Brigadier Rob Stephenson is currently the Deputy Commander of NATO Special Operations Headquarters, a role he has filled since August 2018 while also serving as Acting Commander from January 29 to October 15, 2021. During his career, he has deployed on numerous operational tours in Northern Ireland under Op BANNER and also on various overseas operations both with the Parachute Regiment and with other units including to Bosnia, North Macedonia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. As a staff officer, he has fulfilled a variety of roles within the U.K.’s Ministry of Defence and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. In 2009, Brigadier Stephenson was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for his unit command appointment, which included operational deployments to Afghanistan and North Africa. He commissioned into The Parachute Regiment in 1987. Brigadier Stephenson holds a master’s degree in defence studies from Kings College London.

Editor’s Note: James Garrison is an alum of the Downing Scholars program at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point who serves as the Commander’s Aide de Camp at NATO Special Operations Headquarters.

CTC: NATO Special Operations Headquarters (NSHQ) was established in 2010, though its predecessor organization—the NATO Special Operations Coordination Center (NSCC)—was established in 2007.1 Can you talk a little bit about the development of the command and the role that it was created to fill?

Stephenson: Absolutely. Where we have come from in the past is relevant to where we are going in the future. The NATO SOF Coordination Center was built around a demand signal that came from operations being conducted in Afghanistan as part of the NATO response to 9/11. There was no shortage of willing Allies to get involved in that operation, but from a SOF perspective, there was a lack of common standards and common procedures. Across the NATO Alliance, there wasn’t a shared understanding of what capabilities should be defined as SOF capabilities or what should define a unit as being able to deliver SOF-type effects. It’s important to bear in mind that for many NATO members, the creation of their special operations forces was a relatively new thing. The NSCC, which was initially driven through the initiative of Admiral [William] McRaven, then the Commander of U.S. Special Operations Command Europe, was intended to create a structure that would bring more coherence to the Allied SOF pipeline, which was principally going into Afghanistan.

That evolved over time into NATO Special Operations Headquarters, which had a broader remit, and broadened its capabilities specifically in terms of establishing the NATO Special Operations School (NSOS). The NSOS enabled us to deliver more coherence for training. Some of that training was niche, bespoke tactical training that was relevant to operations in Afghanistan, such as courses for technical exploitation. Most of the NSOS training, however, was orientated towards command and staff training. The procedures for operating in a multinational headquarters in Afghanistan were completely new to people, whether it was at the unit level operating inside the overarching NATO SOF framework or at the component level. The command and staff training was structured to deliver interoperability so that when Allied SOF went over to Afghanistan they were able to support whatever constructs might be in place.

Over time, the Allied SOF pipeline has become somewhat self-sustaining. We’re in the process of evolving and changing our function here but also changing what the requirement for Allied SOF is to support [NATO’s response to] a new type of threat in the future. One important thing that we’ve been able to do at NSHQ is to create an enduring NATO standard of doctrine for the SOF domain: essentially, our headquarters has become the custodian for SOF doctrine within NATO. We have a team here that not only writes the doctrine but engages with the Allies and seeks their input in updating it. I think that was one of the key outputs of the early days—developing a common standard of doctrine which gives people the ability to do their own development, based on a unified direction of travel.

CTC: NSHQ has a unique mission involving both the development of SOF and, to some extent, the employment of Allied SOF. Could you speak about these dual responsibilities and the command’s current priorities?

Stephenson: Absolutely. One point I wanted to raise is that although we are the NATO Special Operations Headquarters, we tend not to use the term ‘NATO SOF’ because it’s really the SOF of NATO countries. NATO SOF only comes together during an operation brought together under a NATO C2 [command and control] structure, otherwise it’s the SOF of the Alliance or Allied SOF.

As far as supporting the development of Allied SOF, in addition to maintaining or updating SOF doctrine and the courses that we deliver, we also try to provide a forum or a mechanism for sharing lessons. Some of that is a formal, structured process, but we also have a pretty well-connected network across the Alliance that we can use to bring people together, either formally or informally, to share best practices from their own operational experiences, be that national activity or activity they’re doing in other coalitions or NATO operations. We continue to build both the common standards and common knowledge across the network.

