Shifting trends: Special forces equipment
By Jim Dorschner
International special operations forces (SOF) equipment requirements have altered considerably since 2001, in keeping with the dramatic changes in SOF employment trends around the world.
During the 1990s the focus was on enhanced mobility in the form of extremely light, unprotected patrol vehicles and lightweight digital communications that adopted emerging information technology (IT) developments with battlefield applications, such as data burst capabilities.
Operations in Bosnia highlighted the requirement for special forces (SF) teams to perform precision ground forward air control (FAC) of tactical airpower and the need for a range of advanced surveillance and intelligence collection systems specifically tailored for SF, such as portable and vehicle-mounted, all-weather electro-optical systems.
The multifaceted global SOF operational environment since 2001 has opened the door to a plethora of new equipment developments, supported by comparatively generous budgets and driven by demanding requirements.
Along with traditional long-range reconnaissance and surveillance, and direct action missions, there is a new emphasis on complex counterinsurgency (COIN) operations and foreign forces training, known as foreign internal defence (FID) in US parlance.
A number of the trends in SOF equipment are in marked contrast to a decade ago when much of the procurement consisted of small numbers of items specifically designed to satisfy SOF requirements. On operations today in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan - where improvised explosive devices do not discriminate between SOF and conventional forces - recent light and fast dune buggy-type vehicles have made way for the same heavy mine-resistant ambush-protected (MRAP) vehicles employed by conventional forces.
While the United States SOF community has benefitted the most from developments, SOF across Australasia, Canada and Europe are also exploring new equipment options that make the most of niche capabilities and emerging technology, while counterparts in China, the Middle East, Russia, South Asia and elsewhere are following developments with keen interest.
Unsurprisingly, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) systems top the list of SOF requirements, including unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), but mobility also remains important - from all-terrain vehicles to specially equipped C-130 Hercules transport aircraft and helicopters. SOF forces around the world are also constantly looking for better weapons.
US and UK special forces kept track of recent fighting in Basra, Iraq, between government forces and Shia militias using real-time imagery from US Air Force (USAF) General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc (GA-ASI) Predators and British Army Elbit Hermes 450 UAVs operating over the city.
The UAVs were able to provide vital intelligence to the Iraqi commanders the forces were working with using L-3 Communications ROVER III (remotely operated video enhanced receiver) terminals. US SOF joint terminal attack co-ordination (JTAC) teams working in conjunction with Iraqi government troops also used the terminals to direct a series of air strikes on militia positions.
In Europe, Israel's Elbit Systems has sold the Skylark mini-UAV to French special forces. Skylark I is a manportable tactical UAV designed for day/night observation and reconnaissance missions out to 10 km.
According to Elbit, the Skylark I has an "exceptionally" quiet electric motor and is capable of "totally autonomous flight". Elbit believes the French order will pave the way for further contracts with other "European NATO member countries" in an SF role.
Poland may have already added Skylark to its GROM SF unit, which had earlier employed the Aeronautics Defence Systems' Orbiter UAV in Afghanistan and Skylark I UAVs are deployed there with Australian, Canadian and Dutch forces, including support to SF operations.
The USAF Special Operations Command (AFSOC) operates the widest array of UAVs in support of SOF.
At the lower end, AFSOC Combat Controllers have access to two manportable systems - the Boeing ScanEagle and the GA-ASI AeroVironment RQ-11 Raven. Raven has a colour electro-optical camera and an infrared camera for night operations and a range of 8-12 km.
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