The Men in Black

As I would soon discover, the Czechs had high ambitions…

I pulled the lace curtain back in the window and glanced at my watch; 0757. ‘Perfect,’ I was within the four-minute window for conducting a link up. My man would be driving an unmarked black Skoda Octavia sedan and would arrive at 8 AM to pick me up. For security reasons he would be in civilian clothes. I was told he spoke no English but that I needn’t worry as he knew where to take me. My Czech counterpart, more confident than I about the simplicity of this linkup, had declined to coordinate any bona fides and there was nothing particularly identifiable about me that the driver could seize upon.

I wasn’t reassured. This meeting was too important to leave to half measures but I didn’t want to risk insulting my hosts by insisting. My schedule left little room for a missed contact. Though I had a phone number to call just in case, there was a good chance no one would answer at this early hour. Without a common language or even mobile phone contact with the driver, I would be in trouble if anything went wrong. What if I couldn’t locate the vehicle? What if the black Octavia was unavailable that morning and the driver came in a silver one instead? What if he was early, or late, or if there was another parking lot I didn’t know about? What if?! 

I suppressed my doubts and turned back to the window. From the tiny hotel lobby I had a good vantage over most of the large parking lot. It was a chilly spring morning and there was a light fog obscuring the distance but I could see enough to realize I should not have worried about finding a black Skoda…the parking lot was full of them! There must have been a dozen black Octavias parked outside the hotel. Worse, about half of those had rough-looking Czech drivers standing by alertly. “Shit,” I thought, chuckling a bit at the stupid situation I was in. “No one said Special Forces would be boring.”

The Shark Tank

Five months earlier, I entered the large conference hall at the Allied Command Transformation Staff Element Europe (ACT SEE) and joined about 200 other planners here to shape exercise Trident Juncture 2015. This was my first week in a new job and until now I had only enough time to learn that exercise planning in NATO is a closed community with its own language, schools, planning guide, and culture. My boss, a very talented and hard-working Romanian named Christian, had taught me enough about it that I understood there was a tremendous amount I still needed to learn.

tj15 logo low res
Trident Juncture 2015 was the largest NATO exercise in 12 years featuring 36,000 troops from over 30 nations. The exercise figured heavily into the deterrence posture of NATO vis-a-vis Russia

The day before, Christian and I discussed my future workload. “Trident Juncture is yours Lino,” he said as he dropped the NATO Response Force (NRF) Directive on my desk. “It will be the biggest exercise the Alliance has attempted to run in over a decade. General Domrose, the NRF commander, wants to open it up to any Allied nation that cares to participate and we expect the live portion to include 30,000 troops operating all over Spain, Portugal, and Italy.” He paused to let the magnitude of that thought sink in. “No one really knows how they’re going to make it work but you have two years to figure it out.” He then asked if I had any questions. I didn’t but I knew I would. My experience with these things is they always seem easy until you begin to learn what is actually required. Now, sitting in the cheap seats in the ACT SEE conference hall I began to realize just how complex this was going to be.

The exercise planners all seemed to know each other. The atmosphere was one of a big reunion with a lot of back slapping and catching up. Everyone was smiling. The chairman — a very friendly looking civilian from ACT named Stu Furness — hit the gavel at the appointed time and everyone took their seats. After some introductory remarks, he opened the floor to questions. Obviously waiting for the opportunity, a Dutch Colonel from the NRF headquarters, a man appropriately named Ruud whom I would come to know and love in the next few months, raised his hand and said gruffly “I have a point to make.” He then launched into a very forceful, detailed, and well constructed argument as to why NATO could not possibly conduct Trident Juncture in the manner Stu just described. Ruud backed up his argument with regulations and directives and said convincingly there was no other choice than to go back to our four-star commanders and request a change to the very basis of the concept.

I felt a chill. The two-year, 150 million project I had so recently been put in charge of had just been completely derailed by the representative from the NRF headquarters itself. I looked at my boss and said “Good grief, he’s right.” Christian nodded but was focused on Stu.