What we have found recently is that while there [have] been some valuable lessons from Afghanistan, we now see a different requirement. Some of this is, in a way, going back to the future. Although we’re not necessarily in a Cold War scenario from a NATO perspective, we do see that there is a different challenge in terms of threats, which I think are relevant for the Alliance. What we are doing in this context, in addition to writing the doctrine and supporting the training, is getting involved in the wider NATO planning process as it grapples with the challenges of a resurgent Russia, but also accepts, that for the Alliance, the threat from terrorist groups is going to persist, and potentially even grow. So, we’re involved in this planning process, which gives us the opportunity to feed into the larger NATO system, our perspective of how SOF could contribute to NATO’s objectives in the future. That, in turn, helps us engage with the Allies to not only make sure what they’re doing is recognized by and useful to the Alliance, but also allows us to feed back a demand signal to them to make sure that their continued development [of SOF] has a broader justification than what they had previously done in Afghanistan. It’s important for some of the Allies to have a NATO demand signal as a justification for SOF to provide a different set of capabilities for the future. It’s not the same for everybody, but there are certain nations within the Alliance who rely very heavily on a very clear demand signal from NATO to set their own defense programs. There’s been an incredible growth in SOF capability driven by the post-9/11 era and the requirements to support operations. At the same time, I think there is a real danger that for some nations, without a clear demand signal from NATO or other organizations, those capabilities will somewhat wither on the vine.

With regard to the employment of Allied SOF, NSHQ plays two roles. First, we provide the SOF domain advice to the SACEUR [Supreme Allied Commander Europe]. The commander of NSHQ is not only the NATO SOF Headquarters commander, but he’s also double hatted as SACEUR’s SOFAD [SOF Advisor]. So, we have the responsibility of providing SOF advice to the various parts of the NATO Command Structure, either throughout its peacetime vigilance activities or as it considers preparing for a NATO operation. We have a role to play in shaping what is realistic in terms of the outputs SOF can deliver. We have a role to play in engaging with the Alliance to see who has the right capability, who is at the right readiness, who might be available to support a NATO operation. Second, we currently play a significant role in enabling what’s known as the SOF component of the NRF, the NATO Response Force, which is a rotational structure where Allies volunteer to be on high readiness to respond to a NATO operation. At the moment, much of our effort goes toward enabling the readiness of the NRF’s SOF component. It’s important to note that, were the NRF’s SOF component actually employed, NSHQ wouldn’t provide C2. The Allied SOF would form the backbone of the command and then would fall under whatever joint force headquarters was running the operation.

To answer the last part of your question, as we think about our key priorities we ask ourselves: How do we keep that network going? How do we look to build capabilities across the Alliance which can tackle both the threat from Russia and an enduring threat from terrorist groups? How do we ensure that, not only do the capabilities continue to develop, but they remain as interoperable as possible? Not only across the SOF of the Alliance, but how do we integrate the SOF capability into the wider components within NATO as we develop NATO plans, particularly for collective defense of Europe? This is a really significant opportunity in NATO because it’s the first time for decades that NATO has readdressed these plans. So, how do we keep that capability building in the right direction, keep that interoperability, maintain that network and those key parties?

Brigadier Rob Stephenson

CTC: As you alluded to, one of the central functions of NSHQ is to increase the cooperation between the special operations forces of NATO Alliance members and partners.2 Can you speak about the challenges of getting more than 30 countries to work together to develop SOF? Where does this work well, and where are there challenges?

Stephenson: As I mentioned at the start, I think the demand signal for Afghanistan was a significant forcing function for a lot of Allies. I’m not saying it was easy then, but it was very clear what the requirement was and it was pretty clear which Allies were making themselves available to fulfill that requirement. I think the challenge we find now is that post-Afghanistan, the demand signal looks very different depending on where you are within the Alliance. If you’re sitting up in the Baltic states, then you’re probably concerned about what’s happening on the eastern flank, about some of the hybrid activities that might be directly affecting you like what’s going on at the Belarussian border. But if you sit down in Spain or Portugal or Italy, you’re probably more concerned about what’s happening on the other side of the Mediterranean and the implications or the effects of terrorist activities or ungoverned spaces in the Sahel, other parts of Africa, or the Middle East in terms of direct threats from terrorism or the implications of migrant crises, etc.

So, there is a challenge now in terms of bringing people together under a coherent, common requirement. But I think, within that context, we recognize everybody has something to bring to bear on both of those challenges—whether it’s against malign Russian activity or terrorist threats. What we try and do is create the framework for at least a baseline common standard. But we do accept there are nations with different national priorities and that not only national priorities, but geography forces them to develop different SOF capabilities. There is a challenge of trying to get everyone to deliver the same thing, but actually, we don’t necessarily need everybody to deliver the same thing.

