by @javier-sutil and @luciamenafuentes
The Mando de Operaciones Especiales (MOE), or Spanish Special Operations Command, is charged with overseeing and monitoring the various Grupos de Operaciones Especiales (GOEs), the Special Operation Groups that make up the Spanish Army’s Special Forces. These are called “Green Berets”.
It includes some of the country’s most capable operators in all environments. International equivalents to Spain’s MOE include the Forsvarets Spesialkommando in Norway, the United States Army Special Operations Command, the Specialoperationskommandoen in Denmark, and the Army Ranger Wing in Ireland.
2.0 Motto, Symbols, Patches and History
The MOE motto is “Por España me atrevo” (For Spain I dare). The GOE motto is “Nunca un no puedo” (Never say I can’t).
The MOE´s coat of arms consists of a dagger superimposed by a golden laurel wreath and the Burgundy Cross in the background. Behind the green coat of arms, there are two rifles with bayonets. Above this is the Spanish royal crown. Under all this the name of the command, MOE.
The GOE´s emblem consists of a dagger superimposed by a laurel wreath.
The unit’s guidon consists of an eagle with the Cross of Santiago under the Spanish Royal Crown. This is the emblem of the Spanish Armed Forces. Behind this the Burgundy Cross gilt with the unit’s coat of arms in each corner. The background is green.
The GOE patch.
The GOE patch in forest and arid versions.
Round versions, arid and forest.
Creation of the Special Operations Units
The idea of creating special operations units was born in 1956 when the Ministry of Defense proposed to give a course to train the commanders of future units. The example of the USA and the profusion of guerrilla fights seemed to make it advisable to have this type of unit. In 1957, they developed the first Guerrilla Unit Command Aptitude Course on an experimental basis.
In December 1961, at the end of the 4th course, there were already enough commanders to form the first Guerrilla Unit. Therefore, the Ministry decided to create the first two Special Operations Units (UOE) on an experimental basis:
- No. 71 was located in the Milan Infantry Grouping No. 3 in Oviedo, with tactical dependence on the 71st Oviedo Division.
- No. 81 was part of Zamora Grouping No. 8 in Orense, as part of Division No. 81.
Both had a deadline of 1 March 1962 to complete their organisation. Each man was equipped with a CETME assault rifle, pistol and knife. All troop personnel were volunteers, although they had to pass selection tests, making it easier for them to re-enlist if they so wished. The General Directorate of Education was entrusted with the Instruction Plan.
The Special Operations Companies
In December 1962 the 71st UOE made its debut with the Green Beret. On 10 July 1965, the Ministry decided to organise the Special Operations Units in the Infantry Battalions. In August 1966, they created a Special Operations Company (COE) in each of the infantry regiments, with the generic name of C.O.E., so that between 1966 and 1969 all the C.O.E.s appeared. The exceptions were the 103rd of the 50th Infantry Regiment of the Canarias which was created in 1976, and the UOE of La Legion and the COE of the EMMOE, both in 1981. The maximum number of C.O.E., 25 in total, was reached in 1981.
Although the COEs were identified by an organic number or city of location, the Ministry gave them names of famous guerrillas and soldiers. In the 1970s, the units began to consolidate relations with the regiments on which they depended administratively. With their staff defined and a training programme in place, although not unified, they acquired prestige in the rest of the army.
Special Operations in the Legion followed an independent but convergent path. In the 1970s, the Legion followed the trend initiated by the Americans in Vietnam and organised the special operations sections to carry out heliborne operations to control the Polisario Front and the Moroccan guerrillas in the Sahara. The idea came from guerrilla warfare manoeuvres organised in 1971 by the 4th Third of the Legion with the Tenerife Special Operations Company. The creation of these sections in the Saharan Tercios was the beginning of special operations within the Legion. They are the only Spanish combat operations units to have engaged in actual combat, and to have suffered casualties in actions of war. Almost simultaneously the other Tercios also organised their sections, with a total of 8 such units in 1975.
Creation of the Special Operations Groups
In the 1980s the democratic government reorganised the army and disbanded many COEs or moved to a higher unit, the Special Operations Group (GOE). NATO integration put an end to the concept of Operational Territorial Defence and the Ministry abandoned guerrilla warfare as a possible scenario for special forces. In addition, one of the problems of the COE was the integration of all of them into a single organisation.
In May 1979, the Army created the GOE I, the first Special Operations Battalion-type unit in Spain. This led to the unification of doctrine and procedures, as well as a new focus on Special Operations actions that went beyond guerrilla and counter-guerrilla operations. Between 1979 and 1988, the Army transformed all the other COEs and grouped them into different GOEs. In October 1997 the Army created and activated the Special Operations Command (MOE) which çç in July 1998.
