jfq: what are your priorities as commander of the u.s. special operations command [socom]? Have they changed since you took over in 2019? if so, how and why?
general clarke: when i took command i had some ideas about priorities and where to take command as i had just come from the joint staff. I also received great guidance from secretary [james] mattis, who put me in the role. I sat down with all the commanders and senior NCO leaders and we set priorities.
Those priorities have remained largely unchanged: compete and win for the nation, preserve and increase preparedness, innovate for future threats, foster partnerships, and strengthen our strength and our family. While I would say that the operating environment has changed in those years, and it is now clear that China is our leading threat, these priorities are timeless for socoms going forward.
jfq: as you know, socom has three department-wide coordinating authority functions: counter violent extremist organizations [cveo], counter weapons of mass destruction [cwmd], and internet-based military intelligence support operations [miso]. How do you see global security challenges affecting the ability of special operations forces [sof] to perform these missions and their ability to stay ready and modernize?
general clarke: first it’s important to talk about how the coordinating authority is supposed to be executed and what is a coordinating authority. The way I see the coordinating authority is that it should take the lead in planning, evaluating and providing recommendations. and in that role, I provide those recommendations in those three areas that you just mentioned. but every service and every combatant command is critical to help address cwmd, cveo, and internet-based miso, or webops. everyone knows that the information space is important.
I think we can all agree that terrorism and violent extremism are not going away. They are still threats. But we need to deal with countering these threats in a sustainable way because, in the long run, they are not as important as the pace threats or the near threats that we are seeing today with Russian activities in Ukraine.
As for the cwmd threat, I think we should all care more about where it is. On the nuclear basis, everyone has seen the buildup that China has undertaken with its nuclear capabilities. for the first time in our history, we are going to have two close nuclear threats.
but then look at the chemo-bio [chemical-biological] aspect. on the biological side, all you have to do is look at covid-19 and what the pandemic has done to our nation. So if you look at the chemical side, the bar has been lowered on two fronts. one is the barrier to entry. terrorists have used sarin and mustard gas in syria and iraq. and we know for sure that the ability of terrorists to use chemical agents is there.
then we’ve had state actors, like kim jong-un, use it against a family member. there have been several cases proving that the russians have used it against political adversaries of the russian government outside their own territory, on a us territory. uu. ally’s territory. we are all certain that the landscape is changing and that we must, in fact, prepare the joint force for those possibilities.
finally, the other major coordinating authority is webops or miso. this is essential for campaigning in the gray area because it is below the conflict threshold. As everyone knows, many of our competitors are spreading misinformation and disinformation, and the problem is only growing. we have to be able to see that in real time. but we also have to be able to counter with all the elements of statecraft.
I think we’re seeing great examples of that today where we as a government are releasing intelligence to show evil behavior and we’re making it public. and once it has been made public, many reinforce it in the information space. It’s a great example of how information operations will continue to be critical in the future, looking at integrated deterrence and deterring our adversaries. We’ve all studied deterrence theories, and it’s as much in the mind of the person you’re trying to affect. that’s important.
jfq: Special operations is highly dependent on the quality of the people who carry out these missions. How do your units take advantage of the diverse talents, skills, and backgrounds of your special operators and their partners as they carry out their missions?
general clarke: truth number one: humans are more important than hardware. we continually come back to that. that fact will remain inviolate. we will continue to recruit and retain the best talent our nation has to offer.
today’s challenges continue to show that sof’s number one value proposition is our people. it’s the culture of who we are: our innovative problem solvers. we have been emphasizing that you are part of a cohesive and disciplined team that will accomplish some of our nation’s most difficult missions.
Those dedicated and trusted professionals are on the front lines, fighting in combat zones, but also working with allies and partners. and they are driving the same webops. it is emphasizing our full strength.
what we’re trying to do all the time is tap into our nation’s incredible talent pool. and we welcome anyone to join our lineup who is able to meet our standards, from all walks of life.
Many people think of socom as just the military component. In addition to the 70,000 active duty service members, we also have 10,000 civilians who are part of this team. some of them are deployed with us, but many of them are technical experts, whether it’s acquisition, technology, or acquisition from our special operations team. we have talented professionals everywhere, to include our AI and machine learning experts who code and help us develop new capabilities across the board.