So what we’re trying to do is make sure that nations achieve a common baseline standard of SOF capabilities and then have a better understanding of the other capabilities that the various parts of the Alliance can bring to bear, and what their readiness states are so that we can help steer those capabilities to the right problem at the right time. We’ve reorganized some of our headquarters to deliver that. We have a section within our Operations Division called the NSHQ Operations Coordination Center, which is responsible for reaching out to our Allies and building that sort of situational awareness. It creates a one-stop shop where we can have a good understanding of the SOF capabilities of each of the NATO Allies and partners, non-NATO nations closely aligned to NATO. It also creates a switchboard where the Allies can reach out to other Allies through us as an enabler. It’s difficult to understand and get that situational awareness, but through our structural changes, it’s becoming easier. There is also a process to create a more coherent sort of demand signal through the NATO planning process at the moment, which should enable us to engage with the Allies and for them to see where they can add value to NATO’s future plans.

CTC: What role do regional initiatives like the Composite Special Operations Component Command (C-SOCC),3 Multinational SOF Aviation Program,4 and Baltic SOF Intelligence Fusion Center5 have in facilitating this cooperation among NATO members?

Stephenson: We play a supporting role in all of those activities. It really comes back to the point about there being already established regional alliances or enduring relationships between NATO Allies. Our role in those initiatives, like the C-SOCC, is encouraging and supporting those relationships to develop and endure and to see how we can integrate them into NATO at the right time. The aviation program that you mentioned is a regional agreement where a number of nations have agreed to take part in the process of developing special operations aviation capabilities and it gives an opportunity to bring common standards across a number of different Allies. Obviously, it is part of our function to support that. For NSHQ and for NATO, leaning into these processes helps make the transition from a national activity or a bilateral activity into a NATO operation or a NATO activity as seamless as possible. By leaning into that transition, we are able to understand where the gaps are and what’s required to integrate those things and that provides a flexible approach to how the Allies can contribute to NATO.

The reality is there are lot of relatively small nations within the Alliance. For Allies to do things by themselves is sometimes quite challenging. When NATO asks the Allies to contribute to a NATO operation, inevitably the scale of those operations is probably going to be quite large. To sustain a contribution for a NATO operation often requires a number of Allies to come together to support each other in delivering or providing the capability required to support that operation, so we absolutely see real benefit from regional Allies working together. If they can maintain common interoperable NATO standards as part of these initiatives, then it creates a mechanism to plug them into the system when required. In addition, developing some of these SOF capabilities is incredibly expensive and some nations simply can’t do it. There just isn’t the capacity for people to do it independently, so working together makes it easier to develop the capabilities.

CTC: Allied SOF played an important role in the war in Afghanistan, both going after terrorist groups and training Afghan security forces. What lessons did Allied SOF learn in the nearly 20 years of counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan? What do you think the NATO experience in Afghanistan will mean for how and where Allied SOF forces are committed in the future?

Stephenson: I think Afghanistan was a huge accelerant for developing SOF capability amongst the Alliance. Despite all the sacrifices that have been made by members of the Alliance during those years, it’s been a great forcing function for developing capability. I would say, though, it has, to some degree, potentially set a level of expectation not only perhaps with some of the Allies, but also within the NATO Command Structure of what they think SOF does. There is a sort of muscle memory for people thinking they understood what the SOF role was in a counterterrorism or counterinsurgency operation like Afghanistan. It was very visible, it is very high tempo, it was very kinetic or direct action-orientated, and the C2 [command and control] structure around it had a degree of assurance, whether that was high level of assurance over targeting or golden houra for medical response.

All of those things, I think, have given a sort of expectation of what SOF can do or what it should be doing in the future against different threats, and we have an ongoing effort here at NSHQ to make sure that as we develop new plans, we look at the threats and the broad range of capabilities that SOF can bring to address those threats. That’s an educational process for everybody, partly for us but partly to make sure that we are taking the best knowledge from the Allies. You have some Allies and partners who have very real experience of working in and outside of Afghanistan, against both states threats and terrorist groups. As we think about these threats, we need to apply future structures, future doctrine, and future training to reflect the broad range of capabilities needed to address them. Many of these capabilities might not be kinetic in nature. It might be more about understanding the environment, preparing the environment, enabling decision making. These sort of capabilities may be what is required rather than what people have become accustomed from the ‘find, fix, strike’ mentality coming out of Afghanistan.

There are a range of people [within NATO] we have to educate so that their expectations of what SOF can deliver against a different set of challenges is realistic, particularly in the level of assurance over operations, but also the demand for high-temp short-term results. As an Alliance, we really need to wean ourselves off that expectation and recognize sometimes the SOF contribution might be a very long and enduring one, which might not bear fruit for quite a long time.

