Special Operations: Israel And The Russians Adapt


October 6, 2017: Israel is changing the way it selects and maintains its special operations troops (commandos). Currently most of the Israeli special operations troops are conscripts (as are most of the 175,000 troops on active duty). Conscripts who want to get commando training (which can last from 12 to 24 months) must pass a series of difficult tests and then agree to serve 48 months instead of the usual 32 months. While that means most of these commandos move to the reserves after only a year or two of active duty as special operations troops, decades of reserve service is mandatory in Israel and the troops (less than a thousand a year) trained as special operations troops usually spend most of that time doing the same (or similar) work in reserve units. If not that the Israelis have found that soldiers who have served as special operations troops make better leaders in general.

The new rules mandate that for those seeking the special operations jobs requiring the most training must agree to serve eight years. This is similar to the nine years pilots must agree to serve to qualify for the years of flight training required. The conscripts who take the eight year option will also get educational benefits, like a graduate degree course paid for by the government. The new terms of service are more similar to those already used by other Western nations. The old system worked, but was actually expensive and limited.

The Russians adopted the Israeli system for their special operations troops (spetsnaz) as they began to build a modern special operations force in the 1970s and 1980s. The Israelis had special operations troops from the beginning and their selection and training methods were often adopted by other nations no matter what the terms of service.

The Russian spetsnaz had a reputation for being effective, but not as skilled and flexible as their Western counterparts. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and massive cuts to the defense budget the spetsnaz fell on hard times. The Russians coped and even developed some Western style special operations troops.

Israel may have noted how Russia created their KSO (Special Operations Command) in 2009. KSO was quietly sent to Syria in 2013 and eventually details of their performance got out.

KSO was being discussed in Russia since 2009 but little was revealed officially. KSO appeared to be an elite Russian special operations unit more like the British SAS or the American Delta Force instead of the less selective spetsnaz special operations personnel Russia had favored in the past. It also became known that KSO had fewer than two thousand personnel, most of them operators (commandos) and all volunteer professional soldiers who not only operate like their Western counterparts but have been seen using some of the same equipment. This includes special rifle sights, military rifles and high-end protective gear. Most of this stuff is available commercially, although often only to government agencies (to keep it away from criminals).

Russian spetsnaz (as Russia originally called military special operations) units still contain a lot of conscripts, which is in sharp contrast to most Western commandos who are all volunteer careerists. But the Russian spetsnaz conscripts were carefully selected and were eager volunteers for spetsnaz duty. While these conscript Spetsnaz were closer (in capabilities) to American Rangers, the KSO are world class.

The spetsnaz came to consider all these conscripts as potential long-term operators and the short service of these men was considered an extended tryout. During the Soviet period the KGB and military were always looking for men with exceptional abilities and the spetsnaz program became a popular place to look for new talent.

The veteran spetsnaz learned to make the most of the constant influx of conscript operators. There was a price to pay for that high turnover. Spetsnaz in Chechnya suffered about ten percent casualties for each tour. In Chechnya (after the late 1990s) there were only a few hundred spetsnaz there at a time and when they were there about 80 percent of Chechen casualties were caused by spetsnaz. The spetsnaz were in Chechnya mainly to collect information on the rebels, locating their camps and travel routes. Artillery or bombers are called in to do the actual attacks. When the spetsnaz do run into rebel units, the special operations troops inflicted far more casualties than they took. But the spetsnaz casualties are higher than with their foreign counterparts in large part because of the many conscripts. Often a third or more of the men in a spetsnaz unit in Chechnya (and later Ukraine) were conscripts. It appears that no spetsnaz conscripts were sent to Syria, where the spetsnaz apparently included some of their Syrian counterparts (especially if they spoke Russian) in spetsnaz units. It later turned out that this was part of the cover for the presence of KSO in Syria. In any event the Russians found that it was best not to send any conscripts to Syria unless they agreed to become “contract soldiers.” In doing this the troops received higher pay, better benefits and training and a lot more responsibility on the battlefield.


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