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Analysis: The evolution of French Special Forces

13th April 2017 - 15:30 by Erwan de Cherisey in Paris

In recent years, the French Special Forces (SF) have found themselves under the spotlight on several occasions.

Numbering 4000 regular personnel and 400 reserve troops, the French SF have been involved in all major French external deployments since the establishment of the Special Operations Command (COS), which exercises operational control over the French SF since its creation in 1992.

In January 2013, SF helicopters led the charge against the jihadists in Mali, in what was the opening act of Operation Serval.

That same month, in Somalia, a combined task force of SF and French external intelligence operators conducted a risky and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to rescue an intelligence operative held captive by the Somali 'Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen' militant group.

At SOFINS 2013, a CPA-10 operator is covering his comrades who are setting an observation post to guide in attacking aircraft. He is armed with an H&K 416 assault rifle which is now set to become the French Army standard issue weapon. (Photo: author)

French SF personnel have also been deployed in Iraq for the last two years. As part of Task Force Hydra, 200 members of the COS operate alongside Kurdish and Iraqi forces, providing intelligence support, forward air control, targeting, etc.

Little information on the SF's presence in Iraq is available. Some troops have been wounded in combat, including by a Daesh UAV, as French media revealed in early 2017. Footage of the French SF in Iraq has allowed confirming that they use Skylark UAVs in surveillance operations against Daesh.

Unconfirmed rumours also suggest that French SF have been deployed in Syria, but officially at least, this is not the case.

Despite a certain amount of publicity, the French SF community remains a discreet group. Official communication on its operations is minimal and media access to them extremely limited.

The 2013 French defence white paper did shed some light, however, on the development of the SF over the following few years, noting a requirement for an increase from a strength of 3000 regulars to 4000, an aim which has now been achieved.

CPA-10 JTACs setting up observation position to be able to guide Rafale fighters during a demonstration at the SOFINS 2013. (Photo: author)

The 2017 edition of the Special Operations Forces International Seminar (SOFINS) which was held at the French Army Camp of Souge, near Bordeaux between 28 and 30 March, was a unique occasion to get a glimpse at the capabilities and future requirements of the elite French SF, as Shephard discovered.

Although there is a popular belief that the SF benefit from overabundant funding and equipment, the fact is that even today, the COS has to work on a tight budget and still faces several equipment shortfalls, most notably in the field of air support.

Steps have however been taken to put in motion several procurement and upgrade programmes which mean that by 2019, SF air mobility will have improved.

Since 2013, with its first edition, SOFINS has served as a platform for the French SF to get in touch with existing and new industrial partners as the COS continuously searches for new technical solutions to meet the ever-changing challenges and threats it faces in its operations.

While heavy weights of the defence industry such as Thales, Airbusor Nexter take part in the event, the bulk of the companies in attendance are smaller structures, including a large number of start-up companies, focused on developing innovative solutions to meet SF requirements as well as being able to provide the COS with sufficient industrial flexibility to develop custom made products for production in small series.

A stick of SF operators from the 1er RPIMA exits an EC725 (H225M) during a tactical demonstration at SOFINS 2017. The 1er RPIMA is a French Army SF unit specialising in direct action, counter-terrorism and advise and assist operations. (Photo: author)

Indeed, while larger companies would find it uneconomical to develop a tailor-made product for the sole requirements of the COS, whose needs will be limited to a few dozen examples of it, in the case for example of a mini UAV, small companies are not only able but usually eager to engage in such endeavours.

Each SF unit has its own research and development (R&D) cell which is tasked with coming up with solutions for the unit's different requirements, either internally or by partnering with private companies.

The French Ministry of Defence's Mission for the Development of Participative Innovation (MIP) supports internal innovation processes and has thus allowed for the development of several home-grown solutions to operational requirements.

The COS' Bureau for Studies and Prospective (BEP) is another entity which works on equipment requirements and R&D. The basis for most SF requirements is what the French military calls the operational experience feedback (RETEX), in fact the lessons learned in the field. The RETEX are analysed by all French military units and the SF are no exception.


The EC725 (H225M) is in service with the French Air Force’s EH 1/67 Pyrénées SF helicopter squadron and the French Army Aviation 4ème RHFS SF helicopter regiment. The type has been used intensively in operations in Afghanistan, Somalia and the Sahel, where one aircraft crashed in 2014. (Photo: author)

In his opening address at the SOFINS 2017, RAdm Laurent Isnard, commander of the COS (GCOS), explained that the French SF had been targeted by mini UAVs operated by Daesh and as a result, a need for an anti-UAV system had been identified, a solution tested and shipped to Iraq for use by the SF.

He highlighted the fact that the civilian industry was now a major source of innovation and that civilian designed and produced solutions could be of use to the SF, a fact evidenced for example in the UAV field by the products offered by several companies, such as Airvada, which had initially been conceived for civilian applications.

Isnard exemplified the benefits of 3D printing technology as a way of reducing the pressure on the logistics chain, noting that in the near future, SF units would be able to deploy with a 3D printing capability to produce in the field spare parts for certain equipment such as UAVs on an as needed basis.

When discussing UAVs, he emphasised the need for disposable aircrafts and further added that UAVs are merely an extension of the operators' weapon, aimed at providing it with the few seconds advantage over his adversary that will allow him to gain the upper hand and neutralise him.

The GCOS also talked about the need for more efficient batteries for powering the SF's equipment, offering greater autonomy while being also lighter or of the necessity for SF vehicles to be fitted with an electric propulsion capability so as to be able to carry out the final phase of an infiltration with maximum discretion.

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