CTC: The education you’re talking about, a lot of that is within the special operations forces of NATO members states as well, right?

Stephenson: Definitely. I think that comes back [to] the point about some of the Allies looking to NATO for a justification to build those capabilities. That’s not the case across the whole of the line. It isn’t the case for the U.S., and it’s not necessarily the case for my nation either, but there are certain, fairly big military players within the Alliance who genuinely need a demand signal from NATO to continue to develop and move in the right direction.

CTC: With the Taliban currently in control of Afghanistan and the U.S. government looking toward ‘over-the-horizon’ counterterrorism capabilities,6 what role do you see NATO playing in the future counterterrorism fight in Afghanistan?

Stephenson: From a NATO perspective, I think there’s still quite a bit of work going on to look at the implications of the withdrawal from Afghanistan, and what that means in the future for NATO in terms of future CT operations, specifically with regard to over-the-horizon and Afghanistan. Hopefully what some of the 20 years of working together has done is built a degree of confidence and trust amongst some of the Allies so they can work together in the future, and I’m confident that some of this is happening already. It’s not going to necessarily be a NATO response to this, but the benefit of that network and those common interoperability standards means that under bilateral or multilateral coalitions, there is perhaps an easier plug-in today than there was in 2001. I think what’s really important in the future is that we try and maintain that currency and the network that has been built and forged over those 20 years of experience.

CTC: Africa has recently been described as “the new epicenter of global jihadi terror” owing to the expansion of groups aligned with both the Islamic State and al-Qa`ida there.7 While there are a variety of U.S.-led efforts across the continent, since 2013 France has generally led the fight in the Sahel through operations Serval and Barkhane.8 Since 2020, however, a number of NATO allies have contributed SOF through Task Force Takuba, a multinational SOF task force now deployed in the region.9 Can you talk a little bit about the background and purpose of this deployment and the task force’s relationship with NSHQ?

Stephenson: It’s important to highlight that [Task Force] Takuba isn’t a NATO operation; it is a French operation. Although we do have some insights and we have some engagement with the French on Takuba, I can’t talk in detail on behalf of the French. What I can say is that you are right—there are a number of NATO Allies contributing to a French operation. I think that shouldn’t be underestimated. The Allies that are contributing wouldn’t have had the capacity or the capability to support that sort of operation had it not been for the development that they’ve gone through in other operations in Afghanistan. This again comes back to my earlier point about our [NSHQ] function in maintaining that interoperability and that network of capability, which could be applied to a NATO operation.

I think what we are trying to do with our planning construction in the future is harness this sort of activity. Even if it’s national activity or multinational activity under a different construct, there is absolutely utility in maintaining some connection, some visibility of what’s being conducted and what’s being achieved. Inevitably, such an operation will be supporting effects that NATO would like to achieve in terms of deterring or defeating terrorism, or if there were a NATO operation to happen somewhere in the same geography, then you would want to build that connectivity from the start by design, so that you’re not either duplicating effort or leaving huge seams between various parallel operations or activities.

[More broadly in relation to Africa], we do have a function in terms of supporting partners who have expressed an interest of working close closer with NATO. For instance, in Africa, we are working with Mauritania at the moment, looking to see how we can work with them to help build their SOF capability.b There is a willingness from NATO to engage with like-minded democratic nations which support principles of NATO and support their development. That partnership activity is going on and I think will continue to be delivered by NATO in a number of different places. It’s happening in Africa; it’s happening in eastern part of Europe in Georgia and Ukraine and in other places where we are actively supporting the development of national SOF capability as part of our partners’ ability to defend their own nations.

CTC: The Russian annexation of Crimea and the subsequent conflict in Ukraine have showed the effectiveness of Russian irregular warfare capabilities.10 Any counter-hybrid threatc campaign in a NATO country will rely heavily on SOF. How is NSHQ preparing for this?

Stephenson: Some of this is linked to the previous conversation where we talked about different Allies having different perspectives on some of these things. You can imagine there are certain nations who see the hybrid threat from Russia as a very clear and present danger. We know that certain Allies and the SOF of certain Allies are involved in their own national defense plans to counter those threats. We are also aware that there are other Allies, further away from the eastern border of NATO, that perhaps don’t have such an immediate challenge on that front or are not encountering those sort of threats. Our role from NSHQ is to see how we can support those Allies that are there and have a role to play. Not only how we can support it, but also figuring out how we can make their contributions to countering those threats visible to the broader NATO planning process so that activity contributes to what might be a broader NATO response if and when it might have to be brought to bear.

