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Special Operations Success Hinges on People, Partnerships

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Talented, well trained and motivated people are key to a highly effective and capable special operations force. The other key to its success is partnerships across industry, academia and with allies and partners, said the commander of U.S. Special Operations Command.

As a result of the experiences and lessons learned during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last two decades, special operations forces are "battle tested and probably one of the most credible, integrated, capable forces that we've ever had," Army Gen. Richard D. Clarke said yesterday at the 2021 Aspen Security Forum in Washington, D.C.


Although the focus has shifted to Great Power competition, particularly with China, the lessons learned from counterinsurgency operations need to be retained because the threat to the homeland will not dissipate, he said.

"The counterterrorism mission is going to remain. There's still going to be folks that want to come into our country, especially folks that would, if they had the opportunity, take a shot at the United States. I'm not saying the next 9/11 is around the corner, but I do think that we always have to be vigilant and be prepared," he said, adding that the Defense Department did a great job adding the "irregular warfare annex" to the National Defense Strategy.

Undermining the confidence of potential adversaries is a particularly useful role of special operations forces, Clarke said. Information operations play a part in that, along with building resistance networks.

A male soldier grimaces and holds something close to his chest after parachuting from a plane; another soldier floats beneath him.
Special Forces
Soldiers assigned to the 1st Battalion, 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne), jump out of a C-130 Hercules aircraft over a drop zone in Germany, March 17, 2015.
Photo By: Army Spc. Jason Johnston
VIRIN: 150317-A-RJ303-066

"Building resistance networks means that we want an adversary to think that behind every rock is an IED [improvised explosive device] and up in every tree is a sniper, that if you were willing to attack this country, you're going to be fighting all the way through," he said, mentioning the Baltic nations as one of many examples employing this strategy.

Although special operations forces make up just 2% of the Joint Force and 3% of the department budget, it's a pretty good return on investment, he said, noting the participation of special operations forces in the Afghanistan evacuation and its concurrent mission in Haiti for humanitarian disaster assistance.

Since special operations personnel are globally deployed, working with allies and partners is a valuable skill that they bring, Clarke said. They're culturally astute and skilled in languages and customs of the country and region in which they're located.

A uniformed sailor jumps into water churning beneath him; the heads of three other service members bob in the water. A bridge is visible in the background.
Flotation Check
A special operations sailor jumps into Coronado Bay for a floatation check in San Diego, Calif., March 5, 2009.
Photo By: Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Michelle Kapica
VIRIN: 090305-N-D0439-025

Not only do they train with the special operations units of other nations, but they also train with conventional forces, as they've been doing recently in Norway, Ukraine, Thailand and the Philippines, Clarke said. On each training mission, U.S. teams learn new tactics, techniques and procedures, and partner nations learn from their U.S. counterparts. "Deployments are probably the best training they get," he said.

Besides training with allies and partners, special operations forces benefit from training as part of the larger joint force in some of their higher end exercises, he said.

Five soldiers float in the air on parachutes; a plane flies away from them.
Training Jump
Soldiers with the 1st Battalion, 10th Special Forces Group, conduct a training jump from a C-130 Hercules aircraft at the Grafenwoehr Training Area in Grafenwoehr, Germany, Aug. 7, 2013.
Photo By: Markus Rauchenberger, Army
VIRIN: 130807-A-BS310-005

"Working with and integrating with the joint force is absolutely critical because we want them to see us as an enabler and a capable force that helps them, whether that's through joint forced entry, or because we may be the only ones in that country that can provide them access," he said.

Special operations forces are resilient and creative, Clarke said, and their leaders listen to their ideas and respond appropriately.

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