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NATO special forces in Baltics need new skills — analysis

The flight of the US strategic bomber B-1B is coordinated by joint fire support specialists of the Lithuanian and US Special Operations Forces / Photo by the Lithuanian Armed Forces

The Baltic states are no Afghanistan and Iraq — myths about the nature of special forces work on the ground need to be addressed, write analysts at Locked N‘ Loaded.

L‘N‘L is an NGO registered in Lithuania, comprised of serving and former Lithuanian military personnel. Due to the nature of their work, they write anonymously. The author‘s identity has been confirmed by LRT English. This article published in LRT English and Locked N‘ Loaded blog.

Having read War on the Rocks article, Back to the future: getting special forces ready for great-power competition, the founders of Locked’ N’ Loaded encountered some ambiguous thoughts.

First of all, it is worth commending the article for highlighting and actualising the role of special operations forces within great power competitions.

Correct — the fight against terrorism has not disappeared and special operations are being carried out around the world. However, since the beginning of the 21st century, competition of the great powers began to intensify. This was primarily manifested looking at Russia’s and China’s increasingly aggressive posture.

Russia’s war against Georgia in 2008, China’s aggressive economic invasion into African, Asian and Latin American regions had to highlight the necessity to perform strategic overview, including that on special forces. After falling asleep on the first “call”, the second, much louder, was received in 2014, when Russia started a war against Ukraine and entered an era of open confrontation with the West.

Lithuanian Special Forces JTAC on NATO drills in Lithuania / Source Lithuanian Special Forces Facebook page

China, meanwhile, as it accumulated economic potential, began to demonstrate its geopolitical ambitions increasingly clearly.

The US SOF community has already been responding to it for several years. Trends in training and equipment changes are visible, and joint exercises are taking place with the allied countries on the NATO Eastern flank and Ukraine.

However, the authors’ approach of assessing the organisation of resistance in the enemy-occupied territory of NATO countries, Ukraine, and Southeast Asia as a one unified challenge is a notable mistake. Maybe the authors did not intentionally make this mistake as it is challenging to set out different concepts for different regions or states in one article.

However, we would not want the reader to erroneously generalise it when reading this article. “Universal” or patterned expertise of the Green Berets (as well as other members of the SOF community) might lead to misunderstandings both in the planning and execution of operations.

Special operations for each country require a specific approach (specific strategic, operational and tactical decisions). We can say very clearly that what might work in Lithuania may not work at all in Latvia, and even more so in Ukraine (not to mention Southeast Asia).

Lithuanian Special Forces rescuing Afghan interpreters / Source Lithuanian Armed Forces Facebook page

For example, if SFOD-A operators arriving in the area of operation in Lithuania consider the fight for the “hearts and minds” of local Russians to be one of their main tasks, it will be ridiculed by local partisans, as the problem of Russian speaking minorities in Lithuania is less significant than in Latvia or Estonia. There is no doubt that SOCOM understands this, but it is crucial that the academic community interested in defense studies understands this as well.

We would like to point out that the statement that “enhanced role for Special Forces would contribute to deterring Russia at a far lower cost than other alternatives, like increasing the size of the Baltic states’ defense forces or forward deploying up to seven US and NATO brigades on a permanent basis” is highly debatable.

An illustrative example would be that the surgeon, during an operation, places only a scalpel on the table, and demands everything else to be taken out of the operating room and sold.

SOF and conventional forces complement each other and enable to act both individually and together. That is the essence of deterrence and defense.

Yet, imagine that we begin to build NATO deterrence and defence relying only on the SOF element, eg we are moving one of the US SOF groups to the Baltic states.

Interaction of Lithuanian SOF Combat Divers and US Navy Special Operations SEAL Teams in International Exercises / Source Lithuanian Special Forces Facebook page

What signal does this send to Russia? We have no strength, no desire and no will to fight for the territory of NATO countries, we tend to lose it for at least some time to fight an unconventional war behind the enemy line.

