PART ONE: BACKGROUND
This article provides an overview of the French Army’s Special Forces Command, Commandement des Forces Spéciales Terre (COM FST).
COM FST is the land component of the French Special Operations Command, the Commandement des Opérations Spéciales (COS).
COM FST is commanded by a Major General (MOD, 2016c) and consists of approximately 2,500 personnel (MOD, 2016a).
The aim of this article is to provide a brief overview of the French Army’s Special Forces Command.
1.2 Brief History
In 1997, a new unit called the Special Autonomous Group (groupement spécial autonome, GSA) was established. It consisted of 1er RPIMa and a special operations flight of the 4e Régiment d’Hélicoptères de Combat et de Manoeuvre (4e RHCM, 4th Attack and Manoeuvre Helicopters Regiment) of the French Army Air Corps (Aviation Légère de l’Armée de Terre, ALAT).
The GSA was a separate subcommand operating within COS and operated in a manner similar to the US Army Special Operations Command (USASOC), providing a unified command headquarters, and standardising training procedures for both units.
In 1998, the ALAT Detachment for Special Operations (Détachement ALAT des Opérations Spéciales, DAOS) was established. DAOS was composed of two special operations helicopter squadrons: one operating transport helicopters and the second operating gunships.
On 01 July 2002, the Army Special Forces Brigade (Brigade des Forces Spéciales Terre or BFST) was established. BFST conducts an annual exercise known as Gorgones (a name meaning ‘three mythological figures’) to develop interoperability between the units it commands. The purpose of BFST was to support peacekeeping operations in Cote d’Ivoire (Africa) and Afghanistan.
In 2006, the Poitou Transport Squadron is dedicated to special operations (MOD, 2012a).
In 2009, the 4th Special Forces Helicopter Regiment is established with helicopters from both the French Army and Air Force (MOD, 2012a).
On 23 June 2016, the BFST was retitled the Army Special Forces Command (Commandement des Forces Spéciales Terre, COM FST) (MOD, 2016a).
PART TWO: ORGANISATION
This section describes the management (command and control, C2) of COM FST and its organisation, providing a brief outline of each of the units and their organisation and roles.
COM FST consists of (MOD, 2016a):
- A staff and a headquarters and signals company (CCTFS), located in Pau (Southern France).
- 3 regiments of special forces:
- 1st Marine Infantry Parachute Regiment (1er Régiment de Parachutistes d’Infanterie de Marine (1er RPIMa)) located in Bayonne;
- 13th Parachute Dragoon Regiment (13e Régiment de Dragons Parachutistes (13e RDP)) located in Martignas-sur-Jalle; and
- 4th Special Forces Helicopter Regiment (4e Régiment d’Hélicoptères des Forces Spéciales (4e RHFS)) located in Pau.
- Support Group for Special Operations (Groupement D’appui Aux Opérations, GAOS) structure to accommodate specialised reinforcements of land forces.
- Special Forces Training Centre (Training Centre Ares), an integrated structure for joint and combined vocational training.
Although COM FST is part of COS, the organisation also works for the Military Intelligence Directorate and thus has two primary roles:
- Select, train, equip and train units; and
- Participate in the COS operational commitments.
2.1 Chief of the Defence Staff
COS is an operational command under the authority of the French Chief of the Defence Staff (Chef d’État-Major des Armées or C.E.M.A), an OF-9 level officer.
2.2 Commander Special Operations
The Commander Special Operations (Commandant les Opérations Spéciales) is the title of the professional head of the COS (MOD, 2016b).
The post holder is an OF-6 level officer, either a Général de brigade (Brigadier General) or Contre-Amiral (Rear Admiral but equivalent to a Royal Navy Commodore); although in July 2016 the post holder was a Major General (OF-7) (Defense House, 2016).
Commander COS is under the direct command of CEMA and is the CEMA Advisor on special operations.
2.3 Commander COM FST
The Commander COM FST (Commandant les Forces Spéciales Terre) is the title of the professional head of the French Army’s Special Forces Command.
The post holder is an OF-7 level officer, a Général de division (Major General) (MOD, 2016c).
2.4 Headquarters and Signals Company
The staff and a headquarters and signals company (d’un état-major et d’une compagnie de commandement et de transmisisons (CCTFS)) is in Pau (Southern France).
2.5 1st Marine Parachute Infantry Regiment
The 1st Marine Infantry Parachute Regiment (1er Régiment de Parachutistes d’Infanterie de Marine (1er RPIMa)) is located at Bayonne, at the gates of Spain, bordering the Atlantic Ocean and the Pyrenees, the unit has an ideal area for training.
The unit is commanded by a Colonel (OF-5) (MOD, 2016c) and forms the core of the COM FST.
1er RPIMa is the progeny of the Special Air Service of Free France (1940) and French Indochina, and is the French equivalent of the US Army’s Special Forces, aka Green Berets, or British SAS with whom it shares the motto ‘Qui Ose Gagne’ or ‘Who Dares Wins’.
