Published on January 4th, 2016 | by admin


Special Forces – The Strategic Asset Of A Modern Military Force

Rationalisation, downsizing and streamlining are all realities facing European militaries over the past decade as governments seek to deliver their security commitments within a diminished resource envelope. Within this environment, Defence Ministries are realising the value of investing in Special Operations Forces (SOF) as a strategic tool; offering maximum impact with much lower investment and visibility. This has been reflected in Ireland in the recently published White Paper on Defence. SIGNAL recently spent some time with personnel from the Defence Forces own elite unit, the Army Ranger Wing (ARW) in their compound at the Defence Forces Training Centre (DFTC). We report on their own capabilities, roles and training and what strategic capabilities they provide for the organisation.

Special operations, Ireland and the security spectrum

The Capstone Doctrine, which relates to DF doctrinal policy, refers to an international security environment which is “dynamic….and characterised by historical and endemic international disputes, while ongoing economic, environmental and societal issues will be major drivers of insecurity.” It adds that Ireland and its EU partners will face security threats that are “more diverse, less visible and less predictable.” The conventional and non-conventional threats emerging from this paradigm of conflict will include terrorism, destabilisation, insurgency, organised crime and cyber warfare. It is a demonstrable fact of the 21st century that today’s security threats are rarely against structured, conventional forces but are mostly necessary to counteract impulsive, volatile and unpredictable actors, as recent events have demonstrated.

Within the context of this environment, the efficacy of Special Operations Forces (SOF) in providing a countermeasure to these threats can be seen in the international evidence of European states such as the UK, France, Germany, Sweden, Norway, Germany and Poland all investing heavily in their SOF capabilities, and choosing to deploy SOF capability, to achieve their own strategic objectives. It is within this context that the capabilities of the ARW can be best analysed. The ARW was established in 1980, when it was recognised by the Defence Forces and government that international proliferation in terms of terrorism, and on-island realities of the same threat, necessitated the creation of a unit that would have the ability to respond and neutralise such threats.

Over the years, the ARW has become and has remained amongst the best equipped and trained units within the Defence Forces. The ARW operates in all environments; land, sea and air and recruits its personnel from all corps of the Defence Forces. The training to become a member of the unit is extremely robust and demanding, with a failure rate regularly above 90%. In the words of the officers within the unit, the demands of the training are intense as they are because the realities of SOF operations are within the higher spectrum of military activity and ‘standards must remain incredibly high, they can never be diluted.’

The ARW is trained, and equipped, to carry out special operations in both domestic and international security environments. In its submission to the recently published White Paper on Defence, the unit describes its role as providing support to each formation and service of the Defence Forces and also, as with other Defence Forces units, to provide support to the civil authorities. The submission states; “in support of this the ARW maintains a robust counter terrorist capability and the ability to respond at short notice for specialist taskings. The ARW ensures that the DF maintains a credible capacity to conduct counter-terrorist operations such as hostage rescue/VIP close protection/security of vital installations/ the ability to operate and respond to incidents in a CBRN (Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear) environment and to provide specialist support for large scale or sensitive security operations.”

The officer who is second in command of the unit (2 i/c) says; “the ARW exists to conduct operations which require higher levels of risk while utilising discretion and precision. This unit has a long tradition of conducting operations both at home and overseas and the ARW has earned a respected reputation both in Ireland and internationally amongst the SOF community, with which it interacts, trains and knowledge-shares on a frequent basis. This fits into the framework of interoperability with other agencies both nationally and internationally, as laid out in both the White paper and also by NATO, with whom we work under the Partnership for Peace (PfP) framework. Essentially we provide Government with a unique response option that can be used for a strategic outcome, no matter where it is, and whether the environment is land, sea or air.”

ARW Capabilities

“The capabilities of the Defence Forces are stronger when the organisation can draw upon the strengths of an integrated SOF unit as opposed to an isolated one,” says the Officer in charge of the unit (O/C). The decision to use SOF is not one that is taken lightly, SOF Units are best deployed in situations ideally suited to their training and capabilities, either as a last resort or as a first responder, depending on the nature of the They are a strategic asset, and one that is not easily replaced. The ARW explain that SOF should be utilised for specific tasks with a defined strategic objective, and best practice indicates that they are best deployed in roles distinct to SOF capabilities.

