Keeping Alliance SOF “A Step Ahead” – The MSAP TC in Zadar
Training helicopter air crews in the art of transporting special forces on operations of all kinds, day or night, in all weathers, is crucial to enhance interoperability and readiness between member states. Enabling those crews to train in one place is why the Multinational Special Aviation Programme Training Centre (MSAP TC) in Croatia was established.
MSAP is a training facility for helicopter crews who conduct the insertion and extraction of Special Operations Forces (SOF). Supported by NATO Special Operations Headquarters in Mons, Belgium and two mentor nations – Poland and the US — the MSAP TC is available for the entire NATO Community. This article takes a look at the MSAP TC from inception to the present.
Background and Opening
The Multinational Special Aviation Programme Training Centre has just entered its fourth year of operations. Back in late 2018, four allies, represented by the defence ministers from Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary and Slovenia, signed an MoU to create the MSAP, with a training facility in Zadar, Croatia. The new training centre (TC) was to be dedicated exclusively to training rotary-wing air crews in the art of conducting SOF insertion and extraction operations. NATO’s Deputy Secretary General, Rose Gottemoeller, said at the time that, that in a changing world, NATO had to continue to adapt to meet evolving security threats and with SOF having proven to be a highly valuable and versatile tool for responding effectively to many such challenges, it made sense to establish the new training centre to enhance their skills. The establishment of the MSAP TC, as a co-operative arrangement, was underpinned as emblematic of the innovative approach NATO Allies and partners were now taking to enhance the collective defence capabilities between all members of the alliance.
The whole concept of the MSAP TC had been launched three years earlier with a Letter of Intent (LoI) signed in June 2015 between the defence ministers of those same four nations. That was followed in September 2016 by the countries’ chiefs of defence signing an LoI, and underscoring its intended focus on multinational training co-operation. The new aviation training programme was to be established in a gradual manner, expanding training opportunities offered to SOF over time and, in the process, creating an important new asset within NATO that would contribute to the alliance’s adaptability and readiness. The TC was scheduled, at a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signing in 2018, to have its doors open by the end of the following year.
True to that scheduling and solid efforts by the Croatians, the new MSAP TC at Zadar opened in mid-December 2019, dedicated, from the outset, to training air crews responsible for transporting alliance SOF operatives. Represented at the opening, which was hosted by Croatian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defence, Damir Krstičević, were defence ministers and representatives of the four participating allied nations, as well as Chief of the General Staff of the Croatian Armed Forces, General Mirko Šundov, and the NATO Assistant Secretary General for Defence Investment, Camille Grand. The Commander of NATO Special Operations Headquarters, Lieutenant General Eric Wendt was also present, but it was Grand who said at the time that the MSAP epitomised what the alliance was all about, that allies achieved more together than they ever could individually, and that by committing to training the next generation of SOF aviation crews in one place, it laid the foundations for ever more seamless joint operations.
Plans announced at the opening were for academic training to begin in 2020, before the start of flight training in 2021. The reason Zadar was selected for the new facility was because of its geographic location; with easy access to mountainous, sea and island settings, it offers training opportunities for helicopter crews in a wide variety of topographical environments and challenging possible scenarios.
Despite the arrival of COVID, the 2020 academic year went ahead as planned, and the MSAP TC’s first group of students graduated from a first training module in October 2020. Flight training got underway in 2021, and in September that year, the team at Zadar convened a special aviation gathering for senior Special Operations’ commanders, in order to discuss future training programmes for SOF aviation, as well as to demonstrate the full capabilities the training centre now had to offer. Emphasising the importance of the MSAP TC in his opening address, Croatian Director of General Staff, Major General Ivica Olujić, stressed how the centre offered exceptional facilities and opportunities for aviation crews from across Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary, Slovenia, though with support from Poland and the US. Opportunities to train together, not simply in one location, but a location that offers experience of such diverse terrain. He commented on how the new programme, by integrating Croatian Special Operations Command and Aviation Special Operations, was also an exceptional opportunity, at a national level, for Croatian Special Operations and Air Force (HRZ) to gain experience, exchange knowledge, and develop their capabilities of working together.
