SPECIAL OPERATIONS

JUST IN: U.S. Special Operators 'Gobbling Up' Lessons Learned in Ukraine, Gaza

2/9/2024
By Sean Carberry

Defense Dept. photo

WASHINGTON, D.C. — While U.S. Special Operations Command has long been viewed as the “counterterrorism command,” it’s primary mission today is "integrated deterrence," which is why it is studying the conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza to bolster its capabilities to thwart adversaries in the Indo-Pacific, Europe and elsewhere, its leader said.

SOCOM is “absolutely gobbling up any lessons learned we can from” the wars in Gaza and Ukraine, Army Gen. Bryan Fenton, commander of Special Operations Command, told reporters during a Defense Writers Group event Feb. 9.

“We’re absolutely interested in how an electronic warfare environment we see — very contested environment in particular in Ukraine — affects those and what that means for tactics, techniques and procedures in the future. I think we're always interested in a unique environment that might have tunnels and subterranean locations that we would have to operate in as that is not only in Gaza, but it's certainly reflected in other parts of the world that we find ourselves in,” he said.

The command is also looking at how to do communications and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance in tunnels, he said. “So, all that's really important to us as an ever-learning military, ever-learning SOCOM. And we're certainly taking full advantage of that as SOCOM and part of the [Central Command] team.”

And in Europe, Ukraine is probably close to, if not the most contested electronic warfare environment ever experienced in warfare, he said.

That means things like small drones that U.S. and Ukrainian special operators might have been accustomed to using are no longer “working in the way that we've seen them once be able to work, even in our global war on terrorism experience in Afghanistan and Iraq,” he said.

“Taking those lessons for us on what is it that works and the tactics, techniques and procedures in order to allow the Ukrainians to continue to blunt the invasion and certainly deny Putin his objectives is a key part of what we're learning."

Another critical takeaway from Ukraine is how open-source intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance is being used and how much information is available through non-government or military systems.

“I think folks are starting to really understand the power of everything you get out in the open-source arena,” he said. “And we're learning a lot from that as well. And we're watching them employ it, and in many ways to great effect. And the other thing we're really taking away is as they communicate, the dangers that provides with the signals that those things emanate, and what we ought to know and understand as SOCOM” and the broader U.S. military and what that means for any future conflict.

While Ukraine has bespoke electronic warfare systems — some provided by the United States and allies — Russia is often able to overwhelm those systems with sheer mass, he noted.

“Quantity has a quality all its own, even if it's not high quality,” he said. As SOCOM and the other services jump into technology and deploy AI and autonomy on vehicles like small UAS, it is often a one-to-one ratio — “one human to one platform,” he said.

“We would like that to be one human to many of platforms,” he continued.

“That's the same thing that could be part of the solution and certainly is the struggle with the Ukrainians right now — how do you get an exquisite platform that can get quality matched up against the quantity and now all of a sudden you get a bit of parity?” he said.

As important as quality is, quantity will still be needed against everything the Russian’s have in terms of electronic warfare capabilities, he said.

SOCOM is working with Army Gen. Christopher Cavoli, head of European Command, and his team on what lessons to take back and what tactics, techniques and procedures to revise, he said.

Another area that requires new technology and approaches is countering the evolving UAS threat, he said.

“When we think about countering UAS, we look at it through the buckets of seeing the threat, synthesizing what that means and then countering it,” he said.

“There's a lot of work that goes on in a number of these locations where we're watching this on the common-ops picture space, bringing all these together and understanding what are we dealing with, I think absolutely drives us a lot more toward artificial intelligence — the ability to take in quite a bit of data, turn it around in a very rapid period of time to give us precise decision advantage so that we make the decision a lot faster about what we're seeing,” he said.

“And then what mechanism we may use to knock it down or to interdict it and then also putting us at the right place in time to do that, I think is a really key part of where we're going to go on seeing and sensing these … because they're getting more and more challenging in the way that they're at speed, the levels that they're flying, and certainly sometimes in the quantities,” he said.

“Even beyond artificial intelligence, it's the autonomy of systems to be able to pick that out faster than the human,” he continued.

In terms of disrupting the threats, “it really is about having a quiver of arrows, so to speak, to do that,” he said. “They all look different and may demand different interdiction solutions. … It could be microwaves or some other systems we're using. And we're also thinking about cyber and space as we think about this in the future.

“So, I think there's a number of advances that we've got to continue to take — some of them are under way, certainly some work we're doing in SOCOM to that level with artificial intelligence and autonomy to defeat it, as well for us to be able to use it against an adversary.”

While all of this requires new or updated technology, SOCOM still prioritizes investing in people first, technology second, he said.

“Humans [are] more important than hardware,” he said. “And we add to that, if we had one more dollar to spend, we're spending it on our people, and then we'll wrap the technology around, and we'll do the other pieces that we need to do.”

Topics: Special Operations

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