We are supporting in a number of different ways. Some [is] quite academic work in terms of engaging with resilience conferences. We deliver a comprehensive defense course. We’ve produced some manuals, aide-mémoires, and guides to producing effects in that sort of environment, which gives people commonality of approach or captures best practices from both Allies and partners who have experienced this sort of challenge for real. Our role really is to support where we can, to help enhance those capabilities, then make sure that they are integrated into a wider NATO response if necessary. So we’re looking specifically at some of the national training activities for these Allies and partners that focus on the role that SOF plays within their own nation, and looking to see how, in the future, we can integrate that training activity into NATO training as well. That way you start going through the mechanisms of linking those two things today rather than waiting for the crisis to happen and then realizing you have to connect the two ends of the pipe.

CTC: What are some of the SOF capabilities that NATO members should be strengthening to respond to this threat?

Stephenson: Broadly speaking, a hybrid threat inevitably sits below the threshold of a conventional military conflict. It’s obviously designed for that very purpose—to exploit the seams between what might be a Ministry of Defense, military-led response versus a Ministry of Interior or other government department response. If that’s the case, we have identified certain experiences from Afghanistan that are applicable. SOF plays a role in a slightly undefined space, whether it’s C2 [command and control] or working with other agencies and acting as a conduit for connecting different organizations in order to deliver common output. From a broad perspective, we do see that the experiences gained in challenging counterinsurgency environments have some applicability to countering the hybrid threat.

From a structural basis, we see SOF as a bit of a bridge between a military-led response and a response led by another government department. Specifically, within that, SOF might be able to bring a broad range of traditional capabilities to bear in that sort of scenario, whether it’s military assistance in terms of supporting the development of national home defense forces, being able to demonstrate the rapid integration of more bespoke capabilities, whether it’s joint fires or a CT response, if that was required to support another government department. It could also be SOF’s surveillance or reconnaissance capabilities, which could range from the traditional role [of] sitting in a hole with a pair of binoculars or perhaps bespoke and technical surveillance capabilities which might support the attribution of some of this hybrid activity so that it can then be called out and responded to it with more of a diplomatic result rather than a kinetic ‘finish.’

On the other side, if there is a requirement to conduct kinetic activity, there are questions within the hybrid threat domain whether it would be in support of the police or a minister of the interior, or whether it transition over to a military capability. We know that those arrangements exist within certain countries within the Alliance and that they have pretty fluid transitions between what is a ministry of interior activity to a military activity. We’re trying to educate people that there is this experience, knowledge, and capability which sits within the SOF domain which can be brought to bear across not only a military problem set, but also in terms of supporting a sort of minister of interior response.

CTC: Both state and non-state adversaries have shown an increasing ability to use misinformation and messaging efforts to advance their narratives and sow discord inside NATO countries. How is NATO thinking about combating these information operations? Does NSHQ have a role in the counter IO [information operations] fight?

Stephenson: There are certain limitations within NATO in terms of delivering information operations, but we do recognize that there are certain Allies and partners, like Ukraine, who have firsthand experience both being on the receiving end but also of developing responses to those types of threats.

I think our role, particularly in terms of information operations, is understanding which of the Allies has that as a capability, determining if there [is] some value in terms of being able to encourage the development of that capability among a broader range of Allies in the future, and seeing what we can do to support that development and bring some coherence to it through our own means, whether that’s on the doctrinal side or through the development of courses.

I think that the other aspect, in terms of the threat from disinformation that might be aimed towards either an individual Ally or the Alliance writ large is a strategic communications challenge and requirement for the Alliance. It’s important to build on that capability in the future, particularly for NSHQ. I know this is uncomfortable for certain Allies, it’s certainly uncomfortable for my own nation, but we do think if you want to counter some of the false stories, maintaining a current, consistent, and visible message counters some of that misinformation just by being out there all the time. We do think there is a role for effective strategic communications of SOF capability across the Alliance, which doesn’t necessarily have to be deliberately aimed at a particular adversary. It is a message which, from a NATO perspective, demonstrates a common set of values abroad, a cohesive approach across the Alliance, and the ability to be rapidly interoperable so that any adversary that might be looking at either taking a nibble at part of the Alliance or trying to create cracks within the Alliance, should see a demonstration that there is a really strong network. It’s not perfect, [but] they should see a capable group of allies that can come together and deliver powerful effects whenever they need to. So, to counter some of that IO, we think there is a strong StratCom [strategic communications] requirement and we are trying to support that from NSHQ.

