The face of war has changed in the past two decades. While the world’s bad guys and the terrorists have been continually morphing and popping up around the globe, as they’re stomped out in one place and reappearing in another, the “good guys” of the world need to network, innovate, and operate, globally. 

That’s why SOFREP was happy to get retired Colonel Stu Bradin, the President of Global SOF Foundation, to spend some time with us and talk about what the Foundation does, what is coming soon, and what issues the Global SOF are facing in the present and will face in the near future.

Bradin spent 32 in uniform for the U.S. Army. Of those, around 25 were in Special Operations units and about 21 of those were spent in overseas assignments. He’s worked in every geographic area and has a wealth of experience from being the commander of a Special Forces A-Team to being the Chief of Staff at USSOCOM. 

As his career was winding down, the Special Operations community that he had joined in the late 1980s had grown tremendously (SOCOM had gone from about 20,000 active-duty personnel to about 75,000). When he was the Chief of Staff for Admiral McRaven in Tampa at SOCOM, he would frequently coordinate with leaders of industry who either did or wanted to do business with SOCOM. One of the things that Bradin heard often from industry leaders was “why doesn’t the Special Operations Command have a professional association?” 

About eight months short of retirement, Bradin started getting job offers from a variety of companies. “Frankly, they were offering me far more money, than I thought I was worth,” he said.  But he also began to believe that the best course for him was creating a non-profit (501c3): a truly professional SOF association. “My value was in my list of contacts within the community. While we didn’t have a dime, but we had an idea and put it on paper over our Thanksgiving break and I then showed it to Admiral McRaven.” McRaven loved it. “This is one of the smartest things you’ve ever come up with,” McRaven told him. 

Bradin founded the Global SOF Foundation in May of 2014. His first paid employee was the Foundations Chief Operating Officer, Meaghan Keeler-Pettigrew. She had worked with Bradin at SOCOM and Central Command. They soon got their first seven founding partners, who invested in Global SOF. As Bradin put it, “it was an emotional business decision on their part. They invested in us because they believe in SOF.”

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So what is the Global SOF Foundation and what exactly do they do? We’ll get to Bradin’s comments in just a second, but for a brief overview, this is right off their website.

The GSF fills a critical gap in the national security discourse: leading an effort to link like-minded public and private entities and to increase understanding of the role that Special Operations can play in addressing global security challenges, especially those emanating from unconventional and transnational sources. The GSF is not a traditional charity but a professional association for SOF dedicated to advocating for SOF globally.

The GSF specifically: 

  • Gathers a diverse set of stakeholders interested in the future of global SOF and security through unique networking opportunities and strategic, thought-provoking forums as well as distributed media
  • Has regular networking events in the U.S. and overseas, including annual Global SOF Forums and Symposia 
  • Publishes egular newsletters, unique website content, and other distributed media
  • Educates global policymakers in order to ensure SOF maintain a comparative advantage and are resourced for success
  • Serves as the “go-to” SOF organization outside of the military and government, with a plan to establish a “think team” (as opposed to a think tank) in Washington, D.C. focused on the study of SOF and asymmetric warfare
  • Works to identify cutting-edge technologies; future concepts; and innovations in training and education in order to advance the current and future force, and support international SOF partners

Global SOF is beginning its seventh year in May. Its staff is still lean, with seven full-time employees and a modest budget. But their corporate partnerships have grown to 91 and they have over 2,200 individual members from 60 countries. As Bradin puts it: “it is a network of networks, and we’re global. Our members communicate and build relationships. It’s all right there and available to them.”

What is exciting in the global SOF world is that when the United States created SOCOM in 1987 and had the nation’s first SOF headquarters, our allies around the world didn’t have that. That’s changing rapidly, with many of our allies just now beginning to build their joint SOF HQs. When Bradin helped get the NATO SOF HQs off the ground, there were only three countries with a dedicated SOF HQs. Now there are 14.

Bradin mentioned Lithuania, whose special operations community is growing and it has made SOF its own service. Bradin talked about the French, who he said are doing some great work all over the world. They now have the second-largest Special Operations Force in the West. “The demand for special ops is off the charts worldwide. We’ll never catch up with the demand,” he said. 

Asked about the new push on “near-peer” potential adversaries, he had some interesting things to say: “If you’ve never read, Chinese and Russian doctrine, I’ll save you the time… I have,” he said. 

“Both of those nation’s doctrine basically says that they’ll do everything in their power to avoid a conventional war. Think about it… they’re going to win in the competition phase, they’re going to use cyber, SOF, intelligence operations. Their doctrine says they will interfere with elections… which as we know, the U.S. [has  been] do[ing] the same thing… since the 1940s.”

He said that counter-terrorism (CT) missions aren’t going away. “Every time we take our foot off their throat and believe that we’ve got them we high five each other, take a break and return… and they are back, like Freddy Krueger, they won’t die. Every time we squeeze them somewhere, they pop back up somewhere else in force.”

