Special Operations News Update – Monday, March 29, 2021

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Curated news, analysis, and commentary about special operations, national security, and conflicts around the world. Topics include Senate testimony on SOF, USSOCOM diversity, SOF weapons, Recon Sniper, death of Ranger student, great power competition, podcasts, books, videos, and more.

SOF News

Senate Testimony about SOF. In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday, March 25, 2021, General Richard Clarke, commander of USSOCOM, and Mr. Christopher Maier, Acting ASD SO/LIC provided an update on US special operations forces. Some 5,000 special operators are deployed in 62 countries. The current deployment level represents about a 15% drop in forward deployed SOF when compared to 2020 levels. Although SOF make up just 3% of the US military they have suffered over half of all U.S. combat casualties over the past few years. They indicated that as SOF forge partnerships and build partner capacity it gains access, placement, and influence to counter terrorist extremist organizations. The testimony indicated that SOCOM needs an armed overwatch solution to provide sustainable support to activities against violent extremist organizations. Steve Balestrieri hits the highlights of the testimony in “SOCOM Commander Clarke Testifies Before the Senate”, SOFREP, March 27, 2021. You can watch the video of the testimony here. (DVIDS, 2 hours)

USSOCOM Diversity. United States Special Operations Command has a new Chief of Diversity and Inclusion – Mr. Richard Torres-Estrada. He will be heading up efforts to enhance the capabilities and effectiveness of SOF through diversity of talent – recruiting the best of the best. His defense community experience consists of working as the Equal Employment Manager for the Defense Commissary Agency and as Director of the Equal Employment Opportunity Office for the Navy Exchange Service Command. (LinkedIn) His arrival corresponds with the publication of the USSOCOM Diversity and Strategic Plan. Apparently he may have a bit of political baggage. USSOCOM is looking into some of his past Facebook posts. “US Special Operations Command ‘Not Aware’ of New Hire’s Anti-Trump Posts”, The Epoch Times, March 28, 2021.

SOCOM and Comms Encryption. Finding technology to improve the encryption of communications is a priority for the United States Special Operations Command. Quantum computing is emerging as a threat to traditional security measures. For the past two decades the US has been focused on fighting non-state actors with limited technology. However, with the focus to great power competition (Russia and China) the US is now up against more advanced cybersecurity and technology methods. “SOCOM wants to prioritize stronger communications encryption”, FEDSCOOP, March 25, 2021.

Weapons of US SOF. Caleb Larson, a defense journalist, provides the details on four weapons used by US special operations forces. These are the Mk22 Advanced Sniper Rifle, FN SCAR, Mk48 Machine Gun, and Heckler & Koch HK416. “U.S. Special Forces: 4 Most Deadly Weapons of War”, 1945, March 22, 2021.

US SOF and Computerized Rifle Sights. US SOF may soon be using Israeli-designed sighting systems that tells the shooter right where to aim, even when engaging moving targets, such as small drones. The Individual Weapon Overmatch Optic (IWOO) program is supported by the Irregular Warfare Technical Support Directorate (IWTSD) of ASD SO/LIC. “American Special Operators Set to Get New Advanced Computerized Sights for Their Rifles”, The Drive Warzone, March 25, 2021.

US SOF Linguist Spied for Hizballah. A contract linguist working for a US special operations task force (SOTF) in Iraq was passing secrets to the Lebanese Hizballah. Starting in 2017 she began passing info using a video-chat feature on a secure text and voice messaging application to her co-conspirator with whom she had a romantic relationship. She has pleaded guilty to the charges. See a news bulletin from the U.S. Department of Justice, March 26, 2021.

SEALs and SWCC Train With Big Navy. A training exercise involving a carrier strike group provided the opportunity for members of SEAL Team 10 and Special Boat Team 20 to practice several types of missions. These included directing airstrikes, over-the-target targeting, and more. “A historic exercise shows how Navy SEALs will keep aircraft carriers in a high-end fight”, Business Insider, March 22, 2021.

Two SEALs and Mapping the Ocean Floor. Read how 2 former Navy SEALs are using robot submarines to build ‘Google Earth’ for the ocean. The Austin-based startup Terradepth aims to map the ocean floor and its environments with thousands of autonomous robotic submarines. (Fast Company, Mar 24, 2021).

