By: Tess deBlanc-Knowles

Following a trend of the last decade across the NATO special operations community, in January 2014, Norway established a Norwegian Special Operations Command, bringing together Norwegian SOF (NORSOF) for the first time under a joint umbrella. The establishment of Norwegian Special Operations Command (NORSOCOM) united the two existing branches of Norwegian SOF, Forsvarets Spesialkommando (FSK) and Marinejegerkommandoen (MJK), into a single Service-like combatant command under the leadership of a two-star flag officer, Rear Admiral Nils Johan Holte. In doing so, NORSOCOM distinguished itself from other recently formed joint SOF counterparts in its realization not only as a Joint SOF command, but also as an independent branch of the Norwegian Armed Forces, on par with the Services.

The creation of NORSOCOM—not without challenges—offers a model for other nations to consider in optimizing SOF as a national strategic tool.  For Norway, the unification of NORSOF into a joint command has been implemented at a pivotal moment, providing to the force tools and mechanisms to cohesively address the evolving threat from the East, especially the specter of Russian hybrid warfare.

History of NORSOF

NORSOF finds its origins, as with many European SOF, in the resistance movements of WWII. Under the command of the British Special Operations Executive, Norwegian Jægers (which translates to English as “hunters”) launched from Great Britain to stage attacks along the Norwegian coastline. The unit, named Norwegian Independent Company 1 and later renamed Company Linge (after the death of famed commander Captain Martin Linge during Operation “Archery” in December 1941), conducted commando raids and economic sabotage, primarily on the west coast of Norway. It was due to the efforts of these daring Company Linge soldiers that Operation “Gunnerside,” was launched. Heralded as the most successful act of sabotage of the war, the operation destroyed a heavy water production facility in Norway, effectively preventing the Germans from producing the heavy water needed to build an atomic bomb.[1]

After the war, the Norwegian special units were disbanded and not resurrected until the 1960s. During the Cold War, NORSOF developed as two independent entities: (1) the FSK, which began as an Army paratrooper unit and evolved into to a special unit well versed in direct action, long range reconnaissance, and with the primary responsibility for maintaining a military counterterrorism force and (2) the MJK, a specialized Naval unit with core capabilities of special surveillance and reconnaissance, direct action, and expertise in operating in extreme climates.[2]

In the years following the end of the Cold War, the two NORSOF units modernized and grew, operating alongside NATO partners first in the Balkans and then in Afghanistan. Due to actions in Afghanistan, NORSOF earned the highest honor the U.S. President can bestow upon Allied Forces: The Presidential Unit Citation. The citation was awarded for NORSOF’s participation in Operation Enduring Freedom, in Operation Anaconda as part of Task Force K-Bar.[3]

Likely as a by-product of the close coordination between NORSOF and their NATO SOF counterparts in Afghanistan, NORSOF have assumed a leading role in the effort to strengthen the network of global SOF partners, first launched with the establishment of the NATO SOF Headquarters and continued through the stand up of the international SOF liaison division at U.S. Special Operations Command.

Coming Together Under One Roof

The two branches of NORSOF, FSK and MJK, evolved over the years in tandem, reaching a similar breadth and level of capabilities. And although the units often deployed to the same theaters and brought similar capabilities, they did not regularly conduct joint operations or activities. This redundancy in capabilities contributed to the recognition by national decision makers of the need to bring the two branches together into a joint structure.[4]

Prior to the establishment of NORSOCOM, NORSOF were represented at the strategic level with a “National Military Staff Element for Special Operations” (in NATO SOF study parlance) constituted as a Special Operations Section within the Chief of Defense Staff’s Department of Operations. This strategic level element provided SOF expertise and options to national decision makers, without command and control or force generation responsibilities.