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Special operations forces are just one tool in the toolbox he said, but it is a damn good one to have. But challenges remain for the SOF community worldwide. “We have great land and maritime capability, and the ability of every nation’s SOF tactically is exceptional.” He spoke at length about the Afghan SF commandos, the Iraqi special operations forces as well as Ukrainian SF that have largely held the countries together, while the conventional forces folded.

Regarding the foundation, 2020 is a big year for them. He stated that they did three things that will affect major change. Global SOF has partnered with Clarion Defense to put on a major international business show for the European SOF. Those countries don’t have the research and development cash available to them that the U.S. does. Many times, they buy much of the same equipment and products that the U.S. does, because, as he put it, the design and testing were done by us and they know it works.

As Bradin always says, If you want to fix anything in SOF you have to have the support of U.S. Congress. Every year, Global SOF puts together a presentation called “SOF Imperatives,” and this year they were asked by the House Armed Services Cmte. to produce a platform document for Special Operations.

So, the Foundation sent out a survey to all of its members and corporate partners to ask them what they think is important. It also consulted its industry council, which is comprised of about 40 SOF and industry leaders, and got feedback from the membership, of which about 70 percent are active-duty. 

They took the results of that and rolled it up in a document for Congress. On the 11th of February, Global SOF was invited to the White House and briefed the National Security Advisor, AMB Robert O’Brien. The next day, they were in Congress with the Armed Service Committee and the sub-committee for the Special Operations budget. That’s where they garner the support they need to advocate for SOF issues. 

Stu Bradin (left) with National Security Advisor Robert Hall. (Global SOF)

This year, they are trying to elevate the role of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations / Low-Intensity Conflict (ASD SO/LIC) to an Under Secretary position. It has been a long and ongoing fight. The other big thing this year is advocating for “Light Attack Support for SOF,” which is aimed at providing organic close air support for SOF. 

The Foundation went to Congress and tried to educate the members on why this $1 billion dollar item on the budget is needed. They had a panel discussion moderated by LTG (Ret) John Mulholland, former Deputy Commander of USSOCOM, Rep. Mike Waltz (R-FL) and Rep. Jason Crow (D-CO). 

The Foundation also signed a letter of accord, similar to an MOU, with the Naval Post Graduate School. One of the big issues, he said, was that we don’t know how to collaborate with big business. We say we do but we really don’t. So, to build relationships, the plan is to build a program with the Naval Post Graduate School in Silicon Valley with corporate partners that are out there. And these companies already have contracts with DOD that get operators and engineers together. 

“There is a lot of technology already out there,” he said. “And they can probably do a lot more for the DOD in the future. It also helps the students there communicate with people who’ll they will meet in embassies and a lot of them just don’t know how to do that,” he added. The goal is to build a network, community interest, educate people and make some significant changes.

We asked him where he sees the problems in the Special Operations Forces are right now. Of course, the mainstream media is chocked full of “issues” but his answers were a little surprising. 

“Retention is the number one issue, not only, facing U.S. Special Operations units but worldwide. Everyone is looking for the very best people to man their SOF units, but so is the private sector,” he said. “And they pay a lot more money, without [the risk] getting shot at or busted up physically. Recruiting and retention are phenomenal right now. It is actually way bigger than Special Op’s, it is an across the board DOD problem.” 

Of course, the conversation got around to the elephant in the room, the ethical issues, which have been played up big time, in the media, and have gotten Congress involved. “Look, I mean there have always been ethical issues that crop up. Back when you and I were in, there were ethical issues back then,” he said.

He believes that the issue can be solved from within and doesn’t need outside help, or interference. “This is when you need to get the NCOs and officers together and tell them, ‘hey we need to tighten this stuff up,’ we did it before I got in and we’ll be doing it in the future.”

“Looking back, we probably should have nipped it in the bud, but at what time do you call a huddle and got everyone together and clean things up? Sure, I think we probably should have looked at it earlier,” he added. 

But as he puts it, “I’m definitely not one of these, ‘the world is coming to an end’ types, I think we (SOF) are more relevant than we’ve ever been, the demand is through the roof and I don’t see that changing at all.” 

He mentioned the Special Operations Task Force that the French are putting together in the Sahel, with a lot of allied European support. He believes that all of the training should be done by SOF. He mentioned that while he likes the concept of the recent SFAB units in the Army, he doesn’t believe that they’ll ever be the regional experts that SF units are. The big thing he said, is language capability.

“We [SOF] have lost a lot of our language capability, due to the missions driven down, but [we]’re working to get it back. As you know, you will never have the relationship you need if you’re doing it through interpreters. It just doesn’t happen.”

“You have to learn the language, the culture and you just have to be there.”

He mentioned SOF using a lighter footprint as what SF units did back in the 1980s -1990s where a deployment could involve two or three operator missions. He mentioned that “none of the challenges facing the force today are any different than things that we have been encountered before.”  

Bradin and the Global SOF Foundation will be at the annual SOFIC event in Tampa. They will be holding their annual Tampa Reception on Monday, May 11, during SOFIC at the Armature Works venue on the Tampa Riverwalk.