“Recon Sniper”. The first students of the Marine Corps new Reconnaissance Sniper Course (RSC) have graduated. The nine-week course was designed for the needs and mission-essential tasks of the Corps elite Reconnaissance battalions. The attendees are projected to earn the additional MOS of 0327 – Recon Sniper, if the MOS is approved by the Marine Corps. The next RSC is projected to run in the fall of 2021. Although not officially designated as a special operations force, Reconnaissance marines go through many special tactics courses. Most Recon Marines will attend the 5-week Reconnaissance Training and Assessment Program, the 14-week Basic Reconnaissance Course, Airborne School, Combat Diver School, MFF, and SERE. “10 Marines Just Became the 1st to Earn the Title ‘Recon Sniper'”, Coffee or Die Magazine, March 23, 2021.

NG JTAC on Supporting SOF. An Airman, a member of an elite community called the Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTAC), details his training and missions overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Air Guard Grunts”, National Guard Magazine, March 2021.

Ranger Student Dies During Training. Specialist James A. Requenez, age 28, was a student in the swamp phase of Ranger School at the 6th Ranger Training Battalion, Eglin Air Force Base, Florida. He died during training on March 25, 2021. He enlisted in the Army in 2018 and was assigned to the 75th Ranger Regiment at Fort Benning, Georgia. “Soldier’s death in Ranger School ‘swamp phase’ under investigation”, Army Times, March 26, 2021.

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International SOF

Video – Obangame Express 2021 Ghanaian Special Forces. The Ghanaian Navy Special Forces have been training with Dutch, Polish, and Danish Special Forces throughout Exercise Obangame Express 2021. they performed an exercise to test their training in March 2021 by boarding a Ghanaian Navy vessel in the Gulf of Guinea. DVIDS, March 25, 2021, 1 minute.

Korean SOF – Which is the Strongest. South Korea has several special operations units. Sea Salvage & Rescue Unit, Special Duty Team, Naval Special Warfare Flotilla (UDT), 707th Special Missions Group, Marine Corps Reconnaissance Battalion, and the Special Warfare Command. An entertainment show entitled “The Iron Squad” peats former SOF members against each other in competitive events. “Which Korean Military Unit is the Strongest?”, The Korea Herald, March 24, 2021.

COVID-19 Hampers SOF Training in Indo-Pacific. Special operations forces have had bi- and multi-lateral training events either postponed or cancelled as a direct result of COVID-19. RIMPAC 2020 is one such exercise that has cancelled. Scheduled to run in Hawaii the exercise would include US SOF as well as SOF units from South Korea, Brazil, India, Peru, Chile, Philippines, and Japan. Other countries have cancelled or down-scaled their SOF exercises as well. This is an informative article with info about SOF units from across the Pacific region. “COVID Setback for SOF Training”, Asian Military Review, March 24, 2021.

Obit – Major-General Jeremy Phipps. A flamboyant Special Air Service (SAS) officer who helped plan the dramatic response to the Iranian embassy siege and later became director of Special Forces has passed away. The Sunday Times, March 27, 2021.

Looking Good in a Beret. The Beret is the only bit of standardly issued military uniform that you tailor yourself and that can have the potential to look unique. First impressions count and you want to look good in a beret! The UK military has some specific techniques that help you get it right. “How To: Look ‘Ally’ With the Perfectly-Shaped Beret”, Forces.net, March 19, 2021.

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SOF History

Virginia Hall – SOE Spy. A woman with a wooden leg went through the Special Operations Executive (SOE) training program and infiltrated into France to conduct sabotage, espionage operations, and rescuing downed air crews. Read “Virginia Hall, a spy and saboteur who fought the Nazis, is finally out of the shadows”, Connecting Vets, March 22, 2021.

‘Hoot’ from ‘Black Hawk Down’. Norm Hooten enlisted in the Army in 1980, served with 5th Special Forces Group, and then joined Delta Force in 1987. He participated in the Battle of Mogadishu and he is portrayed in the movie ‘Black Hawk Down’. Learn more about his long career and what he is doing now. (Task and Purpose, Mar 26, 2021)

SF Camp in A Shau Valley is Overrun. A short story of air support for a beleaguered element of Green Berets under siege in Vietnam. “Heroes and Leaders: Rescue in the Crossfire”, Air Force Magazine, March 26, 2021.

