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Adm. William McRaven outlined a daunting mission for U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM): to operate globally—understanding threats are not confined by borders—while building partnerships that allow nations to defend themselves.
“I guarantee you what happens in Latin America affects what happens in West Africa, which affects what happens in Southern Europe, which affects what happens in Southwest Asia,” McRaven told his GEOINT 2013* keynote audience Thursday morning. “It is all connected, and if you don’t look at it in a connected fashion, you’re going to miss something.”
At the same time, Special Operations Forces (SOF) has to retain its counterterrorism capabilities. Integral to USSOCOM’s success, in large part, is geospatial intelligence.
“It’s about bandwidth and how we move the products that the GEOINT Community provides us,” McRaven said. “Signals intelligence and GEOINT are really the coin of the realm for us to be able to do our mission.”
It’s a mission that continues to evolve as U.S. military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan draws down. SOF is now focused on a global consciousness. As of last week, USSOCOM personnel were operating in 84 countries, McRaven said.
“There’s no such thing as a local problem,” McRaven said. “The world is a very complex place. I’ll tell you, in my 37 years in this business I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen it this complex.”
USSOCOM copes with this complexity by preemptively establishing relationships with counterparts in other nations.
“A lot of times, in our world, what makes the news … are the direct-action missions,” McRaven said. “We need to have the world’s best direct-action capability, but at the same time we need to be postured today, as we have been doing for decades, to be able to build partner capacity … You can’t surge trust … Trust takes a long time to establish.”
In that vein, McRaven outlined some SOF challenges. Among those is sharing information with the command’s partners. He offered an example from Kabul, Afghanistan, in 2009. At the time, U.S. forces were sharing fused intelligence with only five of its then 15 partners.
“I had a very aggressive colonel who was running the fusion cell at the time, and he came to me and said, ‘sir, the problem is … we’ve lost that trust factor because we can’t share with them,’” McRaven said.
A solution was found, allowing USSOCOM to share necessary intelligence with up to 22 allies. With the help of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, the Warrior View program facilitated sharing of information.
“That was a sea change to how our allies viewed our efforts to support them,” McRaven said, adding that the change eventually extended to sharing information with the Iraqis and Afghans. “I will tell you, in my two-and-a-half years of working with my Iraqi and Afghani counterparts, running 10 missions a night, not once was one compromised, and their value to understanding the mission on the ground was huge.”
McRaven shared a similar message for the GEOINT industry.
“I think it’s about building systems that naturally collaborate with each other,” he said of competing companies creating technology that does not coexist, which puts operators at a disadvantage.
“I am working on a number of projects now where I have asked my industry partners to be prepared to share their intellectual property with others in a way they haven’t done before,” McRaven said. “I think I can show them on the back end that, if you assume that risk, your return in the end will be better.”
While SOF grows in international influence, McRaven described himself as a “four-star action officer.” Special Forces personnel are technically under the control of co-combatant commanders (COCOMS), who work through theater special operations command (T-SOC), and USSOCOM is charged with facilitating their needs.
“I want to hear from the sergeant, I want to hear from the young first lieutenant,” McRaven said. “I need to know what that young NCO in the foxhole needs to do a job to support his chain of command.”
Increasingly, those needs involve information delivered to the lowest echelon. McRaven shared an anecdotal conversation he had with a young major about six months ago:
“I said, ‘what can I do for you?’” McRaven said. “He kind of sheepishly said, ‘I’d kind of like to figure out how I can get overhead imagery to support the Colombian national police.’ I almost fell out of my chair.”
The young major told McRaven what he perceived was the way to obtain the overhead imagery. “Talk to the lieutenant colonel, who will talk to the colonel, who will talk to the general, who will talk to the admiral, who will then decide.”
“I said, ‘that is not the way we do business,’” McRaven responded. “You, major, have the ability to tap into my (NGA) rep … and get the information you need. You have 67,000 people at your fingertips. All you have to do is ask.”
The story is an example of partnerships forged not only with other nations, but with other U.S. organizations as well.
“If we’re going to succeed at this business … we’re going to have to assume a little risk,” McRaven said. “I have never had a problem with allowing my NCOs and officers at whatever level to make decisions that are within their purview to make. … We can do that because, frankly, we have access to this phenomenal C4I capability.”