We would think that Russia (if making a decision to throw a military challenge to NATO) would be happy with such a strategy, because 1) if it takes a piece of land, it is very hard to beat them out of there (Crimea, Donbas, Osetia, Abkhazia); 2) has a huge repressive apparatus and experience to fight guerillas (Cold War, North Caucasus).

So we think such a change of priorities would give the opposite effect from the one we might want to achieve. Russia can be deterred from performing aggressive action against NATO by effective national defense systems, collective defense and nuclear deterrence.

When we try to replace this whole system with some “smart and cheap tool”, Russia accepts it as the collapse of this triad and begins to beat the drum of war. If we leave only some element (and — especially in terms of combat power and depth of operations — not the most powerful) we do not deter the opponent, but encourage it to act.

It is important that the article focuses not on Tier1 units (1SFOD-D, DEVGRU, etc) but on SFOD-A, otherwise known as the Green Berets.

Lithuanian Special Forces / MOD

As the article rightly points out, they have long been responsible for organising resistance to the aggressor behind the contact line. During the war against terror, this function was particularly active in the first phases of this war.

Later, often the competencies of all units (Tier1 or Tier3) began to mix. In Afghanistan or Iraq CO’s and HQ’s not always had the luxury to dedicate a specifically appropriate team to a particular area of operation. So it happened that the Green Berets kicked doors and Tier1 operators made contact with local commanders.

It is commendable that in the article authors highlight the necessity to return to SOF specialisation. At the same time, it must be emphasised that, like in the war on terror, during “global powers” competition (especially — during a war among them) unconventional warfare cannot replace direct action.

Make no mistake — neutralisation of high value targets, rescuing hostages (officials and soldiers), conducting raids, and carrying out long-range reconnaissance will remain on SOF “to do list”. The Green Berets will not cope with all these tasks, so it is necessary to prepare “door kickers” (in tactical, fire support, communication, logistical terms) for the competition of the great powers.

The authors of this article partially cover this by stating that during the competition of the great powers SOF operates in a different operational space than during the war on terror.

In our opinion, the authors are 100 percent right that, considering the technological level of the adversary, communication, logistics, and tactical medicine will certainly be provided under completely different conditions than the NATO SOF operated in Afghanistan or Iraq. However, it is important to add a few aspects.

In the big boys world, opponents’s Electronic Warfare and intelligence capabilities will influence allies’ strategic, operational and tactical decisions. Support bases are likely to be on the “own” side of the contact line, and a phenomenon such as FOB (outpost, secured by infantry or marines, where the SOF could safely rest, replenish ammunition) may not exist at all.

The war will also be different due to the changed balance of fire power (compared to the war with Al-Qaeda and ISIS). In the fight against Russia or China, operational decisions will be influenced by the capabilities of opponents A2/AD, tactical — by armoured vehicles, artillery, aviation, helicopters, etc.

Likewise, NATO allies need to understand that there will be an organised repressive machine behind the enemy line, with the resources and experience to operate incredibly more effectively and consistently in the fight against rising (and supported) resistance beyond the front line.

Lithuanian Special Forces / MOD

Therefore, it is worth analysing the partisan war between the Baltic States and Ukraine against the Soviets in 1944–1953 as well as Russia’s actions in suppressing partisan (unconventional) resistance in the Caucasus after 2001. That said, everything will be different: infiltration, patrolling, contact operations, recon, fire support, direct action and exfiltration. That is what NATO SOF must prepare for.

It is also worth discussing the authors’ proposals regarding tactical aspects. We consider it a crucial proposal for US SFOD-A operators to get back to their roots and learn how to use Russian and Chinese weapons in order to facilitate the training of local partisans during the conflict.

Of course, this is not about AKMS or RPG7, the use of which is well known to the people of the Baltic states (not to mention potential fighters in Ukraine or Southeast Asia).

It is about enabling partisans to use captured ATGM’s, SAM’s, mortars and artillery, Electronic Warfare, etc. This would significantly expand and enable their ability to fight and bring the liberation closer. It is very important that this activity starts now. Gaining such crucial capabilities during the war might be too late. Such activities must be carried out by the countries themselves, but also the attention and provision of technical capabilities by the US and NATO allies for such training is crucial.

