JUST IN: Special Operations Forces at ‘Inflection Point’ as Global Threats Evolve
Special Operations Command photo
WASHINGTON, D.C. — As the threat environment continues to evolve, the U.S. Special Operations Forces must adapt their focus and capabilities to meet these new challenges, officials said.
For the better part of the last two decades, special operations forces have primarily focused on counterterrorism efforts. While that remains an important part of their responsibilities, emerging threats such as the pacing challenges posed by China and Russia have left the strategic role of special operations “much less defined,” said Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict Christopher P. Maier.
“I would characterize where we are right now as an environment of both continuity and change,” Maier said during a panel discussion at the National Defense Industrial Association Special Operations/Low Intensity Conflict Symposium Nov. 18. “Where I think there is going to be tremendous transition and change — and I would say we're already along that path — is really applying the capabilities and the thinking — and in many respects the talent that is unique to SOF — to the rest of the National Defense Strategy challenges.”
Given the special operations forces’ concentration on countering terrorism and violent extremist organizations in recent times, there is a tendency within the Defense Department not to see how those forces can help in other areas of effort, he said.
“There's not a lot of institutional knowledge that goes back, frankly, to the pre-2001 era,” Maier said. “So there's a significant amount of … education but also advocacy required in these conversations, in some cases just to get a seat at the table. And then being able to apply in those conversations … whether it's planning or policy discussions the role SOF can play and where there's key roles SOF can help to provide options for senior decision makers.”
As great power competition with nations such as China and Russia garners more attention in the Defense Department overall, U.S. Special Operations Command is “rebalancing” where it allocates its resources to ensure it can respond to a variety of threats, said Air Force Lt. Gen. Tony D. Bauernfeind, the Vice Commander of SOCOM.
“For [fiscal year 2023], we expect … half of our activities balanced between counter [violent extremist organizations] and crisis response, and the other half focused on great power competition,” Bauernfeind said. “But it's not just the operations that we have to put our money where our mouth is. It's what are those pieces of kit and equipment or software that we need to take our warfighters to make them even better?”
Over the last three budget cycles, SOCOM has pushed more than $8 billion towards modernization efforts, Bauernfeind added. Some areas of focus include next-generation mobility platforms, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and situational awareness capabilities, effects and biotechnology, he said.
Special operations forces have the ability to innovate and integrate new technology faster than other services, Maier said.
“We all know about the challenges … of acquisition, [research and development], that the big services [have],” he said. “Even if they create pilot efforts, the balance of going to productivity and being able to get things fielded takes much longer than anybody wants.” SOF with the Special Operations Forces Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics Center and “some of the flexible authorities is really, I think, an incredible testbed to put some of these things in practice very quickly.”
That said, special operations forces must be given opportunities to demonstrate their capabilities beyond counterterrorism, Maier said.
“I think we're in an interesting inflection point now where when some of the strategic decisions are made, when the resources are allocated, I don't have a … sense that in every case SOF’s voice is at the table, that SOF capability [is] being incorporated into that,” he said.
“I don't have great concerns that given the opportunity, SOF won't achieve — and overachieve in some cases — what they're being asked to do,” he said. “I think it's making sure that the experience over the last 20 years with the counterterrorism fight that has rightfully given SOF so many accolades isn't overly interpreted by some as the one-trick pony.”