Special Ops Commanders Discuss Relevance of, Challenges to Their Forces
By OTTO KREISHER, Special Correspondent
NORTH BETHESDA, Md. — The special operating force “has never been more relevant to the current threats, and more in need of additional efforts to keep us apace of the threats,” the commander of U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) said Feb. 14.
“The world is more complex, unstable and unpredictable” than ever, and the special operations force’s level of commitment to all those challenges has grown, SOCOM Commander Army Gen. Raymond A. Thomas said. “I get the deep sense that something’s got to give.”
Opening the National Defense Industrial Association’s annual Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict conference, Thomas said the multi-service SOCOM must be prepared to deal with the five major challenges presented by Russia, China, North Korea, Iran and violent extremist organizations. “SOCOM is extraordinarily relevant to all five.”
The command also has been given a new mission, taking the global lead in countering the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, Thomas noted.
All those missions and their responsibility to train and advise allies and partners around the world is putting extreme pressure on its personnel, and “my biggest concern is how we retain this precious resource,” he said.
Thomas noted that Chief Petty Officer William “Ryan” Owens, who was killed in a SEAL Team Six raid in Yemen last month, was the 406th SOCOM member who has lost their lives since 9/11.
And he also claimed that SOCOM forces have killed more than 60,000 ISIL fighters in that time.
While dealing with those multiple operational challenges, the command is scrambling to transform its equipment, because much of gear that has assured “our technological advantage in the fight against violent extremists is not transferrable to near peer competitors,” he said.
In the drive for technological advances, Thomas said, “another area of success is in the maritime component,” referring to the Naval Special Operations Command (NavSpeOpsCom).”
He noted that the upgrades to the SEALS’ surface transports, the Combatant Craft Assault, Combatant Craft Medium and Combatant Craft Heavy are all in production, as are the two undersea transports.
The new wet submersible, that will replace the legacy SEAL Delivery Vehicle, should start delivery by late summer, and the new dry combat submersible in summer 2018, he said.
SOCOM also is “looking for ways to integrate the dry submersible with submarines in near future, as well as how we can integrate UAVs with our maritime forces,” Thomas added.
In a later panel, Rear Adm. Timothy Szymanski, NavSpecWarCom commander, also cited the challenge in integrating the dry submersible with not just U.S. but friendly submarines, and estimated it would be five to seven years before it was operational. He also cited problems of being able to transport his combat craft on Navy warships.
Szymanski said he would like automation or artificial intelligence technology to help process intelligence data and to improve the SEALs ability to handle foreign languages.
In the service component panel, Maj. Gen. Carl Mundy, commander Marine Forces Special Operations Command (MARSOC), cited a number of technology improvements MARSOC would like, including better capability to fuse partner and coalition information into its decision-making process, the ability to advise and assist partner militaries “from a distance and securely.”
Mundy also noted that MARSOC was the only SOCOM component without organic ISR capability and said he hoped to remedy that. He also expressed a need for longer range precision fires and capability to counter enemy UAS.
In response to a question, Mundy said that if the Marine Corps is able to reach its manning goal of 194,000 he would expect MARSOC to grow “to where it originally was intended to be” and reduce the operational demands of its operators.
But Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas Trask, SOCOM vice commander, pointed out that Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has stated the immediate emphasis was to improve readiness and then to close urgent gaps, and force increases may have to wait.