SOF challenges as great power rivalry builds

Australian SOF are considering options to procure a next-generation helicopter to support operations around the world in addition to mission sets in dense urban environments.

Published in the September/October 2020 Issue – As Superpower competition expands in Asia, regional special forces are looking to re-equip to meet sub-threshold threats.

Asia Pacific is home to more than 50 countries all of whom continue to attempt to protect sovereign territory and strategic seaways throughout the theatre. However, the Great Power Competition (GPC) has witnessed the emergence of several high capability adversaries who are threatening to upset the ‘status quo’ through military might.

Examples include the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and Russian Federation- all of which have strong interests across the entire strategic region.

As described by Admiral Phil Davidson, Commander, United States Indo-Pacific Command at the Indo-Pacific Landpower Conference in Honolulu, Hawaii on 19 May, the PRC continues to conduct “increased military aggression, malign behaviour and pernicious activity throughout the Indo-Pacific”. Examples include the sinking of a Vietnamese vessel in April by a Chinese Coast Guard cutter; and increased military demonstrations of force near Taiwan.

Considerations regarding the GPC in the Indo-Pacific were also discussed by multiple state actors across the region at the Transregional Resistance Working Group (TRWG) in Monterey, California, which was conducted between 4-6 February.

Organised by the US Special Operations Command- Pacific (SOCPAC), and entitled The Role of SOF and Great Power Competition Comparative Dialogue of Russia and China event was designed to enhance resiliency to ‘revisionist states and renewed Great Power Competition’, providing SOF partners with the ability to discuss common challenges and best practices in order to meet shared security challenges.

USSOCPAC’s Commander Maj. Gen. Jonathan Braga briefs the TRWG in Monterey, California, aimed at enhancing interoperability and cooperation across Asia Pacific in relation to the Great Power Competition.

SOF leadership from the event was drawn from across the entire region, with participants attending from Japan, New Zealand, Mongolia, Taiwan, South Korea, Canada and the US.

Responding to increasing levels in aggression throughout the region, Asia Pacific special operations forces (SOF) commands continue to urgently seek capability injections in order to keep pace with an increasing variety of threats.

SOF materiel upgrades across the Indo-Pacific continue to be led by the ‘Five Eyes’ nations Australia and New Zealand in particular with the remainder of the region benefiting from Foreign Military Sales (FMS) of SOF-specific equipment from the US State Department.

In Australia, the Special Operations Command is moving forward with the Land 2097 Phase 3 programme which plans to equip the organisation with a next-next-generation Light Special Forces Helicopter. The helicopter will be used to transport small teams in addition to ISR missions.

In the first week of August, Australian Defence published a Request for Proposals (RfP) for the programme with industry bids expected to be evaluated by the end of 2020, according to an official statement.

“Australian industry have unique capabilities to offer the Australian Defence Force (ADF) and the broader global military light helicopter market in the design and manufacture of aviation systems. Small Australian companies are already competing on the world stage, providing innovative solutions to special mission aircraft. The opportunity to harness these skills and grow them through collaboration on the special operations helicopter will benefit the ADF and local defence industry,” a statement by defence minister Linda Reynolds read.

The solicitation dates back to September 2018 when the Australian Defence Force demanded a Special Operations Rotary Wing Capability capable of supporting operations in dense urban environments. Additional requirements call for its ability to be deployed from C-17A Globemaster IIIs in support of expeditionary operations.

Over the course of the last decade, Australian SOF operating in Afghanistan relied upon rotary wing assets provided by the US Army. Air frames available included Sikorsky Black Hawk helicopters.

The $1.4-2.2 billion (AUD2-3 billion) programme is due to begin deliveries in 2023. Industry participants include Babcock Australia and Hawker Pacific with the Bell 429 in addition to Airbus Helicopters and 20 local companies which comprise Team Nightjar for the H145M helicopter.

Similar tactical airlift capabilities are being sought elsewhere in the region with Indonesia’s National Armed Forces (TNI) currently considering a potential FMS of eight Bell/Boeing MV-22B Block C Osprey tiltrotor air frames from the US State Department.

A decision has yet to be made by the TNI, although alternative platforms are also being considered including Boeing’s CH-47F and the Bell 412 EPI.

One of the main tasks of the selected air frame will be the tactical insertion, extraction and resupply of TNI SOF which include the Army Special Forces Command (KOPASSUS); Navy Special Warfare Command (KOPASKA); and Air Force Special Operations Command (PASKHAS).