“Project Eldest son”. During the Vietnam War, the Studies and Observations Group (SOG) created an ingenious top secret program to wreak general mayhem and cause the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army to doubt the safety of their guns and ammunition. Soviet-bloc ammunition was ‘sabotage’ – causing it to explode. Then it was placed into the enemy logistical system by small SOG recon teams to plant into enemy ammo supplies across the border. When a round was fired the weapon would explode, often killing the the NVA or VC solider. A PSYOP campaign was initiated that would implicate Red China in providing North Vietnam with faulty ammunition. Read more in a post by Major (Ret.) John Plaster, History of MACV-SOG, March 24, 2021.

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COVID-19 and the Military

The Data. The Pentagon’s response and management of the COVID-19 crisis has been responsible for keeping the military personnel safe yet still able to conduct training and operations. The US military’s cumulative totals for COVID-19 (as of March 26, 2021) is (counting military, civilian DOD, dependents, and contractors) 264,692 cases, 3,789 hospitalized, 243,910 recovered, and 325 deaths. A top defense official recently called the DOD’s COVID-19 effort ‘phenomenal‘.

Vaccinations in the U.S. The vaccination program for COVID-19 is stepping up its pace in the United States. Currently, there are about 3,000 military personnel providing vaccination support to FEMA-led community vaccination sites around the country. In other parts of the world it is relatively slow. Brazil has been hard hit with the coronavirus. In March 2021 it surpassed 300,000 COVID-19 deaths, the second highest in the world after the United States. The Brazilian government has been criticized for failing to secure vaccines in a timely manner.

Vaccinations in the Military. Defense Department officials have said the department will be ready to offer COVID-19 vaccinations to all eligible beneficiaries by May 1, 2021. The majority of US military personnel in the Middle East could be vaccinated by early April – according to CENTCOM. Here in the states TRICARE has a COVID vaccine distribution program underway that is conducted in phases. The Veterans Affairs department has extended vaccinations to all veterans regardless if they are enrolled in a VA health care program or not.

Russia, Vaccines, and Disinformation. The Russians continue their disinformation campaign to undermine confidence in US COVID-19 vaccines. There are several Russian ‘news outlets’ that are providing disinformation about the U.S. vaccines – all associated with Russian intelligence agencies. A prominent one is News Front – based in Moscow. Some of the stories planted on the internet by these disinformation news centers end up being incorporated into stories by U.S. news media sources. Early last year News Front began circulating false reports about COVID-19 – to include conspiracy theories. One of which was that the U.S. government created the novel coronavirus as a “bioweapon” and that Bill Gates was using the COVID-19 pandemic as a ruse to implant microchips into people. News Front’s current theme is that western made vaccines are unsafe while the Russian vaccine is the best one needed to defeat COVID-19. Read more in “Meet the Russian ‘Information Warrior’ Seeking to Discredit COVID-19 Vaccines”, Time.com, March 21, 2021.

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Should CA Lead SOTF-NWA in Northwest Africa? A very informative and interesting article argues that a Special Operations Civil Affairs (SOF CA) element should participate in the command rotation with the 3rd and 19th Special Forces Group for the Special Operations Task Force – Northwest Africa (SOTF-NWA). Reading the article will educate the reader on the conflict in that region of Africa, what special operations is doing there, how the command structure is set up, and how Civil Affairs currently supports the overall effort. “It is Time for Civil Affairs to Lead Special Operations in Northwest Africa”, by Chris Liggett, Small Wars Journal, March 25, 2021.

A Critique of USAF ‘Rescue Culture’. There is an urgent need for an assessment of the Air Force’s current ability to execute personnel recovery. Leadership is needed to encourage innovation and reduce the risk adverse environment. Christian Braunlich, and Air Force combat rescue officer, expresses his views on this topic in “Rescuing the Rescuers: A Guide to Revitalizing an Air Force Community“, War on the Rocks, March 29, 2021.

