “dedicated helicopter support,” although force elements will continue to be supported by the MoD’s legacy fleet of Bell 412 helicopters out of Bardufoss and Rygge operating bases until an, “alternative helicopter capacity is established in the North,” the plan stipulates.

The news follows a joint decision, publicised on 17 September 2016 by Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary and Slovenia, stipulating a desire to create a Multinational Special Operations Aviation Training Solution with support from NSHQ.

An NSHQ source explained to MONS how the most mature of SOF Task Forces, also known as Tier 1 units, were those which could support their own force elements with an organic special operations aviation capability. “Few SOF Commands retain the capability to deploy a Task Force for protracted periods of time with its own organic air support,” the source explained. “Hence why multiple Special Operations Task Forces operating in Afghanistan, for example, relied upon air support from larger international partners such as the US. Many see this capability as the definition of a true Tier 1 force, meaning they are capable of executing the entire spectrum of special operations from start to finish.”

Elsewhere, the Republic of Korea’s SOF are set to receive an uplift in fixed wing support following an announcement by Chief of the General Staff of the Army, General Jang Jun-Kyu in October 2016, calling for an extension in measures to counter its northern neighbour. The decision will see army and navy Special Warfare Commands benefiting from the procurement of MH-47 CHINOOK helicopters and upgrades to current air force C-130 HERCULES fixed wing aircraft operated by 255 Special Operations Squadron. Upgrades, according to a government spokesperson, include C4ISTAR technology, avionics allowing low level flying in low visibility and aircraft countermeasure systems. Further details remain undisclosed due to operational security concerns, although industry sources explained to MT how upgrades would be made available to RoK forces by 2018.

Elsewhere, Lithuanian SOF (LITHSOF) also has a requirement for support from attack helicopters for intimate fire support and ISTAR missions to ground assault forces. According to the MoD, discussions are under way to provide LITHSOF and the land forces with a “combat helicopter” capability, which could also be re-roled for combat search and rescue (CSAR) operations. The news follows the Russian MoD’s decision to provide specialist rotary wing support to Spetsnaz Brigades.

Similarly, German Special Forces (KSK) have now received their full complement of dedicated special operations helicopters, following a decision in December 2015 to purchase 15 multirole H145Ms. Designated the Lightweight Utility Helicopter SOF (LUH SOF), these aircraft will support KSK operations with the final platforms having been delivered to the customer early in 2017, industry sources confirmed to MONS. Aircraft are being used for internal security operations as well as in an expeditionary capacity, allowing SOF teams to be inserted, extracted and resupplied on targets as well as providing airborne sniper overwatch for ground and helicopter assault forces, CT missions and vehicle interdiction serials.

Manufactured by Airbus Helicopters, the H145M features undisclosed levels of ballistic protection against small arms fire as well as electronic countermeasure technology, particularly relevant to low level insertion/extraction routes over enemy air defence systems. In the fire support role, the helicopter can be fitted with multiple weapons including 5.56x45mm; 7.62x51mm; and .50-cal machine guns.



SOF programmes across the ground environment continue to be highly concentrated on the procurement of Special Operations Vehicles (SOV), especially those which can be carried as internal cargo in tactical fixed- and rotary-wing platforms. Examples of these Internally Transportable Vehicles (ITV) include multiple offerings from Polaris Government & Defense; General Dynamics Ordnance and Tactical Systems (GDOTS); SC Group; Jankel Group; Renault Trucks Defense; and Nimr Automotive, to name just a few. 

International SOF sources highlighted to MONS how the utility of ITVs has extended the operational reach of SOF direct action and special reconnaissance teams, capable of forward mounting on board tactical aircraft before progressing even further by tactical ground vehicle with the additional firepower, C4ISTAR and resupply available on board 4×4 and 6×6 vehicles.

Some of the most recent and significant programme wins include Polaris’s capture of the Canadian Special Operations Forces Command’s Ultra Light Combat Vehicle contract, worth U$15.5 million, which will see force elements including the Canadian Special Operations Regiment and Joint Task Force 2 equipped with Deployed Advanced Ground Off Road (DAGOR) vehicles.
Ultralight ground mobility is at the forefront of many military’s needs – especially the Canadian Special Forces, which can deploy on extremely short notice for counter-terrorism operations and other time-sensitive SOF missions. The DAGOR ultra-light combat vehicle is just as deployable and was designed to be modular and light-weight to support a variety of expeditionary missions,” a Polaris official explained. “The flexible DAGOR platform will undergo engineering and mission configurations to incorporate new features and capabilities, including redesigned payload configuration, weapons mounts, electrical system improvements, and integrated communication systems. The final vehicle configuration, testing, and production of the ULCV will be a collaborative effort with CANSOFCOM.” 