In Thailand, SOF are also awaiting delivery of an undisclosed number of Boeing AH-6i Light Attack Reconnaissance Helicopters, also known as ‘Little Birda’. Due to replace legacy Bell AH-1F Cobra attack helicopters, the Little Birds will provide a close air support (armaments are expected to include APKWS and M134 Miniguns) capability to Thai SOF units in addition to a tactical airlift capability which is particularly useful during counter-terrorism and hostage rescue operations in the urban environment.

A September 2019 announcement by the US State Department confirmed the sale although air frames have yet to be delivered to the Royal Thai Air Force (RTAF). Air frames will be made available to the Royal Thai Army’s Special Warfare Command, and Naval Special Warfare Command.

Indias steady progress

Comprising one of the largest SOF components in the Indo-Pacific is India which, despite countless delays in multiple SOF procurement efforts, is witnessing steady progress in terms of materiel upgrades.

Remaining in the airborne environment, India’s newly established Armed Forces Special Operations Division (AFSOD) is considering the procurement of a special mission aircraft alongside the country’s Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO).

Capable of supporting ISTAR missions, any selected special mission aircraft must be capable of operating at high altitudes and carrying multi-sensor payloads including Electro-Optical and Infrared (EO/IR) cameras in addition to Synthetic Aperture Radar and Ground Moving Target Indicator systems.

The DRDO has been considering the purchase since February 2020 following failed attempts by the Indian MoD to purchase Raytheon Sentinel special mission aircraft back in 2017.

Indian SOF are set to benefit from a small arms injection with solutions including SCAR-L and HK416 carbines.

Elsewhere, Indian SOF are in the process of receiving an uplift in small arms following a projected evaluation process which saw multiple procurement efforts cancelled and restarted over the past few years.

In the last week of June 2020, Indian SOF selected FNH USA’s 7.562mm x 51mm Special Operations Combat Assault Rifle (SCAR) Heavy weapon system. AFSOD is also considering the 5.56mm x 45mm SCAR Light variant in addition to Heckler & Koch’s HK416 of the same calibre. The 5.56mm selection will satisfy Indian SOF’s longstanding Close Quarter Battle (CQB) weapon system, while the larger SCAR Heavy will be employed as a designated marksman/sniper system. Both selections will comprise FMS from the US State Department.

Additional procurements aimed at enhancing the lethality of small unit teams operating at the tactical edge include the purchase of FNH USA 7.62mm x 51mm MK48 Light Machine Guns; .50-cal Barrett Firearms’ M107 anti-materiel rifle; in addition to associated ammunition.

Weapons will furnish a variety of SOF units including the Indian Army’s Para-SF units; Indian Navy’s Marine Commandos (MARCOS); and Indian Air Force’s Garud special mission unit.

Beyond small arms, the AFSOD’s wish list for SOF-specific equipment also includes high altitude and low altitude parachute systems, defence sources confirmed to Asian Military Review.  


In the maritime environment, Indonesian SOF are set to benefit from a next-generation swimmer delivery vehicle which would allow KOPASKA operators to clandestinely insert into an area of operation.

In the final week of March 2020, representatives from the TNI and KOPASKA discussed the latest requirements regarding the Combat Swimmer Vehicle (CSV). Specific requirements include the ability for the sub-surface platform to carry a small unit team up to five kilometres in range at speeds up to five knots.

Any new design or off-the-shelf product must be capable of remaining submerged for up to 90 minutes. However, defence sources were unable to confirm to AMR whether KOPASKA is seeking a capability which could be deployed from larger, strategic submarines. Options also remain open for either a wet- or dry-vehicle, the latter of which would be capable of keeping combat divers dry during an insertion to reduce levels of fatigue ahead of any follow-on actions.

Indonesian SOF continues to consider upgrading sub-surface capabilities including plans for a Combat Swimmer Vehicle.

Indonesian KOPASSUS units are also considering additional special operations vehicles (SOV) in the ground environment, following the procurement of 18 P6 All Terrain Assault Vehicles (ATAVs) in 2017.

Examples include the 4×4 Pindad Maung SOV which, similar to the ATAV is designed to support offensive action and special reconnaissance missions on land. Featuring a similar open-top design to the ATAV (for maximum situation awareness), the ‘Maung’ has a maximum operating range of 500km with ability to carry up to six personnel with equipment.

The SOV can also be armed with a variety of systems including 5.56mm, 7.62mm and 0.50-cal machine guns in addition to anti-tank munitions.


In order to engage confidently with high capability adversaries from the PRC, DPRK and Russian Federation, Asian Pacific SOF units must be equipped with materiel capable of being operated in sub-threshold situations below the level of full, armed conflict. Expect ongoing procurement efforts across the region as partner forces continue to ramp up capabilities to match opponents across the GPC.

by Andrew White