Spotlight on Middle East Special Operators as Conflict Embroils Region

By Valerie Insinna

Islamic State terrorists in June 2014 seized the strategically important city of Tikrit, Iraq, in a major win for the insurgent group. Tikrit lies in between Baghdad and Mosul — the nation’s second largest city, which is also under ISIL control — and is perhaps most notorious for being the birthplace of Saddam Hussein.

When coalition forces mounted an offensive to retake Tikrit in March, it was Iraqi special operators that led ground forces into the city after U.S. and Iraqi airstrikes decimated ISIL strongholds.  

The Middle East is besieged by conflict, ranging from the advance of the brutal Islamic State to the near-takeover of Yemen by Iranian-backed Houthi militants. With many countries in the region worried about insurgents and terror groups, it’s common sense that countries there will seek to boost their special operations forces with new equipment, said Brad Curran, a senior industry analyst with the Frost & Sullivan Aerospace and Defense Practice. SOF may be countries’ best bet to take on those threats.

“They want a small footprint,” he told National Defense. “They want to keep things as quiet as possible and find things early and take out specific people or groups before problems get worse.”

Regional special operations forces are becoming more relevant as the nature of warfare changes, said Steven Bucci, director of the Heritage Foundation’s Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy and a former Army Special Forces officer.

“The threats are not going to be some other country’s tanks rolling across your borders and divisional-size attacks, but are more likely to be threats from terrorists or small units from another country acting like terrorists,” Bucci said. “And the best people to hunt folks like that are SOF guys.”

For Middle Eastern nations — many of which are flush with cash to spend on military gear — the key is the training and experience of such a force, he said. “In my experience, both having worked with a lot of them and watching others, they’re usually pretty good.”

Egypt, Israel and Jordan all have excellent special operations forces comprising the best personnel those militaries have to offer, he said. Special operators in Iraq spent the longest time training with U.S. forces and, unlike other parts of the Iraqi military, have not been corrupted by the cronyism rampant under former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki’s administration.

Some SOF organizations are more competent than others. Despite training extensively with U.S. troops, Yemeni special forces have so far been ineffective in pushing back Houthi militants, Bucci said. U.S. and British special operators have been withdrawn from the nation, and Yemini forces are split in allegiance between former president Ali Abdullah Saleh — who is allied with the Houthis ­— and President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, according to a Wall Street Journal report.

Tracking the requirements of Middle Eastern SOF organizations is not easy because their purchases are so opaque, Curran said.

“It’s not a visible market,” he said. “The countries that sell to them often don’t want to get that sort of thing in the headlines, either because of the nature of the regime or the nature of equipment, especially intelligence equipment.”

However, it’s not difficult to surmise what SOF personnel in the region need, experts said.

“Buying equipment is pretty easy,” Bucci said. “Special operations isn’t all that high speed compared to jet airplanes and things like that.”

Curran expects countries across the region — including Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Iraq, Afghanistan and Israel — to have increased or ongoing requirements for SOF equipment.

First on the list are technologies that can improve troops’ situational awareness and their ability to communicate with each other. “All these countries have a lot of interest in increasing their C4ISR capability,” Curran said, using the military acronym for command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. These forces also want to boost their signals intelligence capability, find better ways of quickly analyzing intelligence and enhance imagery.

In addition to technologies that help Middle Eastern special operators better communicate with each other, certain U.S. partner nations may also need equipment that is interoperable with U.S. Special Operations Command gear to enhance collaboration between forces, said John Folkerts, Battelle’s business development lead for special operations and former vice commander of Air Force Special Operations Command.

Unlike original equipment manufacturers such as Lockheed Martin and Raytheon, Battelle teams with U.S. and international companies to develop technologies that improve a product, he said. “I’ve done probably 10 disclosure agreements over the last month with foreign companies to work with them on solutions to tricky problems on products that they have.”

Optical equipment such as night vision goggles, laser designators for small arms and targeting pods for aircraft will also need to be updated as such systems become more advanced, Curran said.

