An exclusive conversation with Lieutenant General Brad Webb, NATO NSHQ commander.

By Andrew Drwiega SpecOps Correspondent

Despite his special forces background, Lieutenant General Brad Webb is no stranger to being in the media spotlight. In fact it is hard to recall a more important image than that taken in one of the White House situation rooms at 4.06 p.m. on May 1, 2011.

The photo, shot by White House photographer Pete Souza, captured the tension and the drama of the mission that represented the culmination of a decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden.

With President Barack Obama on Webb’s right and current presidential nominee Hilary Clinton sitting to his left, surrounded by members of the national security team, the group followed ‘live’ as Operation Neptune Spear unfolded. The U.S. Naval Special Warfare Development Group—SEAL Team Six—was selected to prosecute the raid to the kill Osama bin Laden. The importance of mission success, given the wealth of intelligence that had led to this deliberate action into Pakistan, cannot be understated. The tension is visible.

Yet Webb’s most vivid memory of that day was of being “being in the zone.” As he explained, “You hear people talk about this in sports…when time seems to slow down, everything is really focused and instead of being nervous, you are perfectly calm. I recall looking around the room at some point when the entire leadership team of our nation [the United States] was in the room and thinking, ‘I should be freaking out right now.’ But, I was perfectly calm [and] concentrating on the task at hand.”

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Leading NATO’s SOF Capability

Since that day in 2011 Webb has taken his understanding of special forces to a new international level. His current responsibilities require a strategic perspective combined with an understanding and ability to work in coalition with the forces from other nations that fall under his command at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) Special Operations Headquarters (NSHQ). This command is formed under a memorandum of understanding but is frameworked and led by the United States.

“We are under the daily operational command of Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) and serve as the de facto Allied Joint Special Operations Command, although it is important to point out we are not part of the NATO command structure and are not NATO common funded. So in a sense we are a hybrid transformational entity within the alliance,” explained Webb.

As the SOF domain commander, Webb works alongside his NATO counterparts in Allied Air Command and Allied Maritime Command. “I am responsible for everything with regard to SOF in NATO from the tactical to the strategic level and I am SACEUR ’s senior advisor on SOF in the alliance. We are responsible for ensuring that SACEUR and NATO have at their disposal effective, efficient and coherent SOF capabilities that complement those of the air, maritime and land domain.”

The provision of SOF capabilities stretches across NATO’s core tasks of cooperative security, crisis response and collective defense. The responsibility of communicating to political-military decision makers how these forces can be applied in any given situation is also part of the command mission.

NATO SOF Structure

NSHQ comprises around 200 personnel from 26 NATO nations as well as the NATO partner nations of Sweden, Finland and Austria. The structure has recently been changed as Webb explained, “Up until this summer we have maintained a support division, training and readiness division, and an operations division; all three of which were led by colonels. In the summer of 2015, we refined our organizational structure by adding a plans and policy division, again led by a colonel. In September of 2014 after the NATO Summit in Wales, UK, we recognized we really needed to move towards operationalizing SOF in a NATO context, and hence we made adjustments to our organizational structure to be more effective and efficient, and to place a greater emphasis into plans and operations.”

In 2016 the command will aim to increase SOF-to-SOF collaboration with non-NATO nations by leveraging NATO cooperative security mechanisms such as the Mediterranean Dialogue and the Defence Capacity Building initiative. It will look to build upon recent achievements.

“This cooperative security aspect for NSHQ and Allied Joint Special Operations is one of the new responsibilities of the plans and policy division,” said Webb. “Cooperative security is one of NATO’s three core tasks and it makes sense that Allied Joint Special Operations have a coherent approach to the SOF aspect of this NATO core task. We are working in coordination with Allied Joint Force Command Brunssum and Allied Joint Force Command Naples who have responsibility for orchestrating these activities. We also are working closely with Allied Maritime Command because of many of the partnerships around the Mediterranean Sea.”

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Webb also perceived an increase in activity alongside NATO’s Maritime Operation Active Endeavour in the Mediterranean operating in support of Allied Maritime Command that is in relatively nascent stage of development but will likely develop during the course of 2016.

