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Back to the future: Designing the role of NATO Special Operations Forces in the 21st Century

Back to the future: Designing the role of NATO Special Operations Forces in the 21st Century 


By Gabriele Pierini and Lt. Col. Leonardo Doddi


The threat picture surrounding Europe and the North Atlantic has evolved significantly in the last decade. By virtue of their nature, special operations forces (SOF) need to be ready to tackle emerging challenges, and in this context, Allied and Partner SOF must evolve at the speed required by each nation. This essay analyses SOF employment in the context of the contemporary strategic environment and identifies how SOF should adapt so that techniques, structures, and operators are fit for purpose to address 21st century threats.

Most readers will be familiar with the idea of SOF conducting kinetic operations in conflict and will view this as a natural function of SOF. Non-kinetic activities conducted by SOF during peacetime and crises, however, are less intuitive. Therefore, this article describes how SOF might be employed across the whole spectrum of conflict. In examining the role of SOF in peacetime and in crisis, Allied and Partner SOF can set the scene to respond to new threats and challenges characterized by uncertainties and which require a whole-of-society approach. Noting the fluidity of change in the strategic environment today, our analysis of SOF in conflict concentrates on how the special operations posture should evolve from crisis response—ready to deploy far and wide to face adversaries in semi-permissive environments—to a more historic approach of depth and breadth in facing adversaries in non-permissive, denied areas.


The Nature and Tasks of Special Operations Forces 

Special operations are military activities conducted by specially designated, organized, trained, and equipped forces that use specific techniques and methods of employment. These activities are joint by nature—land, sea, and air units combined within a single, specific mission. Special operations can be conducted using clandestine techniques requiring mature and highly trained operators. That is why special operations forces are carefully selected with specific training facilitating SOF organizational structures that are characterized by flat hierarchies designed for a faster decision-making process. It is also important to note that most special operations require external support. SOF are employed both independently and in combination with conventional forces in operations that can include multinational actors, inter-agency partners, and local forces.

Europe has a long and successful history of employing SOF tactically and surgically for strategic gains. From the German seizure of Fort Eben Emael in Belgium through the use of gliders and advanced techniques that gave the Germans access to Western Europe, to the creativity exemplified by Italians in the raid on Alexandria where they employed innovative manned torpedoes nicknamed maiali (pigs). These direct action events changed the course of their nations’ campaigns during World War II. Special operations are tailored to create effects at a strategic level and are normally conducted in uncertain, hostile, and/or politically sensitive environments. Beyond sabotage and raids, SOF also found success in delivering influence activities and building trustworthy networks. The first of two examples include the British ‘hearts-and-minds’ campaign during the Dhofar Rebellion in Oman in the 1960s and 1970s to counter the communist rebels of the Popular Front for the Liberation of the Occupied Arabian Gulf (PFLOAG) and to begin the process of modernizing the Omani Armed Forces supported by the Special Air Service (SAS). In particular, the SAS supported the Omani forces in conducting counterinsurgency operations against the rebels. The second example is the early employment of SOF in Afghanistan following September 11, 2001. SOF set the scene for the deployment of conventional troops and played a critical role in the development of Afghan networks and dynamics to better synergize efforts. This strongly contributed to the Afghan security forces’ capacity building in both the US operation, Enduring Freedom, and NATO’s operation, International Security Assistance Force.


The Evolution of the Strategic Environment

During the Cold War, NATO had a common understanding of its adversary and the threats it posed. In an asymmetric, conventional warfare scenario, NATO focused on deterring the Soviet Union from armed aggression against its Allies by defending Allied territory and being prepared to respond to an armed attack. Although the SOF role in this strategic environment was multifaceted, the most widely understood SOF task was related to so-called ‘stay behind’ activities, which included build-up and provision of support to the preparation of resistance networks and resistance forces to be activated in case of a Russian invasion.

With the end of the Cold War, NATO’s adversaries became harder to identify, and the Alliance shifted from a deterrence and defense posture to one that was more agile and expeditionary. Under this framework, NATO developed its counterterrorism model for SOF that created a universally deployable and employable structure—a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution. NATO adapted its military responsiveness to be able to address various forms of instability such as terrorism, inter-ethnic rivalries, natural disasters, and civil wars. Even though these numerous forms of instability impacted the Alliance’s security, there was no common strategic design to address them. As conflict became more asymmetric and warfare became more unconventional, NATO responses to instability were disparate, each addressing a specific challenge on a case-by-case basis. For these reasons, NATO is continuously adapting to the evolving security environment. The world is now witnessing a rise in a combination of threats that includes the employment of regular armies, terrorist groups, proxies, and hybrid techniques within old and new domains of warfare such as cyberspace and outer space. These challenges are strategic in terms of geographical scale and their long-term nature. In this new strategic environment, NATO’s SOF will inevitably have to evolve and adapt. 

