Ensuring Advantage to Protect National Interests

GEN Richard D. Clarke
U.S. Special Operations Command
Mac Dill AFB, FL

From Armor & Mobility, June 2020

General Richard D. Clarke currently serves as the 12th Commander of U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base, FL. Prior to assuming command of USSOCOM, General Clarke served as Director for Strategic Plans and Policy (J5), Joint Staff, the Pentagon, Washington, D.C.

GEN Clarke’s other assignments as a general officer include: Deputy Commanding General for Operations, 10th Mountain Division from 2011 to 2013; the 74th Commandant of Cadets, United States Military Academy at West Point from 2013 to 2014; and the Commander of the 82nd Airborne Division. His formative and key, Army and special operations, assignments include: Director of Operations, Joint Special Operations Command from 2009 to 2011. Eight years in the 75th Ranger Regiment first as a company commander, then as a battalion commander, and finally as the regimental commander. He also served as commander of 3rd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division.

GEN Clarke has led Soldiers at all levels in Airborne, Ranger, Mechanized and Light Infantry units in five different divisions, the 173rd Airborne Brigade, and the 75th Ranger Regiment in the United States, Europe, Iraq and Afghanistan. His deployments while serving in the aforementioned positions include Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, Operation Joint Guardian in Macedonia, three deployments in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, four deployments in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, and one deployment as the commander of the Combined Joint Forces Land Component Command – Operation Inherent Resolve.

Armor & Mobility had the distinct honor of interviewing USSOCOM Commander GEN Richard Clarke concerning the state of America’s Special Operations Forces (SOF) and challenges they face entering a new decade amidst ever-present and growing global threats to U.S. and allied interests and security.

A&M: You have been in command for a little over a year now. What are your priorities for the command?

GEN Clarke: In my first month of command, we held a conference with all of our USSOCOM Service Component Commanders, Theater Special Operations Commanders and Senior Enlisted Leaders. We focused on drafting a clear, concise set of priorities that would apply across the breadth of the special operations enterprise. The five priorities we developed are as follows:

First, SOF need to compete and win for the nation. We are a critical enabler for the Joint Force, and must continue to hone our unique capabilities to provide advantage that protects our national interests.

Second, SOF must preserve and grow readiness to maximize our competitive edge. Our people are our greatest assets, and we must assess, select, and develop the right skills and training to meet today’s and tomorrow’s requirements.

Third, SOF must innovate for future threats. The strategic environment is constantly changing, and our tactics, techniques, and technologies must adapt.

Fourth, SOF must advance partnerships at home and abroad. The demand for SOF capabilities will always exceed our capacity; therefore, we need to expand that capacity through meaningful interagency and multinational partnerships.

Fifth, SOF must strengthen our force and family to ensure a resilient and healthy team. This is a solemn commitment to the short and long-term well-being of our people.

A&M: How has the 2018 National Defense Strategy changed Special Operations Forces’ and USSOCOM’s mission?

GEN Clarke: The NDS has not fundamentally changed our force, but it has significantly changed how we prioritize and employ the force. The renewed national-level focus on Great Power Competition has forced us to look hard at the sustainability of our force investments around the globe. We have focused heavily on countering violent extremist organizations (CVEO) over the past two decades. Today, we continue our CVEO efforts, always mindful of the cost. Demand will grow for SOF capabilities to compete against state-level malign influence, and we will need to ruthlessly prioritize our CVEO commitments.

As far as competition goes, it’s not a new phenomenon, and many of our SOF capabilities were developed – or can be easily modified – to compete against state-level actors. We need to train approaches and mechanisms to gain understanding and apply SOF-unique skills and capabilities in context of long-term strategic competition. USSOCOM always seeks to enhance our qualitative military advantage and leverage to protect the nation’s interests. We are diligently working on improving our exercises, training, and employment to better enable the Joint Force and the nation.

A&M: Do the headquarters, components, or Theater Special Operations Commands need to reorganize or be reorganized to meet the NDS’s priorities and requirements?

GEN Clarke: That’s a great question. The short answer is yes, but it will be the kind of incremental change that we should be doing all the time. Any good organization is going to have systems that continuously assess requirements based on the strategic environment. The NDS set priorities for a national security environment that has changed, and if we become complacent and fail to adapt, then we will lose our advantage. That’s not happening at USSOCOM.

In recent months, we have been conducting in-depth reviews of the mission and manning requirements for all of our forces aligned with the six geographic combatant commands. That assessment is still underway, so it’s too early to start publishing results, but there will be changes. Some theaters require more staff horsepower than others. Some may require more information operations capability. Others may already have more than they need and will have to get smaller. This is a design change to align better with the NDS. This type of self-evaluation and optimization is something that we should and will do routinely to ensure that our special operations forces’ capabilities are maximized.

A&M: How will NDS priorities impact USSOCOM’s acquisition programs in the coming years?

