JUST IN: Global Competition Reshaping Special Operations

By Laura Heckmann
NDIA President and CEO David Norquist (left) and Chris Maier, assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict (right)

NDIA photo

WASHINGTON, D.C. — With the United States focused squarely on great power competition, Special Operations Forces are navigating a transition from a counterterrorism-focused force to one that can fight both peer adversaries and Pentagon bureaucracy.

Special Operations Forces are at an inflection point, Chris Maier, assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict, said at the National Defense Industrial Association’s SO/LIC Symposium Oct. 31.

A different adversary has driven SOF to look at a “different set of tools than has often been associated with the community,” Maier said, adding a “significant challenge” lies in getting “that value proposition for a different fight out there.”

Maier noted that Gen. Bryan Fenton, commander of Special Operations Command, has expressed frustration that SOF are still seen as the counterterrorism forces “across not only the interagency, but across allies and partners as well.”

“I think we can do a lot more than that,” Maier said.

Part of SOF’s evolution will include exercises in analytics and “being able to talk not to the policy and operational side of the Pentagon, but the resourcing and programming side of the Pentagon, because that’s, at the end of the day, an element of strategic competition … in who's going to be most relevant for the type of fight we're going to confront,” Maier said.

SOF’s value proposition lies in their “really small units … hyper enabled units,” he said. “But really, we need to think of it in the context of revamped organizations and units that are modular and can be really tailored to the type of environment.”

One area SOF will need to adjust is in better understanding man and machine teaming, Maier said.

“So, everybody's on the AI and unmanned, uncrewed system,” he continued. “What [are] the SOF-peculiar pieces of that? How do we use the combination of our deep training and ability to use a lot of different skill sets — the ability to interoperate with those types of technologies, and then be able to do that in the context of the joint force … filling those kill chain gaps that the joint force can't by itself get to? I think that's really where we're trying to go on this journey.”

SOF will need industry’s to help “really tailor some of these technologies,” he said, including the “profound” use of AI and unmanned systems.

“I think we need to understand more, not only how we can do things more uncrewed and unmanned and be able to just expand the aperture of what an individual operator unit can do, but we also have to be prepared to counter the adversary’s ability to do this.”

Above all else, SOF’s people remain their greatest advantage, and adapting their workforce to a changing strategic environment has meant an adapted approach to how they interact with the Pentagon, he said.

“The Pentagon's really two worlds,” Maier said. “It's the policy and operation side, which SOF has flourished on and has long standing connections, and then there's the resourcing and programming side, that's doing things like developing budgets.”

SOF will have to live in both, he said.

“And I think we need to think of the value proposition and that innovation in both those realms, so being able to bring more capability to the fight.”

SOF’s traditionally demonstrated value proposition has been the ability to solve “hard problems on the battlefield for the nation, create options for our senior leaders,” he said.

“In some cases that's been associated, perhaps too much, with things like direct action and the movies that get made that often cast SOF as one particular type of tool,” he continued. “And I think we're going to need to continue to find ways to bring more of that capability and technology combined in small units, as I said, to really do innovative things.”

Programming and resourcing is the “less glamorous side,” he said, but is one that SOF will have to utilize to “show, not just tell, but show how we can be efficient. How we can do things that the rest of the force can’t do.”

Maier said, for example, in the context of experimentation and exercises, being able to “speak analytics” has never been a strong suit for SOF, “because we didn’t need it to be.” Now, they need to be able to “speak to those that speak numbers, in numbers, and show and demonstrate in numbers.”

When asked if he felt SOF were adequately represented on the resourcing side, Maier said, in short, no.

“But I think we have the authorities to be more effective in that space,” he said. “It's a matter of now catching up with the resources and talents.”

Growing advocacy in the Pentagon has improved SOF’s ability to make resourcing and programming decisions, he said, but it needs to continue to grow.

Currently working with “a handful of dozens of people, 40 to 50 people,” their resources are “not on the level of analytic machines that the services have,” he said. “And we’re gonna have to grow that, and we’re gonna have to do it in a classic SOF way, which would be innovative, efficient, and really pick and choose where we’re going to invest and really do well in those areas, so that we can really advocate for this community in those forms.”


Topics: Special Operations-Low Intensity Conflict

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