Published in the July/August 2020 Issue – Across Asia Pacific, special operations forces (SOF) are receiving upgrades in maritime capability to support emerging mission sets associated with the Great Power Competition (GPC).
Designed to counter potential military threats from the People’s Republic of China and/or the Russian Federation, regional SOF forces are rapidly evolving concepts of operation (CONOPS) to successfully engage with high capability adversaries and maintain tactical overmatch.
Such considerations were explored at the US Special Operations Command Pacific’s (SOCPAC’s) Transregional Resistance Working Group (TRWG) in Monterey, California between 4-6 February 2020.
According to SOCPAC officials, the overarching theme of the event was to compare “Russian and Chinese Aggression” across the region, with particular focus on strategic threats facing Mongolia and Taiwan which continue to “seek to increase efforts in the resilience and resistance areas of their national security strategy”.
“After 20 years of sustained counter-violent extremist organisation (C-VEO) fighting, SOF will see more of a pivot to the GPC. SOF’s inherent ability to be a flexible, agile, and adaptive force will continue to compliment the joint force as we focus on the GPC,” a SOCPAC spokesperson explained to Asian Military Review following the event.
“SOF has always taken on multiple roles. Although we have been heavily invested in the counter-terrorism fight for the past 20 years, we haven’t lost our focus on the GPC. As we see our policy begin to shift focus from a CT fight to competing in the GPC, we will balance requirements based on priorities informed by assessments,” it was added.
Critical to such a strategy are special operations in the maritime domain, given the strategic nature of seaways scattered across Asia Pacific, which include the Strait of Malacca between Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia.
As a result, SOF across the region continue to upgrade SOF-specific equipment to support littoral and Bluewater operational requirements both above and below the surface. Examples include Rigid Hull Inflatable Boat (RHIB), High Speed Interceptor Craft (HSIC) and Mothership vessels on the surface; in addition to submarines, dry deck shelters, swimmer delivery vehicles (SDVs) and combat diving equipment which can be employed in the sub-surface environment.
Similar to ‘fly and drive’ operations employed by SOF in the ground domain, maritime components continue to consider the employment of ‘mothership’ concepts in Bluewater environments.
Such a CONOP requires a large surface vessel to be forward deployed, acting as an ‘at sea’ Forward Operating Base (FOB) allowing SOF components to conduct the full spectrum of mission sets through the projection of multiple types of surface and sub-surface platforms.
In February 2019, the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) disclosed plans to operate such a ‘mothership’ concept with former defence secretary, Gavin Williamson describing how “Littoral Strike Ships” could be equipped with modular roll on/roll off mission suites.
Speaking at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London, Williamson explained how the MoD was seeking to “dramatically accelerate” the procurement of Littoral Strike Ships into service with the Royal Navy, confirming: “These globally deployable multirole vessels will be able to conduct a wide range of operations, from crisis support to warfighting. They’ll be forward deployed at exceptionally high readiness and able to respond at a moment’s notice, bringing the fight from sea to land. Our vision is for these ships to form part of two littoral strike groups, complete with escorts, support vessels, and helicopters.”
The US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) has also toyed with the mothership concept, employing the special warfare support vessel MV Ocean Trader in a similar capacity, industry sources highlighted to AMR.
In South Korea, SOF from the Naval Special Warfare Flotilla look set to benefit from the procurement of a Landing Platform Helicopter II (LPH II) surface vessel, according to documents disclosed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff on 12 July 2019.
The 30,000-ton LPH II would be capable of operating as a type of ‘mothership’ to facilitate special missions across a wide area through the launch of rotary wing and tilt-rotor air frames in addition to armoured vehicles used to conduct sea-to-land operations. However, as of 20 April 2020, the South Korean government has yet to grant final approval for the programme to continue.
At the more tactical end of the market, a number of SOF components across Asia Pacific including India’s Marine Commandos (MARCOS) are operating C-950D RHIBs from Boomeranger Boats in Finland, used by force components to conduct maritime counter-terrorism (MCT) operations.
Measuring 9.5m in length with a 3m beam, C-950D RHIBs provide maritime SOF teams with a top speed of 60 knots with a maximum payload capacity of 2,000kg.
“The Boomeranger Special Operations Boats are customised according to the requirements of the customer for troop transport and insertion, boarding, fire support, diver, kayak and inflatable operations, helicopter-underslung, air-drop and transport by road, sea and air for worldwide deployment,” a company spokesperson told AMR.
C-950D RHIBs can also feature a series of cargo rails on the deck in order to facilitate mission-specific arrangements of seating and equipment, dependent upon mission requirements.
The RHIB can also be fitted with a telescopic mast to house radar, thermal imaging cameras and antenna payloads. As company sources explained, during maritime interdiction and Visit, Board, Search and Seizure (VBSS) missions, the mast can be retracted to protect valuable payloads from hitting nearby vessels.
Finally, the C-950D can also be forward deployed using Airborne Systems’ Maritime Craft Aerial Delivery System (MCADS) which means vessels can be air-dropped from a variety of fixed wing platforms including A400M; C-17; C-130; as well as the CH-47 Chinook helicopter.
In Malaysia, the navy’s PASKAL SOF unit is also seeking to enhance its maritime capabilities following an announcement disclosed in the 2019 Defence White Paper. According to the document, PASKAL could benefit from a Littoral Mission Ship as well as HSICs and “Special Forces Boats”, capable of supporting maritime CT missions in Bluewater environments.