A Critique of Airpower Against ISIS in OIR. The air campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria began with an ill-conceived launch and an anemic first year. However, over time, air power began to systematically destroy ISIS infrastructure, leadership, and financial assets while the Iraqi Security Forces slowly regained territory in Iraq and the Syrian Democratic Front did the same in Syria. Benjamin Lambeth, a nonresident senior fellow with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments examines this air campaign in detail. “Gradualism to a Fault”, Air Force Magazine, March 26, 2021.

Border Crisis: “Push” and “Pull” Factors and Unlawful Immigration. Timothy Kane gets into the facts and details of what causes record-high surges of asylum seekers at the southern border of the United States. As of mid-March 2021 there were about 3,500 National Guard troops from 22 states assisting the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) in the mission along the southern border. The price tag of the military mission (active and reserve component) is estimated to be about $841 million from 2018 to 2020. (GAO report Feb 2021) This mission is funded through September 2021. Read “What’s Driving the Border Crisis?”, Hoover Institution, Stanford University, March 23, 2021.

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Great Power Competition

Competing in the Gray Zone. Kevin Bilms, a DoD civilian serving in the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict (ASD SO/LIC), examines the recently released Interim National Security Strategic Guidance. He examines six themes of the document and how they relate to gray-zone competition. See “Gray is Here to Stay: Principles from the Interim National Security Strategic Guidance on Competing in the Gray Zone”, Modern War Institute at West Point, March 25, 2021.

Russian PMC and International Law? The Wagner Group, a Russian private military company, has played an important role in countries such as Syria, Ukraine, and Libya. It has found itself on the receiving end of U.S. sanctions. But are the group’s actions legal? Zarko Perovic examines the laws and rules that are currently on the books. “What Laws Constrain This Russian Private Military Company?“, Lawfare Blog, March 23, 2021.

China, Central Asia, and PMCs. Russia has made wide use of private military corporations in the Middle East, Africa and other locations throughout the world. Now it appears that china is going to go the same route – perhaps in Central Asia. “Is China About to Deploy Private Military Companies in Central Asia?“, Eurasia Daily Monitor, The Jamestown Foundation, March 25, 2021.

Competition With China – Not Only South China Sea. Most national security observers look at our future conflicts in terms of a conventional fight in the Pacific. However, the competition is most likely to be a proxy war in Africa or some other place far from the Pacific. “The Future of Sino-U.S. Proxy War”, Texas National Security Review, Vol 4, Issue 2, Spring 2021.

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National Security

Irregular Warfare Initiative. The Empirical Studies of Conflict Project and the Modern War Institute at West Point have announced the launch of the Irregular Warfare Initiative (IWI). This new organization is designed to support the community of irregular warfare professionals by providing a space for accessible, practically grounded discussions of irregular warfare policy and strategy. Read more about it in “Introducing the Irregular Warfare Initiative”, Modern War Institute at West Point, March 24, 2021.

North Korea and Missiles. Two ballistic missiles were fired on Thursday, March 25, 2021 b the North Koreans. The missiles traveled more than 250 miles before falling into the Sea of Japan. This is problematic for the Biden administration as it is in the process of refining US policy towards North Korea.

Crook or CIA Asset – or Both? A big time financier and politico, Imaad Zuberi, is facing serious prison time over illegal campaign contributions. His claims that he was a major Central Intelligence Agency asset could be legitimate. What did he do, what does he know, and what happens if he doesn’t get a ‘reduced sentence’? “CIA Super Spy, or Super Con?”, Spy Talk, March 28, 2021.

Google Shuts Down Cyber CT Operation. Google made the decision to block a cyberattack targeting terrorist organizations that was being conducted by a western government. “Google’s top security teams unilaterally shut down a counterterrorism operation”, MIT Technology Review, March 26, 2021.

Information Operations

Preventing Election Meddling. In the run up to the 2020 presidential election, the U.S. Cyber Command conducted over two dozen missions to block foreign adversaries’ efforts to undermine voting integrity. General Paul Nakasone says that defending the elections has become an enduring mission for DoD and Cyber Command. The threat came from Russia and other nations. (C4ISRNET, Mar 25, 2021).

