Special Forces Shift Target

Special Forces Shift Target

U.S. special forces have protected America and entranced observers of military affairs for decades. Their exploits have fascinated the public in books, movies, and television series.

The target of these extraordinary warriors has generally been terrorist organizations and leaders. Notably, Seal Team Six was responsible for eliminating Osama Bin Laden.

They led the way onto Afghanistan in 2001 and will be among the last troops to leave the country at the end of the retrograde. Clarke, who served in the 82nd Airborne Division in 2002 and with the 1st Ranger Battalion in 2004 in Afghanistan, understands that world quite well. But times have changed.

“I think most of you understand the counterterrorism mission,” he said. “Competition, or as some refer to it as strategic competition, may be less familiar. In short, it’s winning without fighting. It’s taking actions below the level of combat.”

But the world is facing a threat that dwarfs that posed by al Qaeda, ISIS, and the Taliban. Increasingly, the combined military might of China and Russia poses an existential threat against the very existence of the free world. In response, special operators are evolving to meet the devastating new challenge.

Unlike the mostly kinetic actions in the extended War on Terror, Clarke said the contest in the information space will impact all domains of warfare. “To be clear, it is a battle in the cognitive space,” he said. “It takes place on the Internet, but not always. This is purely distinct from cyber from the ones and zeros in the [Colonial] pipeline attack. It is a cognitive space where we must prevail.”

Clarke recalls that roughly 95 percent of his time was spent on finding and killing or capturing enemy forces. “Today, if you visit our commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan, they’ll say that they focus 60 percent or more of their time on non-lethal effects in the information space,” he said.

All this requires that special operations forces commanders get the tools they need to decide and act more quickly. They also need the capabilities to more effectively interact with allies and partners and with local populations.

New technologies or new ways of using technologies will be key moving forward, he said. “How do we more effectively search through our mountains of data? that is across all classifications and all domains,” he asked. “How do I move data from [unclassified] to secret to top secret, with no problem, and so it is useful? How do we harness mission command of our forces, … but also combined operations with ours, so that we’re all seeing the same picture?”

Technology will be the answer to these questions and more not even thought of yet, he said.

Special Operations Command is reaching out to industry partners and experts in academia to solve these problems. Clarke is opening the command to specialists in these technologies and more to improve capabilities and build capacity.

He worries about Special Operations Command falling behind competitors. “We have to maintain the budget and the resources to continue moving forward,” Clarke said.

“As we go forward, we’re going to face different pressures tomorrow, different but I would argue even more vital to our national security,” he said. “Our threats have continued to evolve: Cyber threats, … Chinese activities globally, and Russian disinformation each and every day. Reorienting our momentum towards strategic competition, we must modernize with purpose.

“Even as these threats evolve, why am I still confident we’ll rise to this challenge? Because as I reflect back to Afghanistan and the changes we’ve made, we’ve done it before and we’ll do it again.”

Frank Vernuccio serves as editor-in-chief of the New York Analysis of Policy and Government. 

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