After 20 years of constant deployment as a key element of U.S. military response around the globe, special operations forces are at an inflection point. There are fewer commandos deployed, spending less time downrange that at any point in years. Yet the force continues to be plagued by incidents like the December slaying of a Delta Force NCO at Fort Bragg. And with President Joe Biden ordering all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by Sept. 11, the question becomes: What now for special operations forces in an era of increasing tension with China and Russia?
On Wednesday, during the annual Special Operations Forces Industry Conference, Military Times sat down with Army Gen. Richard Clarke, commander of U.S. Special Operations Command and talked about the future of SOCOM and SOF.
During the 30-minute interview in his office at SOCOM headquarters at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida, Clarke talked about the state of the special operators in the ranks — op-tempo, the threat of extremism, mental health during the COVID-era, and high-profile incidents of misconduct. He also talked about SOF’s role in a potential conflict with Russia and China and, possibly, in Afghanistan after the troop withdrawal later this year.
Some questions and answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.
MT: What do you anticipate the role of SOF will be when it comes to challenges from both China and Russia?
RC: Access. Placement. Influence. And the ability to influence because of that access and placement of ours is critical. And so today, while you and I are sitting here, we’ve got about 5,000 members of SOCOM that are deployed globally in 60 nations around the world. Because we have great allies and partners that we work with, that’s providing us influence, and so that’s our asymmetric advantage.
MT: Will SOF return to doing the kinds of things the 10th Special Forces Group did back in Europe during the Cold War?
RC: Security force assistance. Foreign internal defense. We’re working with allies and partners. But today’s environment is a little bit different. And I think the other part that I put in there is the informational space. We have military information support operations professionals, that, 20 years ago, worked in radio and print. And today, they still work in radio and print as it’s appropriate in the environment that they may be operating. But they also work on the internet. They work and use the social media platforms that exist in the countries and work with the embassies in specific regions to help with that.
MT: Talk about how to compete in the Information Operations space.
RC: I think we have to work at the speed of relevance. And we have to be first with the truth and not be wrong. And if we’re able to do that, and not allow potential competitors a free pass — that they can just put out whatever they want that may not be truthful — that we can compete in that space, I think that is critical. And working at that speed of relevance — where individuals hear something, and if it’s not true — we want to make sure that the proper message is out.
MT: Do you have any recent examples of that?
RC: I don’t.
MT: Talk about how, in the final months of the Trump administration, you and then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper sought to speed up the military’s messaging efforts.
RC: Secretary Esper and I personally spoke about speeding it up. He agreed with the need for that speed of relevance and truthful message but I think an important part of this, as I spoke about earlier, is it also needs to be coordinated within a broader interagency and particularly with our Department of State. So we still continue to do that and will continue to push for the relevance and speed but also the proper coordination.
MT: Are there tensions?
RC: I truthfully have seen no tension of late. I haven’t seen any issue with it thus far.
MT: Are you able to talk specifically about some of these efforts? I want to drill down a little bit about what SOF can do with China, which it can do with Russia and Ukraine.
RC: I don’t want to get into the operational details.
MT: But what about the broad sense of things?
RC: We maintain some really important partnerships, both in Europe, but also in the Indo-Pacific, which we have had and will maintain going into the future. But it would be inappropriate for me to go into specific ones and specific activities. But suffice it to say that those relationships remain really strong. Some are treaty allies. And but some are partners. And in some cases, I think that the aspect that I would mention, it is that we’re there at the behest of those countries, but in some cases, it’s there’s also counterterrorism threats. And we’re there primarily to help them with their counterterrorism threats. But because they’re partnered with us, it also ensures that we remain a partner of choice.
MT: Through a contract, the Joint MISO WebOps Center (JMWC) recently hired someone to monitor Chinese social media. How important is it in understanding an adversary to know their social media?
RC: I take it beyond just the JMWC, in understanding another culture. That’s why SOF, in particular, are really valuable in this competition, because of the of the understanding of both language but more importantly, probably, the culture. We train our people to do that. As to your point on the JMWC, as well, yes, we want to bring folks that are native, that understand the nuances of specific parts to a language but also the culture, if they’re actually going to be assisting in military information support operations. But it’s more important than anything for them to make sure they understand the environment we’re still working in.
MT: Let me shift things to Afghanistan for a minute. Do you anticipate a QRF in the CENTCOM region for Afghanistan if something goes wrong?
RC: There will always be contingency plans for quick reaction forces that we maintain globally. So I wouldn’t put it just to the CENTCOM area of operations. But as you as you know, SOCOM is always on tap for crisis response. As I’ve stated many times: It’s our number one mission that we have to be able to do.
MT: Let’s talk about the comprehensive review of the force in the wake of numerous problems involving accusations of war crimes, drug running, murder and other misbehavior. That report was released in January of 2020, yet what happened in December at Fort Bragg with the killing of a Delta Force operator shows problems still exist. Where are you with addressing these issues and are you comfortable with the progress?