CTC: You’re talking about communicating to establish a level of deterrence, right?

Stephenson: Yeah, absolutely.

CTC: To communicate in the language of deterrence, you need to share some of the capabilities you have developed and that willingness to work together, which might include forward deployments of SOF and joint Allied SOF exercises. At the same time, you also need to create uncertainty for those adversaries. What’s the right mix of sharing information, but also holding back to create that uncertainty?

Stephenson: Firstly, anything we do is publicized, anything that we do has to be done in consultation with the Allies, so we wouldn’t be doing this as a stand-alone activity. To some degree, some Allies are doing this already, so we might be acting as a sort of amplifying effect for something that’s already being done.

There are probably certain things which, we think, to some degree that the information is probably out there already, but it’s not being delivered in a sort of targeted way or it’s not being harnessed as well as it could be. I think we are all getting a bit more savvy to the fact that there are certain things which you can’t keep out of public domain. There are certain things which you need to [have out of the public domain], but you have to work really hard and you have to have some very disciplined ways of doing that. We’re trying to focus on the things which are either already out there or that we think could be out there without creating any sort of risk in terms of OPSEC [operational security] compromise or giving away the sort of capabilities that we don’t necessarily want to give away.

But [public messaging] has to be done in a much more realistic manner in terms of accepting that there’s a great deal of information already in the public domain. I mean, you only have to go onto YouTube and you can see things, which some people would say, “that’s classified information that we don’t want to share with people.” There are certain capabilities which exist and that everybody knows exist. We may want to harness some of those, or we may want to make sure that we continue to keep that sort of confusion and sort of degree of uncertainty about that.

I think, in the future, we could be doing some of that [public messaging] in a bit more of a deliberate manner as far as the Alliance is concerned. That’s not to say that we’re trying to own any sort of national messages or compromise any sort of national capabilities, but I think this is one of the battle spaces of the future which needs a more coherent and realistic approach.

CTC: As this counter-hybrid warfare mission and the threat of near-peer conflict becomes more important to the Alliance, how will Allied SOF balance this with continuing the counterterrorism fight?

Stephenson: Those two things will absolutely continue to endure, hand in hand. To some degree, they probably mutually support each other, whether it’s Russia creating the opportunity for terrorist threats to emerge or whether it is those terrorist groups that exist already. But I think it’s recognized within NATO that those two challenges will continue to exist alongside each other.

We have to recognize that the Alliance is made up of a number of nations that have their own national priorities and their own concerns, which are obviously built around their political situation and their geography. We are trying to create processes, structures, and policy for the future, which enable the SOF of the Alliance to be able to contribute to both of those challenges concurrently. Arguably, we need to be able to maintain and develop those capabilities which have a function against both threats.

We do accept that there is a different response required for both, but many of the tools are applicable to both threats, which inevitably will continue. We see a significant contribution, from a NATO perspective, to the [counterterrorism enterprise] by helping to build the capacity of partners, to prevent ungoverned spaces from being created, or to enable those partners to deal with the terrorist threat themselves before [it] expands beyond their boundaries. At the same time, we are looking specifically at what role SOF plays in terms of building the resilience of NATO within the geography that makes up the NATO nations. For certain nations, that might be more orientated toward a threat from malign activity from Russia or the potential of a conflict with Russia. [Terrorism and near peer competition] are not completely separate challenges, but they might require a slightly different approach, and that is going to have to be part of our future NATO plans which takes both of those into account concurrently.

When you have more than one thing going on, the benefit of the strong network and a strong Alliance is that you have greater capacity. If it can’t be a decision between one or the other, the more interoperable that you are, then the more confidence and trust we have in each other to be able to deal with those things concurrently.

CTC: In October 2021, Admiral Rob Bauer, chair of the NATO Military Committee, commented at the NATO Special Operations Forces (SOF) Conference in Riga that, “due to a changed security environment, NATO is in a fundamental shift towards a stronger focus on collective defense.” “Special Forces,” he said, “can play a unique role in this.”11 How do you think about the role of NSHQ in helping the Alliance focus on collective defense?