MSAP TC’s Director, Colonel (at the time) Tomislav Pušnik, together with Colonel Raffaele La Montagna, NATO Special Operations Headquarters Director, Air Development Programme, delivered an overview of the programme, its history and the objectives of the training programme to the distinguished audience; this was the first time such a distinguished and relevant SOF ‘assemblage’ from across the alliance had come into direct contact with the programme. Pušnik explained the relevance of the centre for the Special Operations Air Task Unit, and gave the assembled guests a full idea of MSAP TC capabilities, what training at the centre would impart on all participants, as well as how, by alliance nations coming together for the same training, would enhance the interoperability between NATO member SOF and assets. Indeed, when it comes to interoperability, MSAP instruction and training focuses on the use of a common approach for joint training missions to ensure student pilots understand they are learning the necessary skills expected by, and throughout, the alliance. At the time, Pušnik said, “The security situation in the world is rapidly changing. In the future, it is hard to predict conventional conflicts, so we should be a step ahead.” How right he was, considering where we are now! And he continued by saying that the best way to keep ahead was to organise small units on a tactical level, which would be capable of reaching strategic effect. Hence, the reason for MSAP TC.
As the centre was now well into its first flight training year, with flight courses having started in June 2021, the September 2021 gathering was treated to an afternoon tactical demonstration displaying the importance of special operations aviators and operatives working together to capture a high-value target in two different scenarios. In each, the ground operatives required close co-ordination with the aviators to ensure rapid infiltration and exfiltration, while at the same time, ground operatives worked closely with Joint Terminal Attack Control (JTAC) to call in close air support. Commenting on the demonstration, NATO’s Special Operations Headquarters Senior Representative at the event, Colonel Christopher Cassem stated, “The capabilities demonstrated today highlight the importance of combined air and ground training in special operations. Together, their joint capabilities are ready to respond to any threat, from any direction, at any time.”
Planning together is mission critical for special operations aviators and operatives, hence being a chief element of MSAP TC training and highlighted on the day. Also impressed with what he’d seen, Major General David Tabor, US Special Operations Command Europe Commander at the time, (now, since mid-2022, Director of Programmes, USAF), said, “I’m excited about the future that the MSAP holds, not only for Croatia, but for the entire alliance, because while this is about building capabilities and capacity to defeat our common adversaries, it is also about reinforcing friendships.”
The MSAP initiative is one of what NATO calls its High Visibility Projects (HVPs), which focus on delivering the most critical capabilities in an accelerated manner by creating political commitments in the form of agreements signed by defence ministers. An initial document, also called a Letter of Intent (LOI), as described earlier in MSAP’s case, outlines the general co-operation idea and is signed by the defence ministers involved in the project. It is followed by the signature of an MoU, again, as described earlier in the case of this programme; this is a legally binding document specifying the details of co-operation. The MoUs provide the necessary legal framework for the execution of the implementation phase towards the delivery of the specific capability. The high-level political involvement dramatically increases the prospects of expedient and tangible progress.
All that explained, MSAP is actually one of only three HVPs covering the area of SOF. The other two sister projects, for the sake of continuity, are C-SOCC (Composite Special Operations Component Command) and R-SOCC (Regional Special Operations Component Command).
In the MSAP case, all of the four participating allies were assigned NATO targets to establish Special Operations aviation units with vertical lift capabilities by 2025, and they made the decision to work together to fulfil those targets. The MSAP initiative and LoI launched by the four allies here, agreed to collaborate to provide a Special Operations Air Task Unit, with the training component identified early on as the most promising opportunity for co-operation. Indeed, it was a training-specific agreement that was signed by their Chiefs of Defence in September 2016 and the rest, as they say, is history, as described earlier.
