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19 Mar 2024

Special Ops Builds on Strengths as it Charts Future

Special Ops Builds on Strengths as it Charts Future
U.S. Department of Defence
U.S. Department Of Defence Press Release

The strengths of the U.S. special operations community have always been agility, adaptability and innovation its service members demonstrated as they approached a mission. Special ops leaders are working to continue this process as the Defense Department drives forward, Army Command Sgt. Maj. Shane W. Shorter said.   

Shorter, the senior enlisted leader of U.S. Special Operations Command, sees special operators playing key roles across the military spectrum and using new domains, new technologies and new processes to do their crucial jobs better.   

Shorter accompanied Army Gen. Bryan Fenton, the Socom commander, to meet with Congressional leaders. Fenton will testify before the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday.   

He said many people are still unclear about the role special operations forces play in the National Defense Strategy. They do not understand what role these "quiet professionals" have in great power competition.   

"I think there [are] still folks that just relate SOF to counterterrorism," Shorter said. The prominent role that Army Special Forces, Navy SEALs, Marine reconnaissance units, Army Rangers and more had in combat against terrorists in the years after the attacks on the U.S. after September 11, 2001, has skewed perceptions of the capabilities of these operators, the senior enlisted leader said.   

"SOF was formed long before the global war on terror and long before 9-11," he said. "Great power competition is in our roots from the [Office of Strategic Services] in World War II."  

Special operators played crucial roles in counterinsurgency during the Vietnam War, but operators were also in Europe during the Cold War, filling gaps in that great power confrontation that conventional forces couldn’t fill.  

Today, the National Defense Strategy calls China the pacing challenge for the department, with Russia an "acute threat." Special operators are working throughout the Indo-Pacific, building partners’ military capabilities and working with allies to deter aggression.    

In Europe, special operators worked with the Ukrainian military years before the Russian invasion. Shorter said the first teams worked with the Ukrainian military in the 1990s. The pace of training, obviously, picked up following Russia’s first invasion in 2014 when Russian President Vladimir Putin illegally annexed Crimea.   

In addition to teaching Ukrainian forces about new technologies, new tactics and new procedures, special forces personnel worked with the Ukrainians to develop an empowered NCO corps in their military, an effort that was instrumental in stopping the Russian forces when they first moved into the nation in 2022, Shorter said.   

Today, there are no boots on the ground in Ukraine, but special operators maintain contact with their Ukrainian friends and advise them remotely. "It’s not ideal," Shorter said. "But it’s been working."  

The work with partners in the Indo-Pacific and Europe go back decades, Shorter said, and that demonstrates the first special operations truth; "Humans are more important than hardware and things."   

The relationships that special operators develop over these years pay dividends for all countries involved. But this takes time. "You can’t mass produce SOF in times of crisis," the command sergeant major said. "It takes time to develop these skill sets."

He said it is harder to build special operations forces today than in the past because "of the plethora of wide-ranging roles that technology plays."  

Shorter sees technology playing a key role, but not the key role for SOCOM. "It’s always going to come down to a special operator talking to a partner," he said. "The special operator has to know the culture, the language, the likes and dislikes and more. It’s going to be relationships."  

In short, people will always make the difference in SOCOM, he said. "In SOCOM, we don't think one more platform or thing is going to win the war," he said. "I think that creative thinking humans with the ability to interact with our partners and allies will make the difference."  

Combining that with what he calls the special operations-space-cyber nexus "is going to be very, very important for the future fight," Shorter said. "In the old days when a Special Forces [Operational Detachment-Alpha] went to Vietnam, they took their rucksacks, their weapons and their smarts."  

But today, deploying teams take the rucksack, the weapon, their smarts and 15 or 20 different computer systems, the sergeant major said. "Yes, the human is the most important, but if we can fold the technology around that individual, then that individual is much more proficient and that much more of a powerful weapons system," he said.   

This has changed training in the special operations community and changed the focus. "Does it mean that SOF will be less proficient in their weapons system, or less proficient in their physical capabilities or less proficient in their cognitive abilities," he said. "Absolutely not. It just means that they need to be cloaked with the technology, and they need to train in that technology." 

Working with allies and partners is second nature to special operators, and that will continue in a world of integrated deterrence, Shorter said. "For the past 20-plus years, we did a lot of work with our partners and allies, and they helped us immensely. It got to the point where you could intermix some of our partners and allies with U.S. SOF forces on operations and you couldn't tell the difference."  

Shorter said this experience is invaluable. "You can’t surge relationships, you can’t surge trust," he said. "That’s just the human element. It’s constantly deploying to that same area. It’s understanding the culture. It’s drinking the cups of tea, eating the dinners, singing karaoke."  

In addition to its role in great power competition, the counterterrorism mission did not go away. Terrorists still operate in shadowy areas around the world, and SOF personnel must be ready to confront them. "We can’t drop the ball on the CT fight," Shorter said. "What it means for us is that we have to modernize our CT efforts as well."  

For the CT fight, SOF personnel must continue to work with conventional forces, interagency partners and counterterrorism forces from other nations. The command sergeant major said U.S. forces have been able to fold in technology that wasn’t available three years ago. And it is making a difference. "It allows us to sense, see and strike anywhere on the planet," he said.    

U.S. special operations forces have a full plate, Shorter said, and they are approaching the various aspects of it with the same enthusiasm and morale that they have approached problems throughout their history. "It’s in our DNA," he said. "We will do what the country asks of us. The DOD’s main effort has always been SOCOM’s main effort."  

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