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USSOCOM Year in Review: Three Constants

As the commander of U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), Gen. Raymond A. Thomas III, U.S. Army, leads an extremely dynamic military organization with an evolving global posture. In fact, it could be argued that there are only three “constants” within the command: Win; Transform; and People.

During mid-February testimony before the House Armed Services Committee Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities, Thomas reiterated those three constants in a message that provided a “snapshot” glimpse of how the command is proceeding in the nation’s current fights as well as USSOCOM plans and intentions for the future.


In terms of the current fight, Thomas began by stating that, over the past year, USSOCOM’s priority effort has continued to be countering violent extremist organizations (CVEO).

Gen Raymond Thomas USSOCOM year in review

Gen. Raymond A. Thomas III, U.S. Army, speaks during a town hall forum with Secretary of Defense James Mattis. PHOTO BY U.S. AIR FORCE MASTER SGT. BARRY LOO

“Over the past 10 months, special operations forces [SOF] played an integral role as part of the joint force in the defeat of the physical caliphate of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria [ISIS],” he explained. “In addition, we were able to play a key supporting role enabling the sovereign forces of the Philippines – resulting in the defeat of a declared ISIS province and the liberation of Marawi. Elsewhere, in coordination with allied and host-nation partners, SOF continued to confront ISIS and Al Qaeda [AQ] wherever they sought sanctuary, in Afghanistan, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, the Trans-Sahel, Lake Chad Basin, and the Maghreb. Wherever ISIS and AQ aspired to develop and seek sanctuary, SOF targeted them and enabled partners to not only destroy them but also address the conditions that allowed these groups to thrive.”

Elaborating on those successes, he used the posture update to describe SOF support to the global combatant commanders (GCC), “most often by, with, and through enabled partners,” resulting in the disruption and degradation of ISIS and AQ’s directed external operation capability, degradation of their revenue streams, disruption of foreign fighter facilitation, crippling of their warfighting ability, capturing hundreds of terabytes of ISIS’ and AQ’s information, and interruption or blocking of their media output.

Afghan commandos USSOCOM year in review

The Afghan National Army Special Operations Command’s School of Excellence is responsible for the assessment and training of Afghan special operations soldiers that fill the ranks of Special Operations Kandaks, Special Forces Kandaks, Cobra Strike Kandaks, and the National Mission Brigade. There are currently two commando courses and a Cobra Strike Maneuver Course running simultaneously, with more than 2,000 soldiers receiving Afghan-led special operations training. DOD PHOTO BY MASTER SGT. FELIX FIGUEROA

“Despite suffering significant battlefield losses, both ISIS and AQ remain potent in terms of ideology and the means to promulgate it, and determined to pursue their nihilistic objectives,” he warned. “We will continue to face future challenges as these groups exploit the lack of partner capacity and under-governed areas.”

Thomas said that USSOCOM will “remain focused on disrupting external attack capabilities, destroying or neutralizing AQ and ISIS safe havens, developing and enacting a long-term approach to defeat VEOs, and building partner capacity so host nations can achieve sustainable regionalized security.

“SOF’s CVEO efforts range across GCC areas of responsibility and are an important component of an overarching whole-of-government approach to advance broader national security objectives to defend the homeland, our citizens, our allies and partners,” he said. “Trans-regional threats such as ISIS and AQ require the joint force to work with interagency and coalition partners to target financial, material, and personnel supply chains that facilitate these terrorist organizations. Securing and holding our gains also requires a focused, coordinated effort to empower local entities within and among the populations that terrorists exploit to degrade their message and ability to recruit. These important tasks cannot be done by SOF alone and require strong, well-financed interagency partners. Ultimately, we endeavor to reduce this global threat to the regional level, where partner forces are capable of conducting sustainable security operations.”

Thomas added that today’s “increasingly competitive global environment,” has also witnessed SOF “standing with our European and Asian allies and partners, providing assurance and enhanced capabilities against aggressive hegemons which threaten their sovereignty.”

