TAMPA, Fla. — The head of U.S. Army Special Operations Command lifted the curtain on the command's 2035 strategy and campaign plan that will be unveiled in an unclassified version in July.
Lt. Gen. Kenneth Tovo told Defense News after a speech on Wednesday at the Special Operations Forces Industry Conference that key to the strategy is acknowledging the need to figure out how to take all of the capabilities it has built — and become reliant on — over the last 15 years of war and move them into a more "competitive space" against near-peer adversaries.
The command foresees "a future largely dominated by gray zone conflicts where state and non-state actors execute campaigns that stay below the threshold of conventional war in order to achieve their objectives at lower risk of response," Tovo said during his speech. "We foresee a human domain-centric form of warfare that exploits fissures in the social fabric and weak governance."
And adversaries are becoming far more capable because technology — like cyber tools; unmanned aircraft systems; encrypted communications; position, navigation and timing; and geolocation — is advancing at lightning speed, becoming more widespread and more easily available to buy at low costs, Tovo said.
The most revolutionary change on the battlefield in recent years is the "easy availability of knowledge," he said, and it's harder to safeguard secrets.
"Our traditional technological edge on the battlefield is fast fading away," Tovo said.
U.S. Army Special Operations Command will still need to deliver an indigenous approach with precision-targeting methodology, understand and build influence, and globally respond to crises, but it will be meeting these key missions under very different and quickly evolving conditions.
Ongoing experiences around the world, Tovo said, expose capability gaps in the force that Army special operations is looking to address to maintain an edge.
In order to help understand the operational environment, the command is seeking better ways to aggregate data to "improve the speed and ease with which we synthesize information at the tactical and operational level," he said.
Some solutions would likely be geared toward development of machine-learning techniques that would help automatically "triage" the vast quantities of intelligence data collected from intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platforms or through publicly available open-source information.
"You’ll never remove the person from the loop, but we’ve got to be able to scope down the problem from what, right now, is way beyond the number of people we can throw it against," Tovo said.
Adversaries already have advanced cyber and electronic warfare capabilities, and "we will no longer enjoy a battlefield, no matter who we face, where our comms are safe," he said. "We need to get used to passing traffic in denied environments."
Overall, most of the systems developed over the years of counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations — from communications technology to unmanned aircraft systems — are not designed to go up against near-pear adversaries in denied environments.
The service and special operations, in part, must figure out how to take current capability and make it more survivable, Tovo noted.
But perhaps the solution isn’t to try to harden all of the existing capability, but to go about it in other ways, such as "shrinking the visibility on the battlefield," Tovo said. While U.S. forces are reliant on large UAS now, perhaps a better approach would be to replace those with a "multitude of throw-away swarms of UAVs," he said.
Jen Judson is the land warfare reporter for Defense News. She has covered defense in the Washington area for 10 years. She was previously a reporter at Politico and Inside Defense. She won the National Press Club's best analytical reporting award in 2014 and was named the Defense Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2018.