1er RPIMa was first established in 1960 but had a training role, it wasn’t until 01 January 1974 that the unit was given its special operations role. Despite the Marine part of its title, the unit is part of the French Army. The Naval Infantry background dates to 1762 when units of the French Army were detached to the French Navy for ship borne and overseas duties (just like the British Marines).
1er RPIMa is organised as follows (MOD, 2016d):
- Four SAS Companies:
- 1e SAS Compagnie (Paratroopers HAHO/HALO, combat divers, urban warfare, counterterrorism and bodyguards);
- 2e SAS Compagnie (mountain, arctic, desert and jungle warfare);
- 3e SAS Compagnie (motorised patrols); and
- 4e SAS Compagnie (reconnaissance, acquisition and training).
- Signals Company dedicated to the C3 (command, control and communications) support of Special Operations.
- The Training Company provides initial training and the SAS training course. Specialized instruction cell provides refresher courses, sniper, against terrorism, close protection, etc.
- The Company Command and Logistics Regiment is the Support Unit. Its staff is projectable in operation, to support the action groups.
- Research and Development Cell, headed by a Chief Warrant Officer (MOD, 2016g).
1er RPIMa has three (primary) types of mission it is expected to perform:
- Foreign Internal Defence or special instruction/assistance;
- Direct Action; and
- Special Reconnaissance or intelligence gathering.
It is also capable of conducting counter terrorist (CT) operations in conjunction with The National Gendarmerie Intervention Group (Groupement d’Intervention de la Gendarmarie Nationale, GIGN).
Within these missions, 1er RPIMa can operate in amphibious, jungle or mountain, arctic and/or desert environments either mounted (e.g. motorised) or dismounted (i.e. on foot).
The unit has developed a variety of specialisms to fulfil its remit:
- CTLO (Counterterrorism and hostage rescue teams (InvEX));
- GDC (Bodyguards Garde du Corps);
- THP (Snipers Tireurs Haute Précision);
- RCO (Paratrooper – Rapas Chuteurs Opérationnels);
- PRS (Motorised patrols Patrouilles de Reconnaissances Speciales (PATSAS));
- RPO (Combat divers Rapas Plongeurs Offensifs);
- Mountain/arctic, desert and jungle warfare; and
- Explosives and demolitions.
2.6 13th Parachute Dragoon Regiment
The 13th Parachute Dragoon Regiment (13e Régiment de Dragons Parachutistes, 13e RDP) is located at Martignas-sur-Jalle.
The unit is commanded by a Colonel (OF-5) (MOD, 2016c) and is the French Army’s Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol (LRRP) unit. The unit became part of COM FST on 01 July 2002.
The unit can trace its lineage back to 1676 when it was formed as a regiment of Dragoon by the Marquis de Barbezières at Languedoc. As such, this ‘cavalry regiment’ is one of the oldest. Renamed the 13th Dragoon Regiment (13e Régiment de dragons) during the reorganisation of the French cavalry in 1791, the regiment was transformed into an armoured unit in 1936, and then a paratrooper unit in 1952. From approximately 1963 the unit gained its current LRRP role.
Prior to its incorporation to COM FST, the unit was part of the Electronic Warfare and Intelligence Brigade (Brigade de Renseignment et de Guerre Electronique, BGRE). The unit specialises in operations in Africa, but has recently started focusing on operations in Europe.
13e RDP is organised as follows:
- Three squadrons are dedicated to intelligence (the unit’s recon teams);
- Two long-range communications squadrons (they provide a secure communications link between deployed recon teams and higher headquarters); and
- Two training squadrons (they are responsible for providing in-house training courses and certifying new unit members).
The unit is also tasked with supporting COS during joint operations. In 2016, “The 13th Parachute Dragoon Regiment was reorganized to adopt a squadron specialized in intelligence analysis.” (MOD, 2016e).
The primary role of the unit is special reconnaissance.
2.7 4th Special Forces Helicopter Regiment
The 4th Special Forces Helicopter Regiment (4e Régiment d’Hélicoptères des Forces Spéciales, 4e RHFS) is located at Pau.
The unit is commanded by a Colonel (OF-5) (MOD, 2016c) and forms the aviation component of the COM FST.
Established in 2009, 4e RHFS is responsible for providing air transportation and support anywhere in the world to France’s Special Forces.
The unit consists of several elements:
- Regimental HQ;
- One Transport Helicopter Squadron;
- One Gunship Helicopter Squadron; and
- Maintenance Flight (MOD, 2016e).
2.8 Support Group for Special Operations
The Support Group for Special Operations (Groupement D’appui Aux Opérations, GAOS) is located at Pau.
The unit is commanded by a Colonel (OF-5) (requires verification) and forms the support component of the COM FST. GAOS was established in 2015 (MOD, 2016f).
GAOS consists of several elements (MOD, 2016f):
- Intelligence Brigade:
- 54th Signal Regiment, lightweight electronic support patrols;
- 28th Geographic Group: surveyors and cartographers team;
- 61st regiment of artillery: drones, analysts and satellite images;
- 2nd Hussars: interrogation teams;
- 11th Parachute Brigade;
- 35th Parachute Artillery Regiment: mortar fire support section; and
- 17th Parachute Engineer Regiment: demining teams (EOD), specialised operational search, reconnaissance groups of landing zones aircraft and teams of deployment assistance for the development of isolated camps.