According to the White Paper, any selected Littoral Mission Ship should comprise a “modular design [capable of being] equipped with additional weapons and systems to meet future operating needs”.
Such an uplift in maritime surface capabilities was included in a solicitation by Malaysia’s Ministry of Defence on 19 July 2019, which demanded the acquisition of 18 surface vessels which could be immediately deployed to support ongoing CT operations in Eastern Sabah. Vessels will replace legacy CB90 FACs, as manufactured by Dockstavarvet in Sweden.
Alternative platforms could include USSOCOM’s Combatant Craft family of Assault, Medium and Heavy surface vessels which continue to be rolled out across US Naval Special Warfare.
On 14 April 2020, United States Marine was awarded a $108 million contract to deliver an undisclosed number of Combatant Craft Assault (CCA) surface vessels to Naval Special Warfare Group 4 as part of an indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity award.
According to an official statement from United States Marine, CCA vessels (operated by Special Boat Teams 12 and 20) can be tasked with “medium range maritime interdiction operations in medium-to-high threat environments”, in addition to the discreet or clandestine insertion and extraction of small unit teams.
CCAs, which are designed with a mono-hull design, can also be delivered via MCADS from C-17 air frames. Powered by a pair of diesel engines, the surface vessel includes an ISTAR mission payload comprising maritime radar, communications antenna and Combatant Craft Forward Looking Infrared camera featuring laser rangefinder and designator. CCAs can also be upgraded with a variety of armaments including 12.7mm heavy machine guns and 40mm grenade launchers.
Future upgrades which might soon be made available to CCA operators include the development of a Surface Search Phased Array radar which would allow crews to detect and track low observable surface vessels on the water.
Elsewhere, Russian SOF components are now equipped with Project 02800 Fast Attack Craft (FAC) which can be used to support maritime interdiction missions in littoral and Bluewater environments.
With capacity to cary up to 10 personnel, FACs have a maximum speed of 43kts and can also be retrofitted with scalable levels in ballistic protection dependent upon the threat environment. As industry sources explained to AMR, Project 02800 FACs now augment Project 03160 Raptor HSIC vessels currently deployed to Tartus, Syria.
In the sub-surface environment, SOF components across Asia Pacific are turning their attentions to special mission capabilities associated with submarines. Similar CONOPS are due to be explored by SOF units from across Asia Pacific at the Exercise Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) between June/July 2020, organised by the US SOCPAC.
Headed by an Operational Detachment Alpha (ODA) Team from the US Army’s 1st Special Forces Group, the SOF element of Exercise RIMPAC will see SOF units from South Korea, Japan, India, The Philippines, Peru, Chile and Brazil conducting small boat operations launched from strategic submarines from Joint Base Pearl Harbor Hickam in Oahu, Hawaii.
These “maritime/dive and submarine operations”, as one SOCPAC official explained to AMR, allow small unit teams to deploy military inflatable boats (MIBs) from submarines when submerged.
Additional CONOPS available to SOF include the deployment of Swimmer Delivery Vehicles (SDVs) from Dry Deck Shelters (DDS)- a concept which is already in operation with US Naval Special Warfare.
Examples include South Korea’s Naval Special Warfare Flotilla which is working up special operations requirements for a fleet of KSS-III diesel-electric submarines being designed and manufactured by Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering. A contract, which was first announced by the Defense Acquisition Programme Administration in December 2018, saw manufacturing begin at the end of 2019.
South Korean Navy SEALs attended RIMPAC 2018, declaring to AMR that they did not currently possess a submarine special operations capability. However, KSS-III submarines are expected to comprise some kind of capacity to launch clandestine small boat/SDV operations when submerged, industry sources suggest.
Similar efforts are being developed by the Pakistan Navy which is due to receive an initial tranche of four submarines in 2022. Manufactured at the Karachi Shipyard and Engineering Works, as part of a technology transfer agreement with China, submarines are also expected to provide a sub-surface capability to support special operations of the Special Services Group (Navy).
In Indonesia, the navy’s KOPASKA SOF unit is expecting to receive a new 22m mini-submarine design following disclosure of the concept at the Indo-Defence 2018 exhibition in Jakarta, by shipbuilder PT Palindo Marine.
According to SOF sources familiar with the project, KOPASKA is demanding a boat capable of remaining submerged for up to six days at an operating depth as low as 150m. The mini-submarine must also have a top speed of 10kts when moving underwater, sources added.
Finally, SOF components across Asia Pacific also continue to ramp up their SDV capabilities to operate not only in a standalone mode but also in collaboration with submarines and larger mothership surface vessels.
Examples include Russian SOF which first disclosed the deployment of Rotinor Black Shadow swimmer propulsion vehicles (SPVs) during an exercise in the Mediterranean Sea in September 2018. Russian SOF operators used the SPVs to insert in a clandestine fashion from Kilo-class submarines to undertake combat dive operations, sources revealed.
The Australian Special Operations Command (SOCOMD) also continues to identify potential solutions to satisfy its search for a ‘next-generation’ SDV which could be forward deployed from submerged boats.
The SOCOMD has been pursuing a requirement for ‘tens’ of SDVs with potential options comprising Alseamar’s inventory of Sphyrene and Coryphene SDVs, each of which can carry between three and six personnel each.
by Andrew White