Small Wars Journal

Defying Stereotypes: The Untapped Potential of Integrating Female Reconnaissance Operators Into Small State NATO SOF

Mon, 10/29/2018 - 2:41pm

Defying Stereotypes: The Untapped Potential of Integrating Female Reconnaissance Operators Into Small State NATO SOF


Fredrik Sunde and Marius Kristiansen


SWJ Editor’s Note – A list of abbreviations is included at the end of the article.




In 2017, Norway spent 1.59 % of its GDP on the military, a modest 6.309 billion USD compared to the United Kingdom (UK) spending 54.863 billion and the United States (US) spending 683.414 billion USD. In comparison, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania spent respectively 519, 487 and 758 million USD. The total defence expenditure in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) was in 2017, 945.962 billion USD (NATO, 2017). In spite of caveats in size, Norway and the Norwegian military has strategic importance for NATO due to its long coastal line connecting to the North Atlantic Ocean, thus separating the United States and Russia. The combination of a modest military capacity and the potential for strategic depth, is current for several other small NATO states as well. Special Operations Forces (SOF) is an important arena where such small states can contribute militarily. In SOF, quality is more important than quantity, and human abilities are more important than expensive equipment. The Norwegian Special Operations Forces (NORSOF) is internationally acknowledged for being professional and competent. NORSOF is strategically crucial for Norway’s international esteem, especially with regards to its influence in NATO. For a small state such as Norway, SOF can provide political influence and credibility at a relatively small economic cost (Mellingen, 2010).


For the first time in history, the number of people living in urban areas exceeds the number of people living in rural areas. Global urbanisation will continue to accelerate, and the world’s urban population is expected to increase by three billion people by 2050. Two-thirds of the population will be living in cities in the not so distant future. Rapid growth in urban areas places substantial demands on the responsible governments, which will primarily be in Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, where the predominance of this growth will take place (Buhaug & Urdal, 2013, pp.1-9). The global urbanisation will lead to conflicts and political turmoil. Due to their low footprint and high precision, SOF are desired assets in dealing with conflicts in populated areas. The dependence on NATO SOF will continue, and Norway will together with other small member-states have a continued responsibility.


Special Reconnaissance (SR), one of the core responsibilities of NATO SOF, will in the future primarily take place in urban areas. To operate in such areas without being detected, one must be able to blend in and represent the diversity of the people. Currently, NORSOF, like the majority of SOF around the world, is almost exclusively male-dominated, especially among the special operators. Therefore, NORSOF is not able to release the full potential when it comes to conducting SR, especially in urban areas where interaction with people is often inevitable. Mixed gender, or all-female SR teams, will have a lower signature and break with the stereotype, thus mitigating the risk of being compromised by the enemy. Experiences from recent conflicts show that while operating in gender segregated areas, having only male operators excludes NORSOF from interacting with the female half of the population. Female operators will also have a different psychological access to both male and female targets, thereby increasing information access for NORSOF.


Fundamental values in SOF’s nature are innovation and ambition, i.e. having the ability to adapt to and overcome any task at hand (JP 3-05, 2014). Female operators will provide operational flexibility and diversity to NORSOF, thereby increasing the SR capacity in future conflicts. This is true for other small state NATO SOF as well, thus a natural next step is to integrate women in professional operational functions, first and foremost in SR.


Academic Attention to SR


The first decade of the 21st century has seen a significant increase in the use of SOF, especially in NATO (Eriksson & Pettersson, 2018, pp.1-6). This has been evident in the recent campaigns in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, among others (Horn, 2018, pp. 15-28). Following the increased utilisation of SOF, there has been a corresponding increase in the academic literature on such forces, primarily focusing on DA counterterrorism (CT) and counterinsurgency (COIN), as well as SOF strategy. There is a lack of academic attention to SR, and consequently very few openly available publications on the subject.