GEN Clarke: First, I have to say that our USSOCOM Acquisitions, Technology, and Logistics directorate has done and continues to do a phenomenal job. Their industry partnerships and outreach efforts have served us well, and will continue to do so. For large programs, there aren’t too many secrets with the direction that we have been moving for quite some time – increased mobility for small teams, integrated and secure C2 systems, and improved armed overwatch and aerial support systems.

In general, the NDS guidance to improve the lethality of the force hasn’t substantively redirected much of our effort. This will continue to be a major focus as we develop new battlefield systems. And when it comes to continuing defense reform in acquisitions systems, USSOCOM is all in. The department has put in place several rapid capability development and procurement process over the last few years. We will continue to explore and develop best practices for those new tools.

One specific area of increased focus and investment will be artificial intelligence and machine learning (AI/ML). Data-driven technologies have tremendous potential across the board, from intelligence collection and targeting to predictive maintenance and information operations. USSOCOM is committed to being a leader in applying these technologies to military requirements. We have leaned forward as a partner with the DoD’s Joint Artificial Intelligence Center, and have even stood up a Program Executive Officer SOF Digital Applications to shepherd acquisitions investment in software systems.

Furthermore, I see USSOCOM as a pathfinder for many of the joint small unit weapons, protective equipment, and communications systems that can later scale across the broader defense formation. This is a new direction. Service adoption of select special operations specific programs has happened over the years, but we will be taking a more active approach with the service component capability development teams – Army Futures Command, as one example – to maximize gains for the entire Joint Force.

A&M: Your force has been at a very high OPTEMPO for almost 20 years. What challenges do you see in managing that pace as USSOCOM implements NDS priorities?

GEN Clarke: I’ve mentioned prioritization a few times in this interview, and that’s the key to the OPTEMPO dilemma as well. For too long, we have approached security problems from the perspective of doing “what we can do,” rather than “what we must do.” We can’t afford to keep that approach – it won’t work. Our operations need to be sustainable and threat and adversary focused based upon the NDS. I want to clarify that sustainability and focus on NDS priorities does not mean reduced capability, nor does it necessarily mean reduction in our present commitments. We are looking at creative ways to find crosscutting value in our CVEO activities – investments that address multiple priorities or interests simultaneously.

It’s important to note the importance of allies and partners within the NDS framework. Building and reinforcing partnerships is a force multiplier. SOF have a proven track record of building partnerships, both at home within the US Interagency and abroad with foreign militaries. Often, a small SOF team can enable a much larger foreign force to achieve mutual goals. It’s one of our core competencies, and that will be critical in years to come.

A&M: Last August, you directed a comprehensive review of SOF culture and ethics. Your predecessor GEN Tony Thomas also directed a review in January 2019. What were the differences between the two reviews? Also, what did your review find, and what actions is the command implementing as a result?

GEN Clarke: The two reviews were different but related. The first review was an internal, bottom-up effort led by our component commands. The second, the enterprise-wide Comprehensive Review that we did last autumn, was led by USSOCOM. We constructed a special team and sent them across our force to look at our structure and processes, and talk to people about the issues. I ordered that review to keep faith with the American people and our policy leaders, and to ensure good order and accountability within our formation. Our goal was simple – to make us better. The team compiled and analyzed data from thousands of interviews to identify institutional changes that would help us move forward.

Our review found that, after two decades of sustained combat, we have disproportionately focused on SOF employment and mission accomplishment at the expense of training and development. We have an amazing force comprised of talented men and women, the vast majority of whom maintain the highest standards under some of the most challenging operating conditions around the globe. But in some cases, this imbalance has set conditions for unacceptable conduct to occur due to a lack of leadership, discipline, and accountability.

We consciously made the results available to the public to demonstrate transparency and to build trust with the American people. But transparency alone is not enough – we need to show improvement. Our next step is to aggressively remedy that imbalance by improving our processes, reinvesting in leader development mechanisms, and protecting our force generation cycles. The SOF service components are doing the lion’s share of the work, as each of them struggles with unique challenges of developing our joint force, but there are key measures we will also need to take both within our headquarters and with the assistance of the services. Our great deputy commander, VADM Tim Szymanski, is currently leading the implementation team that will continually assess our progress. As implementation continues, I am confident that SOF will see positive returns from the effort.

A&M: General Clarke, thank you for taking time to answer our questions. Is there anything else you would like our readers to know about USSOCOM or SOF?

GEN Clarke: I appreciate the opportunity to have this conversation with your readers. I think it’s worth noting that USSOCOM just celebrated our 33rd Anniversary in April. That event coincided with the 40th Anniversary of Operation Eagle Claw, the failed rescue during the Iranian hostage crisis in 1980. Eagle Claw was a seminal event for our community, and it was probably the single event most responsible for the creation of USSOCOM. The major lessons from that mission – about joint integration and interoperability – have defined the force that we have today, and those attributes are enduring strengths that will continue to be vital as SOF continue to meet the nation’s security needs in the future.

I want to add that you can continue to expect great things from the SOF community in the coming years. We are embracing change and are ready to face the challenges in this new security era. We are actively looking for innovators and partners who want to team with our special operators and make a difference.