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Near-Peer Competition Means Relook at Special Ops Missions, Socom Nominee Tells Congress

The shift of the National Defense Strategy to confronting near-peer competitors will continue the demand for special operations forces, the president’s nominee to be the commander of U.S. Special Operations Command said at his Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation hearing today.

If confirmed, Army Lt. Gen. Richard D. Clarke, currently the director of strategic plans and policy on the Joint Staff,  would succeed Army Gen. Tony Thomas as commander of the worldwide organization next year. The general testified alongside Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie, the nominee to command U.S. Central Command.

Special operations forces have been a go-to force in the years since the 9/11 attacks. Clarke said the forces provide critical capabilities and options to challenging problems.

“Our world continues to evolve and increase in complexity,” he said in his testimony. “While violent extremism persists in challenging regional stability and threatening our interest, near-peer competitors grow in both capability and intent to contest our vital national interest. The United States requires capabilities across all elements of national power and special operations remains a critical part of our defense.”

Special operations forces are crucial parts of the National Defense Strategy, Clarke said, and commanders are shaping those forces in accordance with the strategy. The strategy allows commanders to “relook our strategies and relook what we are doing and prioritize,” the general said.

The United States must maintain pressure on terrorists and those who aspire to attack the United States and its allies. But, at the same time, Special Operations Command must adapt to combatting nations that pose threats.

Clarke said Socom is uniquely qualified through its theater special operations commands to craft strategies in line with national guidance, yet crafted to meet individual threats. Doing this will allow the command to counter the malign activities of Russia and China, he said.

U.S. Asymmetric Advantages

People talk often about Russian and Chinese advantages, but people should be talking about U.S. asymmetric advantages, Clarke said. “The other thing that we have … that those two countries don't have is allies and partners. And our position around the world, specifically with Socom, with our special operations allies do provide us that advantage,” he told the Senate panel.

The combatant command has worldwide responsibility and budget responsibility for developing special operations capabilities. The force has been busy. This requires a hard look, Clarke said, and if he’s confirmed, he added, he will take it.

“I believe the most important aspect of Socom are the people,” he said, “and the people that are performing the mission wherever it is.” Special operators are the heart and soul of the counterterrorism mission. They play a large role in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. They help train foreign allies, and they work in theater commands with allies and partners, he said.

“Right now, I believe that the number of personnel within Socom are adequate [to perform their missions],” Clarke said. “If confirmed by this committee, I will take a very hard look at myself and how this applies to great-power competition. One thing that I would highlight is that we should look at all missions across the globe as [Defense Secretary James N. Mattis] has reprioritized.”

Clarke emphasized that U.S. Special Operations Command should do only those missions that are suited for it. “Those missions that can be adjusted to conventional forces should … go to those conventional forces,” he said. “So we have to look at a prioritization of requirements.”