RC: I put a couple of points upfront on the comprehensive review. Number one, we self-directed this. No one from the outside said, ‘Hey, SOCOM, go do a comprehensive review.’ We took this on ourselves for the purpose of making our force better. You conduct after-action reviews after every operation, but occasionally you have to take a pause and look at the force. The last time that a really hard look had been done on the force was 2011. It goes to 2019, 2020, it’s time to look again. So am I satisfied that we’re complete with all the things in the comprehensive review? The comprehensive review was not a final destination. It’s actually a journey. And you may know that, after the comprehensive review and the findings, and the recommendations were complete, we put a three star in charge with teams at all the components to continue to ensure that we make progress. So to that end, a couple things are probably worthy of note. First, as you look at the findings, because of the over-focus on mission accomplishment, and employment, it came to the leadership detriment of discipline and accountability. And so our focus has been on ensuring that our employment model and who was forward deployed, and what command elements were forward deployed we took a hard look at.
And so we actually have less O-6 headquarters deployed today than we had in 2019, and 2020. We have less forces deployed than we did in 2018 2019, or 2020. Because we looked hard at the prioritization of the forces and looked at the sustainability, we now have all of our forces next year, for the first time, at a two-to-one — or better — dwell-to-deployment ratio. And that’s pretty significant. Before, we were one-to-one or less than one-to-one. It’s giving our force time to build readiness, to modernize, and for that leadership to oversee their people. And then, second, we looked hard at our professional military education, and our professional military assessments of our leaders. All of our components are now taking on mid-grade level assessments of their people and ensuring that we’re also training our people on the moral, ethical and the foundational things that we must do to ensure that all of our people have the right value.
MT: What is the status of the follow-up report?
RC: Congress asked for it and it’s still due in the spring some time.
MT: The original review did not address behavioral health issues. Where is SOCOM with that?
RC: Thanks for the question. I’m sincere. Thanks for that question. Because it’s important. You’re familiar with our Preservation of the Force and Family (POTFF) program? When that program started, Col. Clarke saw it. We were focused on the physical, we had a lot of people wounded, we had people needing a recovery. And, rightfully so, we focused on primarily the physical aspect that was tied in with other things. Today, we now put over 60 percent of the resources from the Preservation of the Force and Family given to us by Congress to the cognitive and the behavioral and the psychological health of our force. Because, as we’ve discovered during this journey, that you can get somebody better physically, but if cognitively and behaviorally and psychologically, they’re not where they need to be, they’re still not going to be effective. But through the Preservation of the Force and Family, over 72 percent of those that were wounded, ill or injured, have returned. And 61 percent of those that were injured went back to their original military occupation. That’s pretty damn good. That’s a return on investment that I’m not sure we would have gotten without that specific program and without the resources that went to that.
MT: Over the years, your predecessors have said that the force is frayed. Do you believe that the force is still frayed? Or is it knit back together?
RC: This POTFF was a direct reflection of [former SOCOM commander] Adm. [Eric] Olson. And so I greatly appreciate it. I can go back to that period of time. And there were some elements of the force that were less than one-to-one [dwell ratio]. I think we’re coming out of that period now. With things like the two-to-one ratio, do I think there are individuals that we need to continue to monitor and look at and make sure that, in the long term, that they are okay? Absolutely. And that that goes back to the comprehensive review, and ensure that our leaders are involved. I went to Walter Reed last week to go visit some of our folks. There were six individuals, all wounded from 2005 to 2019. All going back for needed follow-up checkups. Three of them were amputees, one his internal organs needed some recheck. We haven’t had a combat loss in 15 months, not a combat fatality in 15 months, in Iraq, or Afghanistan, or Syria, or any zone whatsoever. But what the visit to Walter Reed highlighted for me is we’re going to have to continue to monitor or force those who have been wounded, or may have illness or injury from the combat zones and continue to take care of.
MT: Given all you’ve been through over the years, did you ever feel a need to seek out some help with behavioral health?
RC: I have seen psychiatrists in the past, primarily for my assessments, and selections that I’ve gone through with this. And through some of the Army programs. I have not had to personally seek out counseling for personal behavioral or some psychological issues, but it doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t. In fact I encourage those who think they need to to do so.
MT: Over your long career, the attitude towards those issues has changed.
RC: I think it changed for the good. I honestly welcome that.
MT: Where is SOCOM with the problem of suicide in the ranks?
RC: I put our suicide numbers as fairly steady to slightly decreasing. I can’t look at them and be happy. Because they’ve stayed about the same in 2018, 2019 with 2020 as a slight reduction. But it is still too high, too many. And we’re going to continue to put the emphasis on it. 2020 was a particularly interesting year because of COVID. And I actually thought the numbers could potentially go up because of lack of contact with their first-line supervisor. But I would tell you, our leadership dove on that, realizing that they have to maintain contact, whether it was a phone call, or zoom or Facebook. And our leadership, our chaplains, our psyches, they rallied to make sure that those who were in need were reached out to and where we could have seen a spike in the last year, we actually decreased slightly. So I think there was some good efforts driven by people who are smart leaders, and encouraging a whole ecosystem to be able to help our men and women.
