U.S. Special Operations Command leaders see the current move to integrate the command into great power competition as a return to its roots.
Army Gen. Bryan Fenton and Army Command Sgt. Maj. Shane Shorter, the commander and senior enlisted leader of Socom, spoke with the Defense Writers Group recently and discussed the changes happening in the world and Special Operations Command’s place in it.
The command has come off more than 20 years as America’s preeminent counterterrorism organization. Even before the attacks on the United States in September 2001, the command was tracking and pursuing violent extremist organizations around the world. The command operated against narco-trafficking gangs in Central and South America, as well as transnational criminal organizations in the Balkans. Socom came into its own in counterterrorism in operations against the Taliban and al-Qaida in Afghanistan, fundamentalist groups in Iraq and against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
Special operators also worked with and formed relationships with national and indigenous forces from the Indo-Pacific to Europe to Africa and South America.
But before that, the special operations community was an integral part of great power competition working to “fill in the gaps” of conventional power structures when the Soviet Union controlled Eastern Europe, Fenton said. “We still have to maintain and stay on the [violent extremist organization] threat because it has not gone away. What I will tell you is … the special operations command team frankly is born for the integrated deterrence, great power competition era.”
But while the mission set might be changing, the values behind the force are not. “The most important line of effort that we have in our headquarters is still our people,” said Shorter. “We’re not a platform-centric organization, we’re a people-centric organization.”
The first rule of the command is “Humans are more important than equipment,” and Fenton and Shorter are sticking with that.
Change is tough. Many in the command grew up in the organization when it was sometimes jokingly called “Counter Terrorism Command” and that is what they know. But Shorter said in travels around the command, service members are making the switch to great power competition and integrated deterrence. “We focused hard on the global war on terror, and I’m very proud of what we did, but we’ve never had [to] … pull ‘Socomians’ towards the nation’s main effort.”
So the bulk of the forces is absolutely laser focused on great power competition and integrated deterrence, Shorter said. Special operators are studying China and Russia. They are taking lessons learned from Russia’s war on Ukraine. They are studying the nature of all-domain combat and applying new tactics, techniques and procedures to it. They are also looking at better ways to integrate new technologies and equipment into the fight, the command sergeant major said.
“We always will be focused on the nation’s priorities and the department’s priorities,” Shorter said.
Still, the experience of counterinsurgency combat is valuable, and special operators can take that experience and apply it to new situations and new missions, he said.
Fenton said that people lead in the strategic priorities of the command. “If we have one more dollar to spend, we’re spending it on our people, and then we’ll wrap the technology around them,” he said.
That idea is born in the people attracted to special operations. Service members “go through a rigorous assessment selection process, and more arduous training because they really want to be at the leading edge,” Fenton said.
Transformation of the command also is all about people, the general said. Special operators must “think how we’re going to be prepared, not only in equipment or some level of technology to meet the world, but how are we thinking about the world differently,” he said. “We have to hold these different ideas in our head and actually still complete the mission, even though it doesn’t look the same as it did 20 years ago. But the outcome has still got to be the same. We’ve got to succeed for the nation.”
Typically, when a counterterrorism mission ends, organizations put the capability on the back burner. In the United States, this happened at the end of the Vietnam War and there are moves to cut the number of special operations personnel. This hits at another Special Operations truth: Special operations cannot be mass produced in times of a crisis.
The services, from whom Socom gets their recruits, are having trouble attracting new service members. Fenton said Socom has not felt that problem yet, but says it could happen further down the road. Fenton did say there is no retention problem in special operations, and that the command is already working with the services to improve the recruiting climate.
He has asked members of the command to reach out to recruiters when they travel in the United States to inform the American people about the military in general and Special Operations Command in particular.