SOF Commander: Latvia to Triple Elite Military Units
- By Gatis Kristovskis
Commander of the SOF Juris Ušackis points out that there are various possible threat scenarios facing Latvia, and these units must be ready to react to any and all.
Latvia ’s most elite military units – the National Armed Forces Special Operations Forces (SOF), are ready to counter any threats from so-called “green men”, the commander of the SOF Juris Ušackis told LETA.
He emphasised that the soldiers are highly trained, which allows them to carry out missions at the same level as similar soldiers trained in the West, and sometimes even better. Ušackis reveals that the units will be increased three-fold in the coming years. However, the challenge remains that many candidates for the SOF drop-out during the training process as they are not able to handle the extensive psychological and physical pressure, or are not mentally capable. The commander points out that there are various possible threat scenarios facing Latvia, and these units must be ready to react to any and all possible scenarios. This is why the selection process of candidates is very strict.
Has the role of the SOF changed in any way when facing today’s security challenges?
The role of the SOF remains unchanged, and continues to carry out special military operations in Latvia’s interests. At the same time, the SOF also assists law-enforcement institutions when necessary. The only thing that has changed is the fact that the SOF has become one of the main priorities in the development plans of the National Armed Forces.
The priorities of SOF units have not changed, and soldiers are trained to carry out a wide range of tasks and operations. During the selection process, soldiers are also required to have creative and unconventional thinking capabilities. We are capable of carrying out such operations which have never been done before. The most important change, taking into account the current security challenges, is the fact that the state has given the order to increase the number of SOF soldiers.
Much emphasis is placed on special operations forces in modern warfare. Also in Ukraine, Russia sent-in special operations forces. What conclusions have you made in regards to the tactics used by Russia in Ukraine – will you be able to deal with these so-called “green men” if necessary?
We continue to analyse what is taking place around the world related to the tasks of special operations forces. We have also analysed such military operations which only a restricted number of people even know about. At the same time, we have also analysed the terrorist attacks which have taken place all around the world. It is clear that if you wish to be successful, you must know your enemy just as much as you know about yourself. When planning and putting together our training process, we certainly take into consideration analysis about our potential adversaries.
We are ready to counter any threats from such so-called “green men”. We, as any other country, assess the threats we face and prepare how to overcome these threats. There are many various different threat scenarios Latvia could face – conventional threats, hybrid threats and asymmetrical threats.
In the training process of soldiers, are the training methods of special forces from unfriendly countries taken into account?
Of course we follow along the training methods of special forces units in other countries. Not always do we ourselves have to event the wheel – others have already done this and most likely have paid quite a lot for it. In training our special forces soldiers, we also take the most useful experience and methods from foreign special forces, however, we have developed much of our own training methods which is unique to our mentality and the tasks we might have to face.
Even though we continue to follow along the training methods of special forces from unfriendly countries, we benefit much more from close cooperation with special forces from other NATO members, as this is an environment where we can exchange our experiences and help one another grow. We have very close and professional cooperation with Lithuanian and Estonian special forces, as well as with the United States and Norway. A small insight to our training methods can be seen in the recent NATO documentary about the Latvian SOF.
We wished to remind the public about our existence, as it is planned to increase the SOF three-fold in the coming years. Usually we do not offer much public information about ourselves, as our advantage is the fact that our adversaries can only guess our actual capabilities from afar.
To what level is it possible to increase the capabilities of elite soldiers, so that the potential of the SOF would be greater than the enemy’s?
The physical condition of our soldiers is at a very high level. In our programs we have included the best available methods used by Olympic athletes – medical, tests and training methods. It is no secret that some potential soldiers have attempted to join our unit with relatively weak physical conditioning, however, we have a system to considerably improve this conditioning.
Increasing potential is dependent on specific needs. For example, if we put forward specific swimming requirements, then we take into account the specifics of domestic waters here in Latvia, as the primary objective of the SOF is national defense. We train survival skills in our forest, and we do not send our soldiers for training in the desert or jungle. Of course if we are in an unfamiliar environment as part of an international operation, then the soldiers are trained to operate in that specific environment.
What is the emphasis in the training process – increasing the physical or intellectual capacity?