Most of the existing literature is centred on the use of SOF from the perspective of a militarily strong nation-state, i.e. the US or the UK. There is a gap in the academic literature concerning the use and development of SOF capabilities from a small state perspective. This gap includes research on the utility of SOF for a small state, both at the tactical and the operational level, and perhaps more importantly as a strategic instrument to stay competitive in a modern and complex security environment (Eriksson & Pettersson, 2017).


The modest academic debate on SR is dominated by technological advances and equipment, such as remotely piloted Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) platforms. The technological aspects of SR have stolen the attention from the more traditional SR conducted by humans, using more rudimentary technological means (Westberg, 2016, pp.1-25). The future of SR will undoubtedly rely heavily on technology, and the academic debate should reflect this. However, there will always be a need for humans and inter-human interaction in intelligence gathering and reconnaissance. Technological advances do not replace the need for humans; rather, the two complement each other. No matter how effective a technological asset is, some intelligence question cannot be answered through technical means (Cline, 2005, p.588). On that account, the academic and operational attention to human SR should not be neglected.


Research Design


This paper is based on a qualitative study of NORSOF. In the study, twelve high ranking officers in NORSOF and the Norwegian military were interviewed according to an interview template, thereby ensuring consistency in the research. The interviewees participating in this research generated original primary source data, enabling unique insight to the subject. The sample group consists of some of the most experienced people in Scandinavia with regard to SR, in addition to the central leadership in NORSOF. There are no existing publications with such a comprehensive sample group looking into this subject, thus the qualitative data that will be presented in this paper provides a notable insight.


Most of the interviewees are still serving secretly in the military and did not want their identities disclosed. Below is a list of the people interviewed.


  • Head of operations in the Norwegian Special Operations Command (NORSOC/FSK)
  • A former operator in NORSOC and currently a senior intelligence officer in the Military Intelligence Battalion (EBN)
  • A former officer in the intelligence unit of NORSOC and currently Chief Sergeant in EBN
  • The officer responsible for establishing the female SR platoon and former second in command in NORSOC’s Training Wing
  • The first platoon commander of the female SR platoon (responsible for the operational aspects of its establishment)
  • Anders Westberg - Former officer in SWESOF and currently a lecturer at the Swedish Defence College
  • A Squadron leader in SWESOF with vast experience in SR
  • A Squadron leader in the Navy Special Operations Command (NSOC/MJK)
  • Colonel Brage Larssen - Current Commander of NORSOC
  • Major General Eirik Kristoffersen - Commander of NORSOC during the establishment of the female SR platoon. Former second in command in NORSOCOM, and currently head of the Norwegian Home Guard
  • Rear Admiral Nils Johan Holte - Commander of NORSOCOM during the establishment of the female SR platoon
  • Rear Admiral Louise Dedichen - head of the Norwegian Defence College

Special Reconnaissance


The purpose of SR is to achieve relative certainty, i.e. the state of having sufficient actionable intelligence on the opponent or target, so that the decision-makers can make an informed decision about the course of action in a specific case. Actionable intelligence can be defined as highly detailed and specific intelligence (Westberg, 2016). Thus, SR is a natural part of the intelligence cycle (Herman, 1996, pp.285) and its purpose can be closely linked to the purpose of intelligence activities defined by David Omand (2010, pp.22) as improving the quality of decision-making by reducing ignorance. Actionable intelligence is especially crucial for SOF, as they often do high-risk missions and operate within limited time frames (AWE, 2017, pp.155-179).


SR can be separated into several different categories. The most common differentiation is between rural and urban SR; all the interviewees separated SR into these two main categories. There are also technical forms of SR, though this paper will only focus on the human forms. The two above mentioned types of SR are rather self-explanatory. However, the difference is not always clear and constant throughout an SR mission, as a specific mission sometimes shifts between the two.


