NATO’s Special Operations Forces To Address Alliance’s Challenges

Photo courtesy of 7th Army Joint Multinational Training Command via Flickr

NATO, the alliance between the US, much of the EU, and other countries across North America, faces a number of dilemmas as its reach expands and tensions rise in tandem.

NATO’s Special Operations have been in existence since 2006. The NATO Special Operations Headquarters in Belgium opened officially in 2012 to train personnel spanning 26 nations: a network of shared intel, equipment, and technology. 

NATO is now incorporating Special Operations into all aspects of its operations and training, according to the DoD.

Here are some of NATO’s main challenges, and how  increased sophistication of Special Operation Forces’ joint strategy could help the alliance tackle them.

1. Hybrid warfare in Russia

A new challenge facing NATO is hybrid warfare, or a combination of conventional and unconventional forces, both military and nonmilitary, as has been exemplified by Russia’s recent tactics in Crimea, Ukraine and beyond.

Such warfare isn’t clear cut and is difficult to approach militarily, the commander of U.S. Special Operations Command General Joseph L. Votel said in a security forum.

Russia, Votel said, “is attempting to create these frozen conflicts and situations that are difficult to resolve along their border and in doing that stalemate a lot of things.” And that, he says, is on the Special Operations Command to develop proper response.

2. ISIS and Islamic extremism

The rise of ISIS is a primary focus of NATO and its joint special operation forces. As the extremist group expands its caliphate with the business savvy of a ruthlessly lean franchise, NATO seeks to keep the threat at bay long-term, especially where it could harm the security of member states.

“As SOF, we tend to take an indirect approach. We can engage without being escalatory or aggressive,” said Air Force Lt. General Marshall Webb at a January symposium. “We tend to view things from an oblique angle, and we absolutely acknowledge that trust, information-sharing and interagency collaboration is crucial.”

“It’s all about information sharing, it’s about comprehensive collaboration and it’s about partner and allied trust,” the general noted.

3. Dispersed threats

Aided by the Internet and globalization, today’s security threats span continents and airspace instead of being highly concentrated. To address this, Special Operations have shifted to a model of “shared consciousness” to tackle decentralized threats, meaning a lean network of fast communication and “empowered execution.”

After spending over a decade in Afghanistan and Iraq, NATO’s SOF have also determined that instead of the large, sometimes long-term deployment of troops, having small highly trained troops in member states is cheaper, more effective, and leaves a lighter footprint.

And speaking of dispersed, beyond land, there’s also air and web space to worry about. The militarization of space has been a topic of interest for NATO, while the need for offensive cyber operations to deter attacks has been highlighted as well.

4. Disagreements among citizens

NATO is obligated to defend member states, but according to Pew Research, over half of citizens in many of such states are against the alliance rushing to the defense of members in peril

“Roughly half or fewer in six of the eight countries surveyed say their country should use military force if Russia attacks a neighboring country that is a NATO ally.”

This is especially disturbing to Baltic members, who fear Russia’s mounting pressure.


Jennifer Markert