DAGOR can carry up to nine operators and can be carried in CH-47 CHINOOK and C-130 HERCULES aircraft before deploying on assault operations or long range reconnaissance missions.

Elsewhere in North America, US SOF continue to receive initial deliveries of GDOTS’ GMV1.1 ITV, based on the FLYER 72 4×4 tactical ground vehicle. According to defence sources, vehicles continue to be evaluated by force elements which are considering a variety of TTPs and CONOPS ahead of their deployment on operations.

LITHSOF operators also continue to evaluate Polaris’ MRZR-2 and MRZR-4 ITVs for mobility operations, with industry sources at the Global SOF Symposium in Vilnius, Lithuania, highlighting the current capability gap for such a vehicle. Polaris exhibited a MRZR at the event in October, although company officials were unable to confirm whether any discussions had yet taken place with LITHSOF commanders regarding future procurement. MRZR platforms can also be carried as ITVs on board CH-47 and C-130 aircraft as well as the V-22 OSPREYs used by USSOCOM.

Further afield, KOPASSUS and KOPASKA SOF teams in Indonesia will be equipped with new All Terrain Assault Vehicles (ATAVs) by the end of 2017, according to industry sources. Army and Navy SOF units respectively, will receive a total of 18 P6 ATAVs, manufactured by SSE Defence, the first of which was exhibited at Indo-Defence in Jakarta in November.

Finally, French Special Forces continue to receive initial deliveries of RTD’s Heavy Special Forces Vehicles, following a contract award from the DGA in September. The first tranche of 25, of a total requirement for 202 platforms, was received on 1 February. This will be followed by more over the next four years, as well as 242 Special Force Light Vehicle platforms – an RTD-designed ITV unveiled as a concept at Eurosatory 2016.

Initial deliveries of the heavier vehicle will be shipped to the Sahel Region of West Africa where French Special Forces troops remain heavily involved in counter-insurgency operations. The French MoD was unable to provide MT with further details for reasons of operational security, although it confirmed a presence in the Democratic Republic of Congo; Central African Republic; Cameroon and Mali. However, sources associated with the special operations environment in Mali, explained how vehicles would be used for a variety of roles stretching from force protection and fire support missions to special reconnaissance and long range patrol serials.

Based on RTD’s SHERPA Special Forces platform, the 4×4 tactical ground vehicle can be carried on board A400M and C-130 aircraft. Capable of carrying four operators with associated personal and mission-related equipment, the vehicle has a gross vehicle weight of 8t and a payload capacity of 2 tonnes. With a top speed of 110km/h, the SHERPA can reach distances of 800km on a single load of fuel, company officials explained to MONS.

“The SHERPA Light family of 4×4 tactical and light armoured vehicles is designed to provide light forces (infantry, paratroopers, marines, internal security) with the best mobility/payload compromise of its category, ideally suited for Special Forces thanks to its all-terrain agility, autonomy and pre-disposal for 360° firepower. It is also able to support mine and ballistic protection kits,” a company statement reads.

The delivery of these SOVs to the French SOF Command has created a knock-on effect for the organisation’s regional allies in West Africa, with special forces elements in Cameroon now being supplied with legacy French SOF platforms including Panhard and ACMAT vehicles.

Handed over to the Rapid Intervention Brigade in December, Cameroon’s premier SOF unit is now using a total of 15 platforms as part of a €500,000 deal with the French government to provide equipment including combat helmets, body armour and load carriage gear.

Defence sources described how the battalion remains heavily engaged in operations against Boko Haram militant groups on the border with Nigeria. The unit, which includes the Long Range Group, continues to conduct special reconnaissance and direct action missions as part of a wider CT and COIN campaign to identify terror networks and capture high value targets.


Small Arms

In the area of small arms, the international SOF market continues to witness an uplift in activity with force elements across Europe in particular, fulfilling requirements to provide greater capability to units seeking enhanced lethality and reliability.

In Germany, KSK and KSM Special Forces unveiled a solicitation to replace their existing inventory of Heckler & Koch 5.56x45mm G36 assault rifles with a next-generation weapon system. Commanders have set aside €11million to buy a total of 1,750 assault rifles, with industry sources suggesting Germany could follow the path of Dutch Special Forces in acquiring Sig Sauer’s MCX weapon.

German requirements demand a 3.8kg weapon system measuring less than 90cm, with the capability to integrate a suppressor – a pre-requisite for SOF, enabling a reduction in noise, muzzle flash, recoil, and dust signatures, particularly prevalent during military operations in urban terrain (MOUT) and close quarter battle in confined spaces.