Actual Capacity Versus Required Capacity


The question remains if NORSOF’s SR capacity matches the requirements of the current and future threat environment. All the interviewees assessed that NORSOF currently has a better capacity to solve traditional rural SR missions, without human interaction, compared to SR in urban environments. There was also a consensus among the entire sample group that the most challenging SR missions facing NORSOF are those entailing human interaction, consequently in urban areas. Future conflicts will take place in or around cities, involving state and non-state armed groups, using irregular methods aiming to avoid direct confrontation with powerful government forces, i.e. NATO countries (Kilcullen, 2013, pp.102-113). Operating in cities against such adversaries requires adaptable operators able to gather local knowledge and high-quality intelligence.

Many of the future special operations will take place in urban areas. Our world is moving towards super urbanisation… Megacities already exist, often in coastal areas, and they are full of turmoil, so when we are operating in those areas we are facing much greater challenges compared to when we are observing (a target) from a distant lay-up point. This is probably the greatest challenge we are facing… The transition from operating in a rural area to operating in an urban area represents a significant challenge, and this is where the value of women in reconnaissance roles becomes evident.


-- Rear Admiral Holte.

The SR NORSOF masters the best is arguably not the most relevant concerning future missions. If most of the near future conflicts will take place in cities, then the rural capacity will be less important than the urban capacity. Introducing women to operational SR functions might be one step towards increased urban SR capacity, preparing NORSOF to handle future SR requirements.


Is There a Role for Women in SOF?


In his previous work, Marius Kristiansen (2017) establishes how women can act as a force multiplier to NATO SOF. A force multiplier can be defined as a capability, that when added to and deployed by a combat force can increase the potential of that force, thereby increasing the probability of mission success. Kristiansen argues, contrary to Martin Van Creveld, that there are significant benefits in having women in specific roles within SOF. Creveld (2016) argues that having more women in a military unit will increase the number of injured women requiring compensation, leading to an economic burden on the defence budget of a nation. He further argues that increasing the rate of women to above 15 per cent will cause the men to “desert the field” in favour of a more prestigious occupation. This he argues, will happen because occupations associated with women are seen as inferior (Creveld, 1991, pp.179-187).


Having more women in SOF will inevitably increase the number of injured women, in the same manner as having more men will increase the number of injured men.   There is no evidence to show that women, in this case in SOF, will be injured in combat to a higher degree than men. Quite the contrary, as Creveld (2013) argues himself, studies from Iraq and Afghanistan show that military women are 90 per cent less likely to be killed, compared to military men. Creveld attributes this to women “not pulling their weight”, which is a conclusion based on weak evidence. Measuring the utility of a military unit by their number of casualties is not academically grounded. Studies have suggested that women tend to take fewer risks than men when under stress (Mather & Lighthall, 2012). Consequently, this is an indication that women would, in fact, be injured less than men. That being said, research suggests that female soldiers are more predisposed to training injuries (Armstrong et al. 2004; Bijur et al. 1997; Kaufman et al. 2000). However, this might be party caused by the fact that military training is generally built to suit male soldiers. A small SOF unit will have the capacity to tailor the training program to be suitable and effective for female operators, thus reducing the rate of training injuries. An example of this is the female SR platoon (Jegertroppen) in NORSOC, as illustrated by Rones and Steder (2017) in an FFI report. The female SR platoon consists of conscript soldiers completing a year-long basic training course, before being discharged. There are currently no permanent operational roles these women can fill in NORSOF, upon completion of their basic training (NAF, 2018).


In What Ways Can Women Contribute?


Cultural Access


There are several situations where women can get unique access to information, the most obvious one being in countries that are gender segregated due to religious or cultural norms. Cultural understanding and competencies are essential in order to conduct successful intelligence gathering for SOF (Howard, 2011, pp.3-35; Rietjens & Zomer, 2018, pp.147-150). Only female operators can interact with the female population in certain areas. Several of the interviewees (nr.05-10) specified how not having female operators in such areas excludes interaction with half the population. Naturally, this has been a limitation for NORSOF in previous deployments, considering that many of these deployments have been to gender segregated countries.