A retired Royal Navy Captain, Stu looked at Ruud without flinching and used a phrase I came to value for its subtlety and power: “I couldn’t agree with you more,” he said calmly “but…” He then countered Ruud’s argument with equal and opposite force. The game was afoot and the next few hours proceeded in the manner of controlled argumentative chaos as a room full of intelligent and experienced planners sparred amongst each other in organizational combat. I left the room completely overwhelmed and with the knowledge that I was swimming with sharks. For the sake of my headquarters I would need to become the biggest shark in the tank.

The SOF Advantage

In the weeks following the meeting at ACT I began to get a sense for the SOF role in Trident Juncture 2015. NATO leaders had been shocked by the annexation of the Crimea by Russia the previous month to the point that one prominent mentor of mine, a man very much in a position to affect NATO military decisions, asked me point-blank if I thought it possible to move Trident Juncture to eastern Europe. Vladimir Putin had escalated the stakes of security in Europe and it was clear that Trident Juncture would factor strongly in Allied deterrence measures. Responding to this, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, the United States, Canada, and the Czech Republic had already committed SOF to all phases of the exercise. The only questions were how and where their teams would operate. As the lead planner for all SOF activity, I needed the trust and confidence of the SOF commanders and for their vision to closely match my own. Fortunately I already knew most of them because I needed to pay them a visit.

Harnessing the networking power of the NATO Special Operations Headquarters (NSHQ) where I worked, I coordinated a whirlwind tour of SOF units around Europe to occur at the tail end of two weeks of reconnaissance in Spain and Portugal. The integration we would achieve at these meetings would be very powerful indeed and it is precisely these kinds of personal relationships that give SOF an edge in every contest. As such, my visits were critical to our success in Trident Juncture and ultimately to the role of Special Operations in responding to Russian aggression in the Ukraine. As I boarded a local train in Prague for the long ride to the Czech SOF headquarters in tiny Prostějov, I considered myself lucky to have had a number of instances like this one in my career where I could see a direct linkage between my efforts on the ground and the strategic aims of my country and its allies.

Czech 601st
Crest of the Czech 601st Special Forces Group

The Czech 601st Special Forces Group is descended from the 22nd Paratroop Brigade of the Czechoslovakian Army. Trained for mass seizures of key infrastructure, the mission of the Paratroop Brigade evolved as the Cold War solidified into a strategic stalemate after the Second World War. By 1969, militaries on both sides of the Iron Curtain desired an ability to infiltrate small teams behind enemy lines to conduct strategic reconnaissance and disrupt the enemy. Authorized to conduct activities that would broadly affect governance and society in NATO countries, Communist commando units enjoyed a more expansive role than their western counterparts which were limited to more traditional military operations. As a result, Warsaw Pact SOF were typically placed under the command of Military Intelligence (MI) directorates. Though membership in NATO in 1999 brought changes to the Brigade — it formally became a Special Forces Group in 2001 — the 601st remains under the MI Directorate to this day.

As I would soon discover however, the Czechs had higher ambitions. They intended to use Trident Juncture 2015 to test a newly developed SOF aviation capability; an expensive and complex project which made them my most important customers. During the winter of 2013-2014 I came to know the Czech SOF very well indeed. Their lead planner for Trident Juncture was a quietly intense and extremely intelligent officer named Jan who educated me on the vision of the 601st’s deputy commander, Colonel “Franta.” Jan’s description of Franta gave me the sense that he was either the mastermind behind the unit’s future, the one calling the shots behind the scenes, or both. This was the man I was on my way to meet as I looked out over a parking lot full of black Skodas.

Impersonal Communication

The Octavias might have been an impressive sight in other circumstances. Every one of them gleamed with two coats of wax which made the fog bead up on their fenders and gave the cars an iridescent look in the weakened sun. The drivers looked like they had just graduated from some Hollywood casting event for Cold War-era security guards. Each were smoking unfiltered cigarettes and wearing dark trousers and a light shirt; a poorly knotted, skinny black tie; and a cheap leather jacket with the cuffs flipped up. Any one of them could have been a Czech SOF sergeant. I took a moment to think about how the hell I was going to figure this out. I looked at my watch: 0801; action time.