“Those kinds of things I would think would be very high demand for special operations forces,” he said. “They have got to be able to lase targets and see in the dark to operate.”

There are continued requirements for weaponized nonstandard commercial vehicles, such as a pickup truck with a machine gun mounted on the cab or in the bed, Bucci said. Many such vehicles are already in production. “They’re high mobility [and] high clearance, so they can operate off the road,” he added.

There are also demands for fire support systems that can be integrated on such vehicles, such as a recoilless mortar that can be installed on a truck, Folkerts said.

“Programs like that are really critical right now just because of the areas in which we’re operating,” he said. “You don’t necessarily have fire support on call at all times.”

Some armed forces in the region are also interested in purpose-built military vehicles. Polaris Defense has sold its 4,500-pound Dagor ultra light combat vehicle to U.S. SOCOM and international SOF customers, including some in the Middle East, Douglas Malikowski, the company’s director of international business development, said during the International Defense Exhibition and Conference held in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.

“We’ve received a lot of interest and inquiries out of this region,” he said, declining to specify which countries it had sold the vehicle to. “We feel confident that in calendar year 2015 we’ll pick up additional customers in the region.”

While Dagor meets most requirements in the region, Polaris is in talks with several customers who would like to modify the vehicle, such as tweaking the tires or suspension to better operate in a soft, sandy desert environment, he said.

“There are some customers that want to go longer distances between refueling, so we’re looking at some modifications that can support that,” he said.

Special operators also need air support. For Boeing, that could mean an increased market for its helicopters such as its CH-47 cargo helicopter, AH-64 Apache attack helicopter and AH-6I light reconnaissance helicopter, all of which are in use in the region, said Paul Oliver, the company’s vice president of Middle East and Africa.

“The nice thing is, most of our rotorcraft platforms have strong applications for special operations,” he said. “We’ve always had strong interest there. I’m just seeing customers maybe say, ‘I like the CH-47, but can we do some modifications to make it more applicable for a special operations environment?’”

Another high priority item is unmanned aerial vehicles, to include small, hand-launched systems used to conduct surveillance as well as Predator-like weaponized drones, Curran said.

Oliver noted that customers in the Middle East are showing increased interest in the Boeing-Insitu ScanEagle unmanned aircraft, which can be used for border protection or for locating and identifying targets.

Small boats that can deploy from a mothership and insert special operators may also become more popular in coming years, Curran said. U.S. manufacturer Swiftships in 2014 received a contract to build six 35-meter patrol boats for the Egyptian navy, as well as an additional $18 million contract to maintain Iraqi patrol boats and offshore vessels.

One growing opportunity is what Bucci calls “tactical cyber operations” — that is, hacking into an adversary’s internet connection and gleaning information from their communications.

“So much communication now is internet based, even in some of these poorer countries,” he said. “If your guys are good enough, they can fiddle with [the internet connection] and possibly get some advantage using that sort of means.”

The United States and other Western countries are already bringing those skills to bear, but for Middle Eastern forces, this is probably an emerging need, he said.

Although there is a growing market for special operations technologies that can be used by and in the Middle East, growth in international sales will not be enough to offset the decline of Defense Department acquisition, Folkerts said. Furthermore, any business hoping to expand into the region must cultivate unique skills in order to be competitive.

“You have to decide whether you’re going to be a global company or whether you’re going to target specific countries. You have to have some local expertise. You’ve got to be knowledgeable of the local laws and regulations,” he said. “There may be offsets required. You have to have corporate strategies that mirror what you’re trying to do.”

The expansion of SOF into Northern Africa — where troops, vehicles and supplies must traverse huge distances to get where they need to be — is also making an impact on requirements, Folkerts said.

In Iraq, “we had larger numbers of conventional forces with a significant infrastructure,” he said. “Then you move into a place like Northern Africa … where we have no conventional forces, where we don’t have an infrastructure, where we don’t even have a SOF infrastructure, and you have to lay in communications capabilities and you have to set up your intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance type capabilities and things of that nature.”

Topics: Armaments, Special Operations-Low Intensity Conflict

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