The NATO Special Operations Headquarters (NSHQ) located in Mons, Belgium, has an implicit emphasis on ensuring commonality in special operations standards and enhancing interoperability, with a particular focus on preparing forces for NATO operations. The organization was founded after the Riga Summit as the NATO SOF Coordination Centre (NSCC). In 2009, the North Atlantic Council agreed to transform the organization into today's NSHQ and make it subordinate to the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR), who is the commander of both NATO’s Allied Command Operations and the U.S. European Command (EUCOM). NSHQ provides strategic SOF domain advice and serves as a catalyst for development and innovation within member nations’ national SOF, looking out to the next horizon of deterrence and defense.


Redesigning NATO Special Operations Forces for Peacetime and Crisis

During peacetime, NATO requires a more effective mix of hard and soft power to effectively deter threats. This includes integration with non-military tools and civil society. Enshrined in Article 3 of the North Atlantic Treaty, the ideas of resilience and resistance realistically depend on a ‘whole-of-society’ approach. A ‘whole-of-society’ approach goes far beyond a traditional ‘whole-of-government’ one, which readers may be familiar with. In it, the active participation of citizens is especially important given increasing uncertainty surrounding the emergence of new threats. Unlike traditional responses that concentrate purely on government actions, cohesion and coordination across both government and civil society form the bedrock of what we call ‘Comprehensive Defense’ (CD).

The principles and approaches to implement CD were updated and published in a new concept and handbook developed by NSHQ in 2020. While CD is an official government strategy, it encompasses a ‘whole-of-society’ approach to protect a nation against potential threats. This means the government brings in all sectors of society when planning and preparing for, responding to, and recovering from natural, accidental, or malicious events that would threaten a nation’s safety or security. Through a nation’s government, societal groups support the means to educate, inform, and enable the public. The public is then continuously aware of any developments that may threaten the nation, is capable of helping prepare for and respond to threats, and is committed to contributing should a natural, accidental, or malicious event occur. This approach creates the conditions for national resilience that are trust, cohesion, and motivation.

NATO’s SOF are responsive, adaptable, and capable of operating within ambiguous and sensitive environments below the threshold of military conflict. At the request of an ally or partner, and in conjunction with other Alliance military and non-military capabilities, SOF can support other strategic and operational elements to strengthen national capability development and resilience. The role of SOF in CD spans across peacetime, crisis, and conflict and includes resilience, countering hybrid threats, and resistance. In particular, SOF may be integrated with governmental institutions and international organizations in peacetime or in an escalating crisis to form and support networks, promote inter-agency and inter-ministerial cooperation, build capacities within armed forces, assist with law enforcement where permitted, aid the civilian population, and help increase cooperation and interoperability between NATO and European Union forces.

The goal in peacetime may simply be to adequately prepare stakeholders so they know how to create or employ related tools to respond coherently to crisis and conflict. A key component of this success is achieved by establishing clear indicators of malicious activities, such as spotting weaponized information, cyber-attacks, terrorist acts, and armed incursions. The experiences of SOF show that setting up regional fusion cells can enhance the ability to synchronize and coordinate regional intelligence, law enforcement, and irregular military activities.

Information operations and strategic communication are also key factors contributing to deterrence in peacetime. Allied and Partner SOF, in coordination with NATO, should adapt in an agile manner and leverage strategic communications to remain effective in engaging NATO’s audiences. NATO’s deterrence objectives could be better supported through more closely coordinating and integrating the strategic messaging of national SOF activities that hitherto had not been exposed as NATO activity.

In the event of a developing crisis, national SOF could be employed early or be pre-positioned in areas likely to be contested, postured to provide enhanced vigilance, and ready to conduct operations against high-value targets and create strategic effects.


NATO Special Operations Forces in Conflict

During conflict, SOF are capable of playing non-traditional military roles that fill critical gaps. In particular, SOF employment, as a force multiplier, buys other instruments of power time, space, and initiative against a peer state. Over the last decades, NATO’s SOF have been employed mainly in counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency campaigns. Those types of scenarios have occurred mostly in semi-permissive environments characterized by domain and technology superiority. This may have generated a general expectation of easy SOF employment that is unrealistic in a peer-state conflict since any confrontation would most likely take place in heavily contested, denied, or occupied areas. This will require a very different skill set, tactics, and techniques, as well as a diverse use of technology in application to specific SOF missions. In short, SOF may be well employed in conflict, but it may need to be re-tooled to ensure that both nations and the Alliance have the appropriate contemporary capabilities.

