Special Operations Forces
NATO Special Operations Forces (SOF) are elite military units designed to undertake complex and dynamic security missions within the evolving strategic environment. They complement NATO land, air, maritime, cyber and space capabilities and are essential components of multi-domain operations – particularly in situations requiring clandestine (and potentially high-risk) operations. Special Operations Forces support the Alliance’s three core tasks of deterrence and defence, crisis prevention and management, and cooperative security.
Hungarian Special Operations Forces practise their skills operating underwater and emerging silently on shore in the Tisza River. (photo credit: Hungarian Armed Forces)
- Special operations are military activities conducted by specially designated, organised, trained and equipped forces using distinct techniques and modes of employment.
- These activities can be conducted independently or in conjunction with conventional forces, interagency partners, or local or surrogate forces. Most SOF operations require non-SOF support.
- Allied Special Operations Forces Command (SOFCOM) serves as NATO's SOF Theatre Component Command and is the focal point for Allied SOF.
Key features of Special Operations Forces
The successful conduct of special operations relies on individual and small-unit proficiency. These highly trained forces use specialised operational skills, applied with adaptability, improvisation, innovation and self-reliance. The small size, unique capabilities and self-sufficiency (for limited periods) of SOF units provide the Alliance with additional options for a military response that may not entail the risk of escalation normally associated with the employment of inherently larger or more visible conventional forces.
NATO SOF are an asset employed to help achieve tactical, operational and strategic objectives. They are organised so that they are able to operate seamlessly alongside land, air, maritime, cyber and space units. This allows Allied and partner forces to act together coherently and efficiently during NATO operations and exercises.
Allied Special Operations Forces Command (SOFCOM)
SOFCOM is co-located with Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) in Mons, Belgium. It falls under the operational command of the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR). Twenty-seven NATO member countries and three partners (Austria, Ireland and NATO Invitee Sweden) are represented among the 200-plus headquarters staff.
SOFCOM’s mission is to enhance interoperability among Allied SOF and with partner SOF operators. As such, SOFCOM is the Theatre Component Command for NATO SOF activities, which are undertaken by contributions from national SOF units. The SOFCOM Commander, as the Theatre Component Commander, provides strategic SOF-related advice, enables SOF development and synchronises SOF operations and exercises to deter threats and defend the Alliance. There is also a Special Operations Component Command (SOCC) element responsible for command and control of SOF within the NATO Response Force (NRF). This element is provided on a rotational basis by a handful of countries that possess the requisite SOF capacity and capability.
The NATO Special Operations University at Chièvres Air Base in Belgium provides training and education to build Allies’ and partners’ SOF capabilities, capacity and interoperability. This effort enhances the development of capable, realistic, geographically oriented SOF relationships and structures to achieve NATO objectives in peacetime, crisis and conflict.
SOFCOM traces its origins to the 2006 NATO Summit in Riga, where Allies agreed to launch the NATO SOF Transformation Initiative. This initiative established the NATO SOF Coordination Centre (NSCC) to synchronise SOF capability development across NATO. The NSCC supported NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission in Afghanistan from 2006 to 2014, and the follow-on Resolute Support Mission (RSM) from 2015 until it ended in 2021. It also stood up the NATO Special Operations University (NSOU) in 2009. In 2010, the NSCC changed its name to NATO Special Operations Headquarters (NSHQ). In 2018, Allies designated NSHQ as the Theatre Component Command for NATO SOF activities. In 2023, NSHQ was reflagged as Allied Special Operations Forces Command (SOFCOM) to align with other NATO Theatre Component Commands: Allied Air Command (AIRCOM), Allied Land Command (LANDCOM) and Allied Maritime Command (MARCOM).
SOFCOM continues to adapt, coordinate, enable and support the integration of multinational Special Operations Forces, ensuring the Alliance’s collective defence based on a 360-degree approach.