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ISOF Expansion September 2013


ISOF Expansion September 2013


After five years the plans for expanding the Counter Terrorism Service appear to be implementing.  ISOF is to expand from 1 to 3 Divisions with a total strength of 30,000-40,000 personnel:  Approximately 50 percent the size of US Special Operations Command supported by a population base of only 10 percent of the US.  This will require the absorption of the Ministry of Interior’s SOF to be effective.


Reporting of the expansion


The 14 August Khaima magazine mentioned that:

The Commander in Chief commanded the execution of the order for the volunteer special forces, and the latest ministerial decree on the forming of two divisions for Special Forces. An electronic site was opened for volunteers to register for both the Special Forces as well as the energy protection division. With regards to the 2 Special Forces divisions, a special request was sent out to soldiers, officers in the Iraqi army and from the old Iraqi special forces to volunteer for the induction tests for the special force.”


This was followed by an interview with the ISOF commander where he discussed expanding to 30-40,000 personnel [from 10,000].  A Regiment [battalion] is to be added in each province except Baghdad will have 4 regiments and Mosul/Basrah will each have 2 regiments added for 20-22 additional Regiments.   Further information has indicated that 1st Commando Division will have its headquarters in Mosul, 2nd Commando Division in Baghdad, and 3rd Commando Division in Basrah.


The variance of 20 to 22 additional regiments probably reflects an additional brigade for the Kurdish Region.  It is 20 battalions without the KRG Brigade and 22 with this additional independent brigade.  These numbers are of planned additional Commando and ICTF Battalions only and do not include support the necessary support battalions.


The variance of 30-40,000 personnel could be because of:

  • The possible presence/absence of a Commando Brigade in the KRG [~2,000 personnel],
  • The size of the engineering support [~1,500] and
  • Whether or not the dedicated Army Air Corps elements are counted [~4,500] as ISOF.


Counter Terrorism Service Absorbing MoI’s SWAT Battalions?


This increase in ISOF could not be done in less than a decade using just volunteers from the old IA, current IA, and new recruits unless ISOF absorbs the MoI ERBs.  ISOF’s existing training program only graduates the equivalent of 5 companies per year:  1 ICTF, 2 Commando, and 2 Recon.   The training pipeline does not support this expansion without reducing the quality of the force unless the ERBs are being taken over.  Effectively, they are improving/expanding C4I, Supply, Maintenance, and air support for the MoD/MoI SOF forces by consolidating them into 1 Corps sized command and adding the missing components.


The only high-end light infantry available to rapidly expand ISOF is MoI’s SWAT Battalions.  If the better half of the Ministry of Interior’s Emergency Response Battalions [SWAT] is being converted to ISOF Commando Battalions and the remaining half of the SWATs become Reconnaissance or support – this could be done in 2-3 years.  This would provide the C4I, Maintenance, and Logistics that the SWATs lack and coordinate the 2 separate COIN forces as one Corps.  This was suggested in 2008 but MoI resisted losing their Special Operations Forces and was going to administratively attach the SWAT Brigades as a fifth brigade in each Federal Police Division.  However, the MoI has insufficient C4I, Logistics, and Maintenance for their own forces in the FP.  It appears MoI’s failure to provide support to the ERBs has resulted in a return to the original plan of consolidating the Iraqi MoD/MoI Special Operations Forces into a separate service under the Minister of National Security.  The third leg of the Troika finally is forming.


This absorption of the ERBs is also inferred by the plan for at least a battalion per province – that is right out of the ERB/FP basing plan and not ISOF’s regional approach to garrisoning.  While the addition of the 17,000+ ERB personnel to ISOF’s 10-12,000 existing personnel does not reach 30-40,000 total personnel – it does provide for the additional commandos and recon personnel needed, the remainder of the expansion would be support elements.


The reason that ISOF could absorb the Emergency Response Battalions as commandos without a reduction in quality of troops is based on the similarities in training.  The personnel for MoI’s 30-42 ERBs* were selected by taking the 98+ Battalions of provincial Emergency Response Units [SWAT] and running them through a 3 month Selection Course based on ISOF’s Operator Selection Course.  The top 50% of the graduates of the MoI Selection Course went to the National ERBs.  In ISOF, the top 50% of OSC are also accepted except they are further broken down into:

  • 91-100 percentiles go to ICTF,
  • 71-90 percentiles to Commandos, and
  • 51-70 percentiles to support such as Recon or Security.


 [*30 ERBs identified in open source reporting out of a planned target of 42 battalions.  17,000+ personnel indicate they have approximately 34 ERBs.]


It would normally take 3-4 years to fill a third ICTF Battalion since there will need to be a new selection from the new personnel but, they can immediately form three 70% strength ICTF Battalions out of the 2 existing ICTF Battalions and fill those battalions to 100% with personnel from the SWATs that pass OSC over the next 3-4 years.  Normally only ~3 percent of initial volunteers graduate into the top 10% of OSC and thus into ICTF.   However, these ERB/SWAT personnel have already been through the MoI version of OSC and made the top 50% - Indicating that 10-20 percent of MoI’s 17,000 ERB personnel could be absorbed into the ICTF Battalions.  This could mean the eventual target strength of 1 ICTF Battalion per Commando Brigade is intended vice the currently estimated 1 ICTF Battalion per Division.  Until then the existing ERBs can be quickly sorted, reorganized and used in Commando, Recon, and Security Battalions.  Additional support personnel will be required.


Light Armor?


This expansion also puts a new light on IMoD’s Indonesian shopping trip last fall.  Their interest in the Anoa Armored Personnel Carrier did not fit with IMoD’s focus – it is more the type of APC that COIN units would use.  Planning for the new Commando Divisions would have been in progress a year ago if the actual order to execute was this year. This would not be the first indication of wheeled APCs being added to ISOF.  In 2009 training of ISOF maintenance personnel on BTR80s was reported but the BTR80s never transferred.  This could mean that the Commando Battalions are to be partially or wholly wheeled APC mounted like the old IA’s Commandos were.  Traditionally, Iraqi Commandos are mounted light infantry…


Commando Division Organization and Support elements


The above illustration and organization listed in the ISF OOB is based on the number of personnel and battalions being added, the stated distribution of battalions and with a modified IA Infantry Division Organizational structure as listed in Appendix B.  The modification to the standard Divisional TOE was to strip out the field artillery, mortar, ADA, AT and other battalions that ISOF does not use and does not require for its roles and missions while adding an AAC Aviation Brigade to support each Division.


The support structure reflects existing ISOF C4I, Logistics, Maintenance, and Training structures expanded to Corps size.  Of the Iraqi Security Forces, ISOF has the best support structure while MoI’s ERBs have one of the worst support structures.  Expanding the support structure as part of this reorganization will be the greatest difficulties faced.


One thing to remember concerning these administrative structures:  In practice SOF troops rarely operate above Company strength detachments – most operations are squad or platoon strength.  All Corps and Divisional Troops will normally operate in detachments supporting or augmenting the Commando Battalions.  This is especially true of the ICTF Battalions and the ISOF AAC Air support - Both of those elements regularly operate in small detachments where and when needed.  Effectively, the ISOF organization above battalion is administrative and support as SOF normally conducts small unit light infantry operations…

DJ Elliott