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Special Operational Forces’ Requirements for Rotary Wing Platforms

Andrew White
RUSI Defence Systems, 18 September 2017
Aerospace, Land Forces
Despite the slow proliferation of tilt-rotor aircraft across the special operations community, conventional rotary wing platforms remain a primary and critical capability for Special Operations Forces (SOF) across the contemporary operating environment

Special Operational Forces (SOF) have a critical need for rotary-wing assets, whether as part of a helicopter assault force, for support missions or to provide a rapid reaction capability during direct action.

A recent incident involving the crash on 25 August of a special operations UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter of the US Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR) off the coast of Yemen during a hoist recovery training exercise illustrates the taxing nature of SOF rotary missions. The SOAR was supporting an undisclosed US Special Operations Task Force operating in the Middle East at the time of the training exercise, according to US Central Command officials. Rotary-wing missions inherently place significant stresses and pressures on airframes, cargo, passengers and crew alike especially during high risk tasks such as fast roping and low light or bad weather operations at low level.

In light of the tactical and strategic importance of rotary-wing support to special operations, the international SOF community continues to ramp up such capabilities with a particular focus on the establishment of dedicated Special Operations Air Components (SOACs).

The capability for a Special Operations Task Group to operate its own organic SOAC in an area of operations remains one of the most stringent requirements for a SOF to qualify as a ‘Tier 1’ force. However, globally, few SOF organisations retain such a capability, let alone the capacity to forward deploy such a SOAC in an expeditionary fashion.

On 6 January, the Russian Ministry of Defence (MoD) established a dedicated Special Operations Aviation Command to support GRU Spetsnaz Special Purpose Brigades across each of the country’s Military Districts. The Command is equipped with Mi-8AMTSh-V Hip and Mi-8MTV-5 rotary-wing platforms, as well as the introduction of a new helicopter fleet-designated Mi-8AMTSh-Va ‘Terminator’ specifically optimised for cold weather operations in the Arctic Circle.

The Terminator has been co-developed by Russian Helicopters and Ulan-Ude Aviation Enterprise. This airframe for supporting Spetsnaz force elements can operate at temperatures as low as -40C and used for insertion/extraction and resupply of special operations teams during low-light conditions.

The helicopter has a maximum operational range of 1,300 km carrying a 36-strong special operations team with equipment. Aircraft under the operational command of the Russian Special Operations Command can also be called upon to perform Combat Search and Rescue missions as well as airborne support of vehicle interdiction missions and reconnaissance serials with integrated direction finding technology.

Similar moves to establish dedicated SOAC continue to proliferate across Europe. In December 2016, Norway’s Special Operations Command revealed its intention as part of the country’s Long Term Defence Plan to establish a SOAC to directly support Forsvarets Spesialkommando (FSK) and Marinejegerkommandoen (MJK) elements with rotary-wing air assets. Currently, FSK and MJK special operations teams are supported by Bell 412 helicopters operating out of Bardufoss and Rygge airbases in northern Norway, with plans also underway to generate an ‘alternative helicopter capacity in the High North’.

Meanwhile, the German Army’s Special Forces Command (KSK) is now supported by a fleet of 15 Lightweight Military Multirole H145M rotary-wing platforms after the completion of deliveries from Airbus Helicopters. Following an initial procurement decision in December 2015, the KSK elected to purchase what it has designated the Light Utility Helicopter Special Operations Forces for use on internal security and counterterrorism duties at home. However, the aircraft can also be called upon to support international operations if necessary. The airframe features small arms ballistic protection and electronic countermeasures, aimed at protecting aircraft during low level operations. It can also be armed with machine guns in a variety of NATO calibres from 5.56x45mm up to 12.7x99mm.

Elsewhere in Europe, states struggling with ongoing fiscal constraints are considering joining forces in order to pool resources for SOACs. For example, the SOF components of Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary and Slovenia agreed on 17 September 2016 to study collaborative efforts to create a Multinational Special Operations Aviation Training Solution developed in coordination with the NATO Special Operations Headquarters in Mons, Belgium. The Croatian MoD announced that future cooperation could include ‘joint training, education, equipment, modernisation’ and the establishment of an integrated, multinational force.

Should the SOAC receive a final go-ahead from the various actors, it will support SOF components including Bulgaria’s 68th Special Forces Brigade, Croatia’s 1st and 2nd Special Forces Groups, Hungary’s MH 2 KRE Special Purpose Regiment and Slovenia’s Special Operations Unit.

In the Korean Peninsula, SOF elements from South Korea’s Army Special Forces Command and Navy Special Warfare Command could also soon benefit from an uplift in capabilities, particularly relevant following multiple ‘show of force’ actions by North Korean SOF aimed at demonstrating the capability to invade its neighbour’s island chains. In order to meet this increased threat, southern SOF elements are seeking to acquire MH-47 Chinook aircraft following an announcement made by Chief of the General Staff of the Army, General Jang Jun-kyu in October 2016: ‘The army is seeking to have a special operations unit capable of infiltrating enemy territory and completing its given mission and coming back in one piece’.

In conclusion, the future of rotary wing aircraft as the premier lift solution for the special operations community remains assured. However, much development is still required in order to optimise their performance, particularly in response to rapidly emerging requirements across an increasingly complex, contested and congested battlespace. Areas of interest moving forward will include protection against electronic warfare effects, including countermeasures and anti-jamming technology.

Andrew White
Andrew is a defence and security consultant specialising in special operations and C4ISTAR technology. For further information, please contact

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