There are many different aspects to SOF operations but, broadly speaking, they can be put into three categories.

1. Direct Action

Direct Action’s (DA) are tasks which the ARW can perform in a variety of theatres, whether in ‘black’ role (counter terrorism) or ‘green’ role, which utilises the ARW’s specialised skills as a strategic support to conventional military operations. DA can take many forms, depending on the nature, location and severity of the situation. “Having a highly trained, equipped and rapidly deployable Hostage Rescue (HR) capabability is a necessity as Hostage Rescue is viewed in many quarters as the highest priority military response to terrorism,” says the unit 2 i/c. “the ARW are not just the instrument to rescue the hostage but should be considered in the planning, organisation and execution.

If an Irish citizen is taken hostage overseas, be they military personnel, an NGO worker, embassy official or tourist, it is imperative that the state has the capability to undertake a rescue of the hostage, should negotiations fail.” An international example of this would be the Swiss government, who examined contingencies for their own SOF to conduct such an operation recently in Libya when several of their nationals were taken prisoner. Switzerland has a special commando unit, DRA10 (Détachement de reconnaissance d’armée 10), whose main function is to rescue Swiss citizens trapped overseas.

In light of recent trends demonstrating the necessity of domestic counter terrorism worldwide (incidents in Paris, Norway, Sydney and Madrid) it is viewed as an absolute necessity by the unit that they to continue to develop their working relationship with an Garda Siochana (AGS). “This is something we have been working hard on in terms of enhancing our working relationship with AGS in an effort to support and improve our on island CT capability.

As a unit, we have a number of unique capabilities to offer in this regard and we can align these with policing resources in a situation where their resources may be strained,” the unit commander explaines. A joint approach to Maritime Counter Terrorism (MCT), incorporating all services of the Defence Forces, is required in order for Ireland to deal with acts of terrorism in Irish waters. If preventative measures fail the ARW will play a pivotal role in countering a terrorist threat by neutralising acts of Maritime Terrorism before they can cause serious damage.

This could involve intercepting or assaulting a vessel of interest or conducting an operation involving a seized maritime platform or oil rig, for example. The White Paper illustrated the benefits of a tri-agency approach to MCT; “The capabilities that the Defence Forces provide in these areas are very important because the authorities with direct responsibilities in this area (An Garda Síochána and Revenue) do not have the operational capabilities for the kind of maritime interventions that the Defence Forces can provide. This joint agency approach makes sense from a whole of state viewpoint and it is one to which the Government remain committed.”

The OC of the ARW explained; “Organisations need to be aware that resources are scarce and with diminishing budgets and increased competition for resources effective coordination between law enforcement and military will effectively mean that citizens will pay less and get more.”

2. Special Reconnaissance & Surveillance

The ARW has provides a Special Reconnaissance and Surveillance (SR) platform to the Defence Forces. This operational output has manifested itself when used as part of an initial entry force for missions into Liberia (UNMIL) Chad/ Central African Republic (EUFOR tChad/RCA) and East Timor (UNTAET), where the ARW deployed as a special-forces platoon to a New Zealand contingent in 1999. As highlighted in the United Nations Special Forces manual, SR is one of the three core UN Special Forces tasks of; Special Reconnaissance, Special Tasks and Military Assistance.

As a tool, SR and surveillance roles are primarily human intelligence operations, designed to fulfil intelligence requirements for the mission, normally in terms of time sensitive information of strategic or operational significance. For example, it could be within an area where conventional forces could not successfully operate due to hostile activity or due to restrictions of a particular mission.