Additional requirements call for a lifecycle of 30,000 rounds per weapon, which must also feature ambidextrous controls including fire selector switch (available in safe, semi-automatic and automatic configuration), cocking handle and magazine release catch. The rifle must also feature 360° Rail Adaptor Systems for the integration of accessories including tactical torches, laser designators, optical gunsights and red dot reflex sights, for example.

The deadline for responses from industry was 9 February, with an evaluation of participating entries expected to take place over the next six months ahead of downselection of a preferred development partner in September. Evaluation will consist of testing 40 weapon systems, with particular emphasis on reliability, environmental capabilities and accuracy.

The news follows Dutch Special Forces’ decision on 23 November to diversify away from NATO Standard 5.56x45mm calibre in favour of the 7.62x35mm 300 BLK calibre. The Netherlands Maritime SOF (NL MARSOF) force element made the selection with a contract to buy a total of 200 assault rifles with associated sub-sonic, ball and lead-free frangible ammunition to yet further enhance the effects of the weapon system. Weapons will replace legacy HK416 carbines.

Defence sources associated with NL MARSOF’s decision say this represents the first time such a mature force has stipulated an alternative calibre as its primary weapon system.

However, it is important to note how the international SOF community has always retained the capability to switch rapidly between calibres, allowing added flexibility during missions. For example, 5.56x45mm ammunition has been criticised for lacking sufficient stopping power during close quarter battle scenarios, although heavier calibres such as 300 BLK can cause greater collateral damage, particularly in confined spaces, unless firing sub-sonic and/or frangible ammunition.

The MCX is also available with suppressed upper receiver group technology, a solution which USSOCOM is already considering for the various force elements under its operational control. This fully integrated and permanent suppressor extends the lifecycle and robustness of suppressed carbines, the latter having become signature equipment for Special Forces over recent years.


The Maritime Environment

In, around and under the sea, the international SOF community continues to be driven to enhance sub-surface insertion, extraction, C4ISTAR, and fire support roles, with several naval forces pursuing next-generation Swimmer Delivery Vehicle (SDV) concepts as well as sponsoring submarine Dry Deck Shelter (DDS) solutions from which to launch and recover.

China, France, the UK and US are considering such options in order to provide a special operations capability to their fleets of strategic submarines, allowing teams of operators to be covertly inserted into a target area on board a boat before transitioning into SDVs via a DDS to further penetrate areas of operation, one NATO SOF maritime source explained to MONS.

Significant programmes include the US Navy’s Shallow Water Combat Submersible (SWCS) and French Navy’s Special Warfare Underwater Vehicle (SWUV). The former comprises a next-generation free-flooding combat submersible which is capable of, “transporting SOF personnel and combat equipment in hostile waters for a variety of missions,” according to a USN spokesperson who referred to the August 2016 US Congressional Research Service report, “Navy Irregular Warfare and Counterterrorism Operations.”

Systems and equipment are used in the conduct of infiltration/extraction, reconnaissance, beach obstacle clearance and other missions. The capabilities of submersible systems and unique equipment provides small, highly trained forces the ability to successfully engage the enemy and conduct operations associated with SOF maritime missions,” it was added.

Due to replace in-service MK 8 MOD 1 SEAL SDVs, a pair of SWCS is expected to be delivered to USSOCOM by the end of 2017, ahead of an evaluation test programme with USN SEAL Teams. Each 22ft long craft has the capacity to carry a 4.5t payload, although prime contractor Teledyne Brown Engineering was unable to comment on the secretive $383million programme.

The SWCS is also being supplemented by the navy’s Dry Combat Submersible (DCS) programme, a concept demonstrator for which is being worked up by Lockheed Martin and Submergence Group. The DCS is being designed to provide extended range and depth options over the SWCS, navy officials explained, in order to overcome ever-maturing anti- and counter-combat diving technology to protect ports and other critical national infrastructure.

France’s SWUV, which is being developed by ECA Group, has been designed for a trio of mission requirements including combat diver insertion into target areas; coastal intelligence with an associated electro-optical payload; and insertion of ordnance and munitions into areas of operation for demolitions purposes.

An ECA Group spokesperson explained to MT how the vehicle retained the capacity to carry a team of six combat divers with an operational crew of two personnel required for operation of the craft.

With a COE continuing to favour the deployment of Special Operations Task Forces, high investment levels appear set to remain prevalent across the sector as governments look to maximise the force multiplying effects of these smaller formations.

However, although SOF must remain at the cutting edge of technology, the development of personnel to better handle the next generations of materiel and technology will remain a primary area of focus for commanders seeking to retain overmatch over adversaries, particularly in relation to emerging near-peer threats.

Andrew White


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