- Ground Forces:
- 2nd Dragoons: CBRN response teams; and
- Cynophile 132nd battalion of the Army: military working dogs specialised in the detection of hazardous materials.
GAOS is a core to which the above units are aggregated, supporting COM FST as required.
2.9 Training Centre Ares
The Training Centre Ares or du centre d’entraînement Arès) is located at Pau and composed of the FS Academy, Training Centre and Projection Base.
The Training Centre Ares is commanded by a Colonel (OF-5) whilst the training division is commanded by a Lieutenant Colonel (OF-4). Training Centre Ares is an integrated organisation for joint and combined vocational training of special operations personnel. The current purpose of the centre is to pool and deliver segments of the core curriculum that is relevant to both SF Operators and support personnel.
“The arrival of 25 additional instructors will allow the best Army we know through training and certification OPEX for units of the support group for special operations (GAOS).” (MOD, 2016e).
PART THREE: MISCELLANEOUS
3.0 Useful Links
- French Special Operations Command: http://www.defense.gouv.fr/ema/interarmees/le-commandement-des-operations-speciales.
- COS Special Operations Command (unofficial): http://le.cos.free.fr/cos.htm.
- French Army Special Operations Command: http://www.defense.gouv.fr/terre/presentation-de-l-armee-de-terre/le-niveau-divisionnaire/commandement-des-forces-speciales-terre/le-commandement-des-forces-speciales-terre/commandement-des-forces-speciales-terre.
- Alumni Association Parachutists Marine Troops and veterans of the Brigade of Colonial Parachutists SAS heirs (Association des Anciens Parachutistes Troupes de Marine et anciens de la Brigade des Parachutistes Coloniaux héritiers des S.A.S): http://www.quiosegagne.asso.fr/.
- 13e RDP official site: http://www.defense.gouv.fr/terre/larmeedeterreaucontact/leniveaudivisionnaire/commandementdesforcesspecialesterre/13eregimentdedragonsparachutistes.
- 13e RDP official Facebook webpage: https://www.facebook.com/dragons13.
- Official site of the 13th Regiment veterans: http://www.liendragonpara.net/.
- 4th Special Forces Helicopter Regiment: http://www.defense.gouv.fr/terre/presentation/organisationdesforces/alat/4eregimentdhelicopteresdesforcesspeciales.
Defense House (2016) Maj. Gen. de Saint-Quentin, French Special Operations Command. Available from World Wide Web: http://www.defense-house.com/interesting-post/maj-gen-de-saint-quentin-french-special-operations-command/. [Accessed: 15 December, 2016].
MOD (Ministry of Defence) (2016a) Army Special Forces Command. Available from World Wide Web: http://www.defense.gouv.fr/terre/presentation-de-l-armee-de-terre/le-niveau-divisionnaire/commandement-des-forces-speciales-terre/le-commandement-des-forces-speciales-terre/commandement-des-forces-speciales-terre. [Accessed: 15 December, 2016].
MOD (Ministry of Defence) (2016b) COS: Presentation. Available from World Wide Web: http://www.defense.gouv.fr/ema/interarmees/le-commandement-des-operations-speciales/le-cos-presentation. [Accessed: 12 December, 2016].
MOD (Ministry of Defence) (2016c) Un nouveau modèle pour l’armée de Terre. Available from World Wide Web: http://www.defense.gouv.fr/terre/presentation-de-l-armee-de-terre/organisation/un-nouveau-modele-pour-l-armee-de-terre. [Accessed: 16 December, 2016].
MOD (Ministry of Defence) (2016d) 1er Régiment de Parachutistes D’infanterie de Marine. Available from World Wide Web: http://www.defense.gouv.fr/terre/presentation-de-l-armee-de-terre/le-niveau-divisionnaire/commandement-des-forces-speciales-terre/1er-regiment-de-parachutistes-d-infanterie-de-marine. [Accessed: 16 December, 2016].
MOD (Ministry of Defence) (2016e) [Dossier BFST] Pilier forces spéciales : Quelles évolutions? Available from World Wide Web: http://www.defense.gouv.fr/actualites/articles/dossier-bfst-pilier-forces-speciales-quelles-evolutions. [Accessed: 16 December, 2016].
MOD (Ministry of Defence) (2016f) [Dossier BFST] GAOS: Appuis très spéciaux. Available from World Wide Web: http://www.defense.gouv.fr/terre/dossiers/les-forces-speciales-terre/dossier-bfst-gaos-appuis-tres-speciaux. [Accessed: 16 December, 2016].
MOD (Ministry of Defence) (2106g) [Dossier BFST]: Équipements et procédures – Le RETEX innovant. Available from World Wide Web: http://www.defense.gouv.fr/terre/dossiers/les-forces-speciales-terre/dossier-bfst-equipements-et-procedures-le-retex-innovant. [Accessed: 16 December, 2016].