SR can also be used to conduct environmental reconnaissance to report critical aspects of the mission terrain. “SR also includes roles such as target assessment; in which we can detect, identify, locate and assess a target to determine to most effective form of attack where necessary. This type of operation also takes aspects such as collateral damage into account,” an ARW officer explains. “If force is employed, the ARW can also conduct post-strike reconnaissance to assess the effectiveness of an action.” An example of a partner European country deploying SOF in support of a United Nations mission would be the Dutch contribution to the UN mission to Mali (MINUSMA). The Netherlands has deployed some 90 Special Forces troops augmented by intelligence operatives and air elements as a Force asset conducting autonomous SR, where al Qaeda-linked Islamists occupied swathes of the country before being driven back in 2014 by French troops.

3. Military Assistance

Military Assistance (MA) is a range of measures and skills that SOF are capable of carrying out with critical friendly assets through organising, training, advising and other combined operations. An example of MA would be capability building of friendly security forces as the DF is currently engaged with in Mali, an operation to which the ARW could make a significant contribution if required. “We are capable of providing a large foreign policy footprint abroad, involving a small number of troops. This is economically sound and delivers strategic effect.

A specific SOF centric MA mission can provide a strong operational output that draws on the ARW expertise gained through its ability to operate in austere environments (environmental and security), for prolonged period of time, with minimal support from external parties – providing a low cost a strategic output,” the OC explains. The ARW MA skills, and their experience in the area would make them suited to other EU and UN missions, such as the EU Training Mission in Somalia.

Other roles of SOF

The ARW possesses capabilities that make them of benefit in a wide range of situations and to a wide range of organisations and agencies. As a support to Government agencies, the ARW can assist in tactical and strategic assistance and advice in terms of emergency planning and response and in terms of national strategic operations. As detailed earlier, they are also a very dynamic and flexible tool for conventional Defence Forces units. Proven experience and results in terms of early theatre strategic reconnaissance in places like Liberia (UNMIL) and Chad (EUFOR/tChad) is just one of a range of roles for which they are suited in harsh and often hostile environments.

As we have seen in recent years in Libya, there are occasions when it is necessary to evacuate Irish citizens from either conflict zones or zones at high risk of conflict. The ARW can participate in any such evacuation operation as either the main evacuation force or in support of other forces in a range of tasks including embarkation security. The unit can also assist in non-military roles; providing communications, control and available medical and logistical support to remote or isolated areas in support of humanitarian objectives. The unit are on standby to provide a rapid response to any situation domestically or internationally, and are working with other agencies consistently, in light of recent terrorism incidents, to constantly refine and enhance their capabilities.

Challenges facing the ARW

Like any unit within the Defence Forces, the ARW are challenged in matters of resourcing, staffing, promotion and retention. The unit’s biggest strength is its personnel, divided into sub-units relative to each operator’s area of speciality. Ongoing training is a consistent necessity on land, sea and air. “The unit of receive extensive support from both the Air Corps and Naval Service which ultimately provides the state with an innovative, highly mobile and cost effective force that can generate an impact outside the capabilities of conventional forces,” the 2 i/c says.

It is vital for such a highly trained unit to gain experience in the SOF roles for which they have been trained, and in which they have demonstrated their eminent suitability and capability. The unit argues that the variance of roles which they can undertake means that through use of the ARW, Government can have a strategic effect and, when desired, greatly increase Ireland’s foreign policy footprint. The recently published White Paper highlighted the priority with which the ARW is being viewed by Government, which means that those commanding the unit, and those who serve within it, are optimistic in relation to the future development of SOF as a strategic tool for the Defence Forces.

The Paper states; “The Army will continue to retain all-arms conventional military capabilities, within the existing two infantry Brigades and the Defence Forces’ Training Centre, including SOF. The principal aim over the period of the White Paper will be to replace and upgrade, as required, existing capabilities in order to retain a flexible response for a wide range of operational requirements, at home and overseas. Measures will be taken to further enhance the capabilities of the Army Ranger Wing in particular with the aim of increasing the strength of the unit considerably.”

The Unit are capable, eager and willing to expand their contribution to the organisation as a strategic asset to the state, with the Unit commander emphasising that the ARW represent an option which has both cost and strategic benefits for taskings both at home and overseas. “The ARW is low cost, utilising small numbers for a defined strategic effect, coupling this with a discriminate and mature decision making mindset, it means that we are well poised to meet to threats of today and represent a ready alternative to large scale deployments when needed.”

