Colonel Tom Bilo, new commander of the Belgian Special Operations Regiment

On Sept.3, 2019, Col. BEM Tom Bilo took over the command of the Belgian Special Operations Regiment from Col. BEM Vincent Descheemaeker, who is assigned to another position in the Special Operations sphere. Evolving challenges and unprecedented recruitment of nineteen women to carry on identical tasks to those of their male colleagues.

Colonel Tom Bilo new commander of the Belgian Special Operations Regiment 1
Fast roping of Special Operations Group men from an NH-90 TTH (Tactical Transport Helicopter) of the Belgian 18th Sqn based in Beauvechain (Picture source: Army Recognition)

The ceremony presided over by Gen. Marc Compernol, Chief of Defense, and attended by Defense Minister Didier Reynders took place at the Training Center for the Belgian airborne forces located in Schaffen-Diest. Colonel Bilo explained to Army Recognition the evolving challenges he has to meet, as well as the unprecedented recruitment of 19 women in the SOR, whose tasks will be identical to those of their male colleagues.

Colonel Tom Bilo graduated from the Royal Military Academy in 1990. He then attended the infantry and para-commando training. In the first part of his career, he respectively occupied the assignments of platoon and company commander in the 1st Parachute Battalion and those of instructor and company commander in the Training Center for Commandos. He specializes in mountaineering, rock climbing and qualifies as a close combat instructor. After various assignments and higher military education courses, he took command of the Special Forces Group in 2011 until 2014. Tom Bilo then became a liaison officer with USSOCOM J3-I in Tampa (Florida), the international coordinating body of US special forces. He then joined the Strategy Department (ACOS Strat) of the Belgian Defense, where he was in charge of the Land and especially SOF capability development. Hereby, he contributed to the creation of the Composite Special Operations Component Command (C-SOCC) with Denmark and the Netherlands. From July 2017 until August 2019, he was deputy commander and chief of staff of the recently established Special Operations Command (SOCOM). In late 2017, he deployed to Iraq as commander of the Belgian-Dutch Task Group 631. In 2018, he attended the Shadow Partnering Program in the NATO Special Operations Component Command Afghanistan in preparation of his assignment as C-SOCC chief of staff. On Sept.3, he was invested as commander of the Special Operations Regiment.

Colonel Tom Bilo new commander of the Belgian Special Operations Regiment 2
Col. BEM Tom Bilo, new commanding officer of the Belgian Special Operations Regiment, and Didier Reynders, Belgian minister of Defense and of Foreign Affairs (Picture source: Army Recognition)

Following the Belgian Defense Strategic Vision voted in 2016, it was decided to transform the para-commando capability into a special operations force capability. For this, the organization of the regiment was modified. It now consists of the Special Forces Group, the 2nd Commando Battalion, the 3rd Parachute Battalion, the Commando Training Center and the Parachute Training Center, plus the 6th CIS Group (Communication and Information Systems). As Colonel Vincent Descheemaeker, former C.O., said in his farewell speech, "We are the toolbox of the government".

The main challenge Colonel Bilo is now facing is to maintain the capacity in terms of personnel, both numerically and qualitatively to keep an ability to intervene anywhere at any time.

Another challenge is the continuation of the regimental transformation process. As he explains in the interview given to Army Recognition and broadcast on our Defense web TV (YouTube), Colonel Bilo explains that one cannot easily transform a unit whose battalions, since the 2nd World War, have been working according to a precise operating mode and that must now master everything that falls to a regiment assigned to special operations sometimes very complex. The transformation must be implemented starting from the level of the soldier called to become more autonomous and more specialized but able to cooperate with a wider range of teammates combining more specialized skills. The time of support available in the context of large units is partially over. Each team member must have a higher level of shooting skills, a higher level of medical knowledge, and be able to use all communication systems and other tools available to him.

At a higher level than the solo crew, the Regiment will specialize companies (about 120 men). The process will begin, at the request of NATO, particularly in the amphibious field to support maritime operations and carry out anti-piracy missions, for instance. It will take four to five years for this new skill to be fully mastered. And the SOR is asking to receive a complement of type FRISC boats (Fast Raiding, Interception and Special Forces Craft) that can reach 45 knots (90 km/h), a piece of crucial equipment for the future amphibious capacity.

The long-standing cooperation with the Dutch special forces will be strengthened (remember that the new special forces’ 4x4, the Jankel Fox, was designed to be transported inside a Dutch CH-47 Chinook). The SO Regt is already working with the French naval commandos and will develop its cooperation with the British Royal Marines.

Served by the will of Gen.Maj. Marc Thys, commander of the Land Component, to equip the army with equipment more appropriate to the current operational parameters, the Regiment will strive to obtain what it is imperative to carry out the missions entrusted by the Government, including night vision equipment, some weapons, new clothes, more appropriate assault jackets, etc. It is imperative that the investments decided in the context of the Strategic Vision 2016 be made in full and in the required time. Attention: purchase budgets without operating budgets to be decided by the next governments, this would invalidate the Strategic Vision.

Colonel Tom Bilo new commander of the Belgian Special Operations Regiment 3
Men of the Special Operations Group carry on a demonstration of an operation aiming at liberating hostages (Picture source: Army Recognition)

 Regarding the staff of the Special Operations Regiment, a major change will occur: 19 women (out of 34 candidates) will join the unit. As Col. Bilo relevantly argue, 50% of the world's population is female. To exclude women from certain functions and missions is, therefore, a big mistake. Integrating them into special units is primarily intended to fill a gap at the operational level. And this is especially essential when considering certain cultures in Africa, the Middle East or Asia (Afghanistan, for instance). In view of gaining access to certain sections of the population in order to obtain information as well as to influence behaviors, it is necessary to integrate women into the units, the men having much more difficulty in getting in touch with the female population of the countries where the unit operates. These women will have tasks and responsibilities identical to those of their male colleagues, so also the adequate training.