In July 2005, the Special Operations Command’s Headquarters Battalion was created under the organisational structure of the Special Operations Command. This is the unit responsible for providing the necessary support, mainly in the areas of maintenance, supply and transport, to the different operational units and their headquarters. Subordinate units include the Headquarters Company, the Intelligence Unit, the Experimental Unit, the Special Operations Unit and the Training Unit.
In 1997, an independent Company-type Unit was created to develop, maintain and operate the Communications and Information systems for Command and Control, enabling it to best manage patrols deployed on operations. This Unit, consisting of a Radio Section, an Information Systems Section and a PLMS team, remained in the new BOEL Operational Organisation until its subsequent Transformation and Transfer as GOE XIX in July 2002.
Special Operations Group
The organisational change from COE to GOE improved the ability to plan and conduct operations as well as to manage material and troops. But special operations still had to be integrated into joint operations planning. This is how the Special Operations Command (MOE) was born.
The Special Operations Groups (GOE) have been conducting missions abroad since 1993. The operation with the highest media profile was “Operation Cantado”, when in July 2002 they were tasked with evicting the Moroccan soldiers occupying the island of Perejil.
Members of the special forces are, or have recently been, deployed on various missions abroad: Lebanon, Afghanistan, Iraq, Tunisia, Mali, Mauritania or in Somali waters. In addition, NATO obligations must be fulfilled and units trained. Given the international situation and the need to maintain deployments indefinitely, the Ministry of Defence approved the creation of the new Granada II GOE, which joined the three existing GOEs (Tercio de Ampurdán IV, Legionario Maderal Oleaga XIX and Valencia III).
The Special Operations Command (MOE)
The Special Operations Command (MOE) is one of the most recent organizations in the Spanish Army. It was created in 1997, as heir to the six Special Operations Groups (GOE) created throughout the 1980s, in addition to the Special Operations Flag of the Legion (BOEL). These units agglutinated a couple of their predecessors, the Compañías de Operaciones Especiales (COEs) or Special Operations Companies, which were an institutionalization of guerrilla tradition into the Spanish Army in 1962.
Later on, structural and organic changes led to the constitution of the MOE, which merged several different special forces units to provide a unified command for special operations. This Command was first appointed in Jaca and later moved to its current HQ location in Alicante.
Since September 2020, on the occasion of a new reorganisation of the Army, it has been integrated into the “San Marcial” Division along with other units such as the Parachute Brigade or the FAMET.
3.0 MOE: Organization
The MOE’s internal organization is different from the Spanish Army’s traditional organizational structure. The staff is much smaller and the jobs in many command echelons are one grade higher than in the rest of the units. These organizational differences derive from the characteristics of the OE missions in current conflicts. For their execution, which has to be at the highest level, it is essential to count on an adequate command structure for decision-making from the lowest echelons. Due to this, a General de Brigada (Brigadier General) commands the MOE. At the same time, the Special Operation Units are under Comandantes (Commanding Officers) and the Operative teams, which are small elite units are conducted by Capitanes (Captains) (source).
The Spanish ‘green berets’ comprise the operational groups within the MOE. Within this body, various Special Operation Groups (GOEs) under historic names operate along aerial and terrestrial support units.
The groups that compose the MOE are the following:
- Three Special Operations Groups (GOEs).
- Two Special Operations Command auxiliary units.
3.1.1 Cuartel General or HQ Group
The unit has a Special Operations Command Headquarters Group (Grupo del Cuartel General del Cuartel General de Operaciones Especiales).
This group is made up of:
- Headquarters Company.
- Instruction Unit, in charge of personnel training tasks.
- Intelligence Company.
- Experimental Unit, in charge of experimenting with new systems and materials.
- Vessel Unit, which centralises the means to move on water.
- UAV Unit.
- Special Operations Unit (UOE). This unit is an elite group, made up only of commanders and trained to carry out the most complex missions.
Unidad de Operaciones Especiales (UOE)
Moreover, a quasi-classified specialized team named ‘Unidad de Operaciones Especiales’, or UOE, act as the spearhead of the Spanish Army’s deployments in unconventional environments. This unit is part of the GOE ‘Grupo de Cuartel General’. Not much information has been disclosed about the UOE. However, it is known that it is constituted only of command posts capable of carrying out missions as difficult as hostage rescue or making interventions in nuclear, biological, chemical, and radiological environments. Similar to Delta Force and DEVGRU in the USA, the UOE is likely the chosen unit within the MOE to carry out the utmost sensitive, classified, and high-risk operations.
