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Ukraine turns to Tampa group for help setting up new commando HQ

Viktor Muzhenko, general of the army of Ukraine and the army chief of staff, meets retired U.S. Army Col. Stu Bradin, president and CEO of the Global SOF Foundation in Tampa.
Published Nov. 21, 2016

Commando forces in the Ukraine were decimated during fighting in 2014 against pro-Russian insurgents and so-called "little green men" — masked Russian commandos in unmarked army uniforms.

So when it came time to rebuild and adjust to modern warfare, Ukrainian officials turned for help to the non-profit Global SOF Foundation, a Tampa-based special operations advocacy group.

Today, the foundation is credited with helping put Ukraine on the right footing with advice on structuring a special operations command, communicating with other nations and learning best practices for commando warfare.

"The role of the Global SOF Foundation in this process is difficult to overestimate," said Oleksandr Danylyuk, chairman of Ukraine's Centre for Defense Reforms.

"After the Russian aggression in 2014, it became clear that modern war is more unconventional and therefore requires unconventional responses," said Danylyuk, at the time the chief adviser to his nation's minister of defense.

When the Russians and their allies attacked, Ukraine had four special forces regiments and a special forces defense intelligence unit, Danylyuk said. He would not say how big they were.

"Unfortunately, Ukraine was forced to use them mostly as elite infantry," he said, "which led to significant losses among the personnel of these units."

Danylyuk lobbied his government to do what the United States did after its failed mission in 1980 to rescue hostages from Iran — create a unified command that synchronizes forces to fight using unconventional tactics.

In the United States, Special Operations Command was established at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa.

Danylyuk found support from his government, but it was one thing to come up with an idea for a Ukraine Special Operations Command and another to make it a reality.

That's where the Global SOF Foundation entered the picture.

Last October, Stu Bradin was speaking at an international conference in the Baltics when he was asked to help the Ukrainians. A retired Army colonel, Bradin served as a top aide in Tampa to former SOCom leader William McRaven.

After retiring, he founded the Global SOF Foundation, whose work includes providing advocacy and advice for special operations forces worldwide and holding conferences in Tampa that attract top international commando leaders.

To Bradin, the challenges of Ukraine's special operations reminded him of Desert One — the hostage-rescue mission ordered by then-President Jimmy Carter that left eight U.S. service members dead and equipment in the hands of Iranians.

"They got wiped out," Bradin said, speaking of the Ukrainian commandos. "These guys will fight till the last drop of blood. These are rock-hard nationalists. I have never seen a more motivated group of people not afraid to die for their country."

SOCom has no relationship with Ukraine's special operations command. But using examples from SOCom and from commando operations of other nations, Bradin recommended creating a flexible, rapidly deployable force that could react quickly through a limited command structure.

He also recommended that the Ukrainian forces work toward compatibility with NATO, the defense alliance of more than two dozen largely European nations. Ukraine isn't a member.

"You need a flatter, more responsive chain of command," Bradin said. "You have to move quickly and surgically. If not, don't do it. You will just get wiped out."

Bradin and Danylyuk bounced around ideas for the new command by email. With Bradin's guidance and support from Irina Friz, a key member of Ukraine's parliament, Danylyuk saw his government authorize the new command in July.

Bradin, who visited Ukraine in September, said progress there reminds him of the early days of SOCom.

"They just got their base in Kiev," he said. "It's an old engineer base. A derelict. We laughed about it. It is a horrible place, but all special ops start in places like that."

Contact Howard Altman at haltman@tampabay.com or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.

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