Former leader of U.S. Special Operations Command and retired Navy four-star admiral William H. McRaven discussed the value of developing and maintaining strong relationships within the international special warfare community during a fireside chat Thursday at the Special Operations Forces 2024 convention in Tampa, Florida.

During a one-hour interview led by veteran television investigative correspondent Catherine Herridge that covered a wide range of topics, McRaven consistently underscored the importance of having trust-based partnerships to facilitate communications among SOF organizations across the globe. 

“It’s personal relationships … it’s always about personal relationships,” McRaven said, when asked about the key factors that make up a successful SOF organization. 

“We used to talk about the War on Terror as [being] a war about relationships. It was [about] how … we build relationships with our Iraqi partners, with our Afghan partners [and] with our NATO partners and allies from around the world … You’ve got to build that personal relationship because they’ve got to trust you, and you’ve got to trust them.”

McRaven emphasized that a strong working relationship between SOF organizations can’t be established without first having trust.

“When it comes to building relationships and doing anything else beyond that — sharing intelligence, partnering on tactical missions — you’ve got to start with trust,” he said. 

McRaven elaborated on the topic by saying that there is very little tolerance for violating such trust. 

“Trust is not … ‘three strikes and you’re out’; trust is … ‘two strikes and you’re out.’ Because, if you build trust, and you [fail at it] once, the trust factor will hold for a little while,” he said.  

“But if you undermine your allies and your colleagues a second time, you’re done.”

When asked if there are challenges to establishing such trustful relationships in parts of the globe that don’t share those same trust-based values, McRaven pushed back slightly, saying that militaries worldwide share the same values. 

“I think, across the board, militaries have core values,” he said.  

“They understand the value of good order and discipline; they understand the value of the mission; they understand the value of doing things the right way; [and] they understand how to make sure that you don’t have collateral damage that really exceeds the nature of the mission.”

For an example of SOF personnel from a variety of nations being able to come together and efficiently work as a unit, McRaven mentioned the SOF 2024 capabilities demonstration that took place in the bay just outside of the convention center on Wednesday. 

The demonstration — which simulated an attack on the Tampa Bay Convention Center by a notional, unnamed enemy — showcased U.S. SOF teams collaborating with SOF personnel from nine other nations. 

“You can line [foreign SOF operators] up on the pier out here by the convention center; and their uniforms are all different, the color of their skin may be different, their religion may be different, [and] their ethnicity may be different,” McRaven said. 

“But then, here, they’re all kind of the same — and you can spot them coming a mile away. So, I do think relationships are built on trust.” 

When asked about potential challenges to building strong, international SOF relationships, McRaven said inaction is the primary impediment.

“We know how to build the relationships; now we just have to do it,” he said, adding that Socom and the various theater special operations commands around the globe need to consistently be building relationships in support of the combatant commander in the respective regions.

As the chat wound down, McRaven said that during times of relative peace when countries aren’t sharing the battlefield together, it’s crucial to be proactive in building relationships. 

“Because — believe it or not — sooner or later you’re going to find yourself on the battlefield again, in a place you’ve never heard of, at a fight you never thought would happen,” McRaven said. “And if you haven’t built these relationships … then you’re not going to be able to move as quickly and you’re not going to be as successful. 

“So, take whatever you learn this week, take it home, and then find ways to continue to build the relationship.”

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