We’re going to recruit and retain a highly diverse force with cultural and linguistic expertise. inherently, we are also a joint team. if you come to sofa, you know that “we are born purple”. I would say that we integrate with the joint force at a lower echelon than any other force.
jfq: how do you see the special operators in relation to achieving the concept of conjunction? What is the working relationship between your command and the services that provide the capabilities for your task? Do you see areas where the services and National Guard could better take advantage of what special operators bring to the joint force?
general clarke: as i said a moment ago, many say that if you go into sofa, you are born purple. we inherently work as a joint team and deliver joint and combined solutions at a lower level than any other part of our joint force. this grew out of operation eagle claw with the failed rescue attempt [of us hostages in iran] that gave rise to our modern socom.
It also addresses the realities of our adversaries’ evil behavior because we must come together to see and understand. and we need to create access and location to get to locations that small teams can access, but with a joint capability that can help solve those problems. Because our forces are inextricably linked, they can come to the best of the services and bring those lessons learned and experiences from both the SOF and conventional sides of the force.
Something to keep in mind is that sof cannot be the easy button or the solution for everything. There have been times when it’s more convenient or easier to say, “Let’s do it.” we have to stick to our core missions.
we shouldn’t get into a conventional kind of fight when we’re not the right tool. in world war ii a ranger battalion was completely wiped out in italy because it was not properly employed. if we are not careful and observant, the same type of activities could occur today. we always have to be very aware of that.
jfq: as a single title combatant commando x authorities to develop a budget contribution for the dod [department of defense] and to direct spending, what has been your experience with congress defending how it trains and equips its force ?
general clarke: we as a force are more integrated, credible and capable than ever before and that really stems from the strong support of congress. congress established socom in 1987. that went against the recommendations of the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. as i mentioned earlier this was born out of operation eagle claw in 1980. senators [sam] nunn [d-ga] and [william] cohen [r-me] took notice and legislated it.
if you read the history of how socom was created, the services didn’t want to give up their own individual special operations forces that had been created. Congress realized that it needed to strengthen joint interoperability, especially for high-risk missions. needs arose as terrorism appeared around the world.
but what congress did that specifically made socom special was the single procurement authority that it led, with specific funding that didn’t have to go through services. that was really the power behind what created sof.
every time I talk to congress, I talk about their key role in this, but how much we value congressional oversight along with the civilian side of the dod, specifically an asd (so/lic) [under secretary of defense for special operations and low intensity conflict]. Congress ran their standup at the same time for that oversight aspect. that’s an important part that aligns with the constitution, with civilian oversight and a military accountable to civilian leadership. Congress asks me tough questions all the time, and they should. when we receive congress delegations at socom headquarters, and to all our subordinates and abroad, we welcome such visits.
Although we are a very small part, about 3 percent, of the defense department budget with about 2 percent of the force, congress still pays an incredible amount of attention to us, and it should. The American public and Congress must trust special operations forces, and we must uphold that every day.
jfq: Many conflict zones are non-traditional, and labeling these situations has become a popular industry with names like gray zones, asymmetric warfare, and non-war competitions. How does your command describe these challenges and how do you plan to address them?
general clarke: none of us should be surprised by this. our rivals have studied us and know that we have incredible and overwhelming power in our combined force. they will not challenge us directly. we expect them to seek advantage through asymmetric means. but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep moving forward without paying attention.
socom’s position is that we can operate in this gray area and counter our adversaries. we were born from this. Go back to our roots with the OS [Office of Strategic Services] in WWII, when small teams jumped into France and helped the resistance forces.
That’s an example of using asymmetric capabilities. because at the end of the day, it’s about undermining the confidence of the adversary. they will think twice that their aggression can be successful or that it will be easy.
what sof does is present multiple dilemmas. we expanded those options to threaten what an adversary might want. we may put some of those adversary assets at risk. we can fight the war on the edges without having to be directly involved. we set the conditions for that today.
think of a place like the Baltics right now. we have been working with our partners from latvia, lithuania and estonia for decades in afghanistan. but we are also with them right now in their countries training alongside them, analyzing their resistance capabilities and continuing to think about how they could, in fact, resist as nations.
I think this will be a great lesson as we look at potential conflict zones around the world: be there before they start. Building those capabilities with our allies and partners presents an unmatched advantage. we have the culture and language capabilities and the understanding of what irregular warfare could be. For competition in the gray zone, it’s not just our adversaries competing there, but SOF and the joint force can compete there as well.
jfq: Can you comment on how you see the impact of technology that used to be only available to nation-states and their militaries, but is now available to anyone who can buy it? How are you working to operate in such a world?
general clarke: there are several examples. Right now, one of the most pressing threats is the UAS [unmanned aerial systems] threat. these are the ieds [improvised explosive devices] of the future. everyone remembers 2003-2004 when the number one killer of our forces was the ied, first in iraq and then to afghanistan. now, an ied has wings and can move. the cable that connected that ie or remote device is now harder to beat.
we’re seeing our adversaries really pick up their game in this area, again starting in iraq. You can clearly see where this tiny nail technology can grow. that’s a troubling example.
