WASHINGTON, D.C. ― Wednesday, the U.S. Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities held a hearing, “United States Special Operations Command’s Efforts to Transform the Force for Future Security Challenges.”
Below is the opening statement of Ranking Member Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) as prepared for delivery.
Let me begin by thanking Senator Ernst for holding this hearing on the efforts of SOCOM’s service component commands to transform our special operations forces for the missions they may be asked to conduct in the future.
New Mexico is the proud home to a significant AFSOC presence, but we would welcome each of your components as well.
Since 9/11, the vast majority of special operations activities have been focused on defeating al Qaeda and ISIS, while seeking to prevent the emergence of other violent extremist groups elsewhere.
However, the recently released National Defense Strategy, or NDS, states that the central challenge facing our nation is the “reemergence of long-term, strategic competition” with Russia and China, and that this competition replaces terrorism as the “primary concern in U.S. national security.”
This strategic prioritization raises important questions with respect to the readiness of our special operations forces to conduct the most sensitive and, in many cases, highest risk missions tasked to the military. ” Our special operations forces will surely continue to play a central role in addressing the threat posed by violent extremist groups, but are also increasingly likely to be engaged in so-called “hybrid warfare” or “grey zone conflict” below the threshold of traditional armed conflict.
The current demand for special operations capabilities already outstrips supply and, under the new NDS, such capabilities are likely to be stretched even more thinly. Just last year, the SOCOM Commander General Thomas stated that “Most SOF units are employed to their sustainable limit.”
In the coming years, I understand that SOCOM is on track to grow by approximately 2,000 personnel to reach a size of approximately 72,000 personnel. While this growth will help to ease the burden to some degree, we must be thoughtful in our employment of special operations forces to preserve the readiness of our highest demand, lowest density capabilities. This will require careful prioritization by senior military leadership in coming years.
While special operations forces retain the capability to operate in sensitive environments, some core skills – including foreign language proficiency – may need to be reemphasized in their training. Additionally, new secure communications, intelligence gathering, directed energy, and non-lethal weapons capabilities may also be required for our special operations forces to be successful.
The growing use of social media and other means of communication by both state and non-state actors to influence vulnerable populations is also a concern for the special operations enterprise. I note that SOCOM is the Joint Proponent for Military Information Support Operations and has been directed by the Secretary of Defense to establish a centralized Global Messaging/Counter Messaging Capability.
I am pleased to see the Department taking these challenges seriously, but I believe we must also fundamentally re-evaluate the training and readiness of our military information support or “psychological operations” personnel to maximize their effectiveness. Our adversaries have demonstrated innovation and flexibility in the information environment and we must find a way to move beyond the traditional “leaflets and loudspeakers” to keep pace.