During the 2019 Special Operations Forces Industry Conference (SOFIC) in Tampa, Florida, General Richard Clark, the commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), offered an insight on the priorities and goals of America’s special operations forces (SOF).
“Today, SOCOM is focused squarely on the implementation of the national defense strategy,” he said during an address. “This strategy acknowledges the re-emergence of great power competition in a global security environment with continuing threats from globally-networked violent extremist organizations, but also a rogue state.”
According to the national defense strategy document, China and Russia pose the biggest threat to American national security and interests. And without much fanfare, America’s SOF units have already re-focused their training to deal with potential contingencies as they pertain to the two rival nations.
General Clark became SOCOM’s commander last March after Army General Raymond Thomas retired. Now he faces the challenge of shifting the focus of America’s SOF from low-intensity conflicts and counterterrorism to state warfare. For decades many have questioned the strategic utility of SOF units. Indeed, in a conventional war, it is much harder for SOF units to make a strategic impact, whereas in conflicts like the ones in Afghanistan and Iraq, SOF units could display their strategic nature more easily by surgically dismantling the enemy’s leadership. Although the shift is necessary, it won’t be complete, as terrorist organizations will continue to pose a significant threat to U.S. national security.
General Clark stated that, currently, SOCOM focuses on countering “violent extremist ideologies” and destroying terrorist organizations’ capacity to attack U.S. targets and interests. But he also acknowledged that the spec ops command must be ready to apply its capabilities and talent “to help the nation prevail in great power competition.”
The SOCOM commander, moreover, emphasized the necessity for preparedness and the continuous search for talent. “The foundation of readiness is our superior assessment, selection, training, education and talent management. We will continue to pursue increased human performance by deeper understanding of human physiology and the limits of endurance and performance. Our programs will focus on ‘pre-habilitation’ as well as rehabilitation.” The general added that the command will be using “data analytics to help us in areas ranging from finding potential recruits for special operations careers, to monitoring readiness and predictability to avoid performance and capacity shortfalls.”
His mention of “performance and capacity shortfalls” is a direct result of the ethics and professionalism issues that have ravaged America’s SOF community in recent years. After repeated public embarrassments, SOCOM conducted an investigation on the issue but found inconclusive results.
General Clark also focused on the need to create a better working environment for his commandos. “We place a high priority on providing comprehensive support to all elements of human capital. Our goal is to extend care and reduce risks in every part of our formation,” he said. Retention rates in SOF units have been worsening as a result of repeated combat deployments and questionable leadership decisions.