NATO super cougar USSOCOM year in review

NATO EC-725 Super Cougars receive fuel from a U.S. Air Force MC-130H Combat Talon II during a night mission over northwest Florida as part of Emerald Warrior, March 5, 2018. At Emerald Warrior, the largest joint and combined special operations exercise, U.S. Special Operations Command forces train to respond to various threats across the spectrum of conflict. U.S. SOF support to global combatant commanders is often “by, with, and through” enabled partners. U.S. AIR FORCE PHOTO BY MASTER SGT. JOSHUA L. DEMOTTS

In one representative example of the global environment faced by the command, he linked the SOF posture summary to the recently released National Defense Strategy (NDS), an unclassified version of which describes “an increasingly complex global security environment, characterized by overt challenges to the free and open international order and the re-emergence of long-term, strategic competition between nations.” Additionally, it states that the United States’ prosperity and security are “confronted by strategic competition by the ‘revisionist powers’ of China and Russia, ‘rogue regimes’ such as North Korea and Iran, which destabilize regions by pursuing weapons of mass destruction – nuclear, chemical, and biological – or by sponsoring terrorism,” and notes that “rapid technological development lowers the bar to entry for non-state actors, which exacerbates this increasingly dangerous operating environment.”

“Wherever ISIS and AQ aspired to develop and seek sanctuary, SOF targeted them and enabled partners to not only destroy them but also address the conditions that allowed these groups to thrive.”

Elaborating on what he described as “Iran’s destabilizing activities in the Middle East, which stoke sectarianism tensions and set the conditions for VEOs to emerge and thrive,” he noted SOF’s engagement in countering this threat, pointing to USSOCOM support of United States Central Command (USCENTCOM) “through a variety of activities in order to degrade Iranian influence, discourage their destabilizing behavior, and disrupt their actions. In parallel, we also endeavor to assure Israel and regional Gulf partners through foreign internal defense, security force assistance, security cooperation, and other activities.”

Summarizing these and other examples, the USSOCOM commander emphasized the unique capability of SOF to “effectively compete below the level of traditional armed conflict and across the spectrum of conflict as part of the joint force,” pointing to “a high demand for special operations-unique capabilities across the spectrum of conflict, from peaceful cooperation through competition short of armed conflict, up to and including large-scale combat operations.”


A second constant within USSOCOM is recognition of the need to continue and potentially expand key transformation efforts already underway.

Thomas repeated the NDS call to “Sharpen our competitive edge, [which] will require creative approaches, resources, and disciplined execution,” explaining that USSOCOM will continue to transform its force and business practices in ways that will “increase lethality, build new partnerships, and keep pace with the dynamic strategic environment.”

Navy SEALs USSOCOM year in review

East Coast-based Navy SEALs participate in a nighttime exercise during Exercise Trident 17, May 4, 2017, at the John C. Stennis Space Center, Mississippi. U.S. NAVY PHOTO BY MASS COMMUNICATION SPECIALIST 2ND CLASS MAT MURCH

As examples of the new approaches being taken, he noted the extensive leveraging of commercial off the shelf (COTS) systems and focused research, development, testing and evaluation, as well as developmental investment in areas that include cyber; next-generation low-observable infiltration platforms; an airborne high-energy laser; automation; and machine learning.

“We are major contributors to the ongoing Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence’s Project Maven initiative to automate the time-intensive process of recognizing and identifying the tremendous number of objects of interest within various full-motion video feeds,” he said. “Our investment in Project Maven helps us with the processing, exploitation, and dissemination of intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance [ISR], as does congressional support for SOF ISR capabilities through the ISR Transfer Fund appropriations in FY 2016 and FY 2017.”

Thomas continued, “USSOCOM continues to embrace new and leading-edge networks, tools, and venues to reach the broadest markets and attract innovators in commercial industry and academia that offer solutions and capabilities for our research, development, and acquisition programs. Our SOFWERX initiative has a network of over 6,000 collaborators and contributors. SOFWERX provides a direct warfighter nomination process to identify emerging requirements. This process combines with “outside the wire” access for nontraditional technologists, entrepreneurs, and other individuals with innovative solutions to solve problems rapidly. This approach provided solutions ranging from the creative application and targeted rapid prototype modifications of COTS to the exploration of non-radio frequency communication techniques to enhance survivability in both terrestrial and aquatic environments. Current efforts include exploring opportunities with 5G networks and unlicensed high-speed wireless communications, evaluating open-source software applications, and continuing ‘Thunder Drone’ activities, which focus on counter-unmanned aerial systems [UAS] challenges and solutions as well as opportunities to enhance our offensive use of UAS, especially in coordination with machine learning-enabled capabilities.”

