U.S. SOCOM Has History with Ukraine’s Special Forces

April 12, 2022

U.S. SOCOM Has History with Ukraine’s Special Forces


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Pulitzer Prize Winning Journalist Walter Pincus is a contributing senior national security columnist for The Cipher Brief. He spent forty years at The Washington Post, writing on topics that ranged from nuclear weapons to politics.  He is the author of Blown to Hell: America’s Deadly Betrayal of the Marshall Islanders. […] Read more

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OPINION — Last week, the House and Senate Armed Services Committees held five hearings associated with the fiscal 2023 defense budget. What jumped out at me were discussions surrounding how the U.S. prepared Ukraine for Russia’s invasion and what lessons could be applied to Taiwan to deter and/or defend against a possible Chinese invasion.

General Richard D. Clarke, Commander of U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM), in testimony before the House panel on April 1 and the Senate committee on April 5, provided new details on the pre-invasion preparations.

He said SOCOM teams had been training Ukraine Special Forces for eight years, beginning in the Obama administration after Putin’s forces seized Crimea and territory in the Donbas area in eastern Ukraine. He emphasized that it was a “multinational training effort,” with Special Operation Forces (SOF) from NATO and other European countries joining the U.S. effort.

Clarke reminded the legislators, “We currently have over five thousand SOF deployed to over 80 countries. Our National Guard SOF [in 2021] supported wide-ranging operations globally in over 30 countries.” For a decade or more, he said, SOCOM has dealt with what he described as “Russia’s destabilizing activities” by working with allied SOF throughout Europe.

In Ukraine in 2014, Clarke said, the country had only a small Special Forces unit without its own headquarters. In the ensuing years, “That force grew to three brigade equivalents commanded by colonels and a training regiment.” He added that “Over the last 18 months, they added a resistance company made up of what we would [call] a home guard, which was embedded in each one of those [brigades].”

U.S. SOCOM training of Ukrainian forces in the U.S. has continued. Last Sunday, a Ukrainian group concluded a course on advanced tactical training on the type of U.S. Coast Guard patrol boats that were delivered to Ukraine last November. While in the U.S., the group also had several weeks of training on the Switchblade armed, unmanned aerial vehicle, hundreds of which are in the new package of arms being delivered to the Kyiv government.

Clarke highlighted so-called Military Information Support Operations (MISO) assistance that was provided to Ukraine’s SOF which was designed, he said, “to illuminate and counter Russian disinformation.”

“SOCOM has invested heavily to expose and counter adversary propaganda and
disinformation to better compete in the cognitive domain,” Clarke said. “Competitors, like China and Russia, continue to act assertively in the information ‘gray zone’ to manipulate populations worldwide.”

SOCOM’s MISO activities have more than doubled over the past three years, and in fiscal 2021, some 40 percent of activities were reportedly devoted to countering strategic competitors in what Clarke called “the evolving information landscape” where they “actively engage foreign audiences to illuminate and counter hostile propaganda and disinformation online.”

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At one point, Clarke called it “military information support offshore information warfare,” saying, “We had a dedicated team that was in Ukraine for eight years providing — everything from billboards to print to using Internet-based capabilities along with civil affairs teams that were working with them.”

“We see today the resistance the Ukraine forces have held, and the training they were given, I think, has directly contributed to the success on the battlefield,” Clarke said.

When it came to what U.S. SOCOM was doing in Taiwan, Clarke was more restrained, saying “I would prefer to talk about Taiwan in a closed setting.”

He did go on to say that “Broadly, building both resistance and resilience in the [Taiwan] force…resistance to give the punch but resilience being the ability to take the punch and make sure you can get back up through medical training, through logistics, and through communications – is critical. And I think we have got to work on both of those with other nations, writ large.”

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) reminded Clarke that last year he told the Senate committee, “The United States should consider options to strengthen Taiwan’s irregular warfare capability including their ability to fight in-depth using resistance networks or other capabilities, after China contingency planning.”

Clarke said that was still his view, adding, “I think we are doing more work in that regard.”

Another witness, Christopher Maier, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict, said, “We are doing all we can,” based on the Taiwan Relations Act, which says, “the United States will make available to Taiwan such defense articles and defense services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability.”

Maier went on to say that “We are looking at a whole resistance approach, so, in some cases, that means doing more exercises, more ability to touch aspects of Taiwanese infrastructure and determine – as General Clarke said – its ability to take a punch and give a punch.”

