Calling the breadth and capability of the U.S. Special Operations Forces "astonishing," the assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict discussed the global posture of the nation's special operations enterprise during a hearing Feb. 14, 2019, on Capitol Hill.
Owen O. West appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee with Army Gen. Raymond A. Thomas III, the commander of U.S. Special Operations Command.
West said that while special operations forces make up just 3 percent of the joint force, they have absorbed more than 40 percent of the casualties since 2001. "This sacrifice serves as a powerful reminder that special operators are in the risk business," he said.
The assistant secretary said the National Defense Strategy has challenged all of DOD to increase focus on long-term strategic competition with Russia and China, and the SOF enterprise is in the midst of transformation; "something special operators have always done very well."
Assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict Owen West.
Any transformation starts with people, West said, noting, "In November, Gen. Thomas and I issued the first-ever joint vision for the [special operations forces] enterprise, challenging professionals to relentlessly pursue the decisive competitive advantage."
Not stretched thin
West told the committee he is "proud to report to you that our SOF is neither overstretched nor breaking, but very healthy and eager to defend the nation against increasingly adaptive foes."
As an integral part of the joint force, special operations troops are integrated into every facet of the NDS, Thomas told the committee.
"For the last 18 years, our No. 1 priority has been the effort against violent extremist organizations," the general said. "As part of the joint force, we continue to be the … major supporting effort in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Lake Chad Basin; everywhere [Islamic State of Iraq and Syria-] affiliated organizations are. We are relentlessly pursuing them to ensure this country never, ever endures another 9/11."
A more lethal force
Thomas noted that Socom remains focused on finishing the effort by, with and through the United States' many coalition partners.
"At the same time, again, as part of the joint force, we're endeavoring to provide a more lethal and capable special operations force to confront peer competitors," the commander said.
To build a more lethal force, strengthen alliances and partnerships and reform for greater performance and efficiency, Socom is reshaping and focusing its forces on capabilities, while also developing new technological and tactical approaches to accomplish the diverse mission that Socom will face in the future, Thomas said.
"The emergency security challenges will require Socom to be an organization of empowered SOF professionals — globally networked, partnered and integrated in relentlessly seeking advantage — in every domain for the joint force in the nation," the general said.
A CV-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft takes off with a team of special tactics airmen assigned to the 23rd Special Tactics Squadron during exercise Emerald Warrior 19.1 at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., Jan. 22, 2019.
(Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Rose Gudex)
In addition to its responsibility to man, train and equip the world's most capable special operations forces, over the past few years, Socom has experienced considerable development in another legislative role as a combatant command, he said.
Global mission sets
"We are currently assigned the role as the coordinating authority for three major global mission sets: counterterrorism, countering weapons of mass destruction and recently, messaging and countermessaging," Thomas said.
"These roles require us to lead planning efforts, continually address joint force progress toward campaign objectives, and recommend improvements for modifications to our campaign approach to the secretary of defense," he explained.
In parallel, Socom is pursuing an aggressive partnership with the other combatant commands with global portfolios: U.S. Cyber Command, U.S. Strategic Command, U.S. Transportation Command and U.S. Space Command, Thomas said, which is designed to leverage Socom's respective capabilities to provide more agile solutions to DOD.
"We are increasing our investments in a wide spectrum of emerging technologies to include artificial intelligence/machine learning, automated systems, advanced robotics, augmented reality, biomedical monitoring, and advanced armor and munitions development, to name a few," the general said.
"Leveraging our proven ability to rapidly develop and field cutting-edge technology flowing from our focus on the tactical edge of combat," Thomas said, " joint experimentation initiative will bring together innovative efforts from across our special operations force tactical formations to ensure that commanders' combat requirements are addressed with the most advanced concepts available."