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How Does SOF Incorporate Technology, Evolve, and Simultaneously Compete with 5 Threats Across 5 Domains?

Dispatch From Yale SOFCON 2024



INTRODUCTION

The Special Operations Forces Conference (SOFCON) is an annual event organized by the Jackson School of Global Affairs at Yale University. The conference brings together academic and government civilians, military representatives, and industry professionals to explore and address the evolving challenges and opportunities facing the Special Operations Forces (SOF) community. The conference aims to promote dialogue on the strategic role of SOF in countering major power rivals like China and Russia and delves into the optimal functions of SOF within national security strategies.


QUESTIONS & ANSWERS

Three panels, each consisting of three members, responded to a series of questions. Their comments varied as each panelist came from different backgrounds, but some themes developed. The best technology-focused comments came from a senior operator who emphasized the integration of AI and technology to enhance decision-making and operational efficiency in Special Operations Forces (SOF). He advocated for a computing-human interface that accelerates the pace of joint warfighting functions. Another panelist, who came from outside the Department of Defense (DoD), challenged the SOF community to succinctly articulate their value in the Great Power Competition (Elevator pitch). They highlighted the importance of inter-agency collaboration and transparency for effective global engagement.

There was a common agreement that there is an absence of a clear 'sales pitch' for SOF in modern conflict and competition. This highlighted the need for clearer roles and risk management strategies to integrate SOF effectively with conventional forces. While SOF struggles with an identity in the Great Power Competition, the DoD struggles with it from a strategic and budgetary standpoint. A budget analyst discussed the focus of budget negotiations on conflict preparedness at the expense of broader competition strategies. This meant that more conflict-oriented budgets within the Department of Defense would come at the expense of competition.

The idea of Great Power Competition was a significant point of focus. There was a repeated call for a comprehensive solution involving all government agencies, but no clear solution was proposed on how to achieve it. More importantly, there was an emphasis on developing an advanced risk management system for the interagency, allies, and partners. While details were lacking, recognizing changes in red lines in Great Power Competition is essential to overcome outdated mindsets that hinder action and impede the development of more effective ways to address challenges.

Similarly, relying solely on policy by CONOP is no longer viable in an age of competition. Ambiguous or absent policies in complex situations, such as Ukraine, Taiwan, or Israel, leave our best asymmetric assets with no way to offer solutions or take actions that could deter, degrade, or contain threats. If the Special Operations Forces (SOF) are only left to keep proposing CONOPs to higher headquarters, it will be impossible to execute an effective campaign, as called for in the National Defense Strategy. On the other hand, a policy analyst offered an optimistic view on U.S.-China relations, emphasizing the need for strategic non-confrontational competition and the benefits of high-level diplomacy and international partnerships.

SOFCON highlighted the need for the SOF enterprise to keep pace with technological advancements, particularly in AI and drone technologies, to maintain operational superiority. Additionally, new authorities for Great Power Competition are needed within the SOF domain, as are strategies for minimizing the digital footprint of SOF operatives. The conference effectively brought together experts who provided valuable insights into overcoming technological, political, and bureaucratic hurdles. Notably, Yale students offered fresh perspectives on the strategic employment of SOF and the challenges posed by the global increase in "denied terrain."

However, the conference also revealed a few missed opportunities. The absence of the Joint Special Operations University (JSOU) underscored a potential loss in forging stronger academic-military partnerships. Additionally, themes such as the importance of integrating new technologies, enhancing inter-agency cooperation, and refining operational strategies to confront global adversaries effectively are frequently discussed across the SOF enterprise, with limited success in advancing these issues.

Seemingly beyond SOF’s direct influence, the challenge posed by declining trust in national institutions and the importance of maintaining a unified national identity to address global security and economic challenges effectively were discussed. While it is a domestic issue, it is also an enduring national security interest. SOF can be part of the solution in protecting the values that underpin our democracy and the systems that maintain our democratic system through IO, civil affairs, abiding by ROE based on the rule of law, influence, and capability development of democratic partners.