Thunderdrone USSOCOM year in review

Brent McLaughlin demonstrates a drone automated payload swap system from Endeavor Robotics and Asylon during the ThunderDrone Rodeo at the SOFWERX facility in Tampa, Florida, Oct. 31, 2017. ThunderDrone is a U.S. Special Operations Command initiative dedicated to drone prototyping, which focuses on exploring drone technologies through idea formation, testing, and demonstration. PHOTO BY U.S. AIR FORCE MASTER SGT. BARRY LOO

USSOCOM is also working its transformation efforts with the other armed services, through activities like annual warfighter conferences.

“We intend to sustain the momentum of these annual conferences through continued engagements that enhance joint teamwork and the warfighting capability of the joint force,” Thomas said. “For example, during the past year, Marine Corps Systems Command leveraged the USSOCOM Sensitive Site Exploitation Program to select the next-generation biometric identification device. This capability enables the verification of biometric signatures against the DOD [Department of Defense] authoritative database. Another great example is the 33 USSOCOM Light Tactical All-Terrain Vehicles (MRZRs) procured to support the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division combat evaluation to meet a Global Response Force operational gap resulting in a cost avoidance to the U.S. Army of $5 million. Furthermore, the U.S. Marine Corps’ Program Executive Office Land Systems has utilized the USSOCOM’s five-year General Services Administration Blanket Purchase Agreement contract to acquire their fleet of MRZRs. In all cases, USSOCOM worked closely with the U.S. Army and U.S. Marines, sharing all test data, internal air transportability certifications, airdrop certifications, and other information to facilitate the rapid acquisition of the MRZR by those services.”

Light Tactical All-terrain Vehicle USSOCOM year in review

82nd Airborne paratroopers escort Stryker vehicles during operation Swift Response in Torun, Poland, June 8, 2016. The Army was able to leverage USSOCOM’s Light Tactical All-Terrain Vehicle procurement to save $5 million while supporting the 82nd’s needs. U.S. ARMY PHOTO BY SGT. JUAN F. JIMENEZ

He went on to highlight a range of additional cooperative efforts in areas ranging from materiel to facilities.

“As part of transforming, we seek to strengthen alliances and build stronger international partnerships,” he said. “International partners provide complementary and sometimes unique capabilities and forces to the fight. For over a decade, USSOCOM’s Sovereign Challenge program opened the doors to the military leaders of over 125 sovereign states via their defense and military service attachés assigned to Washington embassies. Over 1,700 Sovereign Challenge alumni returned home to positions of greater responsibility in their respective countries’ military forces and societies. Working through the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict [ASD SO/LIC] and the Office of the Secretary of Defense for Policy, we have negotiated formal agreements with 23 nations, who now have full-time representation on my staff. We have 20 Special Operations Liaison Officers assigned to U.S. embassies. This unparalleled international network translates into greater global collaboration and synchronization across both the U.S. and allied force. Foreign partner SOF played a significant role in the defeat of ISIS in support of USCENTCOM, and 25 allies and partners are providing SOF to ongoing campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. These mutually beneficial partnerships are focused on improving international SOF capabilities and their ability to operate with us, which is USSOCOM’s responsibility under Title 10, Section 167. Additionally, we’ve used established bilateral agreements to reduce costs associated with sustaining forces worldwide, such as acquiring lifesaving freeze-dried plasma from our French allies.”


Acknowledging that the cited advances in technology, procurement, partnership, and authorities serve to enhance SOF, Thomas was quick to assert: “It doesn’t change the fact that people are the most important asset. Understanding and communicating across cultures and languages, building and maintaining effective networks of action, and working with partners to achieve common interests all demand the highest quality people with keen interpersonal skills. The creativity, initiative, and spirit of the people who comprise the special operations formation cannot be overstated. They are our greatest asset.”

