1.0     Introduction

This article provides an overview of the French Special Operations Command, the Commandement des Opérations Spéciales (COS).

The COS, also known as French SOCOM, is the organisation which coordinates the use of Special Forces (SF) of all branches of the French military (Army, Navy, and Air Force) and consists of approximately 3,000 personnel (MOD, 2012a).

However, number look to be increasing as “The 2013 “Livre Blanc” brought-out the decision to reinforce the special operations capabilities by increasing the SOF operators number, including the headquarters, enabling them to cope with the recent increase of French SOF commitments abroad.” (Defense House, 2016).

COS is broadly organised to other similar SF organisations, e.g. US SOCOM or UKSF, and was created on 24 June 1992 following the Gulf War.

Its role is to direct and coordinate missions for SF units; these are permanently under its direct command and immediately available for action. The command is led by a Général de brigade or Contre-Amiral, an OF-6 level officer.

This article will provide the reader with an outline of the Special Forces within the Armed Forces of France, commonly referred to as COS, and the supporting units which provide a variety of functions, such as transport and administration.

1.1     Method of Entry

There are two ways to become a SOF operator, by direct recruitment for civilians with no military experience or through an in-service transfer within the conventional forces. After years experiencing those two ways, I can say that they prove to be very complementary. In both recruitment streams, candidates undergo a rigorous physical and psychological selection process (Defense House, 2016).

1.2     Brief History

Since World War II, France has regularly employed commando units like the SAS regiments, battalions of shock or the Kieffer commando (MOD, 2012b).

During the first Gulf War, units of SF (though not yet using this term) were present in the Daguet Division, but were deployed late and had only been used for specific missions.

To improve the use of SF, the French Special Operations Command was created 24 June 1992 with a view to meet the demands of a changing geopolitical context at the end of the Cold War and to improve the organisation and consistency in the use of SF units. COS started life with “85 personnel and 150 reservists” (Chaumeil, 2012, p.26). COS was given the task of federating the special forces of the Army, Navy and Air Force under a single command.

Just like other SOF organisations, COS has evolved over time as noted below (MOD, 2012b):

  • 1997: the French Army established the Army Special Forces Brigade (Brigade des Forces Spéciales Terre or BFST).
  • 2006: the Poitou Transport Squadron is dedicated to special operations.
  • 2008: The French Navy established a 6th Commando (Kieffer).
  • 2009: The 4th Special Forces Helicopter Regiment is established with helicopters from both the French Army and Air Force.

1.3     Special Forces or Commandos?

Unlike the UK Military, the French use the terms SF Operator and Commando interchangeably for their SF personnel (MOD, 2012a).

In contrast, the UK military has Commandos (and Para’s) as their Elite Forces, whilst having Special Boat Service (SBS) and Special Air Service (SAS) as their Special Forces.


2.0     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, CEMA), an OF-9 level officer.

2.1     Commander Special Operations

The Commander Special Operations (Commandant les Opérations Spéciales) is the title of the professional head of the COS (MOD, 2016).

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.

2.2     Staff and Headquarters

Working at the strategic level, the Commander COS is supported by the Special Operations Headquarters where the overall Special Operations Forces (SOF) (Air Force, Navy and Army) are federated and represented. Since 2006, the joint operational headquarters has been located on Air Force Base (AFB) 107 at Villacoublay (MOD, 2016).

COS HQ prepares specific SOF plans, courses of action (CoA) and also ensures the deployed SOF command and control. Simultaneously, it maintains the closest relationship within the various inter-agencies and international areas.

The staff is composed of approximately 70 personnel from the three branches of military service, as well as four representatives of departments and services: a health counsellor, two liaison officers from the National Gendarmerie and an engineer of the General Delegation for Armaments (MOD, 2016).

2.3     Organisational Responsibilities

“Equipment, recruitment, education and training, remain the responsibilities of the three services. French SOCOM is responsible to make sure that these forces are together full interoperable and that their equipment is coherent.” (Defense House, 2016).

COS works in close coordination with DGA (the French Ministry of Defense Procurement Agency) on the equipment major programmes. (Defense House, 2016).

2.4     French Army Special Forces Command

The French Army’s Special Forces Command (Commandement des Forces Spéciales Terre or COM FST) was established on 01 July 2016. Between 01 July 2002 and 01 July 2016, it was known as the Army Special Forces Brigade (Brigade des Forces Spéciales Terre or BFST).

COM FST is the land component of COS and consists of five units:

  • HQ located in Pau (Southern France);
  • 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.

2.5     French Navy Special Operations Forces

The Maritime Force of the Marines and Commandos (Force Maritime des Fusiliers Marins et Commandos (FORFUSCO)) is the French Navy’s Special Operations Forces (SOF).