3.1.2 Special Operation Groups (GOEs)
There are three manoeuvring units made up of operational teams (EOs), of 20 soldiers. Each of them was specifically prepared for a type of infiltration – mobility and combat in mountain or water, manual opening parachuting at high altitude, and precision shooters. However, they all can carry out any of these tasks. In combat, they are organised into 12-16 man basic EOs. In terms of numbers, each UOE is equivalent to half a company and each operational team is equivalent to three squads.
The three GOEs are:
- 3rd Special Operations Group “Valencia” (Grupo de Operaciones Especiales “Valencia” III).
- 4th Special Operations Group “Tercio del Ampurdán” (Grupo de Operaciones Especiales “Tercio del Ampurdán” IV)
- 19th Special Operations Group “Maderal Oleaga” (Grupo de Operaciones Especiales “Maderal Oleaga” XIX)
In addition to these three, there was also the 2nd Special Operations Group “Granada” (Grupo de Operaciones Especiales “Granada” II). However, it was abolished in February 2020 and its troops were transferred to the remaining groups.
3.1.3 Logistic Unit MOE
The unit also has a Special Operations Command Signals Company (Compañía de Transmisiones del Mando de Operaciones Especiales).
3.2 The Joint Special Operations Headquarters (MCOE)
The Joint Special Operations Headquarters (MCOE) controls the three SOF branches in Spain; the Army’s MOE, the Navy’s FGNE, and the air force’s EZAPAC. These three wings possess different characteristics and objectives but sometimes conduct joint exercises at both national and international levels. An example is the counterterrorism operation ‘Flintlock 19’ in which SOF from all three branches cooperated to train African units in the Sahel (source)
The MCOE is, in a sense, a command designed to carry out missions with the joint contribution of the specialised SO personnel from the Army, Navy, and Air Force. Operators in MOE, FGNE, and EZAPAC are trained and prepared by their respective bodies and are ultimately expected to operate efficiently in all environments. Their capabilities should allow them to conduct all kinds of operations, under all meteorological conditions. Thus, they undergo a tough training process in which they learn diving, climbing, skydiving, skiing, and other specific skill sets that allow the operators to conduct their missions successfully.
More than 20,000 troops have passed through this elite corps throughout its history. The MOE’s headquarters is located in Alicante, southeast Spain. However, the training facility, the Military School for Mountain and Special Operations, is in Jaca, a town in the mountainous northern region of the Spanish Pyrenees.
The requirement to join this unit is to be a soldier in the Spanish Armed Forces. Those who aspire to join the MOE’s ‘green berets’ must first pass the Special Operations course at the Escuela Militar de Montaña y Operaciones Especiales (EMMOE) in Jaca. There are different courses, the basic one for troops and the command one for officials and sub-officials. The latter is usually attended by Army as well as Navy and Airforce officials and sub-officials.
This course consists of three phases:
- Automatic Parachuting Course, given at the Military Parachuting School of the Alcantarilla Air Base (Murcia).
- Basic Special Operations Course.
- Advanced Special Operations Course.
Earning the green beret is quite the challenge, with a high failure rate of candidates. Special Operations commanders undergo a tough selection and training course lasting almost two years. More than 400 candidates apply each year, but only 150 make it through the first screening to attend the course (source).
To access the course to become a ‘green beret’, aspirants have to pass an exam including specific medical reconnaissance tests as well as psychological and physical trials. The physical tests include push-ups, an 8km race, and a mountain route. The examination process to access EMMOE has been recently difficult, including complimentary trials to filter out those without the superior capacities that are needed to pass the actual SO course.
The complementary tests are the following:
- Aquatic proficiency test (diving).
- Balance test (so they are not afraid to parachute, for example).
- Confined space test.
- Water jumping test.
- Topographical test (for orientation in the open field).
- Weapons and a shooting test, with pistol and rifle.
Special Operations Command Course
Following this, candidates must pass the Special Operations Command Course which consists of different phases, such as mountain operations, both summer and winter; diving and amphibious operations; and parachuting and survival among others. During the length of MOE’s intense course, its trainees learn an array of ‘subjects’, including:
- Intelligence and counterintelligence.
- Airmobile operations.
- Winter mountain combat.
- Explosives, urban terrain operations.
- combat diving.
This is an attempt to teach future recruits at the Unit to take decisions under extreme conditions (source).
The most feared phase of the course is the 15-day-long Technical Combat Instruction, as it is where most people fail. During this period, candidates are expected to work at the limit of their psychological and physiological capacities. They are isolated from the world and instructors ‘play’ with their notion of time, as their sleep hours are severely restricted. Candidates are expected to excel in increasingly challenging tasks despite their physical and mental state.
