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The Special Ones...

Posted 14 August 2012 · Add Comment

The steady rise in importance of special forces has been an international phenomenon. Jon Lake looks at some of the various units operating in the Middle East.


Special forces provide a cost-effective, highly discriminatory means of delivering appropriate military effect with great precision.

They are especially useful for countering unconventional and asymmetric threats and also provide useful deterrent against current threats to the security and economic interests of many formed states.

Such is the popularity and ubiquity of special forces that they have become ‘fashionable’, spawning imitators within law enforcement and police forces, many of whom now sport the kind of uniforms and carry the kind of weaponry that have become emblematic of the military special operations community.

And nowhere are special forces more fashionable than in the MENA region, where a variety of factors have led to a rapid growth in their size and importance.

This should hardly be surprising. There has been a long history of using special operations forces in the region dating back to the Second World War, when Britain’s Special Air Service (SAS) and Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) pioneered modern modes of operation.

Special forces history continued to be made in the Middle East post-war, not least in Oman, where UK special forces fought a long counter-insurgency campaign during the long-running Dhofar rebellion (1962-1975).

The heavy use of special forces by Israel also spurred the formation and development of similar capabilities among Arab armies, with Egypt taking an early lead and using commandos for ‘cross canal’ raids during the ‘War of Attrition’ (1967-72) and during the Yom Kippur War in 1973.

Subsequently, in 1978, Egyptian special forces launched an assault against a hijacked aircraft (carrying Egyptian hostages) at Larnaca Airport, Cyprus. The mission was a failure, the Egyptian commandos being mistaken for terrorist reinforcements by the Cypriots, who engaged them in a long and bloody fire-fight, destroying the Egyptian C-130 Hercules in the process.

In 1985, Egypt’s Task Force 777 was dispatched to deal with a hijacking at Luqa Airport, Malta, successfully killing one terrorist (one had died during the hijacking) and capturing the leader, though many of the passengers were also killed during the operation.

Today, Task Force 777 is supported by a dedicated Mil Mi-8 helicopter unit, believed to be based at Cairo-Almaza as part of 533 Helicopter Brigade.

Nowadays special forces in the region are more focused on anti-terrorist and internal security operations than they are against the Israeli threat. The Middle East is on the frontline of the global war against terror and has become progressively more engaged in multi-national operations against Al Qaeda and extremist Islamist groups, frequently using special operations forces to contribute to US-led coalition operations.

The Gulf Arab states have been contributing to the US/NATO-led coalition forces in Afghanistan for the duration of the war. Few of the Gulf states have the manpower to be able to sustain a continuous presence for a full year’s deployment and have, instead, rotated their special operations forces more quickly, with contingents from more than one of the Gulf Arab states ‘sharing’ a one year deployment ‘slot’.

Special operations air assets are most obviously required for deployment, mobility, resupply and insertion and dedicated aircraft are typically more lavishly equipped than those used my ‘normal’ tactical transport aircraft. They are more likely to be equipped with FLIR, terrain following radar, and other equipment designed to meet the needs of covert penetration, and to be fitted with advanced defensive systems.

But the current generation of radio-frequency countermeasures systems do not necessarily protect such aircraft against the small arms, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades that are currently proving most dangerous to them. Some forces have reacted by using heavier defensive weapons to try to provide suppressive fire, while others have sought to provide better armour and ballistic protection. Many believe that the best solution will be an accurate and reliable hostile-fire indicator system and a number of companies are working on just such a solution.

But aircraft and helicopters used by special operations forces will not always be well equipped military types, as they do not always want to draw attention to themselves, or to appear overtly ‘military’, and they may use aircraft painted in anonymous quasi-civil colour schemes.

Looking ahead, the special operations community is paying great attention to the new developments in rotorcraft technology that promise faster speeds and longer range, from new generation tilt-rotors to aircraft like the Piasecki Speedhawk and the Sikorsky X-2.

“I think that speed and range are very important when you are dealing with non-state actors and fleeting targets,” said Colonel Clayton M Hutmacher, commander of the US Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment.

Special forces are increasingly demanding their own dedicated close air support (CAS) capabilities and these can be provided by attack helicopters, fixed wing light attack aircraft and even by gunships.

Gunships remain rare, though there are signs that this is changing – with ATK’s CN-235 gunship modification for Jordan, and with the US DoD’s C-130J-based Harvest Hawk and Dragon Spear gunship conversion programmes.

Such dedicated capabilities are undoubtedly nice to have but they are also easy to provide from the main air force inventory, either by attack helicopter (though with range, firepower and vulnerability constraints) or by using fixed wing fast jets.

With the growing ubiquity of datalinks and other equipment to facilitate communications between airborne assets and ground forces, including FACs etc, the provision of CAS for special operations forces is becoming easier. New equipment like the remote optical video enhanced receiver (ROVER) allows the transmission of sensor imagery without requiring ground forces to carry impractical, bulky or heavy equipment.

Special operations forces are also reliant on air vehicles for intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance (ISTAR), and there is an increasing emphasis on the use of UAVs – especially the smaller, lighter, and more portable unmanned vehicles.

Dedicated special forces aviation components are relatively rare, even among more advanced air forces in the developed world, outside of the USA, and the UK. Most nations use ‘ordinary’ tactical transport and support helicopter units to support special forces, or use assets whose primary mission is combat search and rescue (CSAR), like the French Eurocopter EC725 Caracals.

Despite this, some Arab nations have (or in some cases, since special operations are traditionally surrounded by a veil of secrecy, may have) dedicated special forces aviation components.

Jordan and the UAE lead the field in this area. Jordanian special forces can call on dedicated UH-60L Blackhawk and MD530FF helicopters, and are soon to receive a pair of gunship-configured CN-235 transports.

The UAE’s special forces have a dedicated air support unit in the form of 18 Group at Sas al Nakhil. This operates a DHC.6-300 Twin Otter, UH-60M Black Hawks, CH-47C/D Chinooks, AS.550C3 Fennecs, Cessna 208B Grand Caravan IIs and is taking delivery of Air Tractor AT-802U close air support aircraft.

In Bahrain, the Special Security Force Command relies on air support from the RBAF and the Police air wing. In Kuwait, the Ministry of the Interior has a special forces counterterrorist unit, the Army includes the 10th Commando Battalion, and the Navy has a fast attack unit, but air support is provided by the Air Force.

In Oman, the Royal Oman Police hosts one squadron of the Sultan’s Special Force (SSF). This unit (known as the Cobras) is tasked with counter terrorism and is supported by the CASA CN-235-100s, Dornier 228-100s, and the AgustaWestland AW109s and AW139s operated by the Royal Oman Police.

In Qatar, there are military special forces and the Lekhwiya (the Qatari special forces for internal security), and these have been committed to operations in Libya and more recently in Syria, but they lack dedicated air support.

Little is known about the air support available to Saudi Arabia’s expanding special forces. The Airborne Brigade at Tabuk includes three special forces companies, while there may also be special forces elements within the Saudi Arabian National Guard.

In the Yemen, special forces use four Huey II helicopters and a single CN-235 transport.

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