The future of special operations forces technology is less about what new rifle they’ll be carrying on missions and more about how a new type of operator will pull data rapidly from anywhere on the globe.
Operators of the future will need to be cyber-capable or risk being irrelevant.
Those needs feed into a new kind of skills recruitment and retraining for the frontline troops in special operations forces, their supporting staff and even admirals and generals at the top of their services, officials said at this week’s Global SOF Foundation forum on special operations policy.
U.S. Special Operations Command Chief Information Officer Dr. Lisa Costa said that those in special operations, even at the highest echelons, need to be learning anew.
“I really believe in upskilling and reskilling and that’s not just for the lower ranks,” Costa said. “I believe that we need to upskill and reskill general officers.”
That’s because new technologies and ways to apply them will change how operations are run in the future. So high-level leaders need to understand what they’re working with both while planning and executing strategy.
She also advocated for promotions pathways on the technology side of defense that parallel the same effort in the operations side.
That would, she said, give those on more of the tech side a way to see their own progression through the ranks and career as they remain focused on creating and implementing technologies that enable combat operations.
But new operators are always needed and while door kicking, parachuting and shooting will be necessary, so will cyber work.
To find those people, SOCOM has to push past the old ways of recruiting and retaining.
Joint Artificial Intelligence Center Chief Technical Officer Nand Mulchandani made it clear that as the Pentagon tries to bring in the talented cyber experts, they have to compete with not just salary but the lifestyle expectations that industry offers.
Those include options to work anywhere and work around the traditional hierarchy in government agencies to solve problems.
“We can’t bend all the way to everyone’s wishes. We have a mission, we have a business model,” Mulchandani said. “But in today’s environment, to get the best talent you have to meet them where they are.”
He gave examples from his work in private industry when some recruits turned down an offer to double their salary with a requirement to move to an undesirable location.
Also, he said he’d seen new hires quit companies after only a few weeks because the company’s information technology infrastructure was outdated and hard to work with.
In his own experience, he has to fly to Washington D.C. from California just to do work on a computer terminal with secure access to classified information.
Mulchandani criticized his own department, the Pentagon, for a lack of focus on the right type of recruiting.
“We don’t know our target audience,” he said. “We haven’t put the energy in to figure it out.”
And the tools they’ll use will look much more like common hi-tech gadgets than bulky radio systems forces currently lug on missions.
Costa echoed recent comments by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, saying the future of defense and SOF is “many spaces, fewer bases.”
The tech effort is aimed at making everything more mobile and accessible so that U.S. forces and allies can be where they need to be regardless of military basing or infrastructure.
Instead, the infrastructure moves to the digital “cloud.”
But Mulchandani said that without the right infrastructure, new tools won’t be capable of taking advantage of the flood of data and new software applications heading to users in the DoD.
That will mean work on unsexy things like internet architecture, application development and scaling AI early at the right points, he said.
One key to that infrastructure development, Costa said, will be enabling space-based communication and data storage, or “clouds in space,” that especially SOF forces will rely on in missions at the tactical edge.
Marine Lt. Gen. Dennis Crall, director of the Joint Chiefs of Staff J6 C4 and Cyber, followed up Costa’s comments directly.
“It’s all about data,” Crall said. “And the customer is the combatant commander.”
As an example, Costa noted that the next generation handheld device for a SOF operator will likely look like a commercial product, such as a smartphone and not like a radio.
Costa said that while a new approach to bringing highly valued skill sets into the force is a priority, seasoned special operators remain crucial.
“I can’t replace the knowledge and skills of an individual who’s been in special operations for 25, 30 years,” said Lisa Costa, said. “If I could have a Navy SEAL for 50 years, I would have them. I don’t believe in this model of pushing people out based on time.”
It is actually those operators whose experience predates 9/11 that have something old but new to teach about today’s Great Power Competition strategy with Russia and China.
“These are the very knowledgeable individuals who know how we used to fight which is what we’re kind of going back to,” Costa said.
And those experienced operators have to teach that to a generation that’s only known counter-terrorism or counterinsurgency operations, she said.
Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.