Within each GOE the different Operational Teams specialise in:
Each team has between fifteen and twenty personnel. In addition to their skills (communications, medical assistance, etc.), they have the common skills of the EO.
Each year, the MOE organises the “Empecinado” exercise to rehearse tactics and procedures. In addition, soldiers must also prepare thoroughly depending on the mission to be carried out for overseas deployments.
As a result, the MOE is a very flexible body. The diversity of activities carried out in this Unit, both sport-related (diving, climbing, parachuting, skiing) and military activities specific to the MOE, keep Special Operations Soldiers in optimum psychophysical conditions and highly prepared for military actions at all times. The MOE’s groups also carry out counter-terrorist actions and deal with hostage situations.
They are proficient in:
- Special reconnaissance.
- Hostage rescue.
In addition to this, they are also prepared to operate behind enemy lines and in hostile terrain. Selected marksmen and snipers are trained through specialised courses provided by the MOE, and also attend courses and rallies in other nations.
Cooperation with other Units
Part of the training is joint work with the Escuadrón de Zapadores Paracaidistas (EZAPAC), the EADA, the Marine Brigade’s FGNE or the Police’s Special Operations Group (GEO). The GOE has also provided support to the CNI (Centro Nacional de Inteligencia) in its foreign operations. The mission of the Green Berets is to protect and increase the survivability of national counterintelligence elements (source).
Since May 2012 and following “Exercise Dynamic Mix-02” held in Spain and conducted by the Special Operations Command, Spain has been recognised by NATO as a leading nation in this type of operation. Only the Special Units of the United States (Navy SEALs and Delta Force), France (Foreign Legion) and the United Kingdom (Special Air Service) have this distinction. The GOE has since become part of these prestigious units.
Possible Foreign Recruitment
To join the Spanish Armed Forces is required to have Spanish nationality. However, nationals of certain Latin American countries and Equatorial Guinea can also participate in the selection process for entry into the rank of Troops and Marines.
As with most SOF units, tactical information and equipment details are often classified. Even though not intended as an exhaustive list, below is some available information on weapons used by the MOE:
- HK MP 5 SD Submachine.
- HK USP/SD Pistol.
- HK G-36 K Assault Rifle.
- BARRETT Precision Rifle.
- ACCURACY AWF SD.
- Mortar ECIA 60mm.
- Rocket launchers C90.
- Machine guns Browning M2
In 2022, the MOE received shipping of HK G-28 Rifles and MP-7 Submachines (source).
In terms of vehicles, they mostly use vehicles adapted for special operations.
- Jankel FOX LRPV (Long Range Patrol Vehicle). Based on the Toyota Hilux.
- VLOE (Vehículo Ligero de Operaciones Especiales) Lathar. Modification of the Nissan Patrol ML-6.
- VLOE / LT-ATV (Lightweight Tactical All Terrain Vehicles) EINSA Netón. Based on Toyota Hilux.
- URO VMOE. A transformation based on the URO VAMTAC ST5.
The MOE uses Army helicopters for their operations.
- Boeing CH-47 Chinook.
- Super Puma.
For their various missions, they have semi-rigid boats (RHIBs) that allow rapid insertion and extraction, both during the day and at night.
5.0 Tactical-Operational Information
Given their peculiar character, Special Operations cannot be carried out by conventional forces. Specialists in MOE missions, especially in direct actions are meticulously planned and organized into small operational units that can launch quickly and precisely on predetermined goals in hostile territory.
Since the creation of the Special Operations Command, its units have participated in all the missions in which a Spanish contingent has been deployed, both in humanitarian and peacekeeping missions.
The most important are the following:
- ONU Integrated in SPAGT (Bosnia) 1993-1996
- OTAN SO Nucleus in SPABRI (Bosnia) 1996-1998
- OTAN Integrated in MNDS (Bosnia) 1997-2001
- OTAN Integrated in MNB (Kosovo) 1999-2002
- Integrated into MNB (SP) (Iraq) 2003-2004
- Integrated into MNB (SP) (Afghanistan) 2002-2021
- EU Command (SC) (Mali) 2014-…
The MOE has likely been deployed in more missions than those confirmed by publicly available information. Furthermore, most of their operations will likely remain classified, given their sensitive and high-risk nature.
Other important operations outside the humanitarian field have been:
Faced with the possibility that the Polisario Front would increase its activity, the two flags of the 4th Tercio and the cavalry group began in 1974 to train in unconventional warfare, relying on the SOEs for guerrilla and counter-guerrilla action. Thanks to SOE there was an improvement in the operability of all units in irregular warfare (source) (source).
