Special operations forces will remain an integral part of the nation’s solutions to top strategic problems, but they will change, the commander of U.S. Special Operations Command said.
At a virtual conference last week sponsored by the National Defense Industrial Association, Army Gen. Richard D. Clarke said USSOCOM is involved in three wars moving forward: the war of extremism, the war for influence and the war for talent. They are all interrelated, he added.
While most Americans only recognized the war of violent extremism when al-Qaida attacked the United States in 2001, it has been going on much longer, and USSOCOM troops are the heart of that battle, Clarke said.
It will go on much longer, he said, calling the struggle against these groups a ”generational” war.
But the main emphasis in the National Defense Strategy is the return to great power competition with China and Russia. Special operations forces by their nature serve a dual purpose of fighting violent extremists and also countering Russia and China. The presence of these forces in the Indo-Pacific region, Europe, Africa and South America also serves to counter Chinese and Russian influence, the general said.
The fight against these groups will continue, but it will change, as well, Clarke said, noting that capabilities cannot be aimed not only at violent extremism, but also at larger enemies.
”As we look at the lethality, precision and mobility requirements as examples, we absolutely have to develop them so that they can compete and win with Russia and China, but they could also work in a [counterextremism] fight, because the environments we’re going to be facing in the future are going to challenge our communication. They’re going to challenge our … precision navigation. The unmanned aerial systems that our adversaries are using now globally, we have to look at methods that will defeat those and protect our forces.”
The war for influence is part and parcel of great power competition, Clarke said. ”Great power competition is about influence, and [special operations forces] have a unique impact and valuable role in this,” he added.
Special operations teams are on the ground, and they are interacting with allies, partners and indigenous peoples. While the physical partnerships are important, Clarke said, the virtual world beckons and the information space will be as important for the future. ”Working in the information space can have the greatest impact in the coming years,” he said.
The general contrasted his time in Afghanistan to what a company in that country does today. When he was first assigned to the country, he spent 90 percent of his time thinking about the kinetic fight, the raid, the mission, the kill, the capture mission and the destruction of the enemy forces, he said.
During his most recent trip to Afghanistan, Clarke said, he found that commanders now spend 60 percent of their time working in the information space. Commanders think about how to use the information space to influence the Taliban’s thought processes and how to influence the Afghan population. ”So, as we think about the information, how we do this locally, but also think about it regionally, it’s, going to be critical to the U.S. ability to be able to be successful in future fights.”
This, again, means change. Special operators are going to need artificial intelligence and machine learning tools, specifically for information operations, Clarke said, and these have to be both agile and quick to be relevant.
The war for talent will be a crucial battleground for special operators, he said. ”We still need the best men and women in the United States to come into Socom,” he said. ”We still need guys that can kick down the door, that can shoot well, can jump out of airplanes, can fly our special operators. We need all those men and women in our formations.
”But we also need coders,” he continued. ”We also need leaders who can apply [artificial intelligence].”
Discussions within the command underscore that the most important person on a mission may not be the operator who kicks in the door, but the cyber operator, Clarke said.
”We have to flip this discussion about what we need in the future,” the general said. ”We still need great people. But as we look at this, we have to look at how we’re recruiting talent and how we’re bringing them in into Socom.”
Special operators have made tremendous sacrifices over the history of the command, and they will remain a bulwark of U.S. strategic thinking. But they will change to remain relevant and to continue to win, Clarke said.