Information, partnerships, and the human spirit have guided the IC in recent conflicts and will continue to do so in the coming decades.
On the morning of February 24, Russia began its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. Yet while the moment was shocking in its recklessness, we were not surprised—thanks to the GEOINT community, said General Richard D. Clarke, commander of U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM).
“On that day, we witnessed two surprising truths,” said Clarke, a keynote speaker Monday, April 25, at the GEOINT 2022 Symposium. “The impact of intel, especially GEOINT, in the information space; and the resounding resilience of the human spirit.”
Clarke, who previously served as commandant of cadets for the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, spoke to Symposium attendees about three broad trends that impact both our Special Operations Community and GEOINT professionals—as they relate to Ukraine and as they will impact the Community for decades to come.
First, Clarke emphasized the importance of information. Of course, sharing sensitive assessments with trusted allies isn’t new. What’s new, especially in Ukraine, is that commercial satellite imagery enabled the public to see much of what our intelligence professionals have seen. “That’s a tidal shift in the impact of these commercial feeds,” Clarke said.
Furthermore, the imagery was shared widely via social media (as it was when the military shared images of Russia’s aircraft in Libya in May 2021 and Russian troops along the Ukraine’s border in December 2021). This shift was important to counter disinformation, warn the Ukrainian public, and build consensus based on fact. “Despite Russia’s otherwise denial, the deliberate choices to declassify intelligence built resolve,” Clarke said. “It speaks to the power of the information space where we must always strive to be first with the truth.”
Second, Clarke underscored the power of partnerships, particularly ones built up over time. “You cannot surge trust during a crisis,” he said. Over the past few months in Ukraine, Clarke said we’ve seen that differing responses by NATO allies and European partners can be an asset. But it’s not just the international partnerships that are valuable; interagency collaborations are also vital. “The past 20 years of counterterrorism efforts (since 9/11) have forged lasting and critical integration with those partners,” he said.
Finally, Clarke talked about the primacy of the human spirit, which he said has been overlooked twice in the past year. “Last August, we overestimated that the will of the Afghan forces that we had trained with would prevail, yet contrary to all of our assessments, the Afghan government fell to the Taliban in 11 days,” he said. “And in the last two months, we made a similar mistake—we underestimated the human spirit in Ukraine. But so did Putin.” He said Russian tactics have reinforced the resilience of the Ukrainian people. “Warfighting is fundamentally a human endeavor,” he said. “But it’s also humans who have to innovate. People create new technologies, people use tools in new ways. And our people are the creative problem-solvers, the ones who pursue every avenue to deter aggression, but who are also willing to sacrifice boldly in efforts to prevail.” Humans, he said, are more important than hardware. If we invest in the skill sets of our GEOINT professionals and arm them with the tools from industry, he said, then we will maintain our decisive advantage.
At the end of his talk, Clarke looked around the room, “I’m hopeful,” he said. “Americans have risen to the challenge for generations.” Brilliant innovators in industry work together with our Intelligence Community and warfighters to solve our toughest problems, he said, “all to preserve our cherished freedoms. That’s a partnership that no adversary can match.”