The establishment of the NORSOCOM brought the FSK and MJK out from under their respective Services into a joint Service-like combatant command, equivalent within the defense structure to the Army, Navy, Air Force, Home Guard, and Cyber commands; and elevated the senior NORSOF officer in the defense structure to a two-star, the same rank as his Service counterparts. With this formation of a joint SOF command at the strategic level, the relevance of NORSOF within strategic national decision-making was solidified.[5]

Growing pains

Of course, this strategic merger was not without its speed bumps.  In 2013, when the Chief of Defense’s initial recommendation for reorganization involved relocating and merging MJK into the existing FSK bases and organizational structures, the NORSOF community was thrown into turmoil.  Resistance within the MJK community to this perceived de facto dissolution of the unit reached such a height that it attracted the attention of the national press. In the end, a compromise was reached, bringing MJK and FSK into a joint command located on the neutral ground of Oslo.

In the aftermath of this internal discord, the challenge then fell to the new command to build a common NORSOCOM culture and a level of trust between the branches.  NORSOCOM Commander, Rear Admiral Holte, addressed this challenge in a speech delivered after 10 weeks on the job: “I have found that the differences [between the units] are clearly dominated by cultural similarities as these are developed from a specialized concurrence in the mission, equipment, operational focus, selection of personnel, operational experience, etc. I am set to establish a new branch of the Armed Forces structure — on a par with the other armed Services. And like the other commanders, it is also my goal that my organization will be characterized by a positive community, respect, and a willingness to develop into the future — together.”  Rear Admiral Holte concluded that the culture of NORSOCOM could be formed in a manner that respects the uniqueness of each unit’s culture and maintains each unit’s historic links to its Service.[6]

NORSOF’s evolution since WWII, as two thoroughly independent branches, means that substantial challenges remain for the newly established NORSOCOM to develop into a cohesive, unified Service. Beyond preserving each unit’s link to its respective Service, it also remains true that SOF cannot operate without conventional support, especially in small states such as Norway.  Furthermore, the force generation responsibilities assigned to NORSOCOM are limited to SOF-specific issues.[7]

NORSOF of the future

However, with NORSOF’s challenges come opportunities. The evolution of the European strategic environment and the emergence of Russian hybrid warfare present new threats and new tasks to NORSOF.  The well-timed establishment of NORSOCOM postures NORSOF to more comprehensively address this dynamic and evolve the force to meet current and future challenges.  A strategic level, Service-like combatant command provides leverage and resources to refine NORSOF as a strategic tool through selection, training, force generation, doctrine, and equipment. NORSOF are thus well positioned to reorient and optimize the force in the face of threats from both Russia and violent extremist organizations.

Lessons for the global SOF community

The approach pursued by NORSOF represents an option nations can pursue in optimizing their SOF for strategic returns.  And as the NORSOF command develops, lessons learned from its organizational growing pains can help smooth the transition for other nations on a similar path.  Similarly, as NORSOCOM reorients NORSOF capabilities to confront the hybrid threats of today, it has the opportunity to model for national decision makers and international partners the benefit provided by a joint SOF command; and to a greater extent, the central role that SOF will play within this evolving strategic environment.

(Photo: Audun Braastad / NTB scanpix)


[1] Daniel Miller, “Hero of the Telemark dies aged 101: WWII commando carried out raid on Norwegian Hydro plant to thwart Nazi’s A-bomb plans,” The Daily Mail, 10 December 2012.  Accessed at: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2245979/Hero-Telemark-dies-aged-101-WWII-carried-raid-Hydroelectric-plant-thwart-Hitlers-nuclear-ambitions.html

[2] Kjetil Mellingen, “Strategic Utilization Of Norwegian Special Operations Forces,” Naval Postgraduate School Thesis, June 2010

[3] “Author Conversations: Tom Bakkeli – Inside the Special Forces,” Thor News, http://thornews.com/2014/02/15/author-conversations-tom-bakkeli-inside-the-special-forces/

[4] Tommy Olsen and Marius Thormodsen, “Forging Norwegian Special Operations Forces,” Naval Postgraduate School Thesis, June 2014

[5] Eirik Kristoffersen, “Small States – Smart Solutions: Investing in National Joint Special Operations Command,” United States Army War College Strategy Research Project, April 2015

[6] Olsen and Thormodsen, “Forging Norwegian Special Operations Forces”

[7] Kristoffersen, “Small States – Smart Solutions”