Small detachment could provide extra skills in Europe
by JOSEPH TREVITHICK
In the face of a resurgent Russia, the Pentagon and its NATO allies have stepped up wargames and other military activities across Europe. In Maryland, a small detachment of U.S. commandos are on call to help.
In 2015, Special Forces soldiers from the Maryland Army National Guard took on their new mission to support NATO, extending to advising and training with other armies in the alliance. These reserve units typically have around 30 troops in total.
Known as Special Operations Detachment — O, the “personnel provide the special operations community a broad and diverse perspective when planning and executing missions due to their experiences and knowledge from the civilian sector,” a public affairs officer for the Maryland National Guard told War Is Boring in an email.
The Army National Guard already has nine other detachments spread out across the United States. Each one is paired up with an active duty headquarters, usually centered on a particular region of the world.
Maryland’s contribution had partnered up with the Pentagon’s Joint Forces Command under the name SOD-Joint. In 2011, then Secretary of Defense Robert Gates shut down this headquarters, which focused on helping the different services share tactics and techniques.
But as the Pentagon has seen its budget squeezed and demand for commandos soar, reserve units — including two full Army Special Forces Groups — have become an increasingly important part of America’s military presence around the world. On top of the smaller detachment, Maryland has another whole company with an additional 80 elite soldiers.
After the Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea and intervention in eastern Ukraine, the commandos changed their name and got their new mission. Because the letter “N” was already taken by California’s SOD-North, the Maryland Army National Guard chose “O” for OTAN, or NATO spelled backwards, the Maryland public affairs official explained.
It doesn’t hurt that in French, Portuguese and Spanish, the alliance’s acronym is written this way. The alliance’s logo features both spellings.
We don’t know whether the unit has had a chance to put the new plan into action. But with increasing tensions between Washington and Moscow, American commandos have been traveling to and from various European destinations.
“Russia … is advancing its interests by employing a variety of approaches across their periphery,” U.S. Army Gen. Joseph Votel, the Pentagon’s top commando officer, said. “[These] combine traditional military operations with sophisticated information campaigns aimed at a variety of audiences.”
Trained to work with local groups and counter propaganda, American special operators are ideally suited to challenge Moscow’s activities if they spread into NATO countries. Crack troops from all U.S. armed services regularly advise foreign forces around the world.
In May 2014, commandos made their way to Estonia to practice with local troops. The RAND Corporation has estimated that the Russian army could need as little as 36 hours to seize control of Tallinn, the Baltic country’s capital.
At the same time, other special operators were in nearby Lithuania for a practice session with other NATO allies, as well as non-member states Sweden and Finland. A year later, another iteration of this event specifically centered on a mock crisis within the alliance’s boundaries.
On April 26, the chief of U.S. Special Operations Command Europe hosted the head of Ukraine’s Special Operations Forces Command at his headquarters in Germany. The two generals and their staffs discussed the state of Kiev’s elite and regular troops before watching Army Special Forces troops and U.S. Navy SEALs show off their skills.
In its latest budget request, the Pentagon asked for more than $50 million to keep commandos working steadily with European allies. In addition, the special operators’ regular presence would help “counter malign influence” in the Baltic states and elsewhere, according to the official project descriptions.
On May 9, the American commando headquarters in Germany kicked off the latest exercise, nicknamed Trojan Footprint. The event brought together some 800 elite forces from 10 nations for wargames in five different countries.
And after more than a decade, the North Atlantic grouping is still bogged down in Afghanistan. Reinforcing how dangerous the situation in the Central Asian country still is, attackers wearing Afghan military uniforms killed two Romanian commandos on May 7. Bucharest had already lost more than 20 soldiers in the country.
As member countries — including the United States — pulled out conventional forces, elite units stepped up to help Kabul’s troops .With all these expanding efforts, the Pentagon would no doubt be happy for any extra help. The soldiers from Maryland could easily find themselves deploying to Europe more often.
At a conference in Wales in September 2014, NATO members agreed that the alliance needed to expand its special operations units. Most importantly, the plan called for a new commando headquarters that member states could organize in an emergency.
So, elite forces — including Maryland’s detachment— will likely continue to become a key piece of the European security puzzle.
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