Army Gen. Richard D. Clarke, the commander of SOCOM, addressed attendees virtually on last Tuesday during the Special Operations Forces Industry Conference (SOFIC). He stated that the number one priority for SOCOM operators remains the countering of Violent Extremist Organizations (VEOs). He emphasized that extremism is a “generational issue.”
Nevertheless, General Clarke, speaking to the virtual crowd from the command’s SOFWERX facility in Ybor City, also said that the command will continue to address near-peer adversaries like Russia and China. Furthermore, he added that looking forward, SOCOM needs to address the “War on Influence” and “War for Talent.”
SOCOM’s primary mission for the past two decades has been fighting terrorist and extremist organizations and operating out of permissive environments, Clarke said. But with the Department of Defense’s shift in priorities, SOCOM must be ready for combating near-peer adversaries. Special Operations Forces, Clarke added, “will remain an integral part of our nation’s solution to tough strategic problems.”
Addressing the “War on Influence”, Clarke stated that the fighting against the terrorist groups of the world does not necessarily deviate from DOD’s shift to near-peer preparation. Our allies, and partnerships are a large part of preparing for future conflicts with near-peers as they are in helping counter-terrorist organizations.
SOCOM’s ability to develop and maintain close rapport with partner nation forces around the world is the U.S.’s big advantage, according to Clarke. He pointed out to U.S. allies in the Indo-Pacific region where Special Operations Forces are working closely with countries such as Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Thailand, and Singapore. “Our number one advantage is our allies and partners, and counter-VEO actually equals [sic] GPC [Great Power Competition] by our presence in the Indo-Pacific. By being there, we are countering near-peer states.”
According to Clarke, “Great power competition is about influence.” It this, American special operators play a “unique role” in forging and maintaining partnerships with allies in the Indo-Pacific region.
In addressing the “War on Talent,” Clarke commented that the SOF ‘door-kicker’ may no longer be the most important member of the mission. Future combat may depend more on technological savvy operators trained for the cyber and information battlespace:
“We still need guys who can kick down the door, that can shoot well, that can jump out of airplanes, that can fly our special operators — we need all those men and women. But we also need coders. We also need leaders who can apply [artificial intelligence]. It may no longer be that the most important person on the mission is actually the Special Forces operator who is kicking down the door, but it could be the cyber operator that the special operations team actually has to get to the environment and make sure that he or she can work his or her cyber tools into the fight.”
Clarke pointed out that in the early years of the war in Afghanistan, commanders (himself included) spent about 90 percent of the time planning the kinetic fight — referring to the actual mission planning. But that has now changed.
“The commander there on the ground now spends 60 percent of his working [time] in the information space… thinking about how is he influencing the Taliban thought process, how is he involved in the Afghan population and what [the population is] thinking, because we are going to win this through the population and their support for the Afghan government.”
Clarke advocated that special operators should be provided with every advantage possible, whether this is in the digital or physical domain: “We have to prioritize to set operators up for success.” He termed this approach “flipping the look toward the future.” This was certainly a view shared by a number of speakers at the conference.
Clarke mentioned that SOCOM is trying to perfect a partnership with the industry world: A partnership that will provide SOCOM with a “dual capability” employed equally against global terrorist networks and near-peer adversaries.
“Going into the future, SOCOM is going to remain engaged, working in small units in remote, austere environments and working with partner nation forces around the world,” he said.
Clarke concluded that, “we must contend with competitor capabilities and address emerging technologies. And in order to win, we will have to fight in multi-domains. SOF is a critical element but must train, equip, and develop in order to win all three wars I have mentioned.”