At the same time, it is important to mention that in the event of a conflict, the Allied SOFs will not come to a place unprepared for combat, where training, logistics, operations will have to start from scratch.

After regaining independence in 1990, Lithuania realised that Russia’s attitude towards neighbours most likely would not change and it was necessary to prepare for the worst scenarios.

Preparation. National Defence Volunteer Forces (KASP) squad is preparing for the start of the competition of the best infantry squad of the Lithuanian Land Forces / Photo by Mikhail Lysenko / Lithianian Armed Forces

Therefore, in 1991, National Defence Volunteer Forces (KASP) were established, which have been preparing for territorial defense and actions behind the enemy lines for 30 years already.

The formed Lithuanian Special Forces relied on the Lithuanian partisans’ legacy (fought against the Soviet Union in 1944–1953) and modern SOF tactics and techniques. In 1995, the training of the SOF Jäger Battalion started based on the tactics of the Green Berets.

Since 2001, Lithuania’s SOF have been actively participating in combat operations in Afghanistan. Moreover, KASP and the Lithuanian Armed Forces during exercises regularly test the “swarm” tactics, which allows them to act effectively against a much more capable opponent.

This preparation is also supported by the Lithuanian Riflemen’s Union, a paramilitary civilian organisation whose battlegroups are integrated for training into the KASP units.

Lithuanian Riflemen’s Union exercises / Photo by Vaidotas Okulic-Kazarinas/Lithuanian Riflemen’s Union

So it is crucial to understand that when the allied SOF arrive during the war, there will already be a conventional army here (angry grunts, IFV’s, artillery, etc), and if the situation requires — partisan (unconventional) troops.

We already have our operational and tactical solutions prepared and we are drilling them together with NATO SOF. The initial job of the Green Berets during the conflict will not be to teach Lithuanians the basics of warfare, but to enable advanced unconventional warfare operations and support them with fire (artillery, precision weapon, aviation), provide logistical support, identify targets, help to plan and execute operations.

It is simultaneously important to note that this process works in both directions. While the authors of the article emphasise US support for local militants, local militants (partisans or unconventional forces) can also help US and allied SOF and higher command.

Lithuanian Special Forces team with a dog at work / Source Lithuanian Special Forces Facebook page

Their intelligence, situational awareness, and locality awareness can allow allies to form a much broader picture of the operational space and properly plan operations of all scales, find targets they cannot find by other means. So in this context, it is important that SOF operators and partisans speak the same language.

In this context, the authors suggest emphasising preparation of the Green Berets to speak those languages that will be useful in communicating with local fighters in the areas of operations (Lithuanian, Dari, Ukrainian and etc).

It is difficult to comment on Southeast Asia, but in our region, SOF local language skills would be between ‘good to have’ and ‘nice to have’, but not crucial to the success of operations. First of all, it should be noted that soldiers and officers of the Lithuanian Armed Forces constantly cooperate with the allies during exercises and operations, and there is no language barrier.

In addition, the civil society’s English language skills are generally very good. According to various data, about 50 percent of the population use English language in urban areas and about 30 percent of the entire population of Lithuania.

In the “fighters‘ age” target group, the situation is even better under the age of 40, some 79 percent of the population speak English. Of course there are always places for improvements, but this is our homework. Therefore, it is likely that local fighters in Lithuania and US SOF operators will communicate and understand each other (of course, it would be pleasant to hear “labas” or other Lithuanian phrases).

However, it is far more important that both the allied SOF and the Lithuanian Armed Forces and partisans speak the same military language, ie using the same terms and procedures that are mutually understandable.

Only in this way they will agree on the course of operations, be able to properly communicate and pass information to headquarters, coordinate and support actions. Therefore, it is necessary to deepen English military language of KASP soldiers and members of the Riflemen’s Union, so that unnecessary misunderstandings do not arise during the partisan resistance.

In conclusion, we would like to thank the authors of the article and the War on the Rocks team for touching on this important topic and providing valuable insights. Hopefully, some of our observations will be relevant to your readers and will contribute to the better preparation of Special Operations Forces for the competition of the great powers.


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