...Some of the first missions we had in Afghanistan after 2002 were to find out where there was peace and where to insert military efforts, and where the PRTs (Provincial Reconstruction Teams) should go in and work immediately. It would have been useful to have had women to meet women; we were excluded from that part of the population. We excluded ourselves from 50 per cent of the population. In some areas, we came in contact with them (women), but men usually accompanied them. So female operators would get much better informational access. The typical people men meet in a society like that are often police commissioners, mayors, and priests, typically the heads of the village. In that way, we disbarred ourselves from those who perhaps knew the most; the large networks of women that existed there.


-- Major General Kristoffersen

The current commander of NORSOC, Colonel Larssen stated similarly:

...As a force deployed to a Muslim country, we deprive ourselves of the opportunity to get in contact with half of the population if we do not have female operators. At least if we are to show respect for the culture in the country we come to. Therefore, we are actually dependent on women to complete all the missions we are tasked with, including information gathering.


Only having access to half the population in the area of operations is not sufficient in terms of doing effective SR, as interaction with potential native sources is critical in intelligence collection for SOF operators (Cline, 2005, p.585). Women will in certain situations have access to different types and perhaps even more information than men. Major General Kristoffersen attributed this to the large social networks of women, e.g. in Afghanistan, which are effective to disseminate and share information internally. A study of recent operations in Afghanistan and Iraq confirmed this assertion by finding how women made considerable and unique contributions to SOF missions through their ability to talk to indigenous women and children (Gasca, et al., 2015, pp.105-110).


Psychological Access


There are situations where female operators can get unique psychological access and derive information from men; information these men will only reveal to women (Kristiansen, 2017). The psychological access women can have in interaction with men is relatively well known in intelligence collection (Mora & Welch, 2012. pp-1-9).

If you are smart in the mission planning, you assess which geographical areas it might be beneficial to deploy women, because men will not get access to those environments. Within HUMINT many male sources respond well to female operators, so there is an opportunity to exploit in those situations.


-- Interviewee nr.03

This claim was supported by Anders Westberg when he shared experiences from SWESOF in the interview:

We had a female HUMINT handler, and she is fairly attractive, and which is more, she is social and extrovert as a person. She got significantly more information than what our male handlers got.

This specific facet of SR is sensitive and perhaps a bit unethical to exploit, primarily because of the dubious nature of capitalising on women's charm and physical attractiveness. There are multiple ways having this focus can take a turn for the worst in practice. It might lead to objectifying and sexualising women, which is not appropriate under any circumstance. Nevertheless, it is worth mentioning as it is a practice in some intelligence communities and a possible contribution to SR operations.


The psychological access mentioned above applies to both men and women, in gender segregated as well as non-segregated countries. A possible reason for this is that women in many cases do not fit the stereotype of an SR operator. Thus, they might be perceived as less suspicious and thereby be more able to connect on a human level with the target or source.

As a nation, I believe that we missed a bit when we came in to talk to the civilian population fully geared up in ballistic vests and heavily armed, with tall, muscular men. This creates distance. That was part of the reason why the US created the Female Engagement Teams (FETs), to access a different part of the population, including men. What we observed was that it was easier for the women in the FETs to get information from the men as well.


-- Interviewee nr.05

Early 2009, the US forces started to use FETs and cultural support teams (CSTs) in Afghanistan, primarily to provide conventional forces and SOF the ability to search and interact with the female portion of the population. As the FETs and CSTs occasionally had direct kinetic confrontations while on patrol, they were eventually restricted to operate on a limited basis from Forward Operating Bases and on patrol (Gasca, et al., 2015, pp.105-110). Considering the effectiveness of the use of women in these teams, there is little doubt about the benefits of having women permanently in such functions. However, since these teams were not trained sufficiently in combat skills, they were limited in how they could operate. The need for female SR operators, trained in shooting, close quarter battle and other SOF disciplines, appears to be salient. Such operators would be able to do all the things mentioned above, while not being restricted by their ability to operate in hostile areas.


