KYIV, Ukraine — Europe-based US special operations forces teamed up with conventional Army artillery troops to conduct a first-of-its-kind exercise in the Black Sea region last week. This exercise underscores the ongoing evolution of America’s armed forces to fight a war against near-peer adversaries, as well as the eastward shift of the center of gravity of US forces in Europe due to the contemporary Russian threat to NATO allies.
In a joint mission known as HIMARS Rapid Infiltration, or HI-RAIN, last week’s Rapid Falcon exercise in Romania demonstrated the ability of US special operations forces to increase the speed and flexibility by which conventional Army artillery units can deploy from bases in Western Europe to defend the rest of the continent. The exercise involved the rapid deployment of M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, or HIMARS, from Germany to quickly conduct a “raid-type” fire mission on Romania’s Black Sea coastline, and then immediately return to home station.
Two MC-130J Commando II aircraft from the Air Force’s 352nd Special Operations Wing participated in Rapid Falcon on Nov. 19. At Ramstein Air Base in Germany on Thursday, Army troops from the 1st Battalion, 77th Field Artillery Regiment loaded two HIMARS systems onto the special operations aircraft, which then flew onward to Mihail Kogalniceanu Airbase in Romania.
Once on the ground in Romania, the rocket systems were offloaded and set up to hit targets up to 25 miles away in the Black Sea. Then the weapons were loaded back on the aircraft for the return trip to Germany.
“No. 1, we wanted to improve our interoperability with US Army Europe. So that would be Special Operations Command Europe forces that we have under our control, working very closely with conventional Army forces here in Europe. That’s always important because that continues to help us sustain the readiness that we have,” Col. Marc LaRoche, deputy commander of the Stuttgart-based US Special Operations Command Europe, told Coffee or Die Magazine in an interview.
“Pairing up a [special operations] capability — the MC-130J Commando II — with a precision long-range fire system like the HIMARS is a unique match of different capabilities that presents all sorts of options,” LaRoche added. “And really, what it boils down to is the ability to employ these different capabilities in a multi-domain fashion.”
Rapid Falcon was the first time that Europe-based US special operations forces had been used to transport the HIMARS system around the continent. It was also was the first time US forces have fired HIMARS rockets from land into the Black Sea in cooperation with Romanian allies.
“And that’s where the multi-domain aspect comes in — the Army can contribute to interdicting or neutralizing targets that would be on the water as opposed to on land, something that perhaps hasn’t been thought of enough in the past,” LaRoche said. “We’re going to do this more often.”
The MC-130J is a special mission aircraft operated by US Air Force Special Operations Command; the four-engine turboprop is an upgraded variant of the venerable, Vietnam-era C-130 Hercules transport aircraft.
When it comes to transporting the HIMARS systems, the MC-130J’s advantage is that it can land in places, and in conditions, that the enemy may consider impossible for large, fixed-wing aircraft. Air Force special operations aircraft and aircrews are able to operate at night, at low level, and in adverse weather conditions — skill sets that give them the advantage of surprise in combat.
Rapid Falcon demonstrated the operational capability of US forces to rapidly deploy a long-range, precision-fire weapon to an austere battlefield location, immediately use that weapon against the enemy, and then withdraw before the enemy can retaliate. Strike data can be loaded onto the HIMARS weapons while in the cargo holds of the airborne MC-130Js, making the rockets ready to launch immediately after landing. That sort of “nimble” and “agile” employment of combat power is key to opposing a modern adversary, LaRoche explained.
“We have to stay relatively nimble and relatively agile to make sure that we have survivability in all of our plans,” LaRoche said. “To move [HIMARS units] around rapidly has to do with survivability. It has to do with being able to put them down in a location where perhaps they’re not expected … be able to fire, but then be able to dislocate relatively quickly as well so that the HIMARS remains survivable in a conflict scenario.”