Deliver They Did

In the unrelenting heat, sometimes touching 50 degrees, driving huge distances, where no road network existed, the Irish Army Ranger Wing patrols encountered isolated villages in desolate places, while conducting long-range patrols. They travelled anything up to eight days at a time and sometimes for longer. There were part of EUFOR’s ( European Force ) elite spearhead, the” Initial Entry Forces”, conducting one of the most high risk operations ever undertaken by an EU force. Sent ahead of the main body of EUFOR troops yet to arrive in-theatre, they were operating in an unusually overt role, not a covert one, to lead the way, to demonstrate the EU nature of the mission. They were to let the indigenous peoples know about them as they were to get to know the people and to give information as much as to get information.

They wanted to let the Chadian people know that this was a European force and not simply another French one. They conducted vital reconnaissance missions into the unknown. They were tasked with finding out who and what was out there in eastern Chad territory, where exactly it was, what was going on, who were friends and who might not be. They paved the way for the eventual deployment of the main force, and the risks were very real. The area of eastern Chad to which thy were sent was beset by many mobile militias , rebels and bandits, all armed to the teeth , and it was there home turf. Eastern Chad then was no place for people who didn’t know what they were about. The Rangers however , very much did . These elite soldiers had already to prove their mettle individually in order to be sent there in the first place, now they had to prove themselves again. Chad was a whole new chapter, and they were depended on to deliver. Deliver, they did.

Lt Col Dan Harvey, (OHQ) EUFOR tCHAD/CAR 2007 – 2009 and author of “Peace Enforcers – The EU Intervention in Chad”

Two officers are currently in module two of the three module Army Ranger Wing (ARW) selection course. With attrition rates regularly above 90%, both are immersed in some of the most demanding, challenging and rewarding training of their careers. Both officers are of Captain rank and will be referred to here as Officer 1 and Officer 2. They took some time to talk to SIGNAL.

“The deciding factors for going for selection for the ARW were to test myself to see if I could service within an elite unit, and have the opportunity to lead other unit members who would also be among the best,” that was my motivation, says Officer 1. “As an Officer it requires a change of mind-set to put yourself in an environment where the likelihood of failure is very real and possible. Because that’s what you’re doing when you come into this environment.”

“I think it is fair to say that the ARW is one of the most dynamic and forward-thinking units within the Defence Forces,” says Officer 2, “succeeding in becoming a member of the unit was always my goal.”

When SIGNAL speaks to bother men, they have recently gone through a week-long period of extremely demanding training and exercises, even by the standards of ARW training. “While it was very challenging, it was all very well structured and all the students could see the logic of the training. We knew that this was going to be an intensely demanding period, and we weren’t wrong,” says Officer 1. “Something which has really stood out for me is the standard of instruction here, which really is excellent. You learn a lot about yourself when going for selection for the ARW, both professionally and personally.”

Both officers also commented on the egalitarian nature of the training, in that recruits were all on a level playing field, no matter what rank they hold. “There is great interaction amongst the group, you are dependent on others and they are dependent on you in many aspects of the training, so it builds a very strong level of camaraderie,” says Officer 1. Officer 2 points to the fact that the nature of training means that there is an information vacuum for the recruits in terms of what challenges they will be faced with next, so that also enhances the feeling of community within the group. Both men believe that while this training is on a different physical and mental level to what they have experienced to date within the Defence Forces, drawing on their military experience is vital in terms of succeeding on the course.

“How you interact with others is hugely important,” says Officer 1. “While our previous operational experience is very different to what the ARW trains you for, you do draw upon your own experience of command, organisation and execution to help you during the training.” Officer 2 is in no doubt that the ARW represents a significant asset to both the organisation and the state, one which he very much plans to be a part of. “The unit is the most robust security asset of the state, with a trusted, mature and analytical cadre of personnel. It is something which we both, along with the other students, very much want to be a part of.”








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