Attracting Less Attention


Arguably the most obvious benefit of having female SR operators is their ability to blend into a given environment, compared to a team consisting solely of male operators. All the interviewees mentioned this benefit, and there was a consensus about the operational flexibility this gives. As the squadron leader in NSOC stated about situations in which using women in SR would be beneficial;

It can be as simple as driving somewhere to find out something; then it is a lot easier and more natural that a woman and a man is driving around together. People will be less suspicious of a couple, compared to two physically fit men driving around looking at something. The same goes if you are conducting reconnaissance at a target, then it is much easier to move around, and it will be seen as more harmless if you try to contact people.


-- Interviewee nr.08

There is a stereotype for what a special operator looks like, i.e. a man in his late twenties/early thirties, physically fit, often having facial hair and wearing mountaineering clothes. This stereotype was described by all the interviewees without them being asked specifically about it.

In urban SR, I believe women can give more options because in an environment like that you can’t only have 20 men, all of them in their twenties and looking identical; very fit and wearing Arcteryx clothes and Oakley shades. This is where women would be beneficial, to break up that signature… I think this will give more flexibility in solving a mission.


-- Interviewee nr.02

Human judgements and perceptions are subjective and based on heuristics and cognitive biases. One of the most common heuristics is that of representativeness, meaning how probabilities are evaluated by the degree to which they are representative of an existing stereotype (Tversky & Kahneman, 1974). In the case of SR, the probability that someone is judged as a SOF operator is determined by the degree to which he or she is representative of the stereotype of a SOF operator. Considering that women do not fit this stereotype, they will be less likely to be perceived to be SOF operators, thus, reducing the risk of being compromised by the enemy. It is reasonable to believe that when a woman accompanies a man, this will also reduce the probability of that man being judged as a SOF operator, despite him fitting the stereotype of one. A couple consisting of a man and a woman differs from the stereotype of what a team of SOF operators looks like. By having all-female or mixed gender teams, small state NATO SOF will be able to operate in urban areas without triggering the threat perception of the enemy as easily. In other words, female operators will increase cover during SR operations, which is one of the main principles of SR, according to Westberg (2016).


The former commander of NORSOCOM, Rear Admiral Holte, explained how this might happen in practice:

Women have a better prerequisite to do SR and infiltrations in urban areas, precisely because they do not fit the stereotype that the (enemy) soldier has. When they (the enemy) see an old woman, they see an old woman. When they see a young woman, they see a young woman. When they see an able-bodied man trying to look like a tourist, then their warning lamps starts blinking immediately.

Having operators blending into urban environments is crucial for SOF units doing SR, as this is essential for a successful cover. A study of the integration of women to US Naval Special Warfare combat teams (Gibbons, et al. 2018) showed that such integration was effective in certain missions, i.e. when gathering human intelligence, cooperating with allied intelligence services, and assisting local diplomatic functions. Using female operators in such functions increased their capacity, as the female operators have been able to operate more naturally in certain environments. They improve informational access by deviating from the typical stereotype of a special operator (pp.164-180). Female SR operators would give small state NATO SOF more operational flexibility, and accordingly, increase their SR capacity. Being able to operate in populated areas without drawing as much attention as an all-male team would, gives a more extensive range of possible ways to solve a mission.


Key Attributes and Skills in SR


The abilities necessary for an SR operator to master are complex and varied. The interviewees were asked what types of skills and attributes are most important for an operator to conduct successful SR. As illustrated in the chart below (Figure 1.), most of the skills and attributes mentioned are not gender dependent. Physical ability was only mentioned by two people as being a vital ability. Physical ability is the only ability that is gender dependent, as men generally have a better base for physical abilities (Szayna et al., 2016, pp.41-46; Maninger, 2008, pp. 9-10). Field hardiness, the ability to stay healthy and maintaining operational capability when deployed in the field over time, was also mentioned twice. In a preliminary presentation of an ongoing comparative study of the male (Fallskjermjegertroppen) and female conscript units in NORSOC, FFI found that the soldiers in the Female SR platoon kept their field hardiness better than their male peers (Teien, 2018). However, this claim is not valid as the study is based on testing the soldiers after completing their respective selection processes. Although based on the same principals, the soldiers in the female SR platoon undergo a different selection, with a different focus, compared to the men. Considering field hardiness is linked to physical capacity, there is an argument to be made that men on average have a higher degree of field hardiness. On the other side, field hardiness is also determined by mental toughness and an operator's ability to take care of himself or herself, which are not gender dependent. Field hardiness may be more dependent on the character of the operator, rather than the gender.




