Reducing Threats Through Vigilance

Portrait of COM NSHQ, NSHQ SEA  (NATO photo/Sgt. Emily Langer, DEU Army)

A&M Editor Kevin Hunter was privileged to speak with Vice Admiral Sean Pybus, NATO SOF Commander, regarding his perspective on today’s changing role for Special Forces in the face of growing European insecurity, particularly in Ukraine.

A&M: Please speak to some general challenges NATO SOF faces in securing the alliance’s perimeter.

VADM Pybus: Today’s security environment is a dynamic and dangerous one, no doubt. Threats run the gamut from high-end industrial warfare to insidious insurgencies, and now include the cyber domain across the spectrum. With regard to Europe and the larger neighbourhood, the Mediterranean Rim is on fire on the eastern and southern edges. Conflict and instability in these areas enable violent extremists, criminals, and migrants to act in ways that challenge or threaten European nations. In Ukraine, an aggressive Russia has NATO on edge and reminds us of Article Five of the Washington Treaty, which obligates the Alliance to defend any attack on one of our NATO members.

Collectively, these threats and challenges are an interesting horizon for NATO SOF and NATO SOF Headquarters (NSHQ). I am optimistic that our national SOF organizations and NSHQ will successfully adjust and adapt to this “new normal,” as SOF has a reputation of doing. Afghanistan has been a furnace which has forged very capable forces and SOF professionals, and they will turn their attention to tasks closer to home.


Soldiers from the 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) of Fort Carson, Colorado,
met Special Forces units from four European nations at Grafenwoehr Training Area,
Germany, in April 2013 to prepare for an upcoming mission in Afghanistan. (NATO)

A&M: Given the U.S. emphasis on the Asia pivot, what are some of your primary focus areas? 

VADM Pybus: Having served in the Asia-Pacific, I understand and strongly value the strategic importance of that region. However, the fact is that SOF, including U.S. SOF, will not be downsized in Europe in order to pivot to Asia. On the contrary, we are anticipating forward-basing and deployment schemes that would actually increase SOF presence and activities on a day-to-day basis in Europe and Africa. Further, as I have discussions with NATO defense leaders, most if not all articulate their support for additional investments in their SOF organizations. As relatively small forces, SOF provide good return on investment as efficient and effective capabilities, and this is a critical factor in today’s very difficult budget environment. NATO SOF capacity and capability will remain credible the remainder of this decade.

A&M: How do you see international SOF being employed in coming years to address current and future threats?

VADM Pybus: The actions of Russia have certainly gotten NATO’s and the world’s attention, and have dramatically altered the European defense dynamic. Add this threat to the existent and more nefarious ones of terror, crime, and insurgency already on our priority list of concerns. SOF has roles to play across this threat spectrum, both in unilateral national actions, and as a NATO collective capability. In open conflict, SOF roles are fairly well understood. However, I believe that the best application of NATO-sponsored SOF in the coming years is in military assistance (MA), in pursuit of prevention of open conflict, or for security and stability in post-conflict states or areas.

MA has broad application and relevance in states and areas bordering Europe or the near “neighbourhood.” Training, advising, and assisting are key tasks for MA, as is proposed for Afghanistan in 2015 and beyond (Operation Resolute Support). We currently do not have NATO mandates to conduct MA in most of the near-abroad of Europe, although NATO does have maritime security authorities for the Mediterranean and in the waters off the Horn of Africa. Whatever or wherever the security challenges  for NATO and Europe during the remainder of this decade, there will be important employments for specially selected and equipped troops as mature and well-trained as SOF.

This article was published in the May 2014 issue of Armor & Mobility magazine.