Unlike Ukraine, Taiwan has a long history of Special Forces. With U.S. assistance, it stood up its first unit, the 101st Amphibious Reconnaissance Battalion, in 1949, shortly after the Nationalist government came to Taiwan from mainland China.

Although it was an Army unit, the Taiwanese 101st is known as “Sea Dragon Frogmen” whose original role was amphibious reconnaissance and stealth missions on the mainland coast, though now they focus on a defensive role.

Taiwan also has special operations forces such as the ROC Marine Corps Amphibious Reconnaissance and Patrol Brigade, which has underwater demolition and reconnaissance teams; a highly mobile Airborne Special Service Company (ASSC), which has a counterterrorist mission; the 862nd Special Warfare Brigade, often compared to U.S. Army Rangers; and an elite unit within the ROC Military Police, the “Nighthawks” Special Service Company, who in Taipei would provide initial resistance to a Chinese airborne assault.

Over the years, these Taiwan Special Forces units have carried out exercises with comparable U.S. and other allied units. For example, the 101st Sea Dragon Frogmen carried out an annual exercise called Balance Tamper with the U.S. 1st Special Forces Group in 2020 and 2021, according to a short video released by the American unit.

In October 2021, then-Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen publicly acknowledged that the U.S. military had maintained a small training presence in Taiwan of some 30-plus personnel. Last December, Voice of America reported that an Operational Detachment Alpha team from the U.S. Army Special Forces had been dispatched to Taiwan for the Balance Temper exercise.

Also testifying last week before both Armed Services committees to discuss what his agencies had done in Ukraine was Gen. Paul Nakasone, head of Cyber Command and the National Security Agency (NSA).

At the start of the last Tuesday’s hearing, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman, Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), congratulated Nakasone as well as President Biden “for the unprecedented and skillful release of intelligence over the last several months that exposed Russia’s aggressive intentions and deceitful activities.”

In turn, Nakasone told the Senate panel, “Russia’s military and intelligence forces are employing a range of cyber capabilities, to include espionage, influence, and attack units to support its invasion and to defend Russian actions with a worldwide propaganda campaign.”

Looking backward, Nakasone said in coordination with the Ukrainians in late 2021, “We spent well over two months working with our partners there to harden their networks.” He added, “We deployed a hunt team who sat side-by-side with our partners to gain critical insights that have increased homeland defense for both the United States and Ukraine.”

As a result, Nakasone said, “Deploying a team to the Ukraine [enabled that team] to see what our adversaries are doing and being able to capture their malware and their tradecraft and share that broadly with the private sector.”

Although Nakasone did not directly talk about Taiwan, he did say that China is a major cyber threat and that he has, “created a China Outcomes Group under joint Cyber Command and NSA leadership to ensure proper focus, resourcing, planning, and operations to meet this challenge.”

One more item worth noting is a statement Joint Chiefs Chairman General Mark Milley made last Thursday to the Senate Panel. He said in his prepared statement about the Chinese, “They intend to be a military peer of the U.S. by 2035, and they intend to develop the military capabilities to seize Taiwan by 2027.”

The latter part of Milley’s sentence was picked up by Saturday’s Taipei Times, andthat is what I want to focus on, because it sounds so definite. What’s the source?

The Pentagon’s 2021 report, “Military and Security Developments Involving the
People’s Republic of China,” said, “The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) announced a new milestone for PLA [People’s Liberation Army] modernization in 2027, broadly understood as the modernization of the PLA’s capabilities to be networked into a system of systems for ‘intelligentized’ warfare. If realized, the PLA’s 2027 modernization goals could provide Beijing with more credible military options in a Taiwan contingency [emphasis added].”

The CCP picked 2027 as a milestone for modernization, but there was no mention of Taiwan. The Pentagon document’s author only mentions “more credible options in a Taiwan contingency,” and not the “ability to seize Taiwan.”

The Chinese threat is real enough without changing language to build it up beyond what it is.

I’d rather close with another Milley quote from his prepared statement, “History is not deterministic; war with the PRC (People’s Republic of China) is not inevitable. The PRC is clearly a strategic competitor, and it continues to improve its technology and modernization of its armed forces. It is imperative that we keep our relationship with the PRC a competition and not allow it to become a conflict.”

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