The emphasis first of all is placed on intellect, the ability to think creatively and solve unconventional situations, the ability to pick up new skills and learn, as well as mental capability. Only after this comes physical training. When soldiers are placed in a unit, they undergo a series of tests and screenings, which is followed by the training process, where we work in areas where these soldiers are weakest at. Increasing a unit’s physical and mental capacity takes places in a balanced way. There are specialties where physical ability is very important, and specialties where high-level and specific knowledge is most important.
What are the results of the testing process for candidates and what are the reasons some recruits fail to qualify?
I can compare Latvia’s Olympic team to SOF – we have the best which our nation has to offer. I believe that Latvia’s historical experience, starting from the Baltic tribes, to the Latvian Riflemen in WWI and up to our modern day soldiers proves that the quality of Latvian soldiers is at a very high level. Military officials from top NATO member states have also admitted this, and these are not comments made for political politeness. The Latvian defence budget is not a large one, compared to more prosperous countries, but with our capability level we can carry out tasks at the same level as Western special operations soldiers, and sometime even at a higher level.
The situation has not changed for many years, and only about 20% of those who apply to become a SOF soldier are capable of withstanding the testing and training processes. Such a figure is in accordance with the situation in today’s world, and it's nothing out of the ordinary.
We have come to the conclusion in regards to the selection process that the young people of today have problems solving simple tasks of everyday life. At the same time, they also encounter hardship solving unfamiliar problems. I believe the young people of today lack a bit of determination. We see that many young people wish to join the unit, but lack the determination to fight for their further growth. It takes at least three years of training to become a full-fledged SOF soldiers, and many persons are not ready for this.
Another big hurdle is the health situation of prospective soldier. They can be divided into two groups – young persons who have been physically active, but arrive with injuries. Second of all, persons who have not been physically active and suffer health problems during the trial process. We also frequently detect that some of these soldiers have spine and heart problems.
Speaking about the testing/trial process, the toughest tasks for soldiers to complete are phobia tests and, of course, water tests. However, many soldiers drop out due to the immense psychological and physical pressure they must endure, as well as mental incapability and a lack in the ability to learn. The physical condition and determination of young people is largely influenced by family and their upbringing.
How interested are women and Russian-speakers in joining the SOF?
There is no gender discrimination within the SOF, even though the requirements to join are the same for everyone. In the 25 years of SOF’s existence, there have been many women who have made a career within the SOF. There are no women in any of the battle units, but there are women serving in support sub-units, where physical requirements are not as high as in the battle units. We also do not discriminate by ethnicity.
It is known that the unit has 15 specialties which soldiers can acquire. Taking into account modern threats, are there any plans on introducing any new specialties?
The unit has more specialties than the ones mentioned on the web-page of the armed forces. We only make those specialties known to the wider public which are more recognisable and ones which might attract new recruits. When serving in the unit, we are capable of ensuring any specialist their area of expertise or interest - either it being medicine, chemistry, information technology etc.
With the events in Ukraine, the question arises about the loyalty of armed forces soldiers. Taking into account the crucial role special forces play in times of crisis, is the SOF following along the loyalty of its soldiers?
Of course we are following along, but we have not observed any kind of disloyalty. Service within the unit is so deep, and we demand such return from our soldiers, that it would be impossible to endure all of this without complete confidence in ones place within the national defence system. An eight-hour work day for a SOF soldier is a rarity. There is patriotic atmosphere within the units, and during the training process it becomes clear what the SOF is meant for. All SOF soldiers are completely ready to fight for their country at any time.
Within the past ten years, the unit has lost four soldiers during training operations. Have the proper conclusions been made?
I have been in the unit since 1993, and these tragic accidents are a huge loss not only for the families of the deceased soldiers, but for us as a unit and for our country. We have learned lessons from each of these incidents, and we have improved our procedures and training methods, which likely has saved the lives of other soldiers during battle operations.
So that we can maintain our ability to surprise our opponents with unexpected methods and techniques, one of our specific characteristics is that we carry out many activities which no one else has previously carried out and which do not have specific procedures. We must train in such conditions in which we ourselves might face in times of conflict, and that is why the risks we face in the training process are quite considerable. Unfortunately, we have experienced situations which we were not able to previously predict. As the units become more experienced, the risks for such accidents to repeat themselves certainly lessen. We have introduced and continue to introduce method and control mechanism, so that such tragedies do not repeat themselves.
Photo: Three Latvian Special Operation Forces (SOF) soldiers move into position to cover the outside of a target house while conducting a "Call Out" using simulation rounds during a demonstration in Rakla 2011 (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Isaac A. Graham)