Yet why is the MSAP TC so important? As highly trained soldiers in small, elite units, SOF conduct a broad range of operational scenarios in many demanding regions around the world, but there are challenges in providing the necessary training to such teams in an economical manner. However, by pooling resources at the MSAP TC, the participating allies experience cost-effective, specialist training on one site, though one that is expected to expand its training opportunities further and may also increase the number of participating allies, in due course. At this time, the facility is funded and staffed equally by the four participant nations, with each having the right to use MSAP in proportion to its financial contributions and contributions in kind. The host nation, Croatia, provides the necessary infrastructure.
MSAP provides a unique opportunity for allied SOF aviation crews to train together, intensely, in one, geographically-versatile, helicopter training area to strengthen SOF interoperability, increase operational readiness, and enhance NATO’s overall deterrence and defence capabilities.
Recently at MSAP TC
In September 2021, the MSAP TC conducted a three-week Joint Personnel Recovery Flight Training (JPRFT) course in which all MSAP nations: Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary and Slovenia, participated together for the first time with aircrews and SOF. The training was conducted at the Pukovnik Mirko Vukušić barracks in Zemunik, in the wider Zadar area, as well as on training areas and ranges of the Croatian Armed Forces. As well as participants from the Croatian Air Force (HRZ) and SOF Command, training was supported by other units from Croatian Armed Forces, including the Croatian Army. Aircraft used during the training, included an Mi-171Sh helicopter from Croatia, two AS 532 helicopters from Bulgaria and Slovenia, and an H145M helicopter from Hungary. The HRZ’s OH-58D Kiowa Warrior helicopters and Pilatus PC-9 aircraft also participated in some of the training segments.
Illustrating just how high profile the MSAP Programme has become over a relatively short space of time, at the end of this extensive training period, the MSAP TC held a Distinguished Visitors Day (DV Day), which was attended by Bulgaria’s ambassador to Croatia, Mrs Genka Vasileva Gergieva, US Counsellor and chargé d’affaires, Mr Mark Fleming, Bulgarian Defence Attaché, Brigadier Yoan Pavlov, as well as representatives and commanders of Croatia’s MoD, the HRZ, and special forces commanders, as well as opposite numbers and other distinguished guests from the other three allied nations.
Then, in December 2021, a ceremony and gathering took place at the Colonel Mirko Vukušić barracks in Zemunik, to mark the MSAP TC’s 3rd Anniversary. The event was attended by the Commander of Croatia’s Special Forces Command, Brigadier Ivan Miloš, together with the HRZ’s representative and commander of its 93rd Wing, Brigadier Krešimir Ražov, along with officers and non-commissioned officers from the barracks. The occasion saw MSAP TC director, the now ‘Brigadier’ Tomislav Pušnik, and his deputy director, Hungarian Colonel Dezso Takacs, present certificates of appreciation to the commanders of the armed forces’ units, which have, over the past three years, provided exceptional support in the daily academic and flight-training work of the MSAP TC. Brigadier Pušnik said that their support had ensured the centre’s ability to deliver top-quality, effective training during this period.
The importance of MSAP TC is why it is supported by the NATO Special Operations Headquarters at Mons in Belgium, as well as benefitting from informal ties with the Special Operations aviation communities of selected allies. As already stated, this SOF cooperation between so many nations, in one place, is said to be unique to NATO. With alliance standards applied throughout by all participants passing through the TC, not only is it set to increase interoperability amongst the four initial participant nations, but also throughout the alliance, and potentially beyond, with other NATO partners. Such potential stakeholders may decide to join MSAP in the future, which could lead to a further expansion of the centre’s scope.
For the moment, the four founding MSAP allies will continue to explore the feasibility of similar multinational arrangements between them, which might be of mutual benefit, including in other areas essential to the effective functioning of their Special Operations aviation units, such as in acquisition, logistical support, or infrastructure.
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