U.S. Air Force 1st Lt. Andrew Bruno adjusts his night vision goggles at Fort Dix, N.J. in a joint training exercise with the U.S. Marine Corps. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. Matt Hecht/Released)

Special Operations Forces shone in actions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.

They also led the way onto Afghanistan in 2001 and will be among the last troops to leave the country at the end of its 20-year mission.

Army Gen. Richard Clarke, the commander of US Special Operations Command (SOCOM), who served in the 82nd Airborne Division in 2002 and with the 1st Ranger Battalion in 2004 in Afghanistan, understands that world quite well.

But times have changed. 

After spending the past two decades kicking in doors and hunting insurgent targets in the Middle East, special operations leaders are looking to the digital domain as the key to their future.

Warfare “is going to be multi-domain, it’s going to be partnered. And it’s going to be contested in every step,” Clarke told an industry conference in Tampa. “Our goal is to maintain a strategic advantage.”

Even as US strategy moves to a world of near-peer competition with China and Russia, Special operators will be in demand, Clarke said. 

Furthermore, the future of warfare will dictate how Special Operations Forces (SOF) operate.

“I think most of you understand the counterterrorism mission,” he said. “Competition, or as some refer to it as strategic competition, may be less familiar. In short, it’s winning without fighting. It’s taking actions below the level of combat.” 

Strategic competition is different.

There won’t be a victory parade at the end of a violent war like there was in New York at the end of World War II, he said.

“Instead, our competition will endure and … it may be infinite because there’s no precise end; there is not necessarily a winner. Just nations seeking competitive advantages,” the general said. “And that advantage can ebb and flow.”

This has always been a part of the international system, but new tools and new technologies have given adversaries new avenues to compete. In the past, this competition played out on land, sea and air.

Now it is contested in the cyberworld and space as well — extending the battlefield to infinity and beyond. And it is going to be contested in the information space as well, Clarke said.

Technically an elite counter-terrorism Special Missions Unit, Delta Force has been involved in virtually every major U.S. military action since the 1980s. Credit: US Army photo.

Clarke said the contest in the information space will impact all domains of warfare.

“To be clear, it is a battle in the cognitive space,” he said. “It takes place on the Internet, but not always. This is purely distinct from cyber from the ones and zeros in the [Colonial] pipeline attack. It is a cognitive space where we must prevail.”

He noted that when he first went to Afghanistan, roughly 95% of his time was spent on finding and killing or capturing enemy forces.

“Today, if you visit our commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan, they’ll say that they focus 60 percent or more of their time on non-lethal effects in the information space,” he said.

All this requires that SOF commanders get the tools they need to decide and act more quickly. They also need the capabilities to more effectively interact with allies and partners and with local populations. 

“The future will be won by those who dominate the full digital spectrum,”  said Lt. Gen. Francis Beaudette, who also attended the conference. “It will be as important as seizing and holding terrain.

“This is why we need to train aggressively in the information space,” Beaudette explained. “We need a live-fire range for our information warfare operators in a virtual training environment.”

New technologies or new ways of using technologies will be key moving forward, Clarke said.

“How do we more effectively search through our mountains of data … that is across all classifications and all domains?” he asked.

“How do I move data from [unclassified] to secret to top secret, with no problem, and so it is useful? How do we harness mission command of our forces … but also combined operations with ours, so that we’re all seeing the same picture?”

Technology will be the answer to these questions and more not even thought of yet, Clarke said, but he worries about Special Operations Command falling behind its near peer rivals.

U.S. Marines with 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit board an MV-22 Osprey, prior to departing the amphibious assault ship USS Makin Island in support of Northern Edge 2021. (U.S. Navy photo by Michael J. Lieberknecht)

In June of 2019, President Putin met China’s President Xi Jinping at the St Petersburg International Economic Forum to cement the strengthening “strategic relationship” between the two countries that represent the greatest threat to the US and its allies.

The leaders signed a joint statement announcing that “the China-Russian relationship has entered a new era, and is facing new opportunities for greater development.”

According to China’s state media, “the objective of such a new kind of partnership is for both sides to give more support to each other as they seek to take their own development paths, preserve respective core interests, and protect sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

In response, the US must “maintain the budget and the resources to continue moving forward,” Clarke said.

“As we go forward, we’re going to face different pressures tomorrow, different but I would argue even more vital to our national security,” he said.

Wherever there is a global hotspot — the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Korea, the South China Sea, the US and one of China or Russia or both will be somewhere in the mix.

It is these standoffs, this multi-dimensional warfare, that provides the real context to the future of warfare and this historic SOF transformation.

The integration of physical and cyber conflict has created an open season for cyber attacks, for supporting proxies and rogue states, for abuses of social media platforms and their extraordinary reach into every home and workplace in the West.

The US and its key allies have now had to change tactics and structures to deal with this.

Operating on the information space will require a change in the mindset for many SOF units. They will have to ensure the validity of their own data streams while countering misinformation during their operations around the globe.

Clarke suggested the shift can be understood in the context of companies in the commercial space competing to sell their products to the public.

“SOCOM should be able to do the same thing in real time, because part of the piece of working in the cognitive space is actually understanding the environment and understanding the threat,” he said.

“The more that we can understand how our adversaries and how our competitors are working in this space and apply the intelligence tools against those, the better off we will be.”

Sources: US Department of Defense, Military.com, Forbes magazine, Breaking Defense