FORFUSCO is the naval component of COS and consists of:

  • Naval Fusiliers: Dedicated to the protection of sensitive Naval sites (e.g. military ports, naval air stations, communications and ammunition depots) and are organised across seven companies (CIFUSIL).
  • Naval Commandos: They have evolved to be broadly comparable to the British Special Boat Service (SBS) and are organised across seven companies, each with their own mission specialism.

2.6     French Air Force Special Forces Command

Acting as the air component of COS, the French Air Force has several units operating in the SOF role.

  • Commando Parachute Group No.10 (Commando Parachutiste De l’Air10 (CPA 10)) is assigned to COS. It is composed of specially trained group of Air Commandos who perform missions like those conducted by the US Air Forces’ Special Tactics units.
  • Special Operations Division (Division des Opérations Spéciales (DOS)) consists of two units:
    • DOS Transport: This is the Air Force’s fixed wing (i.e. transport) special operations aviation unit. Apparently renamed to the Escadron de transport 3/61 “Poitou” (needs verification).
    • 4th RHFS (Special Forces Helicopter Regiment) (Airbus Helicopters, 2015).
    • DOS Hélicoptères: This is the Air Force’s rotary wing (i.e. helicopter) special operations aviation unit. The unit also performs combat search and rescue missions in support of the wider French military. This unit was known as the Special Helicopter Squadron (Escadrille Des Helicopteres Speciaux (EHS)) but was uprated to the 4th RHFS (Special Forces Helicopter Regiment) (Airbus Helicopters, 2015).
  • The Airlift Crew Training Centre (Centre d’Instruction des Equipages de Transport (CEIT)) provides (on standby) specially trained CEIT C130 flight crews and aircraft to support COS operations.

2.7     Other Units

COS also maintains a large support staff and a research and development branch which “works in coordination with the SOF three services on some common system developments.” (Defense House, 2016).

2.8     COS Reserve

COS also has a joint component of about 150 reservists. This reservoir, consisting of senior experts, is specific to COS and brings a valuable addition in specific areas such as expertise Initial Theatre (EIT).

The most popular specialties are those which directly affect the functioning of institutions and key enterprises (e.g. lawyers, engineers and civil) to conduct initial assessments on the theatres of operations. Reservists are also trained in conducting psychological and civil affairs operations.


3.0     Tasks

CEMA, as the chief of defence of the French military, has responsibility for defining the strategic objectives of COS, which include (MOD, 2016):

  • Planning, preparation and conduct of special operations;
  • Federation of the special operations units of the three services to achieve synergy and consistency; and
  • Adapt and improve the capacity of special operations units in coordination with the authorities organic.

3.1     Roles

COS assets undertake several roles, with a degree of interaction and interoperability (MOD, 2016):

  • Counter-terrorism;
  • Unconventional Warfare;
  • Covert reconnaissance;
  • Special reconnaissance;
  • Direct action;
  • Close protection;
  • Counter-revolutionary warfare;
  • Reconnaissance of the deep battlespace;
  • Offensive operations in the deep battlespace;
  • Battlespace preparation in transition to war;
  • Infrastructure disruption;
  • Capture of subjects of interest;
  • Human intelligence (HUMINT) collection;
  • Defence diplomacy; and
  • Training of other nations’ armed forces.

3.2     Homeland versus Overseas Roles

In France, the role of the armed forces is mainly to serve on the external theatres of operations. However, the armed forces can also be deployed over the national territory (e.g. the terrorist attacks in Paris) (Defense House, 2016).

In terms of homeland counter-terrorism, COS dedicate a transportation helicopter squadron at the disposal of the Ministry of Interior intervention units, which do not own any of these assets on their own (Defense House, 2016).


4.0     Useful Links

4.1     References

Airbus Helicopters (2015) The French Cougar: Upgraded and in Operation. Available from World Wide Web: [Accessed: 12 December, 2016].

Chaumeil, G. (2012) Vingt ans D’operations Speciales [Twenty Years of Special Operations. Armées D’aujourd’hui [Armies of Today]. ADA No. 372. July-August 2012, pp.26-28. Available from World Wide Web: [Accessed: 15 December, 2016].

Defense House (2016) Maj. Gen. de Saint-Quentin, French Special Operations Command. Available from World Wide Web: [Accessed: 15 December, 2016].

MOD (Ministry of Defence) (2012a) What are Special Operations? Available from World Wide Web: [Accessed: 15 December, 2016].

MOD (Ministry of Defence) (2012b) History of the Special Operations Command. Available from World Wide Web: [Accessed: 15 December, 2016].

MOD (Ministry of Defence) (2016) COS: Presentation. Available from World Wide Web: [Accessed: 12 December, 2016].