More than a few Americans have heard of U.S. Special Operations Command – SOCOM in Pentagonese – particularly since its forces killed “Geronimo” (AKA Osama bin Laden) in Operation NEPTUNE SPEAR in May 2011. Admiral Bill McRaven, the guy who headed that spectacular op, is now the SOCOM commander, presiding over a global network of snake-eaters which, while headquartered within striking distance of Jill Kelley in Tampa, has forces deployed in dozens of countries all over the globe.
In 1987, after a series of not-so-spectacular happenings with our Special Operations Forces (SOF), including the deadly debacle in the Iranian desert in 1980 and Navy SEALs drowning off Grenada in 1983, the Pentagon consolidated SOF into its own combatant command; thus was SOCOM born and a new secret empire created. Today, with the lead role in the endless GWOT – OCO – Whatever, SOCOM has never been busier. When ADM McRaven has time to sleep I couldn’t tell you.
Consolidating your country’s diverse SOF into one command, since snake-eaters live in a very different world from conventional forces, is such a sensible idea that many countries have been copying the SOCOM model. First NATO countries started to redesign, then the concept went global, and now even the Russians are getting the drift. Russian media recently ran a detailed assessment of how Moscow, in an effort to increase effectiveness, is creating a new command just for special operators. It’s worth a closer look, given how active Russian SOF have been in recent years, and are likely to remain.
The Russian military has a lot of diverse SOF-like forces, and many are adept at killing mujahidin and others whom Moscow does not like. There are the Airborne Forces (VDV), comprising four divisions – which are small, more like NATO brigades – plus two separate brigades. The formidable SPETSNAZ forces (from SPETSialnogo NAZnacheniya – “special purpose”), who were the legendary terror of the muj in Afghanistan in the 1980s and more recently in Chechnya, add another seven brigades. Traditionally SPETSNAZ units, Russia’s true snake-eaters, have been under GRU, the General Staff’s Main Intelligence Directorate. Other SOF include four brigades of Naval Infantry, basically Russia’s Marines.
The new command, termed Special Operations Forces (SSO in Russian) will bring all these forces together for purposes of combat and apparently some administration too. SPETSNAZ, which took a hit in Russia’s 2008 defense reforms, will be increased to ten brigades and taken away from GRU for at least operational purposes, while all SSO forces will be manned by contract (i.e. professional, not conscript) troops eventually; they are largely so now anyway. Air Force units which directly support SOF units, such as strike, transport, and unmanned (UAV) squadrons, will be placed under the SSO operationally as well.
Russia has a plethora of SOF units not part of the Ministry of Defense (MoD), including special forces of the police and the Federal Security Service (FSB), which will not be placed under the new MoD command, although it is envisioned that the SSO will have a close intelligence relationship with the FSB and also the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), the main arm of Russian espionage abroad. The new command is expected to be up and running by the end of 2013.
It can be anticipated that SSO units will be busy in Chechnya and elsewhere. The posited relationship with the SVR indicates that secret-squirrel activity abroad can be expected. Wetwork such as the 2004 car-bomb assassination of Chechen leader Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev in Qatar by GRU operators would presumably be part of the new command’s mission set, as will be Russia’s use of UAVs. Moscow makes no secret of its intent to use UAVs aggressively, so when – not, good reader, if – a Russian drone blows up an enemy of Putin abroad in best American style, it will presumably be an SSO operator on the trigger.
It’s interesting to see Russia, which on grounds of national pride seldom copies the West, especially in military matters, openly ape the American way of war. Perhaps it’s a technological necessity, as the Russian media has frequently discussed how the Russian MoD needs to copy the lethal effectiveness of American special operators and spooks as displayed in Afghanistan and Iraq, yet it’s an intriguing development all the same. As someone who has regularly cautioned about the international implications of America’s love affair with drones in recent years, since it’s only a matter of time before other countries get the same technology, the creation of the SSO may foretell a bumpy ride ahead. I wonder how much Washington, DC, will like it when Moscow – and soon Beijing too – start whacking those abroad whom they consider terrorists and subversives. Since Russia’s getting ugly on NGOs now, seeing them as agents of Western imperialism, let’s hope it stops there. I wouldn’t want to be the U.S. President who has to take the irate 3 AM call from Richard Gere when a Chinese drone incinerates the Dalai Lama.