SOF Inform and Influence Ops in Indo-Pacific. Military Information Support Operations (MISO) specialists are supporting US efforts to counter Chinese information operations in the Indo-Pacific region. The U.S. Special Operations Command has created the Joint Task Force Indo-Pacific team to work the effort. “Special Operations team in Pacific will confront Chinese information campaigns”, C4ISRNET, March 25, 2021.

IO, Cyber, Russia, and China. Information operations play a central role to both the Russian and Chinese ways of war. Cyber applications are a central mode by which information is applied as a tool of warfare. Russian and Chinese cyberspace operations are examined by Mark Grzegorzewski and Christopher Marsh (both working at the Joint Special Operations University). “Incorporating the Cyberspace Domain: How Russia and China Exploit Asymmetric Advantages in Great Power Competition”, Modern War Institute at West Point, March 15, 2021.

Hybrid Warfare, IO, “Reflexive Control”, and Russia. Bridget Bachman, an active duty Captain with operational experience in Eastern Europe, is currently serving as a Detachment Commander in the 6th Psychological Operations Battalion. She has provided an explanation on how Russia uses hybrid warfare in a holistic manner to create favorable desired conditions. “Hybrid: An Adjective Describing the Current War”, Small Wars Journal, March 25, 2021.

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Middle East

The Fragmentation of Yemen. The long conflict in Yemen will likely continue into the future. Despite numerous peace talk initiatives there is very little chance that the conflict will subside. Yemen is a fractured nation and there currently is no armed group strong enough to take control of the entire country. Prior to 1990 Yemen was divided into the north and south. A realistic view of the country now would show that there are ‘seven Yemens’. “The End of Yemen”, by Gregory Johnsen, Brookings Institute, March 25, 2021.


May 1 Deadline – Probably Not. In a recent press conference – the first of the year for the President – Joe Biden said that U.S. troops would likely remain in Afghanistan after May 1st but will probably be gone by 2022. The top general for US SOF, Gen. Richard Clarke, told Congress last week that Afghanistan’s military forces need U.S. assistance to successfully counter the Taliban. He said that it is clear that the Taliban have not upheld its commitment to reduce violence in Afghanistan and has instead made a deliberate decision to increase attacks.

CT Forces to Remain? President Biden has been a long-term believer in the ‘small footprint’ approach to Afghanistan. While Vice-President he maintained that the force size should be reduced but that the U.S. should keep a counterterrorist capability in the country to keep al-Qaeda and other extremist groups in check. This former stance on Afghanistan may soon be the approach taken by the Biden administration in the next few months.

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Niger – Shifting from the Military Approach. The western nations training military units in Niger and other countries in the region have been disappointed in the results. The millions of dollars spent on the militaries have not achieved the desire effect – the elimination or degradation of jihadist movements. Niger is shifting its emphasis to a different approach. “A nod for a different African future”, The Christian Science Monitor, March 25, 2021.

ADF and IS Relationship in DRC? The United States has recently (Mar 11, 2021) listed the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) as a terrorist group that has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (IS). However, Jason Stearns, director of the Congo Research Group, says the relationship between the two groups remains unclear. The ADF is an Ugandan armed group that has been active in the Democratic Republic of the Congo since the mid-1990s. The US State Department is now referring to the ADF as ISIS-DRC. There is a fear that the focus will be on a military solution to confront an IS threat in the DRC while ignoring the root causes of the insurgency – state weakness, government corruption, poverty, local conflicts, marginalized ethnic minorities, and other factors. Certainly (according to this article) there is a link between IS and the ADF – but to what extent is unknown. “Is Islamic State Really Operating in Eastern DRC?”, The Africa Report, March 22, 2021.

Somalia Withdrawal. The US withdrew all but a very small element of its military from Somalia in the final days of the Trump administration. In testimony before the Senate last week Christopher Maier, acting ASD SO/LIC, stated that there are probably some negative effects to the pullout from the perspective of cost and effectiveness. Over 700 U.S. troops (many of the SOF) were in Somalia helping local security forces fight al Qaeda affiliate al-Shabaab and the local ISIS affiliate. Most of the troops were repositioned to Kenya and Djibouti and continue to assist in the fight against the Somalia insurgents. “Pentagon official: Trump’s Somalia withdrawal ‘probably’ had significant downsides”, The Hill, March 25, 2021.