MT: Let’s talk about the issues of sexual misconduct and extremism. What is your assessment of how significant a problem each is and what are you doing to get a handle on them?
RC: (On the issue of sexual misconduct) Obviously, we are watching and are tied in closely with the SECDEF element that is taking place. We take the sexual harassment and sexual assault issues very, very serious. I personally have talked to all of our commanders about this and where most of the reporting this falls into service channels, we do monitor the cases and ensure that victims get the appropriate care. But it’s a scourge. This is fratricide inside our ranks when it takes place. And we’re going to continue to do everything we do we can to prevent, when possible, and look at cases where we can learn from and make sure that they’re taken — that they’re adjudicated properly.
MT: Do you support taking the prosecution of these cases out a chain of command?
RC: I want to wait until the DoD team that’s looking at this makes the recommendations presented. It’s an ongoing effort right now.
MT: Do you have a preference?
RC: I don’t. Because like everything, we need to assess ourselves. And I will look at the full report once it comes out.
MT: Let’s talk about extremism. What’s your sense of whether this is a problem in the SOF community?
RC: I don’t think it’s germane or specific to the SOF community. I can tell you: We look at it. We, obviously, we did our extremism stand-down day. When I go visit formations — which it’s been nice during COVID, to be able to do that of late. I sit down with leaders and talk about it. And ask them if they assess it to be a problem. For the most part, they don’t assess it to be a problem. But we have to be cognizant that it could exist. And honestly, I do believe that if left unchecked, extremists would love to recruit and to bring people from the SOF community — because of who we are — into their groups. What we’ve got to do is encourage or make sure that our folks know that they can’t actively participate, and that they know what the rules are as it applies to extremism.
MT: Speaking of the rules, do you find it problematic that the military’s definition of what constitutes extremism is somewhat amorphous?
RC: I think it’s key to help define what we consider to be extremism. And I know that Secretary Austin, and his team are working on that effort right now. And I applaud the effort of [Bishop Garrison, the senior advisor on human capital and diversity, equity and inclusion], and team to do that.
MT: Did you get a chance to weigh in what your thoughts were about that?
RC: We’ll leave it that I am encouraged, that we helped define that. Because in this space, we don’t need to be ambiguous.
MT: Why is diversity important?
RC: Because we need the best of America. And if we’re only fishing from a small pond, we’re not getting the best. And so we want and need all of America to want to come here, not just certain parts of America. But the other piece that I’d emphasize is we’re still a standards-based organization. You have to pass the Green Berets Special Forces assessment selection before you’re going to become a Green Beret. We’re not reducing or changing standards for any of our courses, to allow that to happen. But we’ve got to reflect the best of America. And I’m going to take it back to your great power competition question. It helps when we have diversity, when we’re out and about and global, to have people that reflect the best of America when we’re doing that.
MT: Where are you with that effort? And do you think there should be specific benchmarks as the GAO and some reports have suggested?
RC: I don’t because I go back to the standards base. And because then there’d be — if I said that we should be 10 percent of something, but then couldn’t achieve it — then there may be a huge hue and cry to reduce a standard or change something. I think we need continued emphasis on our recruiting efforts, on our attraction efforts and what we’re trying to do to ensure that we can bring in and we encourage folks to do so. I just recently spoke to a large group of African American officers a couple months ago and I know for a fact — because I’ve witnessed it, and and some have expressed with me — that some African American officers were discouraging junior cadets, ROTC, West Point, from coming into infantry or combat arms, because they wouldn’t be accepted. And I say, I need your help. I want you to encourage these young officers, because we’re accepting. We want them in our formations. I got a lot of good questions about that. And I think we got to continue to encourage all of our American society. That’s gender and race.
MT: And where are you with those efforts?
RC: What I’d say is, we have to make a steady effort. You’re not going to solve it overnight. I’ve looked at our numbers. From 20 years ago to today, we’ve seen a marginal increase, but what we need to do is continue to move the ball in the right direction and not try to overcorrect. So if you go back to one of our SOF Truths, SOF cannot be mass produced, okay. And so we’ve got to bring the right people. But also remember, we’re a product of the services. Most of our people are not direct in to us. We’re selecting primarily — if we use the Army as an example — we’re selecting from the combat arms, primarily within that, to come into our Green Berets or Rangers. And so we need with the services recruiting diversity help.
MT: What’s the Rich Clarke legacy?
RC: I’ve got another year. Let’s talk again. A lot of stuff could happen.
Howard Altman is an award-winning editor and reporter who was previously the military reporter for the Tampa Bay Times and before that the Tampa Tribune, where he covered USCENTCOM, USSOCOM and SOF writ large among many other topics.