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How SOF Sharpens Its Edge in the Digital Technology Era

Embracing risk in the face of military disruption

By Lt. Gen. Michael K. Nagata, U.S. Army (Ret.) Strategic Advisor and Senior Vice President of CACI

During the period roughly between the 10th and 12th Century, Chinese-invented explosive powders, intended originally for entertainment purposes such as fireworks, were moving into Europe. But as this new "technology" migrated west, people saw its potential as a weapon of war, particularly with the discovery of its ability to propel projectiles. The emergence of explosives and gunpowder began a rapid race of discovery and invention, leading to firearms, cannons, missiles, and beyond—ultimately changing the face of mankind. All the nations, kingdoms, and empires that embraced the power of explosives survived. Those that did not no longer exist.

Today, we are going through another "gunpowder moment" but today's game-changing element is not chemical; it is the rapid proliferation of digital technology. Whether we realize it or not, the US Government broadly, and US National Security agencies such as DoD specifically, must ask themselves whether we will be the most eager, the most risk-tolerant, and the most flexible in embracing the quickly increasing power of digital technology—and therefore survive and thrive—or will we disappear like the ancient kingdoms and empires that were too slow to adapt?

Today's analog of this ancient history has been the constantly accelerating proliferation of powerful and disruptive digital technologies which, for the past several decades have profoundly altered modern warfare already. Examples include:

  • Terror and nation-state proxy groups now employing sophisticated drone technology.
  • Russian forces conducting prolific digital electronic warfare and information operations.
  • China's ongoing development and proliferation of space-based sensors and weaponry.
  • The Islamic State, in all of its many forms across Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, and its ability to subvert, dissuade, and influence its adversaries, and recruit large volumes of new adherents, through numerous highly effective social media campaigns that no nation state has been able to match or strategically counter. 

These examples all showcase how technology is fundamentally altering how every modern adversary will operate and fight.

Just as importantly, it is not these governments or groups that are developing these cutting edge, technology-based abilities. Instead, it is commercial industry that is creating the vast preponderance of these tools and applications that will increasingly dominate future battlefields.

Meanwhile, the U.S. military still largely operates within an elaborate and lengthy government procurement process designed to focus on traditional, multi-million-dollar platforms, and seek minimal risk in doing so.  Some of these practices are decades old. This stands in stark contrast to the speed with which commercial industry rapidly develops and fields new hardware, firmware, and most importantly, software. This contrast illuminates a still unresolved clash between today's military need to rapidly adopt and employ 21st Century "technology age" capabilities, versus much slower government processes that were designed to procure, distribute, train for, troubleshoot, and employ "industrial age" capabilities.

Unfortunately, existing US government concepts, practices, and bureaucracies too often run counter to the speed at which digital technology evolves. Probably the most vivid contemporary example is our adversaries' rapid development and fielding of large numbers of increasingly capable drones at increasingly affordable price points. Meanwhile, U.S. forces must sometimes shoot down a $50,000 drone with a million-dollar missile. This imbalance today is often unavoidable, yet also unsustainable and unwise.

Fortunately, there are places in government where the need to accelerate the adoption of alternative, high-technology solutions can be nourished, accelerated, and thereby put modern, technology-based capabilities in the hands of the warfighter far faster. High on this list are US Special Operations Forces (USSOF). The US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) has a long tradition of being an "early adopter" of new capabilities. Because USSOF has always had to be effective and survivable while operating in very small teams in volatile or dangerous environments, this community has always placed a cultural premium on the willingness to "try new things and new abilities" even if not yet completely vetted or tested. The philosophy in USSOF that I grew up with as a young Special Forces officer was often described with words like, "Just give me the "80%" new solution now... I will fill in the shortcomings by improvising, adapting, and overcoming whatever parts don't work so well."  Several more modern examples come to mind.

USSOF were among the first to start employing the lightweight ballistic helmets now in wide use across both US Military and US law enforcement communities.  They were the first to pioneer the use of civilian "Tandem Skydiving" parachuting into a new form of military free-fall to bring both untrained personnel and military K-9 dogs into combat environments that were otherwise unreachable for either.

Accordingly, America's SOF community has the potential to be a helpful beacon for many others in government to follow. While striving to never be cavalier about safety or avoiding unnecessary harm or risk, this spirit of early adoption and rapid experimentation also drove the creation of a more flexible and adaptive acquisition philosophy and set of practices in USSOF that has served the needs of its operators and forces very well during the past two decades of unrelenting combat adaptation across at least three continents.

And yet, the SOF community will still face many of the same challenges that all government elements will face. High among these is the stark reality that, as military service members and government employees of all types become increasingly dependent on emerging technology, the boundary between which tasks are inherently governmental and which can only be done by industry will increasingly blur. The day is coming when Special Forces A-Teams, SEAL platoons, and Ranger Companies can only succeed if they have "robots" embedded in their formation. How will the US government ensure effective training and education for its formations and people, when simultaneously the hardware, software, and firmware of their most important capabilities are changing at increasing speeds, and in ways best understood by Industry experts?

Imagine a swimming robot that can do powerful, useful activities that advance the mission of a SEAL platoon. But every week, the graphic user interface changes and the robot receives several new, software-driven capabilities. Imagine that same platoon receiving a new box to mount on the back of the swimming robot that will dramatically expand its abilities. Who will train and educate the platoon to install, use, troubleshoot, and maintain these emerging technologies? As training and education become more and more focused on technology-based capabilities, changing at ever-increasing speeds, it is unlikely that government alone can keep up. This is where industry can and must play a vital role, creating substantial changes in how America's national security practitioners of all types will train on and understand new technology-based capabilities.

More and more US military leaders are understanding that they cannot and must not rely on our past success or traditional practices to ensure our future national security. While traditional "gunpowder-based" types of capabilities will always remain important, it is the rapid and expanding emergence of new, powerful digital technologies that will determine the future balance-of-power around the world, and America's place in it. For us, this challenge requires a clarion call that ironically might be best illustrated by something an American President in the 1800's, long before the Internet, once said.

"The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country." — Abraham Lincoln

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