NATO SOF Countries’ Three Main Mission Sets: Direct Action, Special Reconnaissance, Military Assistance

By: MAJ Margus Kuul, Estonian Defense Forces

NATO Special Operations Forces consists of personnel from 27 contributing countries. These countries vary not only in size, manpower, and military and financial strength, but also in their attitudes and level of national political will to support NATO SOF. The 27 contributing nations do, for the most part, share one thing: a lack of discretionary resources. Despite their limited resources, however, many of the NATO SOF countries claim to have three main roles, or mission sets, for their SOF forces: direct action (DA), special reconnaissance (SR), and military assistance (MA). 

From my point of view, NATO SOF is probably dealing with collective self-deception here. From a military perspective, deception is good, but self-deception can be precarious; in the NATO SOF community, such self-deception shows us two things. First, we are being too politically accommodating in failing to identify our shortfalls. Second, the larger NATO SOF countries still have the will to subsidize the smaller ones to perpetuate the illusion of fulfilling all three NATO SOF mission sets. Maybe it must be so, but I do not know. In a nutshell, we all know that those three mission sets have various secondary missions—waterborne special operations, for example—and too often those additional missions have costly price tags. 

In my opinion, the reality may be that the United States is paying the bill and pumping money into NATO SOF capabilities that will never be fully operational because other member nations cannot afford to develop or sustain them. The problem is not about the equipment. It is about the people and logistical or combat service support. I hardly ever hear people talk about secondary missions and readiness to fulfill those missions at the national level. The lack of secondary-mission capabilities seems to be some kind of national secret, so it is easier within the Alliance to talk about how each NATO SOF country has three main NATO SOF mission sets. The cruel reality is that it is impossible for every NATO SOF contributing country to fulfill all three main mission sets at the strategic level if needed, especially now, after over a decade of unconventional warfare in Afghanistan and Iraq. 

Therefore, I ask myself whether NATO SOF should be more specific and start mapping the real capabilities among countries in the NATO SOF community, and thus determine which state needs specific aid. Should NATO SOF be more specific about requirements while talking about the three mission sets? Maybe the thinking is that it is a good thing to avoid being specific until someone else is willing to pay the overall bill (as the United States, for example, is currently doing through various funds). 

As it is, many NATO SOF countries probably have hollow SOF capabilities, and the United States and other powerful countries will probably keep spending money to keep this SR/DA/MA illusion alive. Sometimes it seems that the United  States' only aim is to make NATO SOF countries happy by providing them with military aid, with the result that the United States, as a main player in NATO, teaches learned helplessness to the other NATO SOF countries. 

The outcome is simple, in the case of real-world conflict. Where NATO SOF must be involved, the United States ends up with SOF partners who request more financial assistance and equipment to fulfill their missions. In my opinion, the United States has spent a lot of money building up different NATO SOF countries' secondary-mission capabilities, which many of them, regardless of need, could never afford in the first place and cannot maintain on their own. In short, at the end of the day, NATO SOF lacks plug-and-play partners on a tactical level. 

In conclusion, I raise a question: Should all NATO SOF countries be required to fulfill three mission sets? If the answer is yes, then what kind of secondary missions must be developed, and why? It seems to me that it is just politically comfortable to insist on three main mission sets even when countries cannot begin to fulfill the minimum requirements for one mission set or for secondary missions. Three mission sets seems to be the standard for NATO SOF, and yet this plan never works in practice.

About the Author(s): MAJ Margus Kuul serves in the Estonian Military Intelligence Battalion.

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