A Delta Force operative, now retired and living in Washington DC, admitted that the scariest thing he ever did was a HALO jump on a moonless night, over the Mediterranean Sea.
HALO is an acronym for “high altitude, low opening.”
That means that military special forces teams will jump out at a high altitude (generally 30 to 40 thousand feet), and they’ll freefall to a much lower altitude (as low as about 800 feet above the ground) before they deploy their parachutes.
By keeping the aircraft up high, it can remain out of range of anti-aircraft fire and surface missiles. It was a tactic used in missions during the Vietnam War, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and even in the Navy SEAL rescue of Captain Phillips in 2009.
The problem, he said, was that you couldn’t see the water, and had to rely on one’s altimeter, hoping you hit it right.
The other worry, as he floated amongst the waves — would the submarine be at the rendezvous point, as planned?
A typical day in the life of a Delta Force Op, of course, but it’s generally believed that the more one practises, the less chance one will freeze up when the real thing happens.
And this is why US Army Special Forces soldiers, more commonly referred to as Green Berets, knocked out simulated enemy air-defense assets during a recent exercise at the Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC) at Fort Polk, La., Joseph Trevithick at The War Zone reported.
They also sabotaged a mock port facility and collected intelligence on stand-ins for strategic targets, such as radar sites and missile silos.
This training highlights how the US military’s entire special operations community has been refocusing on preparing to support future higher-end conflicts, including against potential near-peer adversaries such as Russia or China, after decades of conducting low-intensity counter-terrorism missions.
There have been multiple reports this year that the Chinese military is dramatically expanding its silo-based intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) forces, the report said.
The number of new Chinese silos under construction exceeds the number of silo-based ICBMs operated by Russia, and constitutes more than half of the size of the entire US ICBM force.
The Chinese missile silo program constitutes the most extensive silo construction since the US and Soviet missile silo construction during the Cold War.
Elements of the Army’s 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne) carried out these missions in support of troops from the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division.
This appears to be the same exercise that, in September, saw mock enemy troops — also known as the opposing force (OPFOR) — use missile and machine-gun armed unmanned ground vehicles for the first time, the report said.
British Army soldiers from 4th Battalion, The Rifles — a specialized infantry unit — presently assigned to that service’s Special Operations Brigade, were also attached to the American special operations force for this exercise.
For the Green Berets, this exercise at the JRTC was “a little bit of a departure from what we’re used to due to the fact that this is under the auspices of LSCO, which is large scale combat operations,” said Sgt. Major Afshin Aryana, from Company A, 3rd Battalion, 7th Special Forces Group.
The 7th group has a regional focus on operations in Latin America and the Caribbean, which has typically seen them support allies and partners conducting counterinsurgency and counternarcotics missions, the report said.
The group has also deployed detachments in support of operations in Iraq, as well as the recently concluded campaign in Afghanistan.
“Our mission here is to support 3rd of the 101st in large scale operations, largely initiated with our ability to take out integrated air defense systems [IADS],” Aryana explained.
“As you have these systems all around the battlefield, essentially, the radar in one area can pick up targeting for a rocket in another area,” he continued. “Unless you destroy the main system, the hub, at the end of the day, no aircraft can fly into that area.”
In spite of its name, the 101st Airborne Division is actually an air-assault-focused unit that specializes in operations using helicopters.
“And an airborne unit that has planned an air assault, like the 101st, if we can’t get those birds on the ground, then the mission is already lost,” Aryana said.
Aryana also pointed out that commanders would not be able to take for granted their ability to regularly communicate with Green Berets in the field in future large-scale operations.
This would be especially true with regard to Operational Detachment Alphas (ODA), or A-Teams, the smallest Army Special Forces units, operating deep behind enemy lines.
“Just the simple writ large understanding that that is no longer on the table,” he said.
“We have to give good commander’s guidance for ODAs to operate for multiple days without constant guidance or real-time updates, to develop their own intelligence, and to be a more self-sufficient organization.
“This leads us and the ODAs to learn what we can and can’t do and it teaches a decentralized sense of leadership.”
The Fort Polk exercise falls very much in line with a recent push within the Army’s Special Forces community, in particular, to be prepared to carry out these kinds of tasks, which the service described broadly as the “Hard Target Defeat” mission — including covert and clandestine reconnaissance and intelligence gathering.
“That really replicates what we’ll see in future conflicts with multinational partners and our allies overseas in combat,” said Maj. Marshall McGurk, a Special Operations Trainer.
At US Indo-Pacific headquarters, strategic, operational and tactical teams are putting together new approaches for deploying American forces.
Gone are the large troop formations, armored capability and land-based tactics of the “forever wars” in the Middle East.
The Pentagon is hoping to include British, French and other NATO allies in the effort.
In addition to the sea service’s activities, the US Air Force will likely be shifting additional long-range land-attack bombers and fighters to Pacific bases that are widely distributed across Asia, including some very remote sites on smaller islands.
Meanwhile, the US Army will increase both combat power and mobility to deploy units forward in support of the red lines, including enhanced capability based in South Korea and Japan but easily capable of deploying to smaller islands throughout the region.
According to military planners, in the context of a US-China strategy, US Marines will be resolutely sea-based and able to sail into the waters of the South China Sea, well inside the island chains China relies on for defense.
Once inside, they will use armed drones, offensive cyber capabilities, Marine Raiders — highly capable special forces — anti-air missiles and even ship-killer strike weapons to attack Chinese maritime forces, and perhaps even their land bases of operations.
The Chinese militarized artificial islands in the South China Sea would be juicy targets, for example. In essence, this will be guerrilla warfare.
Taken together, it seems clear that the US military, along with the Green Berets and other special forces, is stepping up its presence and combat capability in the Western Pacific, and positioning for a conflict with China over the coming decades.
Sources: The War Zone, Air & Space, Federation of American Scientists, Nikkei Asia