The post-9/11 warfare era is not over. US special operations forces remain in combat against terrorist forces across the globe. But “near-peer” state adversaries have reemerged as potential military threats from the South China Sea to Eastern Europe. In light of these new global threats, the special operations community has put renewed emphasis on training to operate alongside conventional forces in a multi-domain conflict, which could include combat on the ground, in the air, at sea, as well as in cyberspace and outer space.
During the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, jury-rigged improvised explosive devices posed the predominant threat to US forces. Now, US forces are increasingly focused on defending and deploying large weapons systems against technologically savvy enemies.
“What we’re looking for today [is] the survivability of larger weapons systems in the event of conflict. So it’s not as much about troops that are out on patrol facing, again, isolated potential lethal events,” LaRoche explained. “Now it’s more about dealing with a much larger land conflict, and how would you then prepare to remain survivable?”
US special operations forces are battle-hardened after nearly two decades of constant counterinsurgency combat. Yet, to exploit the lessons gleaned from all that combat experience in a hypothetical conflict against a near-peer adversary such as Russia or China, special operations units need to improve their interoperability with conventional forces.
“It’s a lesson that took us a long time to learn in the conflicts in the Middle East for the past 20 years or so — the necessity for [special operations forces] and [conventional forces] to be able to operate and to leverage each other for each other’s respective strengths and capabilities,” LaRoche said. “As we look at great power competition, that’s going to have to continue, and we’re going to have to continue to look for ways to keep that up. Otherwise, we lose those hard won lessons from the last 20 years.”
During the Cold War, NATO planners considered the Fulda Gap — a lowland corridor northeast of Frankfurt, Germany — to be the most likely route for a Soviet tank invasion of West Germany. Yet, the contemporary Russian threat to NATO is much murkier, comprising the kind of gray zone tactics Moscow has employed against Ukraine since 2014.
“The enemy is always going to adapt,” LaRoche said, adding that US military forces must “be willing to experiment and look for new ways to apply our capabilities.”
“I don’t think we can ever get comfortable with a certain way of operating as a joint force. In the end, we always continue to learn,” LaRoche said.
Rather than facing low-tech insurgencies, US special operations forces are now increasingly focused on enhancing the combat lethality of conventional forces in complicated, multi-domain conflicts. To that end, Rapid Falcon was not a dusting off, so to speak, of Cold War-era skill sets, but a demonstration of uniquely modern combat capabilities, tailor-made to face contemporary threats.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a return to anything that’s potentially left over or that we remember from the Cold War. I can’t imagine that we were nearly as advanced in our interoperability between [special operations forces] and [conventional forces] back then as we are today,” LaRoche said.
Referring to last week’s Rapid Falcon exercise, he added: “In this case, we were able to match [the MC-130J] means of infiltration with a legacy army capability of artillery fire. Just putting those two together and trying to leverage them to the extent possible. So it’s not as if we invented something new here. These are two capabilities that [special operations forces] and that the conventional force have been working on for a long time.”
Combat, against any enemy, is always chaotic and stressful. Yet, a generation of counterinsurgency operations has adapted the US military to operating within a rather predictable combat environment against a technologically inferior enemy.
During counterinsurgency warfare, US forces typically maintain 24-hour surveillance of a target, sometimes for days, before launching from a relatively safe base to prosecute an operation — all the while, enjoying unquestioned air superiority. In the next war, however, US forces may face much more confusing battlefields where nothing can be taken for granted — especially communication.
“We’re now in that era of multi-domain operations where not only is it air, land, and sea, but we’re also having to look at space and cyber, the electronic warfare spectrum, and these other aspects of how all that comes into play,” LaRoche said.
“But I will tell you that [special operations forces] will never be present in large numbers on the ground in future conflict,” he added. “They’ll likely have to be used sparingly, but the value of [special operations forces] is that they’re able to leverage the rest of the joint force.”