“We also are responsible for the NATO Response Force Special Operations Component Command in 2017 which means we have a significant level of preparation, exercises and certification during 2016,” he added. “In order for NATO Special Operations Headquarters to take this on, we will receive staff augmentation from different NATO member nation SOF to round out our organic capability.”

Virtually all NATO nations (26 of 28) have a SOF capability. Additionally there are other SOF capabilities in NATO partner organizations including Partnership for Peace, the Mediterranean Dialogue and Partners Across the Globe.

According to Webb there has been a trend for additional SOF commands to be formed over the last few years in such countries as Poland, Spain, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and in Italy. The latter added an Army Special Operations Command on top of the existent Joint Special Operations Command in Rome. “So I would say this reflects an increasing awareness of the relative utility of SOF as well as a recognition that we are increasingly relevant against the hybrid, irregular, gray area contemporary challenges we increasingly face,” concluded Webb.

Common Challenges

There is, according to Webb, a common perception that SOF can have access to whatever it needs, particularly high-end equipment. But NATO is constrained by the resources of member states and one of the challenges has been in the supply and availability of SOF-specific air support.

Webb calls air power a “critical enabler for special operations” in that “strategic, operational and tactical mobility; fire support; medical evacuation; intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance are massively important for special operations. Projecting SOF in a precise and responsive manner across the world is critically dependent upon air power.”

“For the last decade we have continued to see a significant shortfall in SOF-specific air assets which as you can imagine adversely effects SOF operational tempo and associated SOF effects in support of the joint force commander,” said Webb. “This is sometimes misconstrued as everyone pursuing very high end platforms, and while some nations do maintain very high end SOF-specific air platforms, it is much more than that.”

Webb pointed to the teamwork relationship that all joint forces like to establish for good operational understanding. “It is about habitual relationships with aircrews, SOF and supporting air personnel planning closely together, and it is about SOF air crews having a SOF mind-set that meshes with that of the SOF ground and maritime operators,” he said. Vital SOF related skills include precision navigation, day and night infiltration and exfiltration proficiency. “We are constantly working to refine those requirements within the NATO defense planning process to create the appropriate demand signal to allied nations. The bottom line is that SOF-specific air is a critical enabler for the conduct of NATO special operations and we continue to close the gap between requirements and actual available capabilities provided by the respective NATO nations,” he continued.

He acknowledged the financial constraints on the NATO nations. “We can’t have everything we may need in the near term, but we are building out the requirements, creating the demand signal and developing SOF specific aviation within NATO in a deliberate manner,” he explained.

“Demonstrating this unique requirement to senior leadership is also an important facet of the development of these capabilities so that they are well understood,” he explained. “We had a CV-22 at the NATO Wales Summit in September 2014 as part of a ceremony unveiling our NATO Special Operations Headquarters’ Special Operations Component Command to the chiefs of defense and ministers of defense. The CV-22s from the 352nd in the United Kingdom have been all over Europe on exercises and they are a mainstay of the U.S. Special Operations Command Europe capability.”

Another challenge within the NATO SOF structure is in command, control, communications, computers and intelligence (C4I), and the integration of that up the chain of command. “This has been a challenge because a nation has to be able to snap into a multinational environment to share information and communicate,” explained Webb, adding that the “respective national systems are not agile enough to do that and maintain national information assurance. We have built our multinational SOF network at the NATO level with nations plugging into it, but it is understandably challenging for smaller allied nations to provide their own organic capability that allows them to plug in other nations.”

This difficulty extends to bringing together multinational SOF staff to conduct C4I for full spectrum special operations, where a common doctrine, staff procedures and common tactics, techniques and procedures would be ideal. “We have been working on this interoperability/commonality for years with the courses we teach at our NATO Special Operations School,” said Webb. “ISAF SOF in Afghanistan and then later the NATO Special Operations Component Command – Afghanistan also served to develop these collective NATO multinational capabilities, but as you can imagine some of the skills are perishable, particularly with personnel turnover. I would tell you that some of what this NATO SOF community built over the years in terms of a collaborative platform in Afghanistan really enabled many of the same European SOF actors coming together in support of the coalition of the willing in Iraq or for instance where SOF are operating under a European Union mandate in Africa.”

Read more at Special Operations International