The conference's central point is the critical need for SOF to evolve beyond traditional counterterrorism roles and adapt to the broader strategic challenges posed by great power rivals and technological advancements. SOF will remain the tool of choice for CT, but it must evolve beyond legacy doctrine to more effectively and economically contain this threat. This requires a fundamental transformation in how SOF is integrated into national and global security strategies, ensuring it remains a pivotal element in addressing contemporary and emerging threats. 

Key Issues Discussed

  • Technological Advancements and Integration: The discussions emphasized the importance of harnessing technological advancements such as AI and drones to maintain SOF's operational edge. The capability to integrate these technologies into daily operations and strategic decision-making processes is crucial.

  • Process and Bureaucratic Challenges: Several speakers highlighted the bureaucratic inertia that hinders rapid adaptation and integration of new technologies. This includes slow procurement processes and the rigidity of budget allocations focused predominantly on large platforms and conventional warfare capabilities.

  • Adaptation to Great Power Competition (GPC): SOF's need to articulate its role and value in the GPC context was clearly stressed. SOF must move beyond a counterterrorism-centric approach and develop capabilities that address broader strategic challenges posed by major powers like China and Russia while innovating to contain terrorism in ways not yet conceived.

  • Addressing Legacy Problems: The recurrent theme was overcoming outdated conceptions and practices that limit SOF’s flexibility and responsiveness. This includes transforming the bureaucratic structures that impede inter-agency collaboration and strategic planning.

Recommendations for SOF Adjustments in GPC

  • Embracing New Technologies: SOF should aggressively pursue the adoption and integration of emerging technologies, especially AI and drone technologies, into their operational frameworks. This will enhance decision-making speed and operational effectiveness.

  • Strategic and Organizational Innovation: SOF must reform internal processes to allow quicker adaptation to changing global security dynamics. This includes establishing structured frameworks for innovation and leveraging unique authorities for strategic planning and resource allocation.

  • Enhanced Inter-agency Collaboration: SOF should strengthen ties with other government agencies and international partners to compete with major powers effectively. This enhances the collective ability to address complex global threats and ensures a unified approach in strategic regions.

  • Focusing on Strategic Deterrence and Influence: Beyond kinetic operations, SOF should prioritize roles in influence and deterrence operations, engaging in activities that shape adversary behavior and strategic calculations in favor of U.S. interests.

 

RECOMMENDATION FOR IMPROVEMENT

The Yale SOFCON 2024 effectively showcased the complex landscape in which Special Operations Forces operate, emphasizing the need for strategic innovation and technological integration. Key takeaways include the necessity for new authorities, the impact of technologies, and the importance of evolving SOF capabilities to address broader geopolitical challenges.

Enhancing partnerships between academic institutions and SOF entities to improve future conferences could foster innovation and address the bureaucratic challenges that currently hinder SOF effectiveness. Such collaboration would not only leverage academic insights but also facilitate the development of cutting-edge solutions to complex problems facing the SOF community. Additionally, to foster a more integrated approach to problem-solving, greater participation from all sectors of the SOF community, including academic institutions like JSOU, is recommended. Lastly, focusing on actionable outcomes and implementing achievable SOF strategies are the best basis for providing clear directives for future SOF operations that support national security policies.

CONCLUSION

SOFCON 2024 outlined the need for SOF to evolve rapidly in response to the complex challenges of great power competition that demands confronting five separate threats operating across five separate domains. This evolution involves technological adaptation, a significant organizational culture, and a transformation of strategic operations. SOF must address existing bureaucratic and legacy challenges to fully leverage its unique capabilities. SOF must ensure it remains a critical asset in U.S. national security strategy to both contain terrorism while significantly contributing to strategic competition with global powers. Utilizing the resources of our finest academic institutions is a means of rapidly improving the understanding of the complex geo-political environment and concentrating on technical and theoretical solutions SOF may not be able to develop on its own. Competing successfully in great power competition while containing non-state actors is a massive undertaking, especially when the enemy prefers asymmetric approaches, and you are the asymmetric solution.



 



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