President Obama announced Monday that the United States would send an additional 250 Special Operations forces to Syria, a small but significant escalation in America’s ongoing campaign in the region.
The extent of what U.S. Special Operations forces are doing in Syria and neighboring Iraq is unclear. While some units are acting chiefly as advisers to local forces such as the Iraqi army and Kurdish peshmerga, other teams — probably elements of Joint Special Operations Command — have conducted raids against the Islamic State, capturing and killing key leaders of the extremist group. Pentagon officials have been loath to comment on their deployments, citing operational security concerns.
Recent footage posted online over the weekend from news site France24, though, provides some insight.
The video, shot in February as the Syrian Democratic Forces battled for the eastern Syrian town of Shadadi, shows a small contingent of U.S. forces acting as an observation element for what appears to be U.S. airstrikes carried out by A-10 ground attack aircraft.
Shadadi, a border town that served as a conduit for Islamic State forces bound for Iraq, was seized relatively quickly by the Syrian Democratic Forces and Syrian Kurds. The Pentagon trumpeted the battle’s outcome, hailing the operation’s success and speed as a model for its campaign in Syria. The Syrian Democratic Forces — a coalition of Syrian opposition groups — and Syrian Kurds took most of Shadadi in less than a week, supported by U.S. airstrikes and Special Operations forces on the ground.
The team in the video is likely a mixture of troops from various Special Operations units, which could include Air Force Tactical Air Command and Air Control Party Specialists, Army Green Berets, and members of the Army’s Delta Force.
While little takes place in the short video, much of the U.S. troops’ mission can be discerned from the type of equipment they are carrying. Aside from their weapons, including Remington’s Modular Sniper Rifle, an M-32 semiautomatic grenade launcher and what appears to be a hatchet, the Special Operations troops’ real firepower comes from a suite of inconspicuous devices that allow them to call in airstrikes.
In the footage and above images, the troops are clearly behind the lines, as they are operating from recently constructed berms. One soldier is likely operating a Leupold Mk.4 spotting scope on a tripod, while the soldier in front of him is pointing an LA-16U handheld laser marker. The spotting scope contains crosshairs that would give the observer the ability to watch and correct airstrikes by using markers in the crosshairs. The handheld laser marker, meanwhile, fires a laser that contains a four digit code, known as a pulse repetition frequency. The same code is also set on the supporting aircraft’s laser guided munitions, allowing the bomb to “see” the laser on the ground and guide itself into the target. Handheld laser markers are relatively new and are often not as accurate at longer ranges when compared with the larger laser-designating devices used by more conventional units.
Another piece of equipment is highlighted in the image above. The device, only slightly bigger than an iPhone, serves as a crucial node that allows U.S. forces to be effective observers for airstrikes without actually being in combat. The Remote Operations Video Enhanced Receiver (ROVER), which has been used since the mid-2000s, allows for overhead aircraft to transmit a video feed from their sensors to troops on the ground. The ROVER allows that feed to be funneled securely to another device, such as a computer or tablet. Older versions of the ROVER had a slight delay between the aircraft and the ground, forcing air controllers to use additional means to ensure they had real-time information before they were allowed to strike targets seen through the ROVER. The newer iteration, called the Tactical ROVER-p and seen in this image, is billed as providing real-time imagery.