Figure 1. Key abilities essential for successful SR, as mentioned in the interviews. Sorted by the number of times mentioned.


Except for physical abilities and field hardiness, all the other attributes and skills mentioned are gender neutral. In fact, studies suggest that the integration of women to small military units increases the collective intelligence and decision-making. The reason being that women often score higher than men in “social sensitivity”, a term describing a person's ability to read the emotions of other people (Haring, 2013, pp.27-32). Research suggests that basic military skills, e.g. weapons handling and shooting, traditionally viewed as being higher among men, are determined by training, not gender (Rones & Steder, 2017, pp.66-72).


From this analysis, we can deduce that women are equally competent in the most important SR capabilities mentioned in the interviews, which serves as an indicator that female operators can perform on the same level as male ones in most cases. The exception to this is regarding physical abilities, which will be discussed in the following.


How Important are Physical Abilities?


The physical requirements to become a special operator in a NATO SOF unit are incredibly high, and only very few people can complete selection. Approximately one per cent of the male applicants pass initial selection in NORSOF, and although several women have tried, none has succeeded (Rones & Steder, 2017, p.34). Undoubtedly, high physical abilities are crucial for a special operator doing SR. The question is how good is good enough. About 80 per cent of the interviewees (nr.01-08, and 11-12) stated that they believed physical abilities were overemphasised regarding SR functions in NORSOF (see Figure 2.).

“Gradually we are doing fewer and fewer missions that require outstanding physical capacity. I think it (physical ability) is overrated. We keep saying that we are selecting operators based on their minds, but I think we are missing many great minds because they are not physically fit enough. I think we could have selected operators more on other abilities, and then trained them according to what tasks they are put to do later.”


-Interviewee nr.04


Figure 2. Showing how the interviewees responded when asked if they believed physical abilities are overemphasised in SR in NORSOF, compared to other skills and attributes.


Former Defence Minister of Norway, Ine Eriksen Søreide, said in a speech at a Norwegian SOF conference that NORSOF´s most important weapon is the minds of their operators. She stated that these operators are selected on their creativeness, independence, ability to cooperate, and their problem-solving skills, and that NORSOF’s success depends on these abilities (Søreide, 2016). There seems to be dissonance in terms of what is viewed as the most important for an operator, and what is focused on.


Female Operators in the Grey Zone


The main threats to NATO are taking place in the Grey Zone; the limbo between peace and war. Grey Zone conflict consists of multidimensional efforts such as coercion, deniability, political and economic pressure, and the use of force just below the threshold of aggressive military force. By operating in the Grey Zone opponents of NATO, still inferior to NATO regarding military power, can gain strategic and operational goals without triggering Article five and releasing upon themselves the military might of NATO (Moon, 2018, pp.1-3). In Grey Zone conflicts the SR capacities in SOF are effective in countering hybrid warfare (Steder et al., 2016, pp.6-14). Female SR operators will be of the utmost importance for NATO SOF in the near future, as the ability to operate unnoticed in urban areas is crucial in Grey Zone conflicts.


It seems that the physical abilities of the operator are not the determining factor in handling the conflicts mentioned above, conflicts that NATO SOF might be tasked with. Although physical abilities are necessary for SR operators, it must not be weighted to the extent that it excludes people with other essential, and arguably more critical skills and attributes.

If we think about hybrid warfare. Then rural SR is perhaps not the SR we will need the most. Instead, we will need SR that operates among the people, or lives with the people. Then we should take the female part in, so we have both parts. I think that would give us more flexibility and effect.