ISIS-Mozambique – Growing Regional Security Threat. If ISIS in Mozambique continues to gain momentum, it could evolve into a regional threat and attract foreign fighters from elsewhere in Africa. The insurgent group Al Sunnah wa Jama’ah has ties to the Islamic State and the State Department has labeled it ISIS-Mozambique and declared it a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO). In a recent attack insurgents attack a multi-billion dollar gas development in Mozambique. Several people foreign workers were killed. A Special Forces team has deployed to Mozambique to conduct a two-month long training program for Mozambique Marines. “ISIS in Mozambique Poses Growing Regional Security Threat”, Intelbrief, The Soufan Center, March 24, 2021.

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Guest Writers for SOF News

SOF News welcomes the submission of articles for publication. If it is related to special operations, current conflicts, national security, or defense then we are interested.

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Books, Pubs, and Reports

Civil Affairs Issue Papers. A number of papers are included in this report. Topics include great power competition, influence-based capabilities, CMO, defeating hybrid threats, and information operations. Civil Affairs: A Force for Influence in Competition, 2020-2021, The Civil Affairs Association, Association of the United States Army, PDF, 75 pages.

Book Review – Head of the Mossad: In Pursuit of a Safe and Secure Israel. The former head of the highly secretive Mossad, Shabtai Shavit, has published a memoir. The author had a distinguished military career in Israeli special operations and then served as director of the Mossad from 1989 to 1996. The book focuses on his time as director of the Mossad. Review by Joshua Sinai, Small Wars Journal, March 28, 2021.

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Podcasts, Videos, and Movies

Video – Hearing on USSOCOM and Cyber Command. Mr. Christopher Maier (Acting ASD SO/LIC), General Richard Clarke (Cdr, USSOCOM), and General Paul Naksone (Cdr, US Cyber command) testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee. March 23, 2021, 2 hours. (starts at 16 min mark).

Podcast – IW Lessons. Maj. Gen. John Brennan, commander of the 1st Special Forces Command, and Dr. John Arquilla, professor at the US Naval Postgraduate School, discuss the capabilities that irregular warfare practitioners bring to bear in the broader conventional conflict. They provide recommendations for how to prepare and employ irregular warfare capabilities to prepare and employ IW capabilities to address the major threats to US national security – to include great power rivals, rogue regional powers, and violent nonstate actors. “How Small Wars Fit Into Big Ones: Lessons From the Masters of Irregular Warfare”, Irregular Warfare Podcast, Modern War Institute at West Point, March 26, 2021, 46 minutes.

Podcast – Dr. Preston Cline – Expert on High-Functioning Teams. Episode 15, March 2021, one hour.

Video – The Warriors SMC “Special Mission Controllers”. The Iraqi Counter Terrorism Services has posted a short video about its combat air controllers. LinkedIn, March 2021, 3 mins.

Movie – Combat Control. A new movie is coming out entitled Combat Control. It is about John Chapman, an Air Force combat controller who died on a mountaintop in Afghanistan during the 2002 Operation Anaconda. Chapman’s Air Force Cross was upgraded to the Medal of Honor in 2018. Chapman was flying with a team of Navy SEALs when the helicopter transporting them came under heavy fire from al-Qaida fighters. When a member of the assault force was thrown from the helicopter, Chapman and other SEALs volunteered to go out on foot and retrieve him. Read more in “Jake Gyllenhaal cast in ‘Combat Control’ as Medal of Honor recipient John Chapman”, Military Times, March 26, 2021.


Photo: Serbian Police from the Special Anti-terrorist Unit (SAJ) and U.S. Green Berets assigned to U.S. Special Operations Command Europe (SOCEUR) conduct a range day exercise as part of their Joint Combined Exchange Training (JCET) , March 15, 2021, Serbia. The JCET aims to strengthen the interoperability and response to crisis capabilities of Serbian and U.S. forces. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt Christopher Moore).

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SOF News provides news, analysis, commentary, and information about special operations forces (SOF) from around the world.