Stephenson: We’re in an interesting situation here in NATO. To some degree, we’re trying to go back to a model which might have been more reminiscent of the Cold War times in terms of having {a} properly resourced plan to counter the challenges of the potential of aggressive acts against the Alliance on mainland Europe. However, I think we also recognize that the possibility that a Cold War-type engagement will go hot is probably unlikely. Although we have to be prepared for that, the likelihood is that the collective defense requirement is going to be based around countering a number of below-threshold activities which have the potential to be the precursor for something more aggressive or more significant. I think we’re trying to again educate the system within NATO that SOF is very flexible and it has the ability to react quickly. Normally, in every nation across the Alliance, the SOF forces are held at a high state of readiness. If you take all of those things into account and then consider the capabilities that the SOF of the Alliance may have in terms of supporting understanding of the situation, preparing the environment for a more substantial military response to a problem, or delivering effects by being on the ground in small numbers by bringing joint fires to bear and deliver a bigger punch than its size might suggest, [then you can understand why] we think that this is a fundamental tool in the Alliance’s arsenal that can be brought to bear. It is a different challenge than the Cold War, but I think SOF has a really significant part to play, not only if it does get warm. We need to be able to demonstrate that capability exists and make sure that any adversary realizes that if they are going to take a nibble out of something, it’s going to be pretty indigestible for them and just not worth their while.

This below-the-threshold concept is difficult, but I think our responsibility, within the SOF domain, is to think about that difficult challenge because the adversary is trying to test where our seams are. There is clearly a seam between a law enforcement, an intelligence agency, or a ministry of interior lead, and large-scale conventional conflict. We would suggest that you make sure you never get to the war, but that you also compete in peace time to make sure that you don’t let their below-threshold activity achieve its aims, which we understand are to break up the Alliance and to [put] stress [on] the cohesion of rules-based order. As complicated as it is, that’s why SOF exist—to deal with complicated issues.

CTC: Based on your experiences and from your perspective, in leadership roles at NATO SOF Headquarters, how do you think that Allied SOF forces in general, and NSHQ in particular, need to change to address future challenges? What are your big concerns about the future operating environment?

Stephenson: It is an increasingly complex environment. It does require an honest approach with that problem set, and we need to be frank with each other, we need to be as open as we can be. That can be a challenge in itself within NATO; it is difficult for nations to expose their concerns or their limitations. If we are going to maintain that cohesion, then maintaining that level of trust and confidence in each other to come up with a coherent solution is really vital.

My concern would be that post-Afghanistan, we sort of retrench ourselves in our own national stovepipes and go back to worrying about our own problems within our own boundaries, or our own near abroad and that we try to solve our problems within our own little, small sphere of influence. My confidence, particularly from our position here, is that we have a really good network of people from different nations who have served with each other on multiple tours in places like Iraq or Afghanistan, who have grown up with each other, have shared experiences, and have the bond and friendships which we all experience from our own national military experience. The benefit of NATO is that this exists across the Alliance, particularly within the SOF community who have worked really closely together for the last 20 years.

So, my level of confidence is relatively high, particularly if this organization, under U.S. leadership, continues to focus on keeping that network going and keeping those relationships strong wherever possible. Lieutenant General [Antonio] Fletcherd has just arrived here, and I know that’s going to be part of his focus. We need to be functioning closely together and make sure that just because there isn’t a tangible current operation forcing us together, we still see this below-the-threshold challenge as a unifying purpose and our reason for keeping us strong and working together. I’m relatively confident that we are doing that. We’re moving in the right direction, and we have a lot of people who built up a strong relationship forged on operations which will continue to endure and develop over the years to come.     CTC

Substantive Notes
[a] Editor’s Note: The ‘Golden Hour’ refers to the first 60 minutes after a casualty occurs on the battlefield, during which time, if the injured Soldier is transported to a higher level of care, their odds of survival increase significantly. In 2009, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates mandated that the U.S. military provide the resources to get injured soldiers to “appropriate medical care” within an hour of being injured. This same standard for casualty care was adopted by NATO in the 2011 “Allied Joint Publication 4–10(A) – Allied Joint Medical Doctrine.” See Tanisha M. Fazal, Todd Rasmussen, Paul Nelson, and P.K. Carlton, “How Long Can the U.S. Military’s Golden Hour Last?” War on the Rocks, October 8, 2018; Andrew M. Seaman, “U.S. military ‘golden hour’ rule saved lives,” Reuters, September 30, 2015; Col Homer Tien, MD, Maj Andrew Beckett, MD, LCol Naisan Garraway, MD, LCol Max Talbot, MD, Capt Dylan Pannell, MD, PhD, and Thamer Alabbasi, MB, “Advances in damage control resuscitation and surgery: implications on the organization of future military field forces,” Canadian Journal of Surgery 58:3:3 (2015): pp S91-S97.