-- Interviewee nr.02

It is clear that having female operators in the operational toolbox would be a significant benefit for NORSOF, by strengthening the capacity to face the future security threat and keep up with the evolution of warfare. The future of SOF will require human interaction, which entails potential additional roles for female operators (Szayna et al., 2016, pp.ix-xiv).


Challenges with Integrating Women


Limitations in Resources


All the interviewees claimed that integrating women into operational SR positions would increase the SR capacity in NORSOF. The question, therefore, is why this has not been done already. The apparent answer is financing. Existing operators already fill the fixed number of positions (stated by interviewee nr.01). Introducing female operators to the internal structure would result in having to reduce the number of male operators.


Considering the male operators are the backbone of NORSOF, and the primary purpose of NORSOF is heavily rooted in having multi-purpose operators that can handle a broad spectrum of special operations, reluctance to reduce male operators is reasonable. NORSOF is a small military actor with a small number of operators, making them vulnerable should anything happen to either the existing operators or to the recruitment process. However, considering the small scale of NORSOF, an introduction of female operators would not necessarily have to be large in numbers to have an effect.

… I think it definitely would have an effect (to use women in SR). We are not necessarily talking about introducing several hundred female operators. A lot would be done by having just a small platoon, or even just ten operators.


-- Interviewee nr.04

Designating, for example, ten operational positions to female SR operators would not result in a significant reduction of NORSOF’s resilience. This would constitute a small percentage of NORSOF’s operational force, thus not a notable portion. Considering that they currently do not have any operational positions for female operators; ten operators would, in fact, represent a significant improvement in their operational ability regarding flexibility and diversity among the operators. Bearing in mind the advantages of having the capacity of using women in SR, this seems like a reasonable course of action for small state NATO SOF, including NORSOF. SWESOF has been able to overcome this challenge in resources and make the hard prioritisation. In the Special Operations Group (SOG) they have female operators (Underrättelseoperatör) specialised primarily towards SR (Försvarsmakten, 2018). The reason they did so was that they saw the utility of women in SR functions to be sufficient to make it a necessary implementation (according to Westberg and interviewee 07 from SWESOF).


International Reputation


A major reason for the increase in SOF’s utility over the past decades is the value of having a small and competent force that can be deployed when the international community needs it. The importance of SOF as a military instrument has been especially apparent since low-intensity conflict has been the prevailing form of conflict in the post-Cold War period. A small state, i.e. Norway, that can deploy such a force to international coalitions, will obtain political leverage and credibility (Modigs, 2017, pp.43-65; Reisteigne, 2018, pp.152-162). Being perceived for having effective and capable SOF is important for Norway as an international actor, and a member of NATO.


Reduced Cohesion


Cohesion is a fundamental dimension for a SOF unit’s effectiveness. A RAND report found that integrating women into US SOF might reduce internal cohesion. Reduced cohesion will happen if women are not perceived as competent and complete members of the unit. The acceptance of women will be determined mainly by three factors; actual and perceived ability to perform at team tasks, other teammates’ willingness to include women, and leadership efforts to promote the integration of women (Szayna et al., 2016, pp.55-77). Another determining factor will be institutional acceptance of the advantages of diversity in improving the combined capacity of the unit.


Anna Simons is one of the most critical academics to women in military units, including SOF (2014; 2001; 2000;). She has claimed that even the most unconventional units are not unconventional enough to accept females as males (2000, pp.451-453). This claim is problematic due to its erroneous focus. The point is not to get male SOF operators to accept females as males, but rather to establish a common understanding that their difference can be a strength. Female operators can contribute with different operational aspects and by doing so increase SR capacity.


Studies on small team unit cohesion suggest that the integration of women does not necessarily entail disruption. Small team unit cohesion is not heavily dependent on gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation, but rather collective goals and objectives (Haring, 2013, pp.27-32). Furthermore, prior experience with integrating women into military units show that unit cohesion can be maintained and that women can become an equal part of the team. Although, women generally encounter initial rejection when entering male military environments (Gibbons, et al. 2018, pp.164-180).