Quantifying the critical human resource, he pointed to 56,177 active duty, 7,402 reserve and guard component, and 6,623 civilian personnel who plan, enable, and conduct the entire range of special operations activities.

Special Forces and Afghan commandos USSOCOM year in review

A U.S. Army Special Forces soldier attached to Special Operations Task Force-Afghanistan provides rear security as an Afghan Commando assault force raids a compound of interest during an operation in the Alingar district, Laghman province, Afghanistan, Feb. 18, 2018. As always, people remain USSOCOM’s most important asset. U.S. ARMY PHOTO BY SGT. CONNOR MENDEZ

Thomas reiterated that this human element is USSOCOM’s “most precious asset,” adding, “My most sacred responsibility is to take care of our people. To do that, we must continue to build resiliency and provide the best possible care for our service members and their families.”

At the time of the posture statement, Thomas identified USSOCOM sustainment of a deployed force of approximately 8,300 personnel across 90 countries. Quantifying the operational tempo and personnel tempo, he stated, “The latest calculations from across special operations show that the vast majority of currently deployed special operations personnel are adhering to the Secretary of Defense directed goal of 1:2 deployment to dwell (D2D) for active forces and 1:5 for reserve forces.

“Currently 12 percent of deployed special operations forces have a D2D of less than 1:2, and 3 percent of the force is currently deployed below 1:1,” he said. “This represents a significant improvement over the last 10 years, but we still have further to go. The SOF component commanders are working to bring the entire force into compliance with the directed D2D goal.”

Along with the D2D criteria, Thomas identified the importance of several additional people-focused efforts, ranging from the Preservation of the Force and Family (POTFF) program to ongoing efforts to reduce the rate of suicides within the force, families, and contractor teammates.

“USSOCOM has made tremendous progress reducing suicides,” he said, “but I’ll be blunt: We must do better. I’m working with the services and leading academics to refine the suicide prevention strategies, and we are addressing the underlying cognitive processes that lead to suicides. I am pleased to tell you over the past five years suicides have declined by 70 percent. I attribute this success to leaders at every level embracing behavioral health and care as being equally important as physical fitness. We are trending in the right direction, but remain keenly focused on suicide reduction.”

He added, “In conjunction with the POTFF effort, I am greatly appreciative of Congress’s support by authorizing USSOCOM to have its Warrior Care Program; peer to the service programs, it is often heralded as the gold standard. When the resilience of our warriors and their families is severely challenged due to wounds, injury, or illness, our Warrior Care Program provides advocacy and care coordination through the recovery and rehabilitation process. The primary objective is to retain our highly skilled people and return them to their units. With the highest retention rate of any of the service programs, the Warrior Care Program ensures that USSOCOM is able to best capitalize on the immense investment of time and resources applied to your SOF, enhancing readiness.”

“My most sacred responsibility is to take care of our people. To do that, we must continue to build resiliency and provide the best possible care for our service members and their families.”

Elaborating on force readiness, Thomas continued, “Readiness extends to ensuring special operations teammates operate in a safe and healthy military culture. Leaders across USSOCOM are committed to advancing a climate where sexist behaviors, sexual harassment, and sexual assault are not tolerated, condoned, or ignored. Commanders empower their people to take appropriate action to protect each other from sexual assault. It harms the force and prevents us from being the best.”

He pointed to the results of a related command survey, noting, “I am pleased to report that USSOCOM is improving across many key areas, according to the survey. The data indicates that SOF continues to trend below the incident rates of the services when compared to the DOD, and we are seeing an increase in SOF using behavioral health services. The survey also showed broad consensus that SOF leaders hold personnel accountable who exhibit problematic behavior and demonstrate poor judgment. USSOCOM is a transparent and accountable command and I am encouraged that SOF people value the accountability, integrity, and honor deep within the core of the force.”

Early in the posture statement testimony, Thomas offered one thought that serves as a key “bottom line” summation of USSOCOM’s continuing contributions to the nation: “Constituting approximately 2 percent of the Department of Defense (DOD) budget and 3 percent of manpower, I believe your special operations forces continue to provide exceptional return on investment.”

This article was originally published in the 2018-2019 edition of Special Operations Outlook.


Scott Gourley is a former U.S. Army officer and the author of more than 1,500...

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