[b] Editor’s Note: Mauritania, an initial partner in NATO’s Mediterranean Dialogue in 1994, has continued to strengthen its relationship with NATO, opening a mission to NATO in 2017. In January 2021, the Mauritanian president, Mohamed Ould Ghazouani, visited NATO Headquarters. The NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg described part of the purpose of the visit, during a joint press conference, as discussing how “NATO can step up and provide more [counterterrorism] capacity building.” In June 2021, NATO and NSHQ officials conducted a trip to Mauritania where they discussed expanding the scope of “advice, training and capacity building activities” in supporting the development of Mauritanian defense and special operations capabilities. See Ian Lesser, Charlotte Brandsma, Laura Basagni, and Bruno Lété, “The Future of NATO’s Mediterranean Dialogue,” George Marshall Fund of the United States, June 2018; “Joint press point by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and the President of the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, Mohamed Ould Ghazouani,” NATO, January 15, 2021; and “NATO strengthens its partnership with Mauritania,” NATO, June 25, 2021.

[c] NATO defines hybrid threats as “a type of threat that combines conventional, irregular and asymmetric activities in time and space.” These threats “combine military and non-military as well as covert and overt means, including disinformation, cyber attacks, economic pressure, deployment of irregular armed groups and use of regular forces.” These threats also often aim to “exploit the thresholds of detection and attribution” and seek to destabilize target states and undermine their strategic goals. NATO seeks to counter these threats through increased preparedness, establishing deterrence, and defending against those activities that do occur. See “AAP-06: NATO Glossary of Terms and Definitions,” NATO Standardization Office, December 2020, p. 64; “Hybrid Threats as a Concept,” European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats; “NATO’s Response to Hybrid Threats,” NATO, March 16, 2021; The Secretary General’s Annual Report: 2019, NATO, p. 29.

[d] Editor’s Note: Lieutenant General Antonio Fletcher (U.S. Army) took command of NATO Special Operations Headquarters on October 15, 2021. “Fletcher Becomes 6th Commander for NATO Special Operations Headquarters,” SHAPE NATO, October 17, 2021.

[1] Austin Long, “NATO Special Operations: Promise and Problem,” Orbis 58:4 (2014): p. 541.

[2] “Building connectivity between Special Forces and partners,” NATO, February 1, 2013.

[3] “Composite Special Operations Component Command reaches full operational capability,” NATO, December 7, 2020; Andrew White, “International Special Operations Forces,” Special Operations Outlook (2021-2022): pp. 55-56.

[4] Andrew White, “International Special Operations Forces Cooperation,” Special Operations Outlook (2020-2021): pp. 85-87; “Multinational Special Aviation Programme (MSAP),” NATO Factsheet, July 2020; “Multinational Special Aviation Programme Hosts DV Day,” NATO SHAPE, September 9, 2021.

[5] Jamie Dettmer, “Baltic States Increase Efforts to Identify Russian Spies,” VOA News, August 9, 2019; “The Enemy Within: How the Baltic states spot the Kremlin’s agents,” Economist, August 1, 2019.

[6] Stacie Pettyjohn, “Over-the-Horizon Does Not Have to Mean Next Door,” Lawfare, November 7, 2021; Brian Hausle and Matt Montazzoli, “Finding the Appropriate Balance of Risk in Over-the-Horizon Strikes,” Lawfare, November 21, 2021.

[7] Tricia Bacon and Jason Warner, “Twenty Years After 9/11: The Threat in Africa – The New Epicenter of Global Jihadi Terror,” CTC Sentinel 14:7 (2021).

[8] Michael A. Sheehan and Pascale C. Siegel, “Operation Serval: A swift intervention with a small footprint in Mali,” in Michael A. Sheehan, Erich Marquardt, and Liam Collins eds., Routledge Handbook of U.S. Counterterrorism and Irregular Warfare Operations (London: Routledge, 2021), pp. 293-306; Michael Shurkin, “France Gets Tougher on Terrorism,” RAND Blog, July 29, 2014.

[9] Paul Lorgerie, “New European taskforce takes on Mali’s elusive militants,” Reuters, October 6, 2021.

[10] “Little Green Men”: A Primer on Modern Russian Unconventional Warfare, Ukraine 2013-2014 (Fort Bragg, NC: United States Army Special Operations Command, 2016), pp. 38-39.

[11] “NATO Special Operations Senior Leaders Convene in Riga,” NSHQ Public Affairs Office, October 22, 2021.

Stay Informed

Sign up to receive updates from CTC.

Sign up