US military forces have paid particular attention to Russia’s war efforts in Ukraine and Syria. One key lesson from those wars is that Russia has an advanced electronic warfare capability, which could inflict a communications blackout on US forces. Additionally, Russia is able to target its weapons systems on electromagnetic emissions, and its electronic warfare systems can spoof GPS signals, sending American pilots inaccurate navigation information. A Russian cyberattack could also, in theory, implant a virus into an aircraft’s computers, potentially disabling key systems.
“I think we have to be very careful not to become overly reliant upon technology — some of the high-end, advanced technology specifically in the [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] realm,” LaRoche said.
Due to modern threats, the US military has put a new premium on training to operate with degraded communication and navigation equipment. In 2017, the US Army’s Asymmetric Warfare Group released the “Russian New Generation Warfare Handbook,” which used the war in Ukraine as a case study in preparing US forces for a war against Russia.
With the Russian threat in mind, the Army report offered a blunt assessment of the US military’s need to transform after focusing on counterinsurgency operations for nearly a generation. In particular, the report took a hard look at the US military’s dependence on high-tech communications tools, which could be vulnerable to Russian electronic warfare countermeasures.
“The US reliance on robust communication infrastructure and GPS navigation means that a sudden interruption of this capability, even for a short duration, can be disastrous to an operation,” the report said.
While the overall number of US military personnel in Europe is set to decrease, the center of gravity of American military forces in Europe is shifting steadily eastward, underscoring the existential security concerns about Russian aggression shared by NATO’s easternmost members. Since Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, the US has been holding regular military exercises across Eastern Europe in an effort to deter Russian aggression against NATO allies.
During the past 10 days across the European theater, US forces and NATO allies have conducted multiple operations and exercises in various locations, ranging from Rapid Falcon in Romania, to other events in Belgium, Sweden, and Greece.
“Rapid Falcon is one in a long and impressive list of operations and exercises illustrative of [US European Command’s] strength in rapidly deploying forces via air, sea and land at a moment’s notice anywhere across Europe to respond to any crisis,” US Army Brig. Gen. Richard Lebel, US European Command’s deputy director of operations, said in a release.
“This exercise also demonstrated without question our command’s ability to deliver long-range precision fires capabilities to support our Allies and partners,” Lebel said.
Apart from its utilitarian benefit to US combat readiness, Rapid Falcon was also meant to send a deterrent message to Moscow, underscoring not only the US military’s lethality, but also the close cooperation among NATO countries.
“It just demonstrates how NATO as a whole continues to come together to assure mutual defense of alliance sovereign territory,” LaRoche said.
During Rapid Falcon, US units were training on a potential battlefield. Thus, there was a practical utility for US personnel to become familiar with the terrain, climate, local customs, and culture where they may one day face actual combat. And by training shoulder-to-shoulder with their Romanian allies, US forces were able to forge personal relationships that may prove invaluable in real-world operations.
“We’re fortunate in that we have Air Force Special Operations aircraft, as well as Army Special Forces soldiers, who are here in Europe, based in Europe. And [for] those individuals, having the opportunity to deploy on these sorts of training exercises continues to expose them to the environment that they would encounter in either the Black Sea, the Baltics, the Balkans, the Mediterranean — where their skills and their capabilities may be needed,” LaRoche said.
Ever since Russia invaded and seized Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in 2014, the Black Sea region has emerged as a geopolitical hotspot, pitting NATO and Russian forces against each other in a tit-for-tat exchange of dueling exercises and patrols reminiscent of the Cold War era.
Moscow has garrisoned some 40,000 troops in Crimea and deployed nuclear weapons-capable missiles and bombers to the occupied territory, as well as Russia’s most advanced surface-to-air missile systems, according to Ukrainian and NATO officials. Resultantly, the peninsular territory has become a fortified redoubt from which Russian can project power across the Black Sea basin.
“The Black Sea region is a top priority for US European Command,” LaRoche said. “This has to do not only, of course, with what’s continuing to go on in Ukraine, but with what we just saw in Nagorno-Karabakh, and what the Georgians are obviously still dealing with. So we keep a very close eye on some of these frozen conflicts in some of these areas that can heat up relatively quickly.”