We’re also developing technologies and capabilities to counter them, and then looking at where we can “stay off the ground” to disrupt supply chains, transportation [and] development before it’s too late. then we just have to defeat them “launch right” when we are trying to take down the final uas that might be coming towards our forces.
the future of uas leads to another technology: ai [artificial intelligence] and machine learning. an example of using those and uas together would be swarming and remotely or independently operated technologies. we’re really looking a lot inside socom, training leaders in artificial intelligence and machine learning and exploring capabilities to counter those technologies.
The final technology I’ll talk about is in the information domain. our adversaries compete at very low cost, using misinformation and disinformation. we have to develop technologies to counter those efforts by using artificial intelligence and machine learning to immediately identify and counter those messages before the narrative is widely distributed. all of them are really important in today’s environment.
jfq: ee. uu. The special operations command is also unique in that it is the only combatant command with an educational mission that is incorporated into the joint special operations university [jsou]. How will your command leverage this evolving professional military education capability to your advantage?
general clarke: go back to our foundation and that single authority where we are required to oversee the unique training of sof. that’s why we have a jsou. which is linked to the broader joint mission of education and training. that’s still the number one truth: humans are more important than hardware.
We must invest in those people by continuing to train and educate problem-solving innovators. jsou sharpens sof’s advantage by investing in, training and developing our junior leaders.
They are also looking specifically at the priorities of this command and where this command should go. they are developing courses that are specific to those problems. and that unique training includes some of the coordinating authorities, teaching specific classes on cwmd or teaching classes on the gray area, campaigns and integrated deterrence.
Because jsou is on the socom campus, he is deeply integrated with the staff. our j5 and our president jsou are closely linked for that thought process and for the development of the future sof force. It’s amazing what they’re doing there. jsou participates in all our commander conferences to see where the command is going and how to bond. I consider him one of the most important resources of socom in the training, equipment and development of our force.
The other thing that jsou does, besides teaching, is conduct detailed research that takes an in-depth look at some of our most perplexing problems. as i mentioned earlier with the j5, they are helping us solve those problems. that the research is a great asset to us, and some of it is cutting edge. there is a huge ecosystem of civic education programs and institutions that can really help us. they go to places like ndu [national defense university], but they also go to carnegie mellon or the fletcher school at tufts to get experience, whether it’s counterterrorism or weapons of mass destruction. jsou also helps us in those areas.
jfq: what will the rise of the us look like? Does the space force affect your commando and special ops forces? As a force that relies heavily on what the Space Force provides, what opportunities do you see for your command to assist in the evolution of the Space Force?
general clarke: space is a critical domain. sof is and will continue to be dependent on space-based capabilities. but i also want space to see sofa as a space enabler in the future.
I think there can be a great triad between cyber, space and socom. as i told secretary [mark] esper while we were discussing operations in space, i said i would recommend that we don’t talk about space, but we talk about this for space. space capabilities begin here on the terrestrial side. we have to protect our own capabilities, but we could also put adversaries’ ground base capabilities at risk.
sof’s unique access and location may provide such opportunities in the future. we realized the importance of space and the need to continue working closely with spacecom [u.s. space command] and the space force to provide those capabilities for the joint warfare aspect of all domains.
jfq: As a graduate of the national war university who has obviously been successful in his post-union professional military education experience, looking back on that year, what advantages did the national defense university bring you? What would you recommend the faculty consider when developing strategy-related courses for future leaders like you?
general clarke: first, i thank ndu for that great year 2006-2007. he had just finished about 5 years focused directly on combat. I had conversations about those experiences not only in the joint force, but also with interagency partners and allies, to reflect on where we were going, where we had been, and where we were going in the future. that exposure for me to all elements of our national command and infrastructure, as well as our international partners, was invaluable.
I had some world class instructors helping me. but it was also a time to reflect and think. what i found was that that year was just one step in what should be a lifetime investment in the profession and continued study as a professional military. you cannot remain static. you should continue to read and develop. I have found that I read and study more in each subsequent year. the national war college gave me some ideas and gave me some frameworks to help see the problems in the future. jfq