Leaving a “Man” Behind?


A common argument for not integrating women into SOF is that women will not be able to carry out a wounded male soldier (Simons, 2000, pp.451-461.) Although this is true in some cases, the incoherence of this argument is that SOF deploys other people lacking this strength, i.e. translators, medical personnel, local liaisons, to name a few. Instead of denying the possibility of female operators on these grounds, it seems more reasonable to have backup plans and extraction possibilities suitable to mixed gender teams, when relevant.


The successful integration of female operators to small state NATO SOF would demand active promotion from a strong leadership. Such institutional changes require innovative leaders able to shape organisational culture and inspire creativity and new ways of thinking. The central leadership must be clear about the purpose of the implementation, to establish a positive internal attitude. This is a challenge that small state SOF leadership must focus on to ensure that the changes are adopted throughout the entire organisation (PBO, 2017, pp. 85-105).




The rapid worldwide urbanisation is affecting contemporary warfare. Following the growth in urban areas, there will be social friction and political turmoil. SOF will continue to play an essential role in managing the future threat environment, especially for a small state such as Norway. NORSOF provides Norway with an instrument ensuring relevancy in the international community, despite caveats in size. This paper argues that using women in certain urban SR roles will increase the SR capacity in small state NATO SOF, using NORSOF as a case study. Conducting SR in urban areas often involves indirect or direct human contact. Female SR operators will break up the stereotypical signature of male operators, and thereby provide operational flexibility. This will enable a SOF unit to handle a broader range of SR missions, and consequently increase the strategic and political value of that unit.


Female operators would also increase diversity among the operators in NATO SOF. Greater diversity will increase the ability to operate more effectively in gender segregated countries, allowing access to the entire population and effectively doubling the pool of potential human sources and liaisons. This increased access applies to non-gender segregated areas as well, as a female operator will have different psychological access compared to a male operator.


Considering the already exhausted resources in most small state NATO SOF, introducing female SR operators would entail a slight reduction in the number of male operators. This is a priority NORSOF has not been willing to make so far, for understandable reasons. However, it seems that such prioritisation would only lead to a slight reduction of some aspects of the existing capacity, yet a significant increase in other aspects. Integrating women to SR will not be a silver bullet for small state NATO SOF, but it will provide noticeable benefits to the existing SR capacity.




CT                                           Counterterrorism

COIN                                      Counterinsurgency

CST                                         Cultural Support Teams

DA                                          Direct Action

EBN                                        Military Intelligence Battalion

FET                                         Female Engagement Teams

FFI                                          Norwegian Defence Research Establishment

HUMINT                                Human Intelligence

ISR                                          Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance

MA                                          Military Assistance

NAF                                        Norwegian Armed Forces

NORSOC                               Norwegian Special Operations Command (FSK)

NSOC                                     Navy Special Operations Command (MJK)

NATO                                     North Atlantic Treaty Organisation

NORSOCOM                         Norwegian Special Operations Command

NORSOF                                Norwegian Special Operations Forces

PRT                                         Provincial Reconstruction Teams

QRF                                        Quick Reaction Force

SO                                           Special Operations

SOF                                         Special Operations Forces

SOG                                        Special Operations Group

SR                                           Special Reconnaissance

SWESOF                                Swedish Special Operations Forces




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About the Author(s)

Marius Kristiansen is an active duty Norwegian Army Officer. He holds a B.A. in Military Leadership and Land Warfare from the Norwegian Military Academy, an Advanced Certificate in Terrorism Studies from the University of St. Andrews, a M.S. in Defense Analysis at Naval Postgraduate School, and is a graduate of United States Marine Corps Command and Staff College.

Fredrik Jacob Sunde holds a B.A. in Police Studies from the Norwegian Police University College, Oslo. He has recently graduated from King's College London with an M.A. in War Studies. His research interests lie in the area of authority and the legitimate use of violence, although his recent focus has been on the utility of Special Operations Forces.