It is reasonable and natural to expect that elements of national SOF will continue to develop purely in support of national objectives, which demands sustained dialogue and cooperation between NATO SOF HQ and national SOF HQs. Some nations may enable SOF to enhance coordination in areas such as resistance, irregular warfare, and deep operations capabilities, both within their national boundaries and in support of other Allies and Partners in their respective neighboring territories. As part of these resistance efforts, SOF may be employed in the conduct of irregular and unconventional warfare capacity building. These activities would empower partners of the Alliance with their own appropriate instruments to effectively counter adversaries in a modern conflict scenario.  

Further, noting emergent scenarios are characterized by the use of innovative hybrid techniques, SOF may conduct deep operations with the intent of either disrupting or preventing the use of advanced technologies. This preventative approach curbs an adversary’s ability to control contested territories across all domains of warfare, including cyberspace and outer space. The combination of these types of SOF capacities and activities with other military and non-military tools will generate strategic effects that serve the ultimate scope of creating one or more strategic dilemmas to aid deterrence and prevent a fait accompli as seen in eastern Ukraine in 2014. This will assure security and stability to the Alliance as a whole.


Interoperably Designed, but Beyond the Scope of NATO Command and Control

In the Cold War stay-behind era, NATO established several committees and military commands such as the Clandestine Committee of the Western Union, the Clandestine Planning Committee, and the Allied Clandestine Committee. Their duties included elaborating on the directives of the networks, organizing bases and underground arms caches across Europe, and overseeing national resistance organizations. Not always fully coordinated but often leveraged by NATO, these ‘secret armies’ were run by European military secret services in close cooperation with the American and British intelligence agencies and were well prepared to fight against a potential Soviet invasion. To cover current gaps in resistance activities—ensuring transparency when possible and updating capabilities as needed—the Alliance may consider reenergizing supporting nations that apply these approaches. Centralized committees may leverage national Comprehensive Defense activities under Article 3 and promote more civil-military and inter-agency cooperation for a truly whole-of-society approach. In short, nations must revisit these capabilities for this new era, and NATO must re-examine the model for the way in which national SOF contributes to deterrence objectives to ensure Allies have the required tools, noting that in most cases sensitivities will preclude their disclosure to the entire Alliance.

Another capability gap that NATO strategists and policy-makers are currently facing is in identifying political-military implications related to the cyberspace domain. Specifically, it will be pivotal to understand to what extent NATO’s SOF might be employed in support of operations occurring in and through cyberspace. The peculiar nature of this recently conceptualized domain of warfare often makes cyberspace the first line of contact with an adversary. For this reason, SOF should be ready to defend against cyber espionage, cyber disruption, physical and non-physical sabotage, and incursion, as well as other activities specifically related to information and psychological operations such as misinformation, disinformation, and propaganda. NATO should help nations ensure these capabilities are developed but note that the use of them in peacetime is a national task that the Alliance may primarily serve to coordinate in a deterrent or defensive capacity.



NATO’s model for special operations forces and the capabilities that NATO encourages nations to develop are both largely designed for crisis response and conflict. This must evolve to meet contemporary threats. SOF should do this by adapting its expertise and exploiting its ability to identify and implement both new and old means of warfare. NSHQ is taking a leading role: from efforts to design the way that future SOF operators are trained, to placing focus on nuanced capabilities; from enhanced vigilance within the Euro-Atlantic area to the employment of emerging and disruptive technologies.

Innovation is part of SOF’s ethos, but we should not be afraid to go 'back to the future’. This means reinvigorating SOF skills to conduct missions with traditional methods (e.g., clandestine operations, infiltration and exfiltration with unconventional means, building resistance networks, integration with civil society, not relying on technology for communication and navigation), while, at the same time, acquiring new capabilities to conduct operations with means that include advanced technologies.

Rather than assuming that a rotational mix of nations is able to address any contingency anywhere as the current model suggests, smaller footprint capabilities that can operate persistently in selected regions can better connect to NATO’s strategy. This intentional integration could be the difference between effective deterrence and response or missed opportunities. SOF cannot neglect the importance of reinventing itself for NATO.


About the authors

Mr. Gabriele Pierini currently serves as a Staff Officer within the Strategy, Concepts and Experimentation Directorate of NATO Special Operations Headquarters (NSHQ). He is the first civilian of Italian nationality to work at NSHQ. His professional background includes NATO Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE), the European Commission, and the Consulate General of the United States of America in Florence, Italy.

Lt. Col. Leonardo Doddi currently serves as the Deputy Director of Strategy, Concepts and Experimentation at NATO Special Operations Headquarters (NSHQ). He has held command and staff positions in the Italian Army Special Forces for nearly two decades, including six rotations in Afghanistan and other deployments in North Africa. Following his four years in NATO, in which he led the development of the fusion cell concept, he will take command of an Italian special operations forces battalion in summer 2021.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the NATO Special Operations Headquarters or NATO.


Image: https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/news_124496.htm?selectedLocale=en

This publication was co-sponsored by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.     

Tuesday, 1 June, 2021 - 10:45