With the operational tempo of the United States Special Operations Forces increasing each year, the never-ending wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, the drain on the SOF troops will force it to turn over more missions that they are currently conducting to conventional military forces.
Lieutenant General Richard D. Clarke, tapped to be the next commander for the United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) was testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee as part of his nomination process, told Senators that while SOCOM has the “adequate” number of troops to do the job now, missions that are capable of conventional troops should be turned over to them.
“Special Operations Command should only do those missions that are suited for Special Operations Command, and those missions that can be adjusted to conventional forces should go to those conventional forces,” Clarke said.
With the Pentagon now refocussing its mission priorities to a potential conflict with China and a resurgent Russia, SOCOM with its 70,000 personnel will also play a major role in its potential future conflicts. But with the war continuing in Afghanistan that is heavily staffed by SOF troops, counter-terrorism operations ongoing in several other hotspots, the force is already stretched razor thin.
“Our world continues to evolve and increase in complexity,” he told the Armed Services committee. “While violent extremism persists in challenging regional stability and threatening our interest, near-peer competitors grow in both capability and intent to contest our vital national interest. The United States requires capabilities across all elements of national power and special operations remains a critical part of our defense.”
Clarke has been nominated for his fourth star and was commissioned in the Infantry after graduating from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1984. He comes from a military family and was born in Germany. He has a plethora of conventional experience with 173rd Airborne Brigade, the 82nd Airborne Division (where he was the division commander), including a stint as the Commandant of Cadets at West Point.
But while his Special Operations experience included three different assignments within the 75th Ranger Regiment, as a Ranger company commander, a battalion commander and the Regimental commander, it is rather short on senior SOF assignments. He did, however, serve as the Director of Operations for JSOC (Joint Special Operations Command) from 2009-2011, most notably during the Bin Laden raid. As operations officer, he was a part of the planning, training, and execution of the mission. That is the interesting aspect of why he was picked for this assignment and perhaps would bear further investigation for another column. If he is confirmed, he will succeed General Tony Thomas who is retiring.
Clarke said that what makes our Special Operations Forces so powerful and with a distinct advantage over potential future conflicts with Russian or Chinese SOF units is people.
“The other thing that we have … that those two countries don’t have is allies and partners. And our position around the world, specifically with SOCOM, with our special operations allies, do provide us that advantage,” he said.
“Right now, I believe that the number of personnel within SOCOM are adequate [to perform their missions,” Clarke said. “If confirmed by this committee, I will take a very hard look at myself and how this applies to great-power competition. One thing that I would highlight is that we should look at all missions across the globe as Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has reprioritized.”
Clarke emphasized that U.S. Special Operations Command should do only those missions that are suited for it. “Those missions that can be adjusted to conventional forces should … go to those conventional forces,” he said. “So we have to look at a prioritization of requirements.”
Some of the questions he was asked are, at times, unintentionally humorous. Sen. Mazie Hirono, (D-Hawaii), asked Clarke whether there is a clear delineation within the Defense Department between SOCOM and conventional missions. After Clarke assured the Senator that Defense Secretary Mattis has made it very clear, she persisted in that line of questioning, asking whether the US military needs to do a better job sticking to the policy of assigning SOCOM-specific and conventional missions.
“The publishing of the National Defense Strategy and relooking at the prioritization of the force has given us a very good opportunity to relook at all of our deployments, look where the forces are and make sure that SOCOM forces are, in fact, dedicated to the missions that are most important and are specific to special operations forces,” Clarke said.
The Army has taken the lead in taking over conventional missions that formerly were conducted by SOF personnel. They stood up the 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade (SFAB), based at Ft. Benning, GA. They deployed to Afghanistan early this year and has returned to home station. A second SFAB is being formed at Ft. Bragg, NC and is slated to deploy to Afghanistan in early 2019. Four other SFABs are planned, three active duty and one National Guard.
The mission of the SFAB is to carry out train, advise, and assist (TAA) missions overseas with foreign nation conventional military partners. Many of the missions that SFAB units will conduct were formerly done by SOF personnel, mainly U.S. Army Special Forces personnel.
Clarke has shown to have a sense of humor as well. While the Commandant at West Point, he produced a video based on the film “300” before the traditional Army-Navy game.