Guerrilla exercises and night ambushes were also carried out by the SOE of the 3rd Tercio in the area around El Aaiún, where there was the greatest possibility of Polisario infiltration. Each Tercio created its own SOE until there were 8 in 1975, in the Sahara and the rest of Africa (source) (source).
Support in the fight against ETA
In 1974 and as part of Operation Iruña, the Special Operations companies based in Burgos and Bilbao moved to the border with France to assist in border control tasks. The aim was to assist the police and Guardia Civil in preventing the passage of ETA terrorists, weapons and explosives. The Green Berets’ mission consisted of setting up checkpoints and surveillance patrols, including some night patrols.
In March 1981, Operation Alazán was launched, with the same objective of preventing the passage of ETA commandos and weapons into Spain.
We can highlight one specific MOE mission that has been widely known. Amid rising Spain-Morocco tensions over a territorial dispute for the uninhabited islet of Pereji. On the 17th of July of 2002, Spain activated “Operation Romeo-Sierra”. It consisted of 23 Green Berets from GOE III that boarded three AS532 Cougar helicopters to assault the islet. They rapidly re-taken Perejil Island after Moroccan infantry and navy occupation (source).
Between 2006 and 2009, a FOE participated in Lebanon as part of the Spanish brigade. Its tasks were to monitor the cessation of hostilities, support the implementation of the Taif agreements, prevent arms smuggling and ensure humanitarian access to the civilian population.
Green Berets have also frequently participated in manoeuvres and training missions in the Sahel countries. Green Beret participation has included Mozambique, Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Central African Republic (CAR).
In 2014 the Green Berets arrived in CAR as part of the EU’s effort to separate the two fighting sides (Seleka and Anti Balaka) and protect civilians from the fighting.
In 2017, EOM specialists conducted training of combat medics from the Tunisian Armed Forces. A small core of the Special Operations Command (MOE) of the Army (ET) was deployed in 2018 to the CAR to conduct training for the future special operations company.
In Operation EUTM/Mali the Green Berets trained and advised the local military to conduct military operations against terrorist groups. In Senegal, Operation Sierra Charlie also worked to improve the capabilities of the local armed forces.
Additionally, MOE has participated in “Flintlock” operations in the Sahel, hand in hand with the FGNE and EZAPAC SO branches from the Spanish Navy and Airforce, as well as SOF from all over the world (source).
5.2 Core Purposes
Nowadays, MOE’s missions are tasked from an Operative Base (OB), where they are thoroughly planned and prepared, with an array of trials in action. The patrols are inserted into a zone until their mission is executed and then they are returned to the OB where they begin preparing for a new mission. These missions can be grouped into three basic types as seen below.
- Specialists in direct actions are meticulously planned and organized into small operational units that can launch quickly and precisely on predetermined goals in hostile territory.
- Mainly the destruction of Strategic Objectives that are found behind enemy lines, through surprise attacks, marking of objectives via laser for their destruction by a plane, the capture of wanted individuals, or hostage rescue.
- Observation of Strategic Objectives behind enemy lines and transmission of information from the zone where it was obtained.
- Training and support to akin units or personnel abroad.
As part of unconventional warfare missions, MOE’s operations deem it necessary to integrate all infiltration mediums in which MOE operators have to act: land, sea, and air. One key difficulty is changing from one to another during a mission (source).
5.3 Personnel size
The GOEs have around 900 troops, which are specialized in different disciplines.
6.0 The future of the MOE
Seeing the body’s need to adapt to the rising needs of new scenarios, such as the Sahel, Iraq, or Afghanistan, in 2020, the Special Operations Command launched a plan to provide itself with further personnel and capabilities. The so-called MOE-35 plan intends to organically re-structure MOE by 2035, increasing troops from 900 to 1300. A key aspect that the implementation of this plan highlights is widening opportunities for more female incorporations in the MOE, especially in fields where women excel, such as transmissions, maintenance, logistics, and intelligence. (source)
The importance of adequate military resources to operate efficiently in areas such as the Sahel will increase, which will call for closer relationships and cooperation with SOF all around the world. The MOE, as part of the most capable and versatile operators acting in all environments, constitutes a crucial factor in terms of capability and enhancing security worldwide.
The history of the MOE and its predecessors, as well as its equipment and training, shows us an elite unit ready for any mission. This unit is intended to be flexible and effective against a wide variety of challenges. Therefore, and looking at the future plans of the Ministry of Defence, we can conclude that this unit will continue to be highly efficient and used in different conflicts and scenarios. It will also, when necessary, be transformed or modified to meet modern and new challenges. What is clear is that it will serve for a long time to come, both in national security and abroad.