I took one last look at the parade of Skodas. Something was catching my eye about one of them but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what exactly it was and I wasn’t even sure which car was standing out. I looked again at the drivers…Nothing. Then it dawned on me that one of the cars was “combat parked.” Surviving in hostile environments makes SOF operators a very paranoid sort. We are constantly thinking about alternatives should things go wrong in any given situation and we often back into parking spaces to allow for a quicker getaway if necessary. In this lot full of Skodas, only one was combat parked. “That’s my guy,” I thought with a grin.

I opened the door of the hotel and walked directly to the combat parked-Octavia. Without a word, or even a look, I opened the passenger side door and began to get in. Without surprise or words of his own, my driver extinguished his unfiltered cigarette and got behind the wheel. We proceeded the short distance in complete silence to a Cold War-era facility that housed the 601st Special Forces Group. Though I should have been preparing to meet Franta, I couldn’t help wondering what my driver must be thinking about this slightly bizarre situation. I assumed he was probably wondering the same about me.

Dutch Marine commandos as seen through the periscope of a Canadian submarine off the coast of Spain during Trident Juncture 2015.

The Mastermind

Colonel Franta was exactly as I had imagined and then some. A graduate of the US Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, he was articulate, forceful, charismatic, and extremely intelligent. He knew exactly what he wanted and had the good sense to recognize the limitations of the exercise and adjust his plan to fit those constraints. His challenge was to find facilities suitable to conduct a national evaluation of their new aviation capability. This was not a simple request. Training areas in Spain were small and would be completely saturated during Trident Juncture. There would be competition for land, air space, and ranges suitable for live firing the specialized weapons systems of their MI-17s.

The challenges facing Franta and the 601st are in many ways emblematic of the growth of SOF globally since the fall of the Soviet Union. The complexity of post-Cold War conflict gives SOF a unique role in national policy. This requires a hierarchy able to not only train, man, and equip SOF forces but also to deploy and command them in missions abroad. As such, SOF is no longer useful when kept under the thumbs of the services (Army, Navy, and Air Force). The national “SOF Command” is an effective but controversial solution pioneered by the United States which learned hard lessons about the impacts of interservice rivalries on the effectiveness of Special Operations. As effective as the joint SOF headquarters concept is, it inspires intense bureaucratic rivalry because it drains talent and resources away from the services and requires new systems for its administration. This was certainly the case in the United States which required an act of Congress just to establish the US Special Operations Command.

The situation is perhaps worse in the Czech Republic where SOF has an additional master in the Military Intelligence Directorate. Though there is great value to be gained from fielding a dedicated SOF aviation capability, it comes at great political and financial risk. The Czech Army does not want to give its aircraft, its best pilots, or part of its budget to a SOF command that is effectively a subordinate of the Director of Military Intelligence. Interservice rivalry meant Franta and his commander needed to be very careful not to push this too hard or in the wrong way. With this in mind, my recommendation for Trident Juncture was to locate the Czechs in the main training venue where they would take part in a demonstration for the NATO heads of state and government during the Distinguished Visitor Day. Franta agreed and we zeroed in on a course of action that would enable him to evaluate the aviators and convince his Army of the value of SOF aviation.

At the conclusion of our meeting I walked out of Franta’s office confident that we had a plan that would maximize our effectiveness and be accepted by our commanders. The Czechs would be well served by Trident Juncture and I now had a unified SOF position that would allow me to negotiate forcefully in the shark tank. I climbed back into the Skoda with the silent man in black who dropped me off for the planes, trains, and automobiles journey to my next destination; a meeting with Dutch SOF planners in